Prompted by idle curiosity, I read the first part of Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. It’s fascinating, in a queasy way. One of the thought-provoking bits is the description of life on L. Ron Hubbard’s yacht, where the inner circle of the “religion” hung out while it cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. By this time, Hubbard had become a strict disciplinarian — a tin pot dictator. Those who failed to meet his expectations were punished by being exiled to a roach-infested compartment in the bowels of the ship, where they slept on pee-stained mattresses.

What’s amazing about this is that everybody who was there put up with it. Nobody (or almost nobody — the book is not specific on this point) said, “Well, fuck this,” and left. This fact gives us a deep insight into the human psyche. Most of us have a deep need to be part of a group, a need to belong. We will put up with almost any sort of treatment, and engage in any sort of bizarre behavior, in order to remain part of the group. Not only that, but our instincts will coerce us into believing that our own group is special. We will feel loyalty to it and affection for it. The thought of not being part of the group will make us nervous.

This is true of people in business settings, in political parties, and indeed in nations. It’s true of the police and the military. It’s true of drug gangs and the Mafia. Being part of the group is more important than being kind. It’s more important than using your intellect to understand what’s going on.

With secular groups, though, there can be a point where the individual says, “Enough. I’m leaving.” When the group is doing bad stuff, the pain of separation eventually becomes less than the pain of complicity. Or possibly you stay in the group while distancing yourself from it emotionally. Perhaps it’s a corporation where the management is mistreating employees and lying to customers, but you don’t feel confident you could get another job if you left, so you stay, but you secretly have contempt for your boss and co-workers. That can happen.

The difference between a secular group and a religion is this: A religion actively promotes the idea that there is no escape. You can’t escape from God, because God is everywhere and knows everything. It’s true that there are people who remain members of a church congregation while privately distancing themselves from the more odious teachings of their church. Somehow they’re able to engage in double-think. But their motivation is clear: They want to be part of the group, even if it requires that they not ask certain questions, even if it requires that they not confront others in the group who are doing bad things.

In recent years, scholars like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have proposed very credible theories about why religion exists. But I’m not sure they’ve given enough weight to the emotional importance of simply belonging. No matter how cruel or nonsensical the teachings of your cult, you’re quite likely to go along with them, and even promote them. To do otherwise would produce far too much anxiety. It’s far more comfortable to stifle the dangerously critical thoughts and disturbing feelings, to not allow yourself to experience them.

Entire civilizations have been built around this psychological mechanism. Disgusting, but there it is, right out in plain view.

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One thought on “True Believers

  1. Ergo casual Nazi Party members and fellow travelers. Even those not under any possible threat for non complicity. I think you nailed this one.

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