It is curious how “cults” groups can outrage us so.
Omnibus documentaries or magazine articles about them focus on the extremes and stir the pot, to be sure, but there more to it than that.
We get angry at the bad cult people enticing innocent people to join the cult and we shake our heads in disbelief about how the stupid people could be so gullible.
At the very same time, it all feels so good.
We preen in admiration that we are too smart to be taken in like that, we’re reassured that our affiliations are the right ones, and thanks to cult leaders and their minions, we have fresh proof that of our goodness.
Human beings are psychologically complex in being able to feel so many things while scarcely registering them, let alone being unable to detect any conflict between any of them.
Emotions and their associated thoughts well up within us all the time of course so anytime we can reach a moment – no matter how short – of certainty about ourselves and our place in the world, it feels good … and justified.
While this is all certainly is complex and commonplace, it is not natural. It is a result of living in the complexity of life as it presents in the postmodern era. It also serves as further evidence of how our psyches fragment to keep uncomfortable truths and discordant facts segregated from each other.
Reality is not at home in our psychic centers.
In the example of a cult, we fault people for being duped into a belief without suspecting that we have undergone the same process. At the peak of our intellectual prowess, around age three, we learn about the religion we have been born into and decide to join in. Later, if we are lucky, we will experience a youthful rebellion but later in life, something about what we had learned feels natural and good again, so we return to it as adults.
The very choices we think we are making is proof that we are not. We don’t decide anything, we are determined by our genes, and the family and sociocultural sphere we are born into. Thinking that there are good and bad people is further evidence is another example of controlled we are. While it seems like an innate trait and otherwise engrained in human consciousness, the premise falls apart with just a little investigation.
Closely related and equally wrong, as I have alluded, is thinking that we are, or can become, morally superior to others.
How many more examples are needed?
There are four ways, as I see it, to talk about an illusory world, or what Nietzsche called in German, the wahre Welt.
1. Ontological: How does the idea-system or religion correspond to existence or reality?
2. Rational: How can do its claims stack up?
3. Biological: Addresses the innate propensity to believe.
4. Psychological: Addresses the effects of the belief on the psyche.
Nietzsche was primarily concerned about the psychological effects of Christianity on human beings of the 19th century, but I will be addressing all four throughout this book given that this is pertinent to the critique of Buddhism.
At this point let’s try to concentrate on how a religion or its close relative, a cult, corelates with reality. An effort is necessary because it isn’t easy to tease this one aspect out from the others.
When calling a religion an illusory world, believers in their special brand of wahre Welt have been trained to respond to that for as long as religion has existed. They say they “know” their world exists – beyond whatever arguments they believe theology provides – because they can spiritually apprehend it.
In other words, they maintain, they have a specialized capacity – a soul, usually – to detect the presence of the other world, so it is not illusory. This moves the dialogue, if any can be had, in the direction of complexity because one illusion has been explained by another. By complexity I certainly do not mean to infer ‘sophistication’, quite the opposite: used in this sense complexity means to confuse an issue, to go away from a parsimonious explanation.
The complexity only increases as you ask believers more questions. How do you know your ability to detect the spiritual realm is accurate? Because I feel it, or God spoke to me…
But the simple explanation usually suffices although few people want it to. The other world is illusory because there is no way to prove it…or disprove it. It simply remains a claim. What is “real” about it, of course, is that the “belief” is real, but that is to understand it in a psychological and biological way.
If you will notice, I did not say that the religion or the belief in it is false per se, although I strongly suspect that it is. Maybe someday God will come down and prove itself to us, but when that happens, I would love to know which one of the thousands of versions of God in whom human beings profess belief shows up.
Or it could be something entirely outside of the human imagination.
Until that day then, without evidence, it is just a claim and until then, although the mental processes involved that think about and recall it to mind are very much real, we can call it an illusion. My argument, as you will come to see, is to say that discussion about other worlds has no place in creating the basis for dialogue that is so fundamentally necessary to resolve our great problems.
Now, before the agnostics and atheists congratulate themselves too quickly, how many of them believe in other illusions? Such as the illusion that we have free will, have a unified center of our being called a self, that our conscious minds call the shots in our lives, that science is without fault, the free market is free, that reason is superior to emotion. Again, too many examples to list.
Do we know how mistaken we are to ever think that we perceive, create mental images, remember and think without error, or even anywhere close to that. Just knowing how faulty human cognition is, should shake some of the certainty about our beliefs out of us.
Miscalculating or misunderstanding what is going on a daily and practical basis is not a serious problem especially when we and others are aware of it. And trying to find the truth will present numerous opportunities for mistakes but that is acceptable with the right intentions, the right degree of humility and an open mind. But in lieu of that in a headlong rush to leap into faith – pace Kierkegaard – we can too easily get large sectors of reality wrong.
Because of compensating factors, e.g. a sense of belonging, emphasis on love and the feeling of community, the harm can be mitigated. Without them, and with the host of other problems that we can take into a belief, e.g., narcissism and sociopathy, the problem quickly worsens. We know how easily it is to use religion to justify actions, from murder at the individual level to justifying destroying a people to get at their land.
Is this an overstatement? Perhaps too one-sided of an evaluation?
I only wish it was.