To judge by the narratives of our culture, an observer might well come to the conclusion that Homo sapiens was a race of fearless, free-spirited revolutionaries. History and mythology both religious and secular is filled with stories of the mavericks, the dissenters, the nonconformists who rebelled against an unjust and senseless system and “did it their way”.
However, this seeming admiration for dissent conceals the unsettling truth: Humanity is, and has always been, a race of followers. Ever since we were hunter-gatherer hominids living in dominance hierarchies, we have been vulnerable to the ancient tug of the alpha male, and we still are today. Though there are some independent thinkers, more commonly people are not just willing but eager to abdicate the burdensome responsibility of independent thought. We pine to obey; we long for mighty and charismatic leaders to come and rule us and save us from ourselves.
This dismal picture is confirmed by the long lists of phony gurus and false messiahs to which people have fallen victim throughout history, often with truly horrific results. From Jim Jones to Joseph Smith, from L. Ron Hubbard to Sun Myung Moon, from Adolf Hitler to Heaven’s Gate, not to mention the countless other religious and political sects, cults and factions that have ever been, it seems that no self-proclaimed messiah has ever been able to come up with a doctrine so ridiculous that people would not flock to his banner.
Cults of all types usually start with noble-sounding aspirations – to bring peace and establish justice, to create a community of true equals united in purpose, to lead the pure body of the faithful out of the roiling cauldron of sin and unbelief that is the world. But unity never lasts long. Every person has a different view of God which they seek to promote, and the initial dreams of purity almost inevitably splinter into competing sects that bitterly revile each other. In the last resort, when there are conflicting claims of revelation, there is no way to decide between them and no way to settle the conflict except schism and the sword. Such tragedies have played out many times in human history and are ongoing today; one example is the way the country of Iraq, destabilized by American invasion, is now sliding into a bloody civil war pitting Sunni against Shiite, bringing centuries-old, never-resolved religious rivalries to the fore in an already volatile political brew.
The most tragic aspect of this phenomenon is the pitifully misplaced loyalty followers often show in their leaders, even as the cult is collapsing around them. Even when a charlatan is obviously defrauding his followers, making disastrous decisions, or using his perceived privileged status with God for his own personal enrichment, still he can often command the obedience of great numbers of loyal followers who have invested too much of their identity in the group and the leader to walk away. And such things happen often: when one charismatic leader has absolute control, disastrous decisions tend to be far more frequent, especially when the cult’s doctrines encourage their followers to withdraw from the world and break all connections with everyone outside the group. Although spreading fear and hate of outsiders is a useful tactic for cult leaders to consolidate their own power, it cuts them off from objective advice that could have served as a vital corrective to ill-conceived policies. Soon, as the cult begins to collapse like a house of cards, apologists for the group blame the continued existence of outside critics for the failure of the leader’s policies. This leads inevitably to a suicidal spiral of claiming that the way to ensure success is for the group’s members to be even more loyal, until all dissent is suppressed – at which point failures can be easily covered up, at least until the whole enterprise dissolves into chaos.
I should note that this basic pattern is not limited to religious cults. It can occur in political and nationalistic settings as well, when partisan apologists work to stifle dissent, promote fanatic loyalty to a single leader or belief, and demonize all opposition as not just misguided but evil enemies of the state. The Nazis were already mentioned in this context; two other modern-day examples would be the communist state of North Korea, where all citizens are required to hang portraits of the dictator Kim Jong-il in their homes and state-owned media constantly extol his greatness, and the nation of Turkmenistan, currently ruled by an authoritarian government that has built up a bizarre pseudo-religious cult of personality around its president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov.
All these episodes and more show the danger of relying on messiahs to save us. Although there are great human leaders, none are divine or infallible, and expecting that good results can be obtained by throwing away doubt and trusting in them blindly is a fool’s errand. Human beings are far too corruptible when praised by others as God’s representative on Earth. Worse, many of those who seek absolute power in the first place do so because of evil intent; any sociopath knows that it is far easier to deceive people when they believe that the deceiver is “one of us”. Religious and cultic political faith can be used too easily as an access route to bypass the normal avenues of skepticism that most people employ when dealing with strangers.
This is why nonbelievers generally advocate the system that maximizes individual liberty and minimizes the risk of societies falling victim to charismatic messiah claimants: a democratic republic with separation of powers, where each branch of government can balance the actions of the others. Since no one can know or see everything, a consensus of educated people will almost always understand more and make better decisions than a lone, unaccountable ruler. With heads full of foolish visions of glorious unanimity, messiah believers tend to scorn compromise and think of questioning and debate as roadblocks to a strong, healthy society, but the truth is that questioning and debate and compromise are what create healthy, thriving societies. There is no shortcut around the democratic process, and no substitute for people working together to make wise and rational decisions for the benefit of all.
Other posts in this series: