Sunday, May 31, 2009


If you met primitive tribesmen whose religion taught that the world was flat, would you tell them that it was round? That is approximately the issue I faced when I met these innocents on a redwood forest trail. Of course I engaged them---that's what I do--thinking they were Amish.
Turns out they are from a very minor sect numbering 6000 called the Brethren and they traveled here from Pennsylvania and Ohio to attend an annual conference where the group will decide such issues as whether to ban internet use (as corrupting), whether it's ok to make movies about themselves. what is proper, modest dress and 17 similar issues all relating to their primary concern to "separate themselves from the world."

Among their "flat earth equivalent" beliefs is that the world and all that's in it was created in 6 days about 6000 years ago, that the Bible is literally the inerrant word of God, detailing how we should live our lives etc. That evolution is a huge lie.
After I got their story, I faced a sizable moral dilemma: DO I TAMPER WITH THEIR FAITH OR LET THEM GO THEIR WAY UNSCATHED? Do tell them that their "certainty" is a destructive illusion? That they have been conned? (indoctrinated) That life is infinitely richer
when uncertainty is embraced.
I predict that most of my readers would say: LEAVE THEM ALONE! THEY HAVE A LIFE AND A CULTURE---AND IF YOU INDUCE THEM TO DOUBT THEIR DOCTRINES, CONSIDER THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: Dreadful anxiety of losing their social comfort--friends, identity etc. These are simple, clean living, hard working folks--LEAVE EM ALONE!
Turns out, they took the decision away from me. They were feistier than I supposed and began to question me. We talked an hour or more as they gathered around my trailer. I read them two of my poems, "The Religion Warehouse" and "Hinduism" to give them an alternative perspective. They were transfixed. Perhaps I'm the only informed skeptic they will ever meet, their only opportunity to escape a cult-like existence. But they are very nice boys, ages 17. 18, 19 and 20--incredibly gentle and courteous in the give and take. They asked all the right questions and were astounded that an unbeliever knew the Bible as well as they. I did not press too hard.
We walked a long way together and I noticed their seeming inability to make decisions: when to turn back, when it was time to leave, etc. I could see that they were OBEDIENCE ORIENTED--believing that what life is about is obeying the rules. The alternative of CREATIVE RESPONSIVENESS seemed alien to them. I ached to give them a copy of Emerson's essay On Self Reliance. We ended up exchanging books: They gave me "Moving Toward the Mainstream" and I gave them Sam Harris' Letter To A Christian Nation. (a brief masterpiece of skepticism) All four were anxious to read it. I feel satisfied and enriched by the encounter.


wisesongbird said...

What an interesting encounter and the deliberation you employed was an exercise in "tight rope walking". Think you handled this brilliantly. Always open minds is my mantra. Stretch, for how comfortable is it really to be boxed in by restriction and rules when there is more to know than one can ascertain? More to experience than the strict confines of a sect? I am certain these "innocents" are beginning to question and that is a very good place to be!

Stbalbach said...

Hey you inspired me to go pick up Emerson's essay and *wow* what an amazing piece, how did I ever miss this before? Much I've heard before quoted. A real treasure. There is an interesting few paragraphs about "travel" towards the end but I don't want to quote it here, Emerson didn't think much of traveling!

Randy said...

I think I know the quote Emerson made about travel: That it is a fools paradise IF YOU'RE TRYING TO RUN AWAY FROM YOUR PROBLEMS. And I think that is true. We travelers often discuss whether we are moving AWAY from something or TOWARD something.

Two more subtle points: Science has discovered that novelty releases endorphins in the brain.

Travel stimulates the simple but magical moment of NOTICING that often grows stale when we are settled. Noticing (anything) is a real experience as opposed to a thought. I sometimes think people can notice their way to enlightment.

Anonymous said...

I have been reading your blog this morning with mixed reactions. This particular subject is one that always causes debate and for my two cents I have to say I don't agree with your methods here.

When it comes to how people believe, I really feel that any outside persuasion is arrogant. Even if the goal of that persuasion is to push someone towards an open and creative mind. I feel about this much the same way as I do about the product marketing we all experience each day. If something is good enough to be desirable, people will notice and likely seek it for themselves.

Comparing their beliefs to the Earth being flat is not exactly fair as you cannot without question prove them incorrect as we obviously can concerning the shape of our planet.

There is a huge difference between putting information out for people to consume in a public way such as this blog as opposed to giving someone reading material directly purpose to persuade them.

These are just my perspectives on it. I won't ever tell anyone how they should act or believe. I just think this is such a slippery slope and any intentional direction in any way is just as wrong as the ones that are more obvious no matter the motive.


Randy said...

Thank you Mike for your thoughtful comment.You may be right but I doubt it. I know that culture tampering is dangerous--and there are casualties. The crucial question is whether the risk of downside consequences is worth the possible benefits. I admit that I'm gambling but so are you if you withold information that might liberate an imprisoned mind. I'm wondering if you also object to my confrontation with the Mormon Missionaries or the Baptist Preacher in an earlier blog. Here's a question for you: Are you glad that Luther challengede the Catholic Church? How about Darwin challenging the Creationist? I'm thankful that my seminary achaeology professor openly challenged an "inerrant" Bible and set me on my "liberated" path.(he got fired for his stance later) I feel in my being that religious doctrines stifle human goodness and creativity. I challenge you to read Dawkins--THE GOD DELUSION. Billions of people are needlessly walking around on crutches. To knock the crutches out, I'm betting, is a service in the long run. How is science, culture, OR RELIGION to advance if nobody challenges anybody else?

Visionquest said...

I understand what you are saying Randy and I agree that to challenge anything is good. We should never stop asking questions. My issue is with the method.

We have so many opportunities to propose our challenges to people in a non-tampering, non arrogant way that it is completely unnecessary to gamble as you describe.

Your blog is a perfect way to share your views. "Knocking the crutches" out from someone is an arrogant viewpoint that says that your way is best and others are basically stupid for the way they believe. It's fine if you feel that way, but to impose these beliefs on another directly is an issue in my perspective. It has never served the greater good.

I wouldn't feel this way if you stopped with just letting them know it is wise to seek their own answers and and not follow anything blindly. Where it becomes arrogant is when you direct them at specific writings that support your beliefs or non-beliefs etc.

The belief system on either side isn't what I was referring to.


Randy said...

Mike: Thanks again for engaging me. Ours is a disagreement that deserves more than soundbites--but here goes anyway:
1. We do not have lots of opportunities to challenge people who are deeply mired in a religious subculture. They are indoctrinated and socially cloistered with their in-group.
2. my blog or any blog has no shot at their mind because the group has decided NOT to engage the internet.
3. It is a kind of slander to suggest that I was IMPOSING my notions on them. That's what was done to them--over time--by their church.
4. I believe you underestimate the perfidity of religious subcultures and the threat they pose to a rational world. Unless they are stopped, they will overpopulate the world to its destruction. They are nothing less than evil and require vigorus attacks on their foundations. We simply must beard the lion in his den as Sam Harris does in his books. (give it a shot Mike---engage a Mormon with the evidence against their scriptures as I did in MORMONS AND HORSES. See what we're up against.)
5. Finally, I'd have you examine your propensity to "make nice" with the gentle approach. Is your approach to life's conflicts enfeebled by childhood conditioning? (I don't know--just asking--but I suspect as much)

Visionquest said...

Hi Randy, I understand what you are saying, clearly we disagree on this which is fine of course. I can't tell you any more how to believe than I feel you have a right to tell me. I won't ever tell anyone how to believe, but I don't feel that is really so much a "gentle" approach as you describe and certainly not due to my upbringing. My beliefs and my ideals are developed by myself over many years. I don't agree with much of what was preached at me as a child. I don't read books about religion because I am capable of coming to the necessary conclusions on my own.

I have engaged Mormons about their beliefs as well as Jehovah's Witnesses and many others. I only asked questions though and tried to see how they truly felt about what they believed. I never attempted to influence them or tell them they were wrong. It just isn't my place. People should be allowed to live and let live IMO. If someone has seriously put some thought behind what they believe, who has the right to tell them they are wrong? Can you prove without a shadow of a doubt what you claim is correct, substantiated with tangible proof? No one can.

It's not about "making nice". It is about sticking to what I believe for myself which is not to let others manipulate my beliefs and in turn not feeling that it is my right to manipulate theirs because I feel I am somehow smarter or better equipped.

You say those religious subcultures are evil and require vigorous attacks at their foundations. Pretty strong wording.


Ty said...

I personally believe you did a service to humanity. It's possible that one of those boys will see the light, make his life better, get a good college education etc.