Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

A tangle of beliefs

I hold two strong opinions that sometimes come into conflict with one another.

The first is that everyone comes to understand the universe in their own way.  Most of the time, we're all just muddling along trying to figure things out and simultaneously keep our heads above water, so who am I to criticize if you draw a different set of conclusions from this weird and chaotic place than I do?  Honestly, as long as you don't push your beliefs on me or use them to discriminate against people who think differently than you do, I don't have any quarrel with you.

On the other hand, there's no requirement that I "respect your beliefs," in the sense that because you call them sacred or religious or whatnot, I'm somehow not allowed to criticize them (or point out that they make no sense).  No beliefs -- and that includes mine -- are immune to critique.

So, respect people?  Of course, always.  But respect claims?  Only if they make sense and follow some basic principles like honoring the rights of others.  My support of "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" is tempered by, "... but if thou appearest to be a wingnut, thou shouldst not expect me not to point that out."

This is the thought that kept occurring to me as I perused a Wikipedia page I stumbled across, titled, "List of New Religious Movements."  By "new" they mean "after 1800," and the point is made rather forcefully that it's an incomplete list -- and that "scholars have estimated that the number of new religious movements now number in the tens of thousands worldwide."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons ReligijneSymbole.svg: Dariusofthedark]

I find this kind of mind-boggling.  I'm so uncertain about most of the Big-Question type beliefs that I'd never presume to say, "Hey, I know what's true!  Here's what everyone else should believe!"  Yeah, I come on pretty strong about things like "science works" and "we should respect hard evidence," but stuff like, "is there a Higher Power at work?" and "is there an afterlife?" and "is there any absolute truth?" -- I'm not going to claim my answers are any better than anyone else's.

But apparently there are a great many people who don't share that attitude.  And a lot of answers they've come up with -- and feel strongly enough about that they try to convert others -- are, to put not too fine a point on it, really fucking bizarre.  You have to wonder how many of the leaders of these groups were motivated by true belief, and how many by desire for power, wealth, fame, and adulation, but even so some of the "new religious movements" on this list are so strange that I find it astonishing they attracted any followers at all.  Here's a sampler of some of the more peculiar ones:

  • Chen Tao, founded in 1993 in Taiwan by Hon-Ming Chen.  He later upped stakes and moved his community to Garland, Texas, because "Garland" sounds a little like "God's land."  This one mixes Buddhism, Christian End-Times stuff, and... UFOs.  Chen became infamous for stating that on March 31, 1998, God would be visible nationwide on Channel 18, and would have an important message for us (because, of course, what other kind of message could God have?).  When God failed to show, Chen (showing remarkable contrition for a cult leader) said, "I must have misunderstood," and offered to be crucified or stoned as penance, but no one took him up on it.
  • The Ásatrú Folk Assembly, founded in northern California in the 1970s by Stephen McNallen, which combines Norse mythology with ancestor worship and a nasty streak of white supremacy.
  • The Genesis II Church of Health and Healing, founded in 2009 by Jim Humble and self-styled "QAnon prophet" Jordan Sather, which seems to have been mostly a way of selling something called "Miracle Mineral Supplement" as a cure for everything from COVID-19 to cancer, but which turned out to be a solution of chlorine dioxide (bleach).  The "miracle" is that anyone survives after drinking it.  Some people, unfortunately, did not.
  • The Church of Light, founded in 1932 by C. C. Zain, which melds astrology, occultism, hermeticism, and Christianity.  This one, though, has been torn apart by internal schisms and rifts, to the point that there now seem to be more sects and sub-sects of the Church of Light than there are actual members.
  • The Amica Temple of Radiance, founded in 1959 by Roland Hunt and Dorothy Bailey, based on the teachings of spiritualist Ivah Bergh Whitten.  The idea here is apparently that colors have a sacred significance, and you can heal yourself (both physically and spiritually) by figuring out what your color is and then exposing yourself to that frequency of light.  Seems to me that "... but this doesn't actually work" would pretty much puncture a hole in the claim, but I guess the placebo effect can be awfully powerful.
  • The Divine Order of the Royal Arms of the Great Eleven, founded in 1922 by May Otis Blackburn, who told her devotees she was charged by the archangel Gabriel to reveal the secrets of heaven and earth to the masses.  Some of her "secrets" had to do with resurrecting the dead, once again resulting in the objection "... but this doesn't actually work" (as you'll see, this will become a recurring theme here).  The whole thing fell apart when Blackburn was imprisoned for stealing forty thousand dollars from one of her followers.
  • Adonism, a neo-pagan religion founded in 1925 by German esotericist Franz Sättler.  The Adonists worshipped a few of the Assyrian gods such as Bel, but their main deity was the Greek mythological figure Adonis, the worship of whom involved having lots of sex with whatever gender(s) you like.  So I guess I can understand why devotees thought Adonism was pretty cool.  Sättler, though, ran afoul of the anti-decadency drive of the Nazis, ended up in jail, and is thought to have died in Mauthausen concentration camp.
  • People Unlimited, founded in 1982 by Charles Paul Brown, which teaches that humans can be immortal.  The claim ran into an unfortunate snag in 2014 when Brown died, but (astonishingly) the group didn't lose members, who transferred their allegiance (and hopes of eternal life) to Brown's widow Bernadeane.
  • The Missionary Church of Kopimism, founded in Uppsala, Sweden in 2010 by Isak Gerson and Gustav Nipe.  The main tenet of this movement is that information is sacred, and therefore copyright law is inherently immoral.  The internet is "holy," they say, because it is a conduit of communication, and file sharing is a sacrament.  Their logo -- I swear I am not making this up -- is a yin-yang kind of thing containing "ctrl-C" and "ctrl-V."
  • "Love Has Won," founded by Amy Carlson, who claimed to be a nineteen-billion-year-old being who had birthed all of creation.  Not content with that, she was reincarnated 534 times, including incarnations as Jesus, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Marilyn Monroe, finally ending up as a 32-year-old manager of a Dallas, Texas McDonalds before founding her cult in 2007.  Among her odder claims were that Donald Trump had been her father in a previous incarnation, Robin Williams was an archangel, and the remnants of the inhabitants of the lost continent of Lemuria live beneath Mount Shasta.  She said that she was going to "lead 144,000 souls into the fifth dimension," but died in 2021 under mysterious circumstances before she had the chance.
And this is just a very short sampler from a very long list.

It's not that I'm perplexed about the founders, for the most part.  Some (like Humble and Sather, the ones hawking the Miracle Mineral Supplement) are almost certainly in it for the money.  Others are motivated by having power and influence over their followers, or (like Franz Sättler) because free sex with whoever you want is a nifty perk.  Yet others (like Amy Carlson) probably are just mentally ill.

But what honestly puzzles me is how so many people can look at these sorts of cults and say, "Yes!  Of course!  That makes perfect sense!"  And, even stranger, continue to believe even after circumstances (or hard evidence) show that what the leaders are claiming can't be true.

To return to my initial point -- it's hardly that I'm sure of everything myself, or am somehow convinced I have a direct pipeline to the Eternal Truths.  But to fall for some of these (tens of thousands!) of "new religious movements," you have to entangle yourself in belief systems that honestly make no sense whatsoever.

In conclusion -- if you belong to any of these groups, please don't come after me with a machete.  I'm not saying you can't belong to the Missionary Church of Kopimism and do a Gregorian chant every time you cut-and-paste, or immerse yourself in a beam of orange light to try to cure your acne. 

But at least allow me my incredulity, okay?


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