The new religions, same as the old

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In recent posts, I have been highlighting the absurdities of religions like Mormonism and Scientology. There is no end to such religious weirdness. There is in India right now a person who calls himself a God-man who has millions of devout and devoted followers, manyy rich and powerful, who visit his ashram and give him money. His name is Sai Baba and he is a household name in the Indian sub-continent. I personally know people who believe his claims that he is an incarnation of god and have tried to persuade me to believe in him too, although there are many serious allegations that he is a pedophile and using magic tricks to create the illusion of having godly powers. See this video of him getting caught using a trick.

People who value rationality and logic and scientific thinking can dismiss all these religions, old and new, as the products of fraud, excessive credulousness, superstition, and wishful thinking, without a shred of credible empirical evidence in support of them. But people who belong to one of these religions have a tougher time explaining why their own religion is more credible than the others. For an example of this, here’s what Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate magazine during the last election when Mitt Romney (a Mormon) was still a candidate, trying to justify why he would not vote for a Mormon or Scientologist for president, while Jews and Christians were just fine with him:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor.

In other words, Weisberg says that yes they may all be frauds, but at least the old religions (which conveniently includes his own) have had time to create elaborate justifications for their frauds. Weisberg, though hypocritical and self-serving, is actually right. The only reason that traditional religions are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny that new religions face is because they have long had an army of propagandists (who go by the label of theologians) whose job is to create vague rationalizations that believers can grab onto to convince themselves that what they believe is not utterly absurd. Theology should be defined as the discipline that makes absurd religious beliefs acceptable to people who want or need to believe.

The sophisticated theologians and the average Friday or Saturday or Sunday worshipper have almost nothing in common in terms of beliefs, though they may use a common vocabulary and holy book. Sophisticated theologians think that the beliefs of ordinary people are laughable but they don’t say so openly. Their rationalizations are aimed at persuading sophisticated believers. The belief of these people then reassures the ‘common’ believers that their religion must be believable since all these sophisticated people subscribe to it.

It is quite conceivable that in the future, once they have had sufficient time to get their act together, we will see sophisticated Scientology apologists defend their religion in the high manner of Christian apologists like Karen Armstrong, H. E. Baber, and John Haught (more on him in a future post) arguing that there are ‘deep truths’ buried in the religion that we silly atheists with our shallow preoccupations with trivial things like evidence and truth, and our childish insistence that things make logical sense, simply cannot appreciate.

Some droll commenters over at Why Evolution is True provide examples of the kinds of verbiage we might see in the future from Scientology apologists, once they get the hang of how theologians in the older religions operate.

The problem is that militant scientology-haters are ignorant of sophisticated sciento-theology. Real scientology is like poetry–it transcends the question of whether Xenu exists. Fundamentalist a-xenuists are just rehashing the long debunked dogma of logical positivism. But if they read some Quine and got more up to speed on their philosophy they’d see the error of their ways. It’s entirely possible for an individual to believe in both Xenu and the science of aerodynamics, so clearly there is no conflict between science and Scientology. (Commenter Wes)

All Scientologists understand that Xenu is in fact a symbolic metaphor for the ground of being in which we all seek meaning. Thetans are sophisticated representations of our own inner journey to understanding, and limn the boundaries of our inner/outer conflict. (Commenter Tulse)

Of course, ordinary believers will find such things preposterous because they want magical thinking. Sophisticated theological language is always aimed at the intelligentsia, to persuade them to stay on board and give the religion credibility in the eyes of the masses. As George Orwell said in his Notes on Nationalism (1945) albeit in a different context: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”

POST SCRIPT: Scientology exposed

Scientologists are sensitive to questioning about their beliefs, perhaps because of a realization of how ridiculous it sounds and also because having that knowledge freely available lowers its sale price. Recently the spokesperson for Scientology Tommy Davis walked out of an interview with ABC News’s Martin Bashir when he was asked about the Xenu stuff. He later tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the broadcast of the interview. Watch.

Commenter Eric pointed out an expose of Scientology by the St. Petersburg Times that revealed the take-no-prisoners attitude that the church uses against defectors and those that accuse it of abusive practices.

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