Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Breathing (Human Sacrifice, 2 of 3)

Unfortunately the story of religious sacrifice isn’t always as benign as dietary restrictions.

A while ago I watched a documentary on the Jonestown tragedy (to head off trouble, I’m not saying Jones’ church is the same sort of creature as any mainline church, Muslim, LDS, or otherwise; it’s a very extreme case and chosen to the other extreme when compared to my first example). For those who don’t remember, this was a religious community led by Jim Jones. He eventually moved his congregation to Guyana. From there a congressman along with a group of reporters and concerned family visited Jonestown. Some were murdered on Jones’ orders.

Here you can listen Jones explain what’s to be done next, and I think all adults should. A warning: it’s emotionally difficult.

To Mr. Jones (or at least his followers), God had told him US troops were on their way to kill everyone, and he, “speaking as a prophet,” told his followers in order to conquer death and the enemies of good, they had to willingly sacrifice their life, “just like Jesus.” A lone woman, Christina, can be heard protesting in this recording, particularly “for the babies.” She makes her case, and it brought me to tears, but she is powerless in the face of the group’s unflinching faith. As happens so many times under questioning, she’s told she just has to trust. And how can she argue? God gives commandments and humans should follow. She’s even shouted down by fellow believers. Get that? People actually argue with her as to why they should kill themselves and their children.

In the end over 900 people were dead. Some adults were forced to take in poison. Some fed it to their children. But many just put it to their lips willingly.

There really aren’t words to adequately qualify such an event; it’s one of those pits of thought. I’d imagine this degree of unshakable, propelling faith in a religion is alien to most in the modern world (well, in the west). To me, it should speak to the false nature of that belief. In my experience, it’s not truth that’ll ask you for such a show of strong belief. Truth doesn’t care to be safe from objective investigation; it welcomes doubt and is steadfast for your belief or none at all. But for some I’m sure the sort of conviction shown by Jones’ followers was attractive (before the end). It’s a well known sort of human reflex, to take surrounding human’s conviction as evidence, and it often works to reasonable ends in mundane life, though an advertiser here and there may abuse it (They call the tool Social Proof ).

The thing that haunts me with this event is that I can’t blow this off as a 100% group of nuts. There were a lot of bodies, in the end. Undoubtedly, there were many intelligent people among them, and it would be a huge mistake to write them all off as crazed or dimwitted. In fact, intelligence, like any human tool, is there at the mercy of the will; it will work towards what you want, not necessarily what is right or rational. It is a common error of most people to assume those who believe false faiths do so for stupidity. Most often it is actually their significant intelligence that helps them remain recalcitrant. Without it they’d never find those the loopholes of empiricism, construct the necessary self-mystifications, or be able to talk others into following. These people had their faith, it gave them their reasons, and they applied their intelligence to decide they were doing good, well-intentioned work of God.

What’s worse is that Jonestown is nothing in comparison to what’s occurred in human history. There have been centuries of willing (and forced) human sacrifice for ideas, hopes, promises that never come true, from the crusades to those events involving religions only an archeologists would now remember. People even give all for faith in extraterrestrials. The intricacy, certainty, and conviction in such thinking is astounding on one level, but all too human on another, a potential that sits in all of us and of which I’m sure we’ve not seen the end.

The above example of religious sacrifice is the other extreme, in contrast to the first example. Of course, I can’t justify getting in the way of dietary restrictions; I don’t even want to. Such sacrifice is not near my business. On the other hand, I do feel obligated to get in the way of the sort of sacrifice for faith in this post. It can be as indiscriminate a killer as a bomb in a crowd. Respect for religion and personal conviction be damned. I’ll get in the way if I can. I can’t sit back and let people use the tools of faith to take lives, even if it’s only suicide. I’d attack that religion and its leaders, forcefully and publically. Is that wrong? Is that intolerant, or totalitarian even?

I do know Christina, in that tape, is among the people I know next to nothing about but respect. I’ve thought about her often since I first heard that recording. She should have gone further, shown more opposition. She should have called her fellow followers to reason, and said what we all know she’d realized but didn’t say: that their faith was wrong here. Nevertheless, she showed a lot of courage to buck social proof and challenge her community. Jones says how much he appreciates her; of course, he “likes an agitator” because she shows them “both sides of the issue.” He pretends to promote free will and to have nothing to fear in her questioning, but I have to hope, given enough time, given enough reasoning, he would have something to fear, and Christina could have saved many lives with a bit more disrespect for the beliefs of those living them.

Okay, there are the two extremes, and I react differently to both. It may seem that the answer is simple, but what if it’s not drinking poison? What if it’s refusing a blood transfusion for a faith? There is a gradient, not a step, all the way back to the bacon. So how to decide what to do in the middle; that’s what I’m hoping to work out next.

Yes, I know such posts get too long, but they're mainly for working things out for myself :-). I'll be done soon.


Mr. Fob said...

I'm not sure where my boundaries lie here. In my mind, using religion to tell others to commit suicide is without question wrong--it crosses over from a moral issue to an ethical issue, which is my personal line. Killing oneself for religion is, at least by the strictest application of my logic, a gray area because you're not technically harming another person with your beliefs--not directly, anyway. When I think about it, though, I would not be okay with someone I know killing him or herself for religious or any other reasons. This leads me to believe that I should not be okay with people I don't know doing so either. Hm.

Scot said...

Does that mean I met your challenge :-)?

I don’t know either. The extremes are interesting; I similarly feel I’d have to stop a religious leader who's telling followers to kill themselves, but when it comes to the follower, I’m left uncomfortably trying to decide what I should do, in addition to what I think our government should do. I mean, Germany is near set to ban Scientology simply for the financial and time sacrifice it asks of followers; I know that’s not what I want my government to do… But what about life in place of dollars? I hope to pin down where I’d draw the lines in the extremes and in the middle ground, where I think sacrifice of orientation lies, next.