In the wake of September 11, like the rest of Americans, my primary frustration has been finding a focus for my anger.This morning, I found it. I watched a clip from a documentary by Len Sherman called Abandon all Hope. In it, Sherman interviews a Taliban fighter who says he wants to kill Americans. Sherman then proceeds to ask: “I’m an American, would you kill me?” to which the man responds “maybe, I hope so.” Sherman, increasingly incredulous, sputters “Well, I hope not!” He then asks, “would you strap on a bomb and blow yourself up on a bus full of American school children?” The fighter smiles and replies calmly, “if the religious scholars order us, we will do that.” At that point the interview is over, as Sherman quips, “that’s a real show stopper, it’s hard to think of what to say after that.”
What I have to say is not going to win me any friends in this religious nation called America, with its Puritan heritage–where some 70% of people believe we need MORE religion–not less. Regardless, I don’t believe it’s possible to separate organized religion from fanaticism.
This doens’t mean that I believe that every corner church and congregation is going to engage in acts of terror. Far from it. Many Americans are turning to those houses of worship for consolation in their grief. Many religious charities contributed valiantly to the rescue and recovery efforts. Moderate Muslims pray and mourn along with the rest of the nation. Religious organizations are inextricably woven into the fabric of our society. Prayer and religion are as much back in fashion as flags on cars. Many people respond to their new uncertainties with prayer. Attendance at services is at an all-time high. Even our president slides into the cadences of a preacher, describing a battle of “good and evil,” and a desire to punish “evildoers.” Forget principles of separation of church and state. Now as never before, America is a nation of organized, state-sponsored religion.
It’s too bad that we can’t separate the social functions of churches and charities from their belief systems. Because in most cases, these organizations become a focus for man’s highest instincts. I think that’s why the president has desired to rally the so-called “faith-based” groups to meet social needs. He understands that the levels of dedication in these organizations often exceed that found in the civil service. But the very word “faith” represents the suspension of healthy disbelief and critical thinking that together are the only antidote to fanaticism.
There is a vignette I witnessed today that illustrates another aspect of the problem: Belief in miracles. A group of 7 lucky firefighters actually survived inside the collapsing WTC tower one. They were rescuing a woman who stopped from exhaustion in a stairwell as they neared the ground level. Suddenly, they all felt the rush of air and the rumble of the building collapsing. They feared the worst, braced for the impact, and said final prayers. One firefighter said a Hail Mary. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone, even the most devout atheist, who wouldn’t have prayed (or at least said “god help me”) when trapped beneath a mountain of rapidly collapsing concrete. But now these lucky people, who survived with barely a scratch, will be seen by many as a testament to the power of prayer. I needn’t state the obvious, but I will: What about the thousands of other people who used their last breaths to utter prayers as they were mercilessly pulverized? Did god only answer the prayers of the seven? Were these seven somehow more deserving of life?
And what about the prayers of the Taliban when U.S. bombs and jets are pounding their positions. If god is thought to answer all prayers equally, shouldn’t the Taliban expect divine protection from American forces? THEY certainly believe they should.
Here lies the problem: Each religion and nation thinks it is chosen, and that god is on its side. The obvious corollary is that god is against the enemy. And don’t think it’s just the fanatics who feel this way. Much of our nation’s “righteous anger” comes from its collective belief that its people and religious heritage are superior to the rest of the world. And the moderate Muslims who are being so courted in the press in recent days for their views on Islam are also guilty. When asked to denounce Hamas and Hizbollah, both known terrorist organizations, many prominent, so-called moderate Muslim spokesmen either sidestep the question or refuse to do so.
The turbaned Taliban zealot and average Americans who go to church have something in common: They have both allowed a third party to come between them and their personal contact with god. In most cases, it’s scripture of some sort that defines religious beliefs. With modern cults such as Osama Bin Laden’s, it’s an active leader. Either way, when a person takes on “faith,” the innate faculty of conscience, and personal responsibility for philosophical choices is sublimated to an outside source. Once a person has relinquished critical thinking and objective analysis, s/he starts down the slippery slope toward fanaticism.
Many upstanding American citizens believe they know the way to god and have the “keys to the kingdom.” Full of spiritual pride, they are only too quick to condemn those who are secular or who have different beliefs. When I was in college, I was repeatedly accosted by fundamentalist picketers who were protesting this or that political event, and who would try to engage me in discussions and arguments involving the bible. They were ordinary Americans infired with religion, and their eyes became glazed just like the eyes of the Taliban. They believed that I was a sinner and a lost soul, just as fervently as do the Taliban. They did not like to take no for an answer, and their methods differed from the Taliban only in degree. Christian fundamentalists argue and condemn, the Taliban back it up with bombs. And how dare either of them claim to speak for god? All religious organizations are made up of flawed human beings. Their religion becomes their power structure, their means to an end. Most Christian churches say they are tolerant of others. But that is not what they believe or preach behind closed doors. Every once in a while, we get a public peek at their true fanaticism, such as when Falwell and Robertson shot off their mouths after September 11.
Don’t be fooled. When people believe, they will justify anything. And it’s not just the cultists. Mainline churches would like you to think so. Fanatics are an embarrassment to their Madison Avenue image of tolerance and understanding. That’s why the abortion murders and bombings have been so damaging to the image of Christianity. The only difference between mainline churches and cults like The People’s Temple (Jim Jones), The Branch Davidians (David Koresh), Aum Shinrykyo (Tokyo Subway Attack), is a few hundred or thousand years. The mainline churches are older, more established, and more sophisticated. They’ve largely left their terrorism behind.
But it’s still there at the roots. How do we justify an enraged Jesus engaging in economic sabotage 2,000 years ago as he threw out the “moneychangers” from the temple? The very founder of christianity thought it acceptable to violate the law and free-market principles because of his wrath. The Christians can’t get away from this, nor the brutal Inquisition, nor the murderous Crusades. What of the “divine right” of kings, who used their authority to lead corrupt lives, producing corrupt and spoiled offspring, while decimating their impoverished peoples for centuries? Muslims cannot manage to explain away or disavow their modern terrorists who represent a powerful faction of today’s Islam. And we cannot forget for one second the ruthless home-grown American christian attacks on abortion providers. Even the peaceful Mormon church, now well established, was persecuted for decades as a cult. Today, polygamists with dozens of children living on welfare are a sordid reminder of the even the Mormon’s checkered past. They wish they could forget it all as they attempt to integrate their “families-beyond-the-grave” religion into modern American society. Try as they might, the churches of whatever stripe can’t wash away the taste of the their bitter fruits–which they owe to their beginnings as fringe cults that mushroomed into institutional religions.
My parents Mark and Elizabeth Clare Prophet started just such a cult in the late 1950’s. Tens of thousands of people were involved over a forty-year period. Called first The Summit Lighthouse, then later Church Universal and Triumphant, it started peacefully enough. As I grew up, I watched the organization devolve from an idealistic spiritual community into survivalism. Initially, it was all light, peace, and love. Then the focus began to shift toward a mentality of judgement of those outside the group. Enemies began to spring up and multiply like the plague. We were raised to believe that the ‘world’ was evil. Like under the Taliban, listening to popular music became forbidden. My parents began to preach against “fallen ones” (unbelievers), I was told there were people in the world with souls, and those without souls–the “mechanization man.” The people with souls would arise and win their “ascension.” Those without souls were doomed to judgement and the “second death” where they would be cast into the biblical “lake of sacred fire.” As this “us vs. them” mentality developed further, my mom began to give prophecies of world cataclysm and war. After she and the church lost a $1.5 million lawsuit in Los Angeles in 1986, she declared that the coasts were not safe and moved to Montana. She advised all her followers to do the same. We prayed and shouted by the hour for judgement to descend. We were told to prepare. This involved construction of huge bomb shelters, and the stockpiling of weapons, including sniper rifles and armored personnel carriers, to defend against those who would attack them.
We were told that we must survive, to ensure the continuity of those who held “the true spiritual mantle.” In fact, the future of the world depended on the survival of our little band of believers and the body of scripture. There was a time when we in the group had to convince ourselves that it was OK for us to live while billions of nonbelievers perished in nuclear fire. We were the chosen. This ultimately culminated in a showdown in 1990 that garnered national attention. Fortunately, it did not end like Waco or Guyana. But make no mistake, it could have. 756 people spent several nights underground in March and April of 1990. Government agents were poised in the hills surrounding the shelters, ready for action. In the end, no war came and the worst disaster became the shelters themselves, which leaked thousands of gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel into groundwater and a mountain stream. Most people left the church after the shelter fiasco. Following the pattern of other first-generation cults throughout history, Church Universal and Triumphant self-destructed after the leader was discredited. Today a fraction of the members remain, trying to regain their former glory. The last chapter in this unfortunate saga has not been written. But it seems that we won’t have to worry about CUT sweeping the world with its extremist beliefs.
Today in 2001, that “shelter period” seems to me like another life. But it gave me the conviction for what I now write. For I have seen friends and family acting out under the guise of religion. I watched myself believing in building shelters to survive, but being ready to die if necessary. I was college educated. And throughout I considered myself a free-thinker, open-minded, and not under any form of coercion. Only with years of separation and the assumption of responsibility for my own spiritual path do I now see how BLIND and fanatical I was.
The willingness to die or do violence hinges on one act, accomplished through upbringing or “conversion:” the relinquishment of critical thought. This is what churches mean when they talk of “faith.” This is the basis of theological control. How many of those 19 hijackers would have followed through with their self-immolation if they did not irrationally believe that they were headed for paradise?
The old cliche “To change the world we must change ourselves” was never more appropriate. The only solution for personal change involves something which is very frightening to a lot of religious people: admitting that we don’t have the answers. No one does. Not the preachers, not the scriptures. We must remain in a state of perpetual unknowing, letting life show us the way. We must study the creation if we want to know the “creator.” This involves something that cannot come from a preacher, cannot be found in scripture: Self-knowledge. For if we were created by some kind of god, and especially if we believe we were made in his image, we draw close to god by knowing ourselves. Studying works on the psyche such as those by C.G. Jung can help with this. We can also study the universe through science and observation. We can find peace through ridding ourselves of the obsessive need to draw conclusions about the afterlife.
What we must not do in response to September 11 is to engage in another cycle of religious warfare. Sure, we must protect our country and avenge those killed. We must prevent this from happening again. We have a right to live free from fear. But we must not believe we are superior or that we have god on our side. It’s just not true. Another round, and another round of religious warfare does nothing but ensure the continued worldwide reign of terror and anarchy. Civilization will triumph only when we dispose of the precursors to war: territorialism, superstition, institutional religion, and scripture-based religious intolerance. To achieve world peace, we need to go within, trust our own authentic feelings, and reject the pied pipers in governments and pulpits. The bright future we all deserve will be forged in the strength of the individual, broad tolerance, celebration of diversity, understanding, and the “brotherhood of man.”