Monday, January 31, 2011

Of Cults and Churches

I watched a documentary on NatGeo called Inside a Cult. It was about some small cult led by a guy who, of course, claimed to be the Earthly embodiment of God... or something like that. All of these cults sound the same. As per cult SOP, the leader, Michael Travesser, made a prediction that the world would end in 2007, which, according to Wikipedia, it didn't.

What I actually took away from the show wasn't anything specific to its content, but more in the eye of the director. There are multiple shots of followers gazing upon Travesser with these glassy looks of absolute devotion in their eyes. I'm working on a book about the existence of God that I hope will reach a wider and more general audience than most philosophical books, and maintained a sort of fantasy about convincing religious people of the validity of my arguments. I have since abandoned those fantasies.

This guy is wrong. I can best describe it as looking at an elephant, saying "There is an elephant," and having someone say "No. There is no elephant there." It is an immediate impasse. There is no logical path or argumentation that can be taken from that point in hopes of alleviating the disagreement. If I see an elephant, and you disagree that the elephant is there, all I can do is call you an idiot and leave.

Looking into the eyes of these cultists made me realize emotionally something that I had kinda'-sorta' realized cognitively. That there is nothing that can be said. There is nothing fundamentally different from a cultist of this ilk and your average churchgoer. The core of their belief systems are identical, the only difference is the behavior that arises from that core.

As is the problem with our inborn assumption of the existence of other minds; given imperfect information about other people we are prone to project our own internal world onto them. The vast majority of people with religious beliefs are grossly quite similar to myself. They go shopping, they eat dinner, they watch movies, they get erections at comically inconvenient times, etc. Their empirically observable behavior is so similar, I incorrectly assume a similar intellectual core. As such, my emotions tell me that arguing may be a fruitful endeavor.

This isn't the case, though. For the vast majority of believers, there is no logical argument that can be made. I know that full well with extremists of the violent ilk, like Muslims, but they're so out there that I stop seeing them as purely religious entities and instead see them as being plum crazy. These cultists were just passively religious. I could SEE it. I could see it in their eyes.

I'm still going to write my book. So what. I'll preach to the choir a bit. Now my fantasy is convincing fence sitters who, while never religious, had yet to form explicit opinions on the subject. They are the ones who kinda-sorta-maybe didn't really believe in God, and I can provide a strong logical underpinning to well-defined beliefs. That's pretty good, I think.

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