Kate Blanchard, a non-believing religious studies professor at Alma College, not far from where I live, writes at Religion Dispatches about the death of the recently deceased Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Unfortunately, she seems to think that the man, and his corrupt “church,” deserves some vague “respect” merely because he has managed to fool a lot of people. She quotes this statement from Doug Mataconis after Moon’s death:
“As for Moon himself, he was clearly a charlatan, and there have been plenty of stories from people who have testified to the cult-like techniques that his church engaged in, and the world has long been familiar with some of there [sic] more bizarre practices such as mass marriages of people who’ve never actually met each other. Given that it was largely a cult of personality, though, one has to think it won’t survive long past his death. After all, messiahs don’t generally die unless they’re going to rise three days later.”
All of this is 100% accurate, but Blanchard apparently thinks it is merely an a priori “reductive dimissal” of Moon:
While this may express a common reaction, it deserves interrogation. Moon did not invent arranged marriages; it is impossible to know what he believed; every new religion faces critique from older religions; and many social scientists now admit that any distinction between “cult-like techniques” like so-called mind-control, “coercive persuasion,” and other more “normal” sorts of education or socialization, is in the eye of the beholder. In short, the Unification Church’s beginnings are not particularly radical when compared to other religions’ beginnings. So while it is certainly convenient (and mentally satisfying) to ridicule and dismiss, it also prematurely shuts down any meaningful reflection or conversation between different worldviews.
Our other choice—and, I think, a better choice—is to accept, even respect, others’ experiences as their experiences, even if they don’t make sense in our own world.
This isn’t easy, I’ll admit; Moon’s unbelievable autobiography, his later congressional coronation, questionable business practices, and family squabbles all put my posture of respect to the test, to say the least. (The Catholic Church and the Westboro Baptist Church do the same.) But ultimately I have decided to assume he was working in good faith. Not dismissing him as a charlatan doesn’t mean I agree with his teachings on sexuality or his economic behaviors; it doesn’t mean I believe he was anointed by God to do any particular salvific work on my behalf. It simply means that I must take Moon seriously, as if he were, well, an actual human being who tried to pursue happiness and avoid suffering, and who probably succeeded and failed at both in equal measure. I can empathize with him at that most basic level; I’ve never claimed to be God’s anointed, but I certainly say and do plenty of things that others question or that I later regret.