This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Please note the addendum at the end about my use of the word “crazy” in this piece.
Are less established religions really crazier than older mainstream ones? Or are mainstream religions just more familiar?
Atheists, by definition, don’t think any religion has any reasonable likelihood of being true. And yet, for some weird reason, we’re often asked to choose between them. Believers often accuse us of ignoring more moderate and progressive religions while we trash the low-hanging fruit of hard-line fundamentalism. We’re accused of disregarding sophisticated modern theology so we can zero in on the simplistic faiths held by the hoi polloi. (Neither accusation is fair; many atheists, including myself, have taken aim at both modern theology and progressive religion, and in any case fundamentalism and other widely-held religions are valid targets for critique — but that’s another rant.) Yet at the same time, many believers seek our approval for their particular beliefs. “Sure,” they’ll say, “a lot of those other religions are silly — but my religion makes sense! Don’t you agree? Don’t you? Huh?”
For the most part, it’s a game I don’t like to play. I think all religions are equally implausible, equally based on cognitive biases, equally unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. But sometimes, the battiness of a particular religion is powerfully borne in on me, to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. And it forces me to consider the question: Is this religion really any more batty than any other? Or is it just less popular? Less familiar? Is it simply newer, and thus has had less time for the more wildly ragged edges of its wackiness to smooth out? Is this religion really as crazy as it seems — or are all religions equally crazy?
Magic Hats Versus Magic Snakes
First, just to be very clear: I’m not saying that all religious believers are crazy. I’m saying that religious beliefs are crazy. I’m criticizing the ideas, not the people. And when I say “crazy” (or “nutty” or “batshit” or “lunatic” or what have you), I don’t mean “literally, clinically mentally ill.” I mean “crazy” in the colloquial sense. I mean… well, I’ll get to that.
I have no doubt that it has that effect on many people. Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions on the planet; there must be something about it that people like. But its effect on me… Well, it was inspiring, all right. It inspired me right into a rollercoaster ride of hilarity and horror. It inspired me, at one point, to out-loud laughter that I was literally, physically unable to control. It inspired me to get the hell off their property, take several deep breaths, and rant incoherently with my wife about what an appalling nightmare of indoctrination and brainwashing it was, before we plunged back in. It inspired me to work on my atheist activism ten times harder than I ever had. Its effect on me was not to entice me into the faith. Its effect was to make me think, even more strongly than I had before, “This religion is batshit crazy.”
But then I started thinking.
How much crazier is this, really, than any other religion?
But then I started thinking:
How much crazier is this than any other religion?
Plenty of religions are loaded with crazy when you scratch the surface. You don’t even have to scratch very hard.
So why do these older, more mainstream religions seem less crazy?
A lot of it, I think, is popularity. If lots of people believe something, we’re more likely to give it credibility. This is a bias that all human brains are vulnerable to, and it’s largely unconscious. (Although many religious believers will make this argument consciously and overtly. Spend enough time in the atheist blogosphere, and I guarantee you’ll see it pop up: “How can you dismiss something that so many people believe in?”) We’re social animals, and we’re wired to think that if everyone else thinks something, it’s probably true. Or at the very least, that it’s not batshit insane on the face of it, and we ought to give it serious consideration.
The fascinating thing about Mormonism is that we can see this process happening in real time. As a religion founded within the last two centuries, during a time of good historical record-keeping, Mormonism is an intriguing case study of how a religion transforms from a despised fringe cult to a popular branch of mainstream modern faith. And part of that picture is the ways that the fringier elements have either been abandoned wholesale or kept out of the public eye. .. and indeed kept out of the eyes of its own adherents until they’ve already bought in. (Mormonism even has a “milk before meat” concept: teach the easy, non-controversial stuff about Mormonism first, and wait to teach the batty stuff until adherents are too deeply invested to leave.) The degree to which Mormonism has become mainstream is the degree to which the less digestible nuts have been eliminated from the fruitcake.
But most of this phenomenon, I think, is simple familiarity.
So is it fair to think that Mormonism — or Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Scientology, or any other relatively new religion — is really any crazier than more mainstream religions? Is it fair to think that it’s crazier than the mainstream varieties of Catholicism or Baptism, Hinduism or Buddhism, Judaism or Islam?
I spent my day at Temple Square going back and forth on this question. One minute, I’d be thinking, “Well, okay, this is pretty nuts… but it’s not really any crazier than magic crackers and magic snakes.” The next minute, I’d be confronted with some new form of wacko, and I’d be thinking, “No, this really is crazier.”
So which is it?
I think the answer depends on what exactly we mean by “crazy.”
Crazy Is as Crazy Does
Like I said earlier, when I say “crazy” here, I don’t mean “mentally ill.” I mean… well, what, exactly?
But if what you mean by “crazy” is “out of touch with reality”?
Then it’s all equally crazy.
But all religions are out of touch with reality. All religions are implausible, based on cognitive biases, and unsupported by any good evidence whatsoever. All of them ultimately rely on faith — i.e., an irrational attachment to a pre-existing idea regardless of any evidence that contradicts it — as the core foundation of their belief. All of them contort, ignore, or deny reality in order to maintain their attachment to their faith.
And by that definition, all religions are equally crazy.
Some just hide their craziness better than others.
Note: I have read the comments criticizing my colloquial use of the word “crazy” in this piece, and am seriously considering them. I’m not sure I agree with them, and I’m a bit puzzled at the automatic assumption that I don’t have any experience myself with mental illness. (That’s not, in fact, the case. I’ve struggled with depression off and on for most of my adult life, and while I don’t currently consider myself as someone with mental illness, I am someone with a history of mental illness, and I have to carefully manage my life so as to minimize a chance of a recurrence.) But I have heard the criticisms, and I am taking them seriously. I’ve decided to go ahead and reprint this piece as originally written, with the original language, since I think it’s important that the stuff I write for AlterNet be archived here in more or less its original form. (Especially since the comment threads on AlterNet are so — how shall I put this? — challenging, and re-posting them here gives my readers a chance to discuss my pieces in a more welcoming forum.) But the message has been received, and I’ll be re-thinking this language in the future.