Saturday, November 13, 2010

I kinda understand cultists' thinking

Back in August the Twelve Tribes had their ship "Peacemaker" moored in Salem. They offered free tours (indeed, it's a magnificent ship) and used the ship as an opportunity to quietly proselytize their somewhat offbeat Messianic Christianity. We visited Peacemaker on a Saturday - being a Messianic group they follow mainly Jewish customs and accordingly avoid commerce and most activities outside the home on Saturdays.

I saw happy, quiet people there, trying to live a life of example - both to inspire others and to try and recruit. And you know what? I may be a staunch atheist (actually, I'm probably more of an agnostic in that I do believe there isn't anything that could be described as "god" but on the other hand I can't possibly be sure of it and I don't really care that much whether I'm right or not) but I can see the appeal of a life like the Tribes lead. I wouldn't call them a cult (the headline is more linkbait), but a community of passionate believers who have willingly subsumed their whole lives to their ideals. I think they're somewhat misguided (to be polite) but I wouldn't try and steer them off their lonely path.

It's almost as hard to be passionate believers like they are as it is to be a non-believer entirely. Belief in a Supreme Being is easy. Humans are hard-wired for it due to their innate xenophobia - we are generally intelligent creatures who tend to form small communities that are bound together by race, language, or religious beliefs and fear/hate those who fall outside our community boundaries. Sure, Salem isn't going to declare war on Beverly or Marblehead anytime soon (partly because we all also identify as members of the larger "America" group), but there's still a healthy Them vibe you can see any time the Witches play the Panthers in football, for instance), but it's still Us and Them.

Which is why belief is the easy way out. It's easy to be born a Catholic, grow up in the traditions, remain one as an adult, marry another Catholic, have a church wedding, and bring up your kids as Catholics. By that measure, it's easy to be almost any kind of Protestant. In this country, it's even relatively easy to be a Jew or a Muslim - though most American mainstream Christians have a unhealthy streak of xenophobia about them - or part of any other relatively mainstream religious tradition.

What's hard is to believe something life-altering like the Tribes do - or to publicly believe nothing like I do. Because then you make yourself part of the Other. In a way, though, it's easier in their shoes, since they are surrounded by a community that reinforces their beliefs and function as an island within society. Their God provides their minds with a safety net that keeps their thoughts from going too far off the reservation. Most religious people, too, have that safety net that lets them transgress and then ask forgiveness, lets them justify wrongdoing, and lets them behave badly and then go to church to wipe the slate clean for another week.

Those of us without religion, though, have it tougher. We just have our consciences to keep us on the right path - no promise of an Eternal Reward for goodness or Eternal Damnation for badness. We just need to Do Right for the sake of Doing Right.

Which is far more difficult to pull off - Conscience is a much tougher taskmaster than God, because Conscience doesn't wipe the slate clean.

Yep, it may be tough at times to be a Twelve Tribes member. But the simplicity and mutual reinforcement of their life and faith makes it appealing. It's a lot tougher to just live a life free of it all. Since then, this Halloween the preachers returned to Salem, yelling at passers-by on bullhorns about the lake of fire and Americans' sin. I don't think they won any converts last month, but I can tell you this much: if they were, in fact, right about the non-believers going to hell, I'd line up for that if heaven were a place I'd have to share with them.

Makes one look forward to simple oblivion.