Mesmerized By Faith
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.
issue 210 - August 1990
Mesmerized by faith
From the communist apparatchik to the Hindu zealot the true believer stalks
the world stage wearing many costumes. For Jeremiah Creedon the temptations
of absolute belief are frighteningly close to the surface in each of us.
I vividly recall the few seconds worth of coverage allotted to the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral on US television. In one scene a vast crowd had surrounded what was said to be the Iranian leader's coffin: in the next, mass grief had turned to frenzy. Those bearing the coffin stumbled and the box broke open, revealing an enshrouded corpse. Several mourners died that day, trampled in the pandemonium.
Gazing from a faraway vantage point, a city in the US Midwest, I could look upon that spectacle with both fascination and disdain. Once again TV had transformed one people's trauma into another's circus. The Iranians seemed clearly to be suffering from a collective disease - the fever of absolute belief - but it was a condition I felt strangely unthreatened by. I couldn't imagine those closer to home might be harboring the same virus.
I was being naive, wilfully so, in the way peculiar to all those who are lulled by peace and comfort into thinking they live outside the forces that make history. The particular events that have led to a new fundamentalist fervor in the Islamic world may be unique; the underlying human impulse to absolute faith is not. My gaze upon them was like that of a man mesmerized by a tracer bullet drifting across the sky, as yet unaware that it had his name on it.
The rhetoric of any absolute faith promises the same thing: an escape from the frustrating limits of human life. And yet lured by the yearning for something more than life offers, the people who join mass movements may end up with some-thing less. The only species that can come up with the concept of divine power, we are often at our least civilized when striving to merge with this idea of perfection.
But it is wrong to assume that those who trade their own identities for an absolute faith in some person or idea are somehow less than human. Not so. The opposite view, the cult of the reasoning individual so glorified in the West, may in fact be farther removed from the essence of our real character. Whenever this fragile conceit of rationality is stripped away - hardly a rare event in our world -the human species may actually confront a deeper truth about itself. And the truth is that men and women in every society are easily drawn into the state of rigid belief. It is a fulfilment that people everywhere seem to be waiting for, even when unaware they are doing so.
The human need for absolute faith has been reiterated over and over during this century. Since World War Two many have seen it as a crucial issue of the age, and several methods have been used to try to understand it. One is to examine each mass movement in its own context. When viewed through this lens, Hitler's Third Reich, Mao's Cultural Revolution, Khomeini's Jihad and the resurgence of Christian fundamentalism all appear to be the result of unique social and historical circumstances.
This method has the value of demystifying such events. There is nothing supernatural about great numbers believing totally in a religion, an ideology, a sacred text, or the leaders who skilfully intertwine them. Both the impulse to unbending faith and the rise of messianic figures eager to exploit it are integral in the shaping of human civilization.
A second method is to search for psychological flaws in those who join mass movements. The assumption here is that the 'fever' of absolute faith is indeed a disease - a mental disease that can be diagnosed and even treated in Freudian terms. But how valid is this Western model of the psyche when applied, say, to understanding the Chinese mind'? The philosophies that have shaped the modern Chinese character have radically different notions about the individual's role in society. Any outside observer must be at least aware that she or he is always interpreting the world in terms of a particular construction: and the Freudian model is only one of many.
their own words...
'It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis.'
THE US FUNDAMENTALIST
While essential to human understanding, such models are at best metaphors. But regardless of whether one is a Western psychologist or a Chinese farmer, the tendency to see the metaphor as reality is very common. We create such mental constructions. fix them in words, and then believe in the verbal construct more ardently than in the questing intelligence that created it. This plays a major role in mass movements. In this way Freudianism itself can become a fundamentalism.
The collective swoon
Language, the instrument of our ascent beyond the animal world, proves more often to be the tool with which we rationalize, then chronicle, our periodic declines. Like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find he's become a bug, we can articulate quite well the process that returns us now and then to the primal condition. But our eloquence cannot stop the metamorphosis from occurring again and again.
Is the collective swoon into fanatical belief really so dreadful? That depends on who you ask, or maybe on who wins the holy war. The Daughters of the American Revolution would have one answer; survivors of the Nazi Holocaust another. Eric Hoffer ends his probing portrait of The True Believer by acknowledging this paradox. He agrees with those who have said that fanaticism, a product of the Judeo-Christian era, is also one of the most important human inventions. How strange, he concludes, 'that in receiving this malady of the soul the world also received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead -an instrument of resurrection.'
Mass movements have their dangers but there is also the threat posed by the opposite extreme. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim defined both excesses in studying the various causes of suicide. The 'altruistic' suicide chosen by the Christian martyr or the Japanese kamikaze pilot may strike us as the result of 'insufficient individuation'. A lurid example occurred in 1978 at Jonestown, Guyana, where more than 900 people drank poison on command from their charismatic leader, Jim Jones. But Durkheim also saw the potential for 'egoistic' suicides stemming from excessive individualism. If a mass movement provides one kind of suicide, whether real or metaphorical, so too does an alienated being who has broken all ties with the values of the community.
Somewhere between these extremes, and never totally safe from either, lies the ideal dynamic society. Comparing even relatively healthy places with this ideal reveals how hard it is to realize, let alone maintain. Minneapolis, the 'liberal' city where I live, would seem an unlikely place to spawn fanatic belief. But people here are not immune to the deeper reflexes that lure so many others into holy causes.
Take the widespread local enthusiasm for the 'Minnesota Model,' a system for treating drug dependency that mixes psychological rhetoric with the 12-step, Christian-based guide to life endorsed by Alcoholics Anonymous. Its popularity continues to grow. despite the fact that the system contradicts many of the region's older liberal values. It certainly gives less credit to human nature, as suggested in the famous 12 steps that shape Alcoholics Anonymous and its many spinoffs. A condensed version of the 12 steps might read:
Given that our uses are unmanageable and that we are powerless, we turn our will over to a Power greater than ourselves, also known as Him. By praying only for knowledge of His will for us, we wait for Him to remote our shortcomings. Once we've had our spiritual awakening, we spread the message and practise it in all our affairs.
This paraphrase contains no mention of alcohol, but it does highlight the submissive posture demanded from adherents. It also reveals the similarity between this Christian-based credo and those professed by other religious mass movements. If one fed such statements into a computer and asked it to produce a generic version stripped of all cultural and historical idiosyncracies, this might well be the result. Believers everywhere could recognize it. The followers of Jim Jones, for instance, might have said the same about their relation to the patriarchal deity-despot they knew as 'Dad.'
A theological fantasy
My point is not to criticize those who find solace or strength in such systems. It is to suggest how easily our obedience to holy words can lead to what VS Naipaul, in his study of modern Islamic fundamentalism, calls the 'phantasmagoric quality' of life 'among the believers'. The wish of the Islamic fundamentalist, he writes, is to work back to 'a whole', to a utopia that existed in an imaginary past, by using the 'tools of faith alone - belief, religious practices and rituals'. Both intellect and one s sense of history must be suppressed to realize this 'theological fantasy'. And to some degree that describes the fundamentalist impulse in general.
Naipaul is often criticized as the epitome of the Western interloper, whose judgements about other peoples are too firmly rooted in his own cultural bias. But the honest observer trying to understand the nature of absolute faith must in the end acknowledge that Western democracies, while hardly invulnerable to absolute faith, do offer a degree of protection from it.
These defences are maintained at quite a cost. The opposing ethic of individualism can also turn malignant - and often does. But reformers who have thought that life might be improved in the West by somehow excising rampant individualism must consider the fact that such surgery could have hidden dangers. Those seeking social change may actually get what they are looking for - and unleash the juggernaut of absolute faith in the process.
Change creates uncertainty and confusion, both of which most people dread, and both of which are quickly 'cured' by a resurgence of absolute conviction. Consider the recent rise of nationalism, ethnic violence and religious fervour throughout the former Soviet empire. Or consider the people closer to home. Who couldn't find the same irrational absolutism at work in their own communities, if not in their own minds?
I have reason to think that life is full of ambivalence and contradiction; I also know that maintaining this awareness is like dealing constantly with the fact of one's inevitable death. It is fitting, then, that total faith in some figure or idea is the only way to escape both issues and to go on living with the certainty that life will last forever - or perhaps never existed at all.
Jeremiah Creedon is a regular contributor to the NI based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.