By Shannon Barber | 26 March 2015
I’ve always said that the only difference between mainstream religion and cults is the number of followers and the general social acceptability. Well, famed atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris has explained these parallels more brilliantly than I ever could, certainly. He says what most people who are only mildly religious – and especially those of us who are not religious at all – have known for quite some time: Religious extremism makes people happy. It really is as simple as that. The more extreme the commitment, the happier the devotee.
Harris’s statements come from the most recent edition of his Waking Up podcast. He uses a great example to show just how happy religious delusions can make people by conjuring up memories of Marshall Applewhite’s notorious Heaven’s Gate cult. 39 of Applewhite’s followers famously committed mass suicide back in 1997 because they sincerely believed that in doing so, they’d be leaving an evil earth, and the prisons of their bodies behind so that their souls could transcend this plane of existence to ride aboard a spaceship traveling alongside the Hale-Bop comet. He discussed the exit statements of the cultists prior to their self-inflicted deaths. The statements can be seen below:
Sounds crazy, right? Well, think about our own modern religionists, and it is really just the same thing in a milder, more socially acceptable form. Christians believe that if they do what the Bible says in just the right way, they’ll go to heaven. The more extreme fundamentalists pray for Armageddon, the End Times that are spoken of in Revelations, and the return of Jesus Christ before the world is destroyed.
In their minds, this mass destruction and death is a good thing, because that means they leave this flawed Earth to go to a perfect heaven to be with their savior. In other words, it’s no less crazy than what the members of Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate cult believed and did. Their commitment made them happy, and their beliefs, literally, made them want to die.
Harris said of these cultists, and the same is true of many religionists:
Because of what they believed about their souls and the death of their bodies, they felt truly lucky — they were leaving a sinking ship and felt true compassion for all confused people who didn’t have the good sense to get off it.
Wait a minute, isn’t that what every Christian who has ever tried to “save” anyone says? That if you come to Jesus, make him your lord and savior, that everything will fall into place?
Harris went on to say:
The horror, of course, is that they were wrong. Their beliefs were certainly false in every respect. This is the horror of religion generally, the horror of Islamism and jihadism. What is central to the phenomenon — the thing that makes it so horrible, and yet so captivating to true believers — is this promise of paradise, the idea that most of what is good in any individual’s existence is the part that comes after death.
Harris went on from Heaven’s Gate to the rationale behind Islamic extremists such as the man who bombed the Boston Marathon:
For instance, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, wrote on the side of the boat where he was finally captured, ‘Know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven.’ How can you compete with that? You can’t.
That sums it up right there. If people truly believe they are acting in the name of an all-powerful, all-knowing creator and supreme being that holds the fate of the world in its hands, then there is no competing with that. If there were, rationality would take over, and there would be none of this holy-warring – be it literal in the sense of groups like ISIS, or figurative, such as with culture wars surrounding things like abortion and LGBT rights.
Harris goes on to talk about his discussions with former ISIS fighters:
I recently spoke with a former ISIS fighter who basically said the same thing about being motivated for his concern with the afterlife, which he called ‘the surest part of life.’ This is the thing he counts on, the repository of most value. But of course, it’s not the surest part of life.
It’s at best a hypothesis founded on nothing. But this is exactly the sentiment you get from the Heaven’s Gate members — they’re talking about how happy they’ll be when they finally transcend humanity. Then look at the Middle East, what’s going on with a group like ISIS, the Western recruits who [are going] by the thousands to fight these guys and recognize that — whatever the diversity of their backgrounds, whatever other variables we are told for their behavior — simply realize that these people also believe what they say they believe.
Again, Harris is right. But, belief is a powerful thing. When people believe these things with all their hearts, regardless of the absolute absurdity of the beliefs, along with the atrocities committed because of said beliefs, nothing can be done to stop them. There can be no rationality in the face of irrationality on the grand scale of something like religion.
Harris goes on to say of more modern, acceptable religion that, just like in the case of the Heaven’s Gate members, “belief is the primary driver of their behavior. These people are just as eager to die, and just as un-conflicted about the misuse of their lives in this world, and just as certain of their place in eternity as the class members in Heaven’s Gate.”
Harris concludes by calling understanding of these basic facts an “epiphany,” and, says that once you have it, “you’ll see how confused most people are about current events. So much of what passes for analysis of Islamism and jihadism skates across this psychological fact, or denies it outright, looking for other reasons. [But] whatever contributions U.S. foreign policy or the legacy of colonialism or the lack of integration in Muslims in Europe might play — the basic fact, at the core of the phenomenon, held and held deeply, is the belief in paradise, that death is an illusion and that the purpose of this world is be forsaken.”
Absolutely brilliant man. If only people could open their minds and see the destruction of such beliefs, and also understand why otherwise rational people adhere to them. We might actually get somewhere one day if that were possible.
Listen to the entire Waking Up podcast episode below:
Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions
Michael Shermer: Why people believe weird things
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