I once had a series of conversations with a few cult members. (You know, a typical Tuesday.) They were very reasonable people. In fact, if you happened to pass one of them on the street, you’d never know that they were part of a religious sect with some pretty wild beliefs. Several members of their religion played prominent and respected roles in the community. They were doctors, lawyers, school teachers, and the like. And, like I said, I could reason with them through almost anything.
… except their religious beliefs.
No matter how logical I was, no matter how simple I made things, no matter how much evidence I brought to bear in our discussions, there always came a point when they realized that taking the next logical step in our conversation would mean letting go of something they believed, something they wanted to believe. And that’s when they would bail. They’d merely stop thinking. They’d simply recite their already-held convictions, unwilling to acknowledge the inconsistency between that and other things they claimed to believe.
How could intelligent, well educated, and otherwise reasonable people simply shut their brains off and blindly follow something just because it’s what they’ve been told?
The wild thing is that I have found this same phenomenon among people with all sorts of worldviews, not just cultists. Many people, orthodox Christians and freethinking atheists alike, have this odd tendency to abandon their sense of reason as soon as they realize it is taking them to a logical conclusion that they’d rather not accept. There’s a really great (and stark) example of this in the writings of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order.
What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical church so defines.1
It probably comes as no surprise that prior to his conversion, Ignatius was a military man. So, a dogged devotion to the will of his superiors seems to fit. And, in some sense, it’s kind of admirable.
Maybe it’s my postmodern skepticism talking, or perhaps my American distrust of authority, but does it really make sense to believe something just because the guy or gal above you said to believe it, especially when the thing itself simply doesn’t make any sense? So many people live with convictions that they have, not because they have examined them and found them to be true, but simply because “my parents… the Bible… my theological tradition… my presuppositions… my religious leaders… my friends… this author/speaker that I like” (or whatever) thus determines it. But, if such things lead us to start calling white black, I wonder if we’ve adopted an unhealthy way of thinking and living. After all, as Socrates is credited with saying, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Now, I’m not saying we should never be willing to follow others. I am thankful that my son doesn’t have to fully understand the mechanics and gravity of being hit by a speeding vehicle for him to obey my command to “stay out of the street!” Most of our lives would be spent in paralysis if we didn’t place some degree of faith in those whose knowledge, reason, and intellect goes beyond our own. As someone with plenty of spiritual and religious convictions of my own, I appreciate the Reknew Manifesto’s claim:
… faith is not the absence of doubt, but the willingness to commit to a course of action even though one is not certain. However, that is not to say faith is irrational. While faith always goes beyond reason, we don’t believe it should ever go against it.
Simply put, don’t stop thinking. No matter what beliefs you hold, consider holding them with an open hand. Think critically. Be discerning.
And don’t just blindly follow what somebody else tells you to believe. That’s how cults get started.
1: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Random House, Inc., 2000), 124.