Homo sapiens, as Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, appears to be the only species capable of uniting behind an abstract myth, an animating principle that can unleash gigantic armies launched into ant-like coordinated action. This ability enables humans to build inconceivably giant structures and to solve massive global problems. We are, also, the only species capable of mass murder in the service of an abstract idea.
The thought of an idea powerful enough to change the world is both thrilling and terrifying, depending on the idea. The notion of Enlightenment, a world illuminated by Reason, where hereditary oppression would be replaced by agreement on reasonable principles, was a more noble one than making sure the faithful remain steadfast in their beliefs, no matter what.
Every cult, every nation, every family, has a story that explains the chaos and darkness of the world in simple terms everyone can understand. Membership in every kind of tribe depends on members remaining loyal to a core idea. In theory, Christians, for example, emulate the man of peace and teacher of love for whom their religion is named. He was kind, patient, dedicated to feeding and clothing the poor Andy protecting the weak, he preached about love and not being slavishly devoted to earthly rulers. Christians have, for millennia, taught each other that it is their Christian duty to practice in their lives what Jesus preached, to imitate Christ. With certain exceptions, of course. All bets are off when warring with Muslims and other infidels, punishing Jews for allegedly killing the Messiah, slaughtering other Christians who belong to churches hostile to your own in their worship of God, hating any of God’s creatures that offend your version of sanctity and righteousness. Homo sapiens are not always consistent in how we behave, though we do believe!
One consistent thing among us all is a belief in the importance of loyalty. This is the inviolable law of every cult, every nation, every family. We share core beliefs, and if you betray those central principles you are disloyal and subject to the agreed on penalties. Taking an article of faith, examining it and deciding it is false is the ultimate threat to the community. Excommunication is a time honored way of dealing with dissenters and heretics, you cast them out of the hive to die in the wilderness.
Members of a cult accept things as true that nonmembers see as clearly false. The GOP, with their strict adherence to a defeated candidate’s insistence that he had victory stolen from him by massive, bipartisan fraud, is a glaring example that leaps to mind. One of their lifetime appointees on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, told Americans the other day that they have to accept outcomes they don’t like — like the widespread banning of abortion for half the population. This is often true, there are many things we cannot immediately do anything about in life and we must find some kind of acceptance of intolerable outcomes or go mad. It is also the case that Thomas’s best friend, lover and life partner could not accept an outcome she didn’t like. From her well-connected right-wing insider seat she frantically tried to overturn the results of an election whose outcome deeply offended her deepest beliefs. The winner of that election, Joe Biden, and his wife, she wrote, were being taken by barge to the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to be imprisoned with other terrorism suspects for their treasonous betrayal of America!
But I am thinking more about families at the moment, my own and others. To be a member of my family I am expected never to reveal anything embarrassing about a compulsive liar, serial embezzler, shoplifter, road raging bully who has done great damage to other family members. Just the threat that I might say something that raises shame, like mention a secret bankruptcy sprung on everyone on the eve of buying their dream house, means I must be kept at arms length, anything I have to say viewed with suspicion, my character, and even my sanity, called into question. To be a member of some families, you need to recognize that dad is never wrong, or mom is always right, or whatever the deepest binding principle of that group is.
I understand the attraction of cults, they give a powerful sense of certainty in a dizzyingly uncertain world. You belong to a community and are loved unconditionally in a cult, as long as you are loyal to its beliefs. If belief in a demonstrable lie, or a story that distorts reality beyond recognition, is the condition of membership in a cult, or a family, you are pretty much going to have to count people like me out. We are just goddamned iconoclasts, I suppose, like the father of monotheism, Abraham, who as a boy smashed the idols in his father’s shop and was not punished by false gods who didn’t exist. He went on to form his own cult, with very strict laws, but that’s a story for another day.
If membership in your club requires taking an oath that I am a blameworthy, evil sinner, one who can never be fully forgiven, someone who must be eternally penitent… well, with respect, not for me, kids.