Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

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What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Religious Laughter

Reader’s Digest famously runs a feature, “Laughter: the Best Medicine.” I’m not a Reader’s Digest reader, and I’ve generally only seen it on coffee tables and bathroom cabinets of friends. Still, that’s the feature to which I always find myself turning. The jokes, this being Reader’s Digest, are always inoffensive. Safe subjects that are nevertheless funny. Usually. As adults we come to know that the taboo subjects of childhood are often the funniest. Off-color jokes about sex or religion, sometimes both together, elicit the most boisterous laughs. We don’t use them, however, because someone will surely be offended.

A recent article in The Guardian by Gary Sinyor raises the question of religious humor. Sinyor, who is Jewish, wrote a comedy play called “NotMoses.” As he farmed the idea and advertising around to advisors and friends, he was warned how he might be putting his life on the line for his humor. Reflecting on this, he comes to the conclusion—spot on, in my opinion—that the religions that don’t laugh at themselves are somehow insecure. His parade example is Scientology, as humorless a religion as exists. As he points out, although widely banned, many Christians found Monty Python’s Life of Brian very funny indeed. Of course, some branches of Christianity weren’t, and still aren’t, laughing.

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

The world can be a humorless place. There is so much to worry about: the ill treatment of women, starvation, horrific diseases, Donald Trump. What right have we to laugh? I once had a close friend with cancer. Most would agree that this is no laughing matter. During treatment this friend lost all her hair and at one point another friend encouraged her to laugh about it if she could. “If there’s nothing you can do about it, you might as well laugh,” was the advice. In poor taste? Perhaps. Nevertheless, there was some truth to it. My friend recovered. The disease is not something she cares to talk about. Nevertheless, humor helped her get through it. The most serious things, in other words, sometimes cause us to laugh. Religious comedy, after all, is not laughing at religion, but at how seriously we take religion. There is a difference. And laughter can, even if I got it from Reader’s Digest, be very good medicine indeed.

New Faiths

Scientology is never far from controversy. In the light of the new HBO documentary on Scientology by Alex Gibney (with New Jersey roots) the Star-Ledger ran a Sunday piece about the Jersey origins of the religion. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics while living in the state. The article, by Vicki Hyman, points out that the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, grew up in the Garden State. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are also New Jersey sons. Living in a religiously diverse state has tempered my perspective on New Religious Movements somewhat. That applies to Scientology as well.

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Many critics claim that Scientology began as a scam. There are those who claim that it still is. It seems clear, however, that there are many people who believe in it with all sincerity. No religion is free from episodes of abuse or poor judgment. Thus it is with human institutions. No universally accepted definition of religion exists, making categorizations difficult. What members of Scientology do, in as far as this is known, sounds very much like what other religions ask of their members. Oddness of belief is hardly unique to any religion. All ask for contributions from their members. Religions offer a community for those who belong, and many are strongly hierarchical. Even should a founder have had less than pure motives, that doesn’t translate to any less verisimilitude on the part of the faithful. Some viable religions have been based on known fictions.

Ironically, a common response to religions is anger on the part of unbelievers. (If we are believers of one religion we are, by default, unbelievers of others.) A friend of mine recently mentioned Heaven’s Gate on his blog. Although the outcome was tragic, can we say that those who followed Marshall Applewhite appear to have been true believers. Fear of Scientology may largely be based on the horrific outcomes of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the People’s Temple in Jonestown. Religions can lead to people doing strange things. And those of us who live in New Jersey know that is indeed saying something.

Irrational Revelation System

In an article on Obamacare in last week’s paper, Kathleen O’Brien pointed out an interesting dilemma. Some religions, such as the Anabaptist traditions (Amish, Mennonites) must comply with modern regulations on healthcare or face a fine. Under pressure, the Internal Revenue Service grants exemptions to some such religions, but those religions have to have been established before 1950. Maybe I’m paranoid, but just having read about Scientology, I have to wonder about two things: what is the IRS doing defining religions, and why 1950?

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

1950. Like the Roman Empire, frustrated with new religions (like Christianity) popping up all over the place, governments sometimes default to a religion’s age as a sign of its validity. Rome required conformity, but Judaism, demonstrably already an ancient religion, was granted an exemption from some of the regulations. We have a tendency to think that if a religion is valid, it must have been discovered/revealed long ago. All religions, however, were new at one time. Even the first shaman offering the first propitiatory gesture to the first recognized nature spirit, was experimenting a little. Did that stop in 1950? That line in the sand must stand for the cutoff date for new religions. Why? Well, you see, it has to do with money.

The IRS, as an organization, doesn’t really care what you believe. As long as it includes paying your taxes. One of the burdens of citizenship, too quickly forgotten, is that life together in a complex society is not possible without incurring considerable costs. Religions have long claimed tax-exempt status under the rubric of disestablishment. If they pay the government, then it is like the government is receiving kickbacks from the Almighty. The biggest donor should get the biggest favors. Soon you have a state church. So it is just easier to let religions be tax exempt. But since nobody has ever adequately defined what a religion is, the doors have been wide open for entrepreneurs in the faith industry. Instead of letting religious experts decide how to define a religion, that has become a government job. I picture a simple, bearded Amish man pulling his buggy up outside the IRS headquarters in a frenetic Washington, DC to go argue his case. Don’t worry, Bruder. Divine revelation, whatever that is, apparently stopped in 1950 and you’re clearly pre-McCarthy era. Suddenly a whole lot of things seem to start making sense.

Clearly Religion

GoingClear“There is no point in questioning Scientology’s standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS;” so Lawrence Wright partially concludes Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. This is an important book, and one which once again demonstrates how seriously religions should be taken. New religious movements offer a ringside seat to how orthodoxies are born. Facts may be distorted or covered up, but there is information to be had on L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy. We can learn from the way their ideas may move from fiction to fact, and how intelligent people still feeling spiritual yearning can turn to a religion invented recently as well as those invented millennia ago. As Wright points out, all religions make improbable claims. Fact-checking, however, is much more difficult for periods long gone that left only meager records. The distance in time may lend ancient assertions the benefit of the doubt, but the real decision-maker is money.

Given universities’ interests in lucre, one might logically conclude that religions would be of great interest. It is telling that, especially in the case of Scientology, that the factor most important to the status of the church is its money. Religions may claim tax-exempt status, setting them apart from purely commercial enterprises. This gives religions an advantage when they are careful with their finances, and the whole question of whether a religion is a religion is not left to scholars but to the lawyers of the Internal Revenue Service. The truth of religion lies in its bank-books, not its holy books. No doubt in the case of Scientology this is because of the high-profile court cases in which the status of the religion was challenged by government agencies. Nevertheless, when it comes to the laying down of the law, only money really matters in defining a religion.

As Wright discusses, one of the problems we face is that religion is poorly defined. Nobody can really assert much beyond that religions involve belief of some kind. Beliefs, in this case, about L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. Although facts about his life are disputed, there can be no doubt that Hubbard was an intriguing man. He was a prolific writer with great imagination, and he clearly had keen insight into psychology. A religion used to be measured by the good it produced. Now it is measured by the dollars. As Going Clear illustrates, trying to construct an unbiased account of Scientology is a fraught enterprise. Like many modern religions, Scientology is very secretive. Even the early Christians knew that if everybody could join, then the club loses its appeal. Apart from belief, religions also must have outsiders and well as insiders. In a world measured by consumerism, wealth is the surest sign of blessing. No one should be at all surprised, therefore, that it takes the IRS to decide that which used to be taken by faith alone.

Final Frontier?

Stay away from the dark side. That’s generally good advice. Ironically, new religious movements (NRMs, in the biz) have come up in my conversations quite a bit lately. Some of my friends have suggested that I start a new religion—job security would no longer be an issue. I’ve been studying religions my whole life, and at times I’m sorely, sorely tempted. Meanwhile a friend pointed me to a story on Details.com about Jediism. Yes, there is a religion based on Star Wars—actually, I shouldn’t be too hasty here. There is at least one religion based on Star Wars; likely there are many. The question that is indubitably raised is okay, so do these people actually believe this stuff? Don’t they know Star Wars was written by George Lucas? How can it be a religion? I can only respond with: Have you ever heard of Scientology? Religions do not have to be believable to be believed in. History has shown that time and again.

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Jediism is based on the teachings of saints like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. What they are teaching is straight Joseph Campbell. Served neat. Good versus evil. A sense that a cosmic force surrounds us. The hero’s journey. The same thing can be found in the Bible. Wrap it up in a Jedi cloak or in a Galilean robe and the end result isn’t much different. I’ve seen bumper stickers suggesting that Obi Wan died for my sins. Just as long as good wins out in the end, who’s to complain? Does it really matter if it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or just away in a manger?

The problem with religion is that we lack a proper definition. Christianity clearly uses the word to describe itself. When looking at those who thought differently (adherents of Judaism, Roman paganism, the great goddess of Syria) early Christians had to call them something. If Christianity is a religion, so must they all be. Some religions, however, are not based on belief, but practice. To be is to do. Some religions are based on historical people, some on fictional people. Some are very serious while others are difficult to tell. Some religions are ancient, but looking at the state of the world it’s hard to say that they’ve been terribly successful. So when a bunch of sci-fi fans think they’ve discovered the truth in the mind of George Lucas, who’s to argue? And I really do mean that about keeping away from the dark side.