Four members of a cult in Chile have been arrested for immolating a child that they believed to be the anti-Christ. What can I possibly say about this? Atheist and believer alike should find this horrifying. I’m without words. These people murdered a newborn. Because they thought it was the anti-christ. A baby. Just sickening.
Who among those gathered stood up and called foul? No one was willing to say that the emperor had no clothes. Oftentimes you can make sense of pious evil by putting yourself in the position of the person who committed the crime and understanding that if they were correct about the way the universe worked, then they would be right to do what they did. Like this couple who let their kid die because they wanted to pray instead of go to the doctor. Yeah, if prayer did anything besides make the praying parents feel better, it would be the right thing to do when your kid is sick. But that doesn’t work with this cult because even if this infant was the anti-christ, that wouldn’t justify murder.
When my son was born, it changed me. The moment I heard him cry for the first time it just tore straight through me. I cannot imagine ever allowing harm to come to him, let alone intentionally harming him. The very thought of someone else doing so disturbs me greatly. The mother in this story bypassed all of that. Her beliefs trumped whatever love she had for this child. Maybe it was the theology or maybe it was the charisma of the cult leader. Either way, it’s a safe bet that if this woman hadn’t been in that cult, her child would be alive today.
Cults are defined by characteristics that are sometimes distinct from religion, such as preventing members from seeking outside information or having elements of the belief system hidden away from it’s members. There has been a lot of ink spilled to distinguish the two, primarily by religious leaders who try to distance themselves from the Jim Jones types and by skeptics hoping to win religious people as allies in combating the likes of David Koresh. Does it really matter? On a practical level, the main difference is intensity. Both the religion and the cult believe they have access to information that outsiders cannot verify. And they both make decisions on that information which lead to undesirable results. As long as you have religion, someone is going to take it seriously enough to make a cult out of it.
Religion acts against the reality checks and critical thinking skills that we normally apply to our decision making. I ask myself regularly “What if I’m wrong? If my facts are wrong, what are the implications? How do I verify this?” I don’t get these questions right all of the time. No one does. But we would live in a better world if we all asked them without cloistering particular beliefs away from these nagging questions. And doubly so when our actions may cause harm.
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