I love cracked.com:
5 Popular Beliefs That Are Holding Humanity Back
“The logical part of the human brain has turned out to be a horrible motivator. The gut-level awe part of the brain is a fantastic motivator. It’s just the way we’re built. Those zealots are high on dopamine,which is the brain chemical that motivates us to act.”
What a fantastic article. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
And good timing, because I’ve been starting to feel like a bit of a zealot again. Which is scary territory. I’m still a few years away from being non-Mormon for longer than I was Mormon and let me tell you, it is an effective psychological trap. If you’ve never been part of a religion or believed in God or any of that, I’m sure it’s super confusing why it appeals to so many people, why it’s so hard to see the hypocrisies, why people don’t notice the Fence of Illogic that protects their beliefs from being invaded by such enemies as facts and reason.
A religion is sort of like an Idea Illness. It teaches the White Blood Cells of Reason to attack each other instead of obvious enemies like Circular Reasoning Viruses and Tautology Infections and Clear Contradiction Bacteria and Plagues of Blind Emotion.
This is how it takes hold of its victims:
Step One: INFECTION
The virus is spread verbally. One host, deep in the fever of the Idea Illness, shares the structure of the Illness with others. If they have not encountered an Idea Illness before and have no immunity built up, or if they have been weakened by circumstance and they can’t be reached in time with the antidote of Logic and Evidence, they may catch the virus, an early symptom of which is a warm, fuzzy feeling spreading through the body.
Most people have opened their door, at some point, to a squeaky-clean young man or woman saying something to the effect of “Have you heard the good news?”
Well, there are a lot of people out there desperate to hear good news. There are a lot of people pretty scared of death, scared of this chaotic world we share, looking for some kind of reassurance that everything is going to be okay. And that’s exactly what the virus offers: A promise that everything is going to be okay, and the same sort of warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know that Dad’s got everything under control, and if a bad guy comes Dad’ll just shoot him, that’s what.
Step Two: ADVANCEMENT
The warm fuzzies convince the host to accept the virus. The host begins operating in the service of the virus, denying and repressing his own needs and desires, depending on how strong the virus is and how vulnerable the host is to infection. In this stage, the host typically goes from being a carrier to a transmitter.
Self denial is a common feature of most religions. People like to feel that they have a purpose, that they’re doing something tangible in service of their beliefs. Telling people to fight against natural desires like sexual attraction and hunger serves the dual function of giving them a tangible (albeit theoretical) way to serve a higher power, and teaching them to obey even the most arbitrary seeming commands, much in the same way a dog is satisfied that it’s doing some kind of important job by walking the way you’d like it to or sitting on command.
The greater the denial, sacrifice, or self-subsumation, the more useful and good the adherent feels and the more positive reinforcement s/he receives from the others in the faith. Having found a community, “usefulness,” and a consistent source of affirmation, the adherent wishes to share this wealth with others, and starts believing that everyone in the world desires and deserves the same thing.
Step Three: SUSTENANCE
The hosts form elaborate systems designed to feed and sustain the virus. Certain hosts assume leadership and direct the others in reinforcing and refining the structure of the virus and, often, finding ways to spread it more effectively and quickly. The maintenance and service of the virus become central to the lives of the hosts.
Ironically, a large part of the reason why the Church of Latter Day Saints is so effective in spreading and maintaining its membership is likely the length and frequency of membership meetings. Three hours minimum of church meetings on Sunday (leadership, choirs, special committees, etc. carry on longer), one set of youth meetings once a month and another once a week, individual visits from “home teachers” and “visiting teachers,” and even pre-schoolday “seminary” for high school grades ensure that every member of the church is constantly reaffirming his/her “testimony,” or strong sense of certainty that the Church is completely true, every other belief system flawed, and that the best (/only) way to be a good person is to do what the church leaders say.
I’m not kidding when I say that the maintenance and service of the church becomes central to the lives of participants. Although the LDS church teaches that families are pretty much the most important thing on earth, many members ultimately prioritize their faith over their families, cutting off their association with family members who threaten their beliefs, whether by being gay, by believing something else, whatever.
I’m lucky enough to have parents who see the flaw in this logic and still choose to associate with their heathen daughters.
Step Four: ASSIMILATION
The host, subject to routine conditioning and positive affirmation, not only serves the virus completely but sees the world in the same way the virus does. The uninfected are seen as potential hosts, first and foremost. The host’s internal systems for discerning good and evil are overwritten; anything that builds and sustains the virus becomes “good” and anything that opposes it, “evil.”
When I was a kid, I was super eager to test my missionary skills on a non-Mormon, but I grew up in Provo, where non-Mormons were rather hard to come by. The first time I met someone who was a little new to Utah and had never heard of Mormons, I was soon reciting the entire “Articles of Faith” which outline the beliefs of the LDS church.
Anyone who showed outward signs of being non-Mormon, anything from smoking to wearing a bikini (good Mormons cover their legs to their knees and the tops of their shoulders and never show their midriffs), a tattoo or even long hair and a beard instantly became labeled as a lost soul, a mostly bad person that I should either avoid or try and rescue.
Step Five: EXTERNAL DEFENSE
Anything that opposes, contradicts, or otherwise seeks to defeat the virus and heal the host is seen as an enemy. The virus has convinced the host to trust it above all, above reason, above tangible evidence; now it convinces the host that anything which opposes it is a manifestation of a malicious antivirus. When confronted with pure and irrefutable proof that s/he is sick, the host will assume that some trickery on the part of the malicious antivirus has occurred and enter fight/flight mode.
I once asked my parents point blank: “If there were absolute proof that your church is not true, irrefutable evidence, would you want to hear it?”
The LDS church, being a relatively recent religion, has a well-documented history, and of course there *is* absolute proof that Joseph Smith was a lying liar. He claimed he could translate hieroglyphics through the spirit of God, which is how he supposedly translated the Book of Mormon from the gold plates (conveniently taken back up into the sky). When a traveling exhibit came through with a page of actual hieroglyphics, church members got so excited about it that he indulged them and translated it, publishing it in a book called the Pearl of Great Price. His “translation” doesn’t even come close to the actual translation.
In any case, they hemmed and hawed. They said “we’ll get back to you.” They never did. Don’t they care about the truth? Sure–as long as it doesn’t challenge the Truth they’ve embraced as the most important, precious, rewarding thing in their lives. Something that would challenge their Truth can’t possibly be true anyway.
You can’t really blame them, I guess.
Whenever we argue about theological or political topics, it’s very clear when we cross the Barrier of Illogic. My parents are intelligent, rational people on a number of topics, but when reason starts to invade their beliefs (in the form of the secular view making more sense than their faith-based approach) they either become angry, hurt, or they completely shut down.
Step Six: INTERNAL DEFENSE
The virus cannot kill all white blood cells of reason, as some of them are needed for pure survival in the world. Once in a while, the white blood cells of reason will rally for an attack on the virus; but there are effective measures in place should this happen. The virus has taught the host that an excessive number of white blood cells is a sign that the host is not properly or adequately serving the virus. Even as the host tries to defend him/herself against the virus, s/he is invested in losing.
I was miserable for years and years without once thinking of abandoning my faith and trying something else on for size. My point of conflict (like Stephen Dedalus of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” hence my Playa name) was sexuality and faith. Early experiments with my best girlfriend growing up were transcendent, delicious, beautiful–until I confessed to my mother, who cried, and my bishop, who gravely laid out steps to repentance.
At the time I was a willing servant to any and all authority around me, and I never dared pit my internal voice (‘sex is good! beautiful! fun! harmless!’) against that of the establishment into which I was born, the ontology to which everyone around me subscribed.
The common wisdom is that you only question your beliefs if you secretly want to sin more than you want to obey God. So whenever I did think, rebelliously, “why should I have this terribly irresistible natural urge that i’m not supposed to give in to? why would this thing that feels so great and doesn’t hurt anyone be bad? what kind of sick ridiculous joke is this?” I would instantly feel ashamed for letting my sensual, sinful nature overcome my higher, holier devotion to God, guilty for questioning in the first place, and newly resolved to rid myself of doubt and just obey.
Step Seven: INTERNAL DEPENDENCY
If the host resists the internal defenses and continues fighting the virus, the symptoms will begin to subside. The absence of warm fuzzies alone will often convince the host that fighting the virus is foolish and self-destructive.
The more doubt I felt, the less often I felt those nice warm fuzzies. In my early questioning, this was often enough to stop me. The bad scary feelings that come along with doubt were enough to convince me that I was venturing into the territory of the devil and God was leaving me all alone.
Luckily, my abandonment of faith happened soon after I left home for the first time and right before I started my undergraduate education, so I had plenty of new, inspiring ideas to buoy me up as the other positive feelings ebbed.
To leave my faith and gain nothing new would have been monumentally hard.
Step Eight: EXTERNAL REINFORCEMENT
Other carriers still operating in the service of the virus will often converge upon a fellow host who is recovering, and direct their efforts towards making the host more vulnerable and receptive to the virus.
In the Mormon church this is called “fellowshipping,” and if faithful church members are doing their job correctly, it is both innocuous and relentless. If someone’s faith is faltering, they will be showered with baked goods and friendly visits, warmly encouraged to join in both religious and more secular activities, promised that they will be welcomed back with open arms. Faithful members are reminded often that if they ever leave, they will be welcomed back with open arms.
The point is, it’s not hard to fall into, and it’s really, really hard to leave once you invest in it, regardless of its negative effect on your life (so just imagine if you mainly see positive effects!) Kind of like a co-dependent relationship. So really we should cut people some slack. Yeah, it sounds ridiculous and insane when some Republican senator says that God’s all about rape babies and we should force the victims to give birth to them. But he’s not stupid or evil, he’s just in the clutches of an Idea Illness. The virus hath spoken: cell cluster, zygote, fetus, whatever: inviolable. End of story. Because I said so.
There are strategies in place at every step of the process to herd non-believers back into the fold. Your own doubt and confusion and dissatisfaction are played against you, leveraged into a renewed desire for security and certainty. It’s really, really hard to escape from if you still believe even a little bit.
Religion, y’all. *sigh*
H isn’t super pleased with my newfound passion. He’s weirded out by it, and worse, he feels left out. C has been hearing about Burning Man for years and has a reverence for it that makes me adore her even more–it’s already a holy place for her, she’s a pilgrim who dreams of Mecca, and I feel guilty that I got to experience it first, when it really was more of a whim for me, initially.
I can’t, can’t wait for both of them to see it.
Well, so anyway. I’m a Burning Man Zealot. Am I sick? Am I infected? Burning Man is giving me hella warm fuzzies and yeah, I want to tell everyone about it, I want everyone to experience the awesomeness of it.
But…it doesn’t ask any self-denial or repression. In fact, I’m encouraged to follow my passions and explore my desires, to design and pursue my bliss as I see fit. Sounds good to me.
It has elaborate structures built up around it and many, many people devoted to maintaining it, and for many people, Black Rock City is Home. A lot of people change their lives entirely after they’ve once experienced Burning Man. Sounds real cult-y, right?
But far from turning its infected against the uninfected, it encourages an open mind and accepting attitude towards everyone. It reminds us that deep down, we’re all the same, that all of these trappings of status and political party and class and race and etc. are ultimately hugely inconsequential in the face of our shared humanity, our shared love of beauty and energy and creativity and community. It helps us to see past the all of the barriers to other people’s bright inner core.
I’m going to write a post on my feelings about guilt (it’s useless and impedes personal progress), but guilt and shame, which in religions play a huge part in keeping people in line, are completely absent from Burning Man. As long as you’re not hurting anyone else, whatever you want (or dont want) is just fine. There’s no attempt to guilt or herd or force anyone to believe in the Ten Principles of Burning Man–if they work for you, awesome. If not, cool.
And last, when Burners are nice to you, they are nice without agenda. It’s part of the Gifting principle. Social interactions are not about getting something you want–they’re about connecting and giving unconditionally. They’re not actively trying to recruit or retain you. They’re just operating on the Principles.
I can be as zealous as I want. Zealotry in itself is not a bad thing. What’s that Bible scripture? “By their fruits shall ye know them”? You know religions are illnesses because they spread at least as much discord as harmony, because they cause people to kill, oppress, and restrict each other. Because they teach people to eliminate or assimilate the opposition. Because they discourage people from intelligently integrating observations, ration, and reflection into their worldview. Because they consistently and routinely hinder humanity’s social and scientific progress.
Burning Man, as far as I’ve seen it, does the opposite of all of those things. I think it’s an evolutionary mutation. I think it will continue to gain momentum. Everyone who visits BRC sees the kind of world we could live in if we followed the Ten Principles. We all observe its success and I think this makes an imprint on our very DNA. We are designed to teach and learn from each other–that’s why religions take hold so quickly. Let’s see how much more quickly a non-manipulative, highly functional and harmony-inducing system, with no middleman and no bullshit between the words and the actions, can spread throughout our broken world. Let’s see if it can help us evolve fast enough to save ourselves from extinction.