Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ancient vs. Modern Cultism: Is That a Thing?

earlier today, i was reading a pile of interesting wikipedia articles about all of the "messiahs" that have cropped up over the existence of judaism, and i noticed that a few of them spurred their own sects of judaism that persist even until today.

shabtai tzvi is probably the best known (aside, possibly, from jesus) of the jewish messiah claimants. he started his little campaign in the 1600s. the wiki describes him as basically bipolar, possibly a sociopath. he was well-versed in jewish mysticism, and he used this knowledge to craft a set of practices and doctrines that appealed to a surprisingly large number of jews at that time. he was, it seems, a smart, talented young man who felt self-important enough to call himself the leader of a people, a religious figurehead.

but isn't that a fair assessment of any of the charismatic, messianic figures at the top of any religious sect?

like, is jesus a possible example of that model? muhammad? moses, even? any of those people? couldn't we just see ANY of them as people with some good ideas and the will to push those ideas?

and it seems the current distrust of these types of religious figures might be a difference between modern and ancient attitude, not modern and ancient religious figures. is it just a coincidence that religious figureheads and leaders slide down towards the "levelheaded patriarch" end of the scale the farther back in time they started their religious teaching, but closer to the "mentally unstable cult leader" end of that same scale the more modern they are? older religious leaders, in general, seem more reputable to us, but newer ones, in general, seem less so.

the problem is that we have no way to directly inspect or experience any of the revered ancient religious leaders under modern standards; all we get is the minimal inspection done by their credulous followers.

in other words, would a modern outlook on the religious figureheads of the past convince us they are just as much charismatic sociopaths or attention lovers as, say, j.z. knight's ramtha? would our society's distrust of modern religious figures maintain its potency when turned on the religious figures of antiquity?

i don't see why we can't look critically at the genesis of our deeply held ancient religious convictions using a similar standard that we use for "modern religions" but still see the value in those convictions. for instance, if we really think about the beginnings of judaism (or christianity or islam or any ancient religion), we might ask: was moses a revelator? an emissary of god? or was he just a man with a still relevant and fulfilling message, with the self-importance and will to push that message onto a group of followers?

that's not to say that religion doesn't offer us something fascinating, helpful, personal and deeply fulfilling. that's also not to say that moses wasn't, as depicted, an exceedingly humble voice of reason. that's not even to say that moses's message lacked any sort of divine inspiration or godly spirit (however we choose to define any of those terms). any of those things can still be true. we can still get a ton out of religion even if we are skeptical of the "cult of personality" aspects of our own personal religious affiliations.

unfortunately, this way of thinking about religion implies all sorts of value judgments. it implies dichotomies between "primitive" and "enlightened" thinking, between "religious fervor" and "skepticism," between "smart" and "not smart." that's not the point, though. the point is to remember that religion isn't a set of answers to questions, it's a framework to appreciate and think about those questions. religion can offer us a TON when examined and practiced critically. it's just our job to make sure we actually DO examine and practice our religions critically.

(i, of course, invite any comments anyone has. i don't realllllly know what i'm talking about, even moreso in this post than in a lot of my previous ones, so feedback, questions, and challenges would be awesome. remember, i'm not challenging the validity of any religion, i'm merely challenging the rigidity of thinking about religious leaders. also, that image: public domain. also, no caps: is it distracting?)


  1. Good post.
    An interesting question would be to ask, what, if anything, would make us believe in something new today? There are new sects cropping their head up daily, Scientology probably the most famous recent religion (if only for those that follow). But, I'd be surprised if Scientology will ever have the following that any of the major religions do. Even more interesting, though, would be to ask, what, if anything, would make us STOP believing the things that have been taught for centuries? Would Judaism/Christianity/Islam ever go "out of fashion" and become passe, similar to something like Zoroastrianism? I don't know, but it's doubtful.

    When I took a class on Islam in college I was really surprised with what I thought after I learned about Mohammad. His life story didn't seem so radical or spiritual for me. Instead, he came off as a great political leader as opposed to a spiritual one. This, I think completely, is because of my upbringing and the type of religious leader I was told to find "holy" (In my case, Jesus). The way I felt toward M. when I learned about his life is probably the same way someone brought up in the Muslim faith would feel about J. He wouldn't fit their profile of a religious leader but he'd seem like a pretty nice guy.

    Anyway, you're right. Religion has its place and most people need something Great to believe in to survive. There is no reason not to have religion as an integral part of the World. It is disturbing, though, to consider that the same religions that many people would die for perhaps wouldn't have any following at all if it was created in the 21st century.

  2. yeah exactly. though i think the answer to your question about what would make us believe a religion today is "nothing short of a massive, independently scrutinized miracle," i.e. it's not going to happen. it's probably best to think of most religions as the result of some dude who is JUST A DUDE saying some truthful-sounding and resonant things, coupled usually with meaningful-feeling rituals and lifestyles. and truthful-sounding, resonant things coupled with meaningful rituals and lifestyles can be enough.

  3. While there is no way to inspect whether such miracles took place today, there was no way to inspect them back then either. This explains why people were more believable back then they are today. That an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence is a relatively recent phenomenon, spurred by technology and the ability to refute so-called miracles. Simply put, messiahs don’t exist today because we know better.

    That said, religion causes a lot of problems for the world too. Much of the good ideas found in the holy texts are really mixed in with some horrible ones. I say we ought to scrutinize the whole thing. It’s possible that Jesus was a nice guy but much of what the New Testament says is crazy.

    Steven Wright said that he exhausted from believing unbelievable things. People would tell their story and then follow it up with, “isn’t that unbelievable?” To which he would reply, “I guess so,” and then become exhausted. Now he’s saying something that resonates! It is truly taxing, in my opinion, to force ourselves to believe unbelievable things, to participate in rituals that we know are meaningless but still do anyway. We know that snakes cannot talk and that bushes burn to the ground. And that Moses probably wouldn’t have written all those great things about himself given his humble disposition. Or that Jesus, who said to turn the other cheek towards an enemy, probably wouldn’t send a non-believer to hell. So why participate in age-old rituals that celebrate these things?