Elmer Gantry’s Ghost

May 18, 2007 by susan
Early revival meeting

(Where Perhansa pokes a stick in the hive of religion trying to get stung)

“When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.” – Robert Pirsig

by Perhansa
Before you get all worked up and loaded for bear, I’m not saying anyone who harbors religious beliefs is delusional. I wanted to get your attention–now that I have it. With the passing of the father of the Moral Majority, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, I found myself wondering what makes Americans particularly gullible and susceptible to religious hucksters, faith healers, revivalists and the like. From Elmer Gantry to Citizen Kane to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to Joel Osteen, Americans seem to be quite infatuated and in love with the powerful, charismatic, revivalist wooings of hucksters, con men, promise-makers, biblical cherry-pickers, and peddlers of instant-salvation and success. Read on.

Though evolution has been the bedrock of biology and science in general for more that one hundred years, a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 12% of Americans believe life on earth came about through natural processes without the intervention of a divine being. Though we’ve viewed the planets within our own Solar System, and have seen the heavens filled with thousands of galaxies through the Hubble Telescope, Americans of all shapes and sizes believe in magical powers of telepathy, Scientology, crystals, alternative medicines, Kabala, clairvoyants, angels, ghosts, UFO’s and all manner of “unnatural” phenomena. What gives?

Those who find the televangelists and new age gurus repulsive and hucksters at best, are left wondering why anyone believes this crapolla. It’s no better in the business world where “leadership witchdoctors” pedal the transformative insights of the latest “leader” into six easy steps to success (and yes, I’m often asked to do this for clients). Are Americans so much more “advanced” and “sophisticated” with their iPods, Blackberries, and cyber-connectedness when they overwhelmingly believe in the infallibility of ancient texts, parlor tricks, silver bullets and campfire stories? We buy self-help books by the truck load promising to transform life from one of monotony to one of deep meaning, successful relationships, greater sex and unlimited personal power—all for $29.95. I’m open to your thoughts. What follows are some of mine.

Is it the result of a poor educational grounding? Do we not spend enough time teaching logic, reason, philosophy and history? Do we spend too much time reading fairy tales to our children and not helping them distinguish reality from fiction? We are an ingenious nation. We’ve fostered great writers, thinkers, scientists, humanists. How can we achieve all that while believing in so much that contradicts or outright denies what we know with confidence about the reality of our physical universe?

Perhaps it’s a by-product of our free market/consumer culture. Everything can be bought and sold, including theology and salvation, at such a quickening pace that one has little time to think about the “truth” of the idea, only its’ momentary appeal or pragmatic application. We are not fascinated with what endures, rather with what is “new” or “interesting”.

Along with the cult of consumerism is the cult of charisma. We tend to put our trust in charismatic people without evaluating their character or the consequences of their words and ideas. We are always looking for heroes, idols, gurus, or experts. In business we elevate people like Jack Welch to god-like status because of his “success” without ever checking to see how it was achieved and asking: “What if everybody behaved that way?” The premises and promises of our charismatic “leaders” don’t have to be validated against any standard or even based in fact or reality in the “market.” We worship “technique”. If it worked for Rudy or Jack or Bill, it must be true and it will work for me. Pizzaz sells, not truth, elegance and complexity. Our political system dwells in the same simplicity that makes it seem more akin to entertainment than social science.

Perhaps it’s due to our idolatry of “individualism”. It’s every woman for herself (and men too). Faith is a “personal choice,” I can believe what I want and whatever works for me whether it holds up to any intellectual scrutiny or not; if it feels good it must be true. Couple this with our societal desire for instant gratification and success and you have deadly combo. We truly believe that we can accomplish, obtain, or achieve whatever we want without much effort. Grace is cheap. Salvation can be acquired through a moment's confession and remorse even if the rest of one’s life is a lost cause. Character development is less important than action. We can wipe out a lousy character with single heroic deed or altruistic sacrifice; we can salve our consciences for all the sins of omission and commission by giving money to the work of our favorite charity or televangelist.

Perhaps it’s the thread of anti-intellectualism and the distrust of knowledge and reason that has been an underlying mark of the American psyche. In America, the entrepreneur is valued above the philosopher. We want things neat, simple and common-sensical. Our philosophy of life needs to be pragmatic and fit on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Perhaps it’s our youth and our egotism. We haven’t learned the hard lessons of the Europeans. Existentialism never sold well in America, we didn’t have the depth of existential experience to understand it. We haven’t acquired the wisdom of age, the natural distrust of things that seem to easy, and the healthy degree of skepticism that keeps one from being suckered at every turn. Maybe it’s our optimism (which also is a characteristic of youth). We like things to end happily ever after. We’d rather read Psalms than Ecclesiastes. We relate to David felling Goliath not Job sitting in despair in an ash heap scraping his sores with broken pot shard. The ugly gargoyle gets the girl.

Some have argued that it’s the poverty of relativism, secular humanism or post-modernism that makes people turn back to the “bedrock” truths of the Bible or the Koran. I don’t buy it. A thoughtful person can see the flaws as well as the truth in cultural relativism and the underlying nihilism in post-modernism without turning to primitive beliefs.

I have many more thoughts and ideas and could go on but I’m curious to know, two hundred years after the Puritans why do so many still believe there’s a stick-wielding, hell-threatening god who watches our every move (especially if it involves our genitals) looking for a chance to lower the whammy on us? Why, like the cowardly lion, do we still believe in spooks? What are your thoughts?

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Comments

Poet (not verified) | May 18, 2007 - 4:34pm

My first blush reaction to your question Perhansa is that I ought to cogitate on the many implications of your thoughtful post for a while before reacting. I will do so but my first blush reaction is that you are indulging in a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse. Instead of thinking we Americans are the fairest of the fair, you consider us to be the most pus-filled zit on the face of humankind.

The truth is we are neither--we are (regrettably) just as mule stubborn as those from whose history we should learn. We know from archaeological finds that the civilzation of Egypt besides having made massive public works, performed subcranial brain surgery (the skulls show precise cuts too exact to have been mere fractures), and found ways to enbalm corpses that we still don't quite understand, only to deterioate into a waste-howling wilderness.

Ditto for Babylon, Media-Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Rome. The same detested Muslims against which our misguided religio-political zealots are at war were the ones who managed to keep much of the learning of those eastern kingdoms alive after Helenic and Roman civilization collapsed and passed it back to the peoples of Europe who first conquered and subsequently were conquered by the armies of Islam.

Europe had its inquisition (including people like Galileo) which lasted for hundreds of years longer than out entire history to this point. Before that they had their crusades or political-religious wars. Before them both the Greeks and Romans in the names of either their god's or their Emporer went off conquering and subjugating their world. People have always either ghettoized or persecuted those who had different ideas than the prevailing beliefs of the majority.

The only thing that seems to moderate this is either being conquered and subjugated by others or being anihalated from all out warfare. So (if history be our guide) that is our choice (destruction or subjugation). This seems to be the lesson of history about all empires and peoples under their influence.

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Poet (not verified) | May 19, 2007 - 4:37am

Poet (not verified) | May 18, 2007 - 4:34pm

My first blush reaction to your question Perhansa is that I ought to cogitate on the many implications of your thoughtful post for a while before reacting. I will do so but my second blush reaction is that you are indulging in a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse. Instead of thinking we Americans are the fairest of the fair, you consider us to be the most pus-filled zit on the face of humankind.

The truth is we are neither--we are (regrettably) just as mule stubborn as those from whose history we have not learned. We know from archaeological finds that the civilzations of the past besides having made massive public works, had sophisticated knowledge of everything from subcranial brain surgery (the skulls show precise cuts too exact to have been mere fractures), to sophisticated chemistry (enbalmed mummies that have remained in such perfect condition that we still don't quite understand how they did it)., only to deterioate into a waste-howling wilderness'.

The same detested Muslims against which our misguided religio-political zealots are at war were the ones who managed to keep much of the learning of those eastern kingdoms alive after Helenic and Roman civilization collapsed and passed it back to the peoples of Europe who first conquered and subsequently were conquered by the armies of Islam.

Europe had its inquisition, Persia had its anti-semitism, assyria would shuffled conquered peoples around to different geography in order to squelch attatchment to any particular place, Egypt, India, and China had its slave classes which were the basis for its accumulation of wealth during thier rises to prominence.

If there be a difference, it is that the U/S. experience has been had shrunken small even as our mastery of the earth has been so grand. It has taken us decades what it took the ancients centuries to accomplish (as in sowing the seeds of thier own destruction)

People have always either ghettoized or persecuted those who had different ideas than the prevailing beliefs of the majority. The only thing that seems to moderate this is either being conquered and subjugated by others or being anihalated from all out warfare.

So (if history be our guide) that is our choice (destruction or subjugation). as has been said by others, "the only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history.This seems to be the lesson of history about all empires and peoples under their influence.

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perhansa (not verified) | May 20, 2007 - 10:12am

Poet:
Sorry it has taken me so long to reply--it has been a busy weekend.

One never knows what message you convey until you see or hear the responses of your listeners. As always I appreciate your perspective and feedback. A wise leader I've followed once suggested people spend less time listening for what they argree (or disagree) with and more time listening for what surprises them. When you hear something that surprises you, ask yourself, What does that tell me about my own mind set? When you wrote: "...my second blush reaction is that you are indulging in a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse. Instead of thinking we Americans are the fairest of the fair, you consider us to be the most pus-filled zit on the face of humankind" that surprised me. I don't think of the US that way and as much as I've traveled I'm always aware that there really is no "USA" (it's just a convenient mental abstraction) there is only the people, their behaviors, their relationships, and the things we individually and collectively create. As such, I always try to remember I am an ambassador of my country and represent her as best I can. That sometimes includes constructively critiqing her behavior or beliefs. I do not think America has a"manifest destiny" nor do I believe she is the best country in the world. By objective measures, she is not (Sweden and Norway generally rank number one and two). I also don't believe there's any real value in arguing about who's the best--it's natural human egotism and hubris that is at the base of much of nationalism. I didn't intend to defend anything I said or rationize it but that's the typical human thing to do so I guess in a sense that's what I'm doing now--forgive me fellow American.

You are absolutely and historically correct that all empires and civilizations go by-the-by in time and we will also. Jared Diamond has documented the reasons for many quite well. As does Roland Wright. Some were conquered, some destroyed their environments, some rotted from within, others became too big to sustain and as you said were defeated by others. My question is: Is this inevitable? Can we do anything about it? Are we animals incapable of changing our destiny? I often fear the answer to these questions is: Yes. No. Yes. Buckminster Fuller once said, "Sometimes I think we are all alone in the unviverse, other times I think we are not. Either way it's a staggering thought." I can relate to that. If we can do something about it, it's a staggering responsibility. If we cannot, it's a staggering realization that should alter our thinking and behavior.

As a young manager I studied with Peter Senge's organization and was deeply influenced by his thinking. He wrote the book, The Fifth Discipline and opened the eyes of a lot of leaders, not just in the business world, to the ideas of "systems thinking" and "complexity". He argued that all people, no matter how different, will behave pretty much the same way when placed in the same circumstances (or "system") because it is the system that has the greatest influence on behavior. Only a fraction of our thinking is conscious. The cognitive sciences are confirming this with greater assurance every day. Most of the time we "follow the path of least resistance", we are guided by the "system" which is a complex set of beliefs, "mental maps," physical structures, procedural structures, social norms, rewards & punishments, etc. We are steered to our destiny by the structures we create. Senge argued that the only way to truly change behavior on a massive scale, whether a business, a community, a country or a church, is to examine the underlying structures that drive it's behavior and try to change those structures. One of the things you need to examine within the structure is the "mental models" or "mental maps" that lay behind it (a good example is the Straussian mental maps that guide/misguide the neocons).

By raising the questions I did, I want to get at the mental maps we've inherited as "westerners" and "americans." These maps are thinking equipment we inherited automatically without ever being aware of it and we rarely question them. I am always stunned when I travel by how different others think and perceive the world simply by being born and raised in another geographic and cultural location from me. Especially in leaving the "west" and going "east" to Indonesia or Australia or Japan, or going to Latin America to Brazil or Mexico. I find a mirror suddenly thrust in my face and am forced to see my own mental maps first hand that I didn't even know I had. They were hardwired into me as a little child by my culture. I read, not surprisingly, that studies have found that 85% of people throughout the world adopt the religion that is dominant in their society. If I were Japanese I would likely be Shinto or Buddhist. If I was Arab I'd likely be Muslim. If I was Canadian I'd likely be a worshipper of the hockey gods...

Anyway, it's a long way of saying, it's not being critical to try to pull back the mask and see what mental maps drive our behavior. It's likely the only chance we have of change. Awareness, at some level, has to occur before deliberate change. When in Rome you will do like the Romans do because you become part of their system. When I go to Brazil, after a couple weeks I find myself thinking and acting more like a Brazilian. It's part of our survival mechanism to fit in, and it's part of the natural outcome of being in the "system" and being changed by it. I do still hope that America can regain some of it's respect in the world and can do a better job of taking care of it's own. We must examine the hidden mental maps as well as the structural elements of society that make us who we are--isn't that what the "culture war" is all about? Isn't that what we mean by "diversity" and "flattening" of the world. The more we interact and the faster we interact the more apparent the differences as well as the similarities. It's that arrogant hubris and refusal to see the validity and roots of others thinking and experience that makes me so dislike the Bush/neocon clan. It's also what contributes to me being so doubtful of the value of religion--it tends to be judgmental, parochial and reinforcing of one and only one mental map. Particularly at the fundamentalist extremes.

Poet, thanks again for your responses.

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Anonymous (not verified) | May 21, 2007 - 7:47pm

See, I don't think these polled Americans really do believe any of the things they say they do. Their mental laziness consists not in the beliefs they supposedly hold, but in the casual willingness with which they say they believe them. Somehow, somewhere they've absorbed the notion that it's nicer, more "them" to be a believer than not to be. Believers are "normal", non-believers are not. Maybe that's where the manipulation of media, etc comes into play. I don't know.
These believers seem only interested in beliefs that don't inconvenience them, or that validate some feeling they have about the evils of others.
Myself, I think I believe in God, just because I like saying I do. Really. That's about the sum of it.

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Anonymous (not verified) | July 14, 2007 - 11:29am

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