People ask sometimes — either explicitly or by implication — why it is that I direct so much snark at Christianity. And in fact, most Christians I know are good people, smart people, reasonable people who do not let the fact that they hold a set of actually quite bizarre beliefs interfere with remarkably normal lives and normal decision-making.
It is when people take their religious beliefs too seriously, too literally, too fanatically, that they become dangerous. Some Muslims, when they take their religious beliefs too seriously, strap bombs to themselves and try to kill as many infidels as they can so that they can ascend to paradise. This is a criminal act and one which admits of not even the remotest bit of moral justification. This behavior of people who don’t know where to draw the line between the fantasy role-playing game they call religion and the world of reality in which we all live makes the rest of us — including a lot of other Muslims — scared and nervous.
But when people actually and genuinely act on Christian beliefs, most of the rest of us get quite scared and nervous too. We had a national headline generating example of that right here next to my home town yesterday.
It seems that this group of a dozen or so people were dissatisfied with their Christian church and left to form their own religious community. Yesterday, they left behind cash, deeds to their property, cell phones, and bunch of other material possessions, and left letters saying goodbye to their loved ones and family members, telling them to be glad because they would all be in heaven soon.
Reading this, there seems little room doubt what they were going to do — kill themselves, Jonestown-style, for some absurd religious reason. And probably try to take the children with them. Their spouses, families, and friends were quite panicked. So the police, appropriately, put some urgency on looking for them before exactly that could happen.
Now, as it turns out, they were found in a local park in a remote part of town. They were praying against immorality in general and, according to them, premarital sex in particular. The leader of this group (some have called them a “cult” but let’s not split hairs over what that word means exactly) denied that she had any children despite the fact that two of her children were right with her.
Well, now, what exactly were these folks doing if not following the teachings of their religion? Didn’t Jesus command his followers to forsake their material possessions to be true Christians? These folks walked away from their money, their houses, and a variety of other material possessions — to go pray in a public area so as to prevent other people from having consensual sex. Didn’t Paul the Evangelist rail against the corrupting influence of sexual activity, and indeed haven’t those writings been interpreted as demanding celibacy by not just these but a wide variety of Christian sects? Didn’t Jesus command his followers to leave behind their families so as to become true Christians — and that’s what it sounds like these folks did, denying their family relationship with even their own children when questioned by the authorities.
They were waiting for an imminent apocalypse, which is prophesied in the Bible. They expected that when that event happened — and that it would, very soon in the future — they would be taken up to heaven, and their belief in that set of future events appears to have been deeply sincere to the point that they acted, precipitously as it turns out, on those beliefs.
You might say, well, they picked and chose some teachings to follow and some other teachings to ignore, and the ones they picked and chose were the wrong ones. I don’t know about that. Seems to me like if you’re going to take Christianity seriously, you’ve got to take all its teachings seriously. That means that you’ve got to believe that the apocalypse is going to happen any day now.You’ve got to believe that your family, friends, possessions, and other attributes of your present life are only going to get in the way of your salvation and you’re better off walking away from them all right now. That means that your life on this earth is meaningless and all that matters is preparing yourself and as many other people as you can for the next life.
It means, in other words, doing what these folks were doing: acting literally on instructions found in a collection of writings more than 1900 years old. It’s hardly a wonder that, when it comes to matters of life and death, responsible adult people set aside their “respect” for the religious beliefs of others and activated the Search And Rescue squadrons. Law enforcement, appropriately, considered the validity of these religious teachings only to the extent necessary to educate their searches for where innocent people might be very much in harm’s way. With the lives of children in the balance, no one said, “Well, that’s what they believe and we just have to respect that,” because it would have been patently unreasonable to do other than what they did.
This is because, when religion is taken seriously, it is a very dangerous thing and deep down, we all know this to be true. Here, religious fanaticism motivated a dozen people to do things that absolutely convinced their families and friends and law enforcement that a mass suicide was going down — and although this story has ended well (as least for now) I tend to think that this was a very prudent suspicion indeed. Even though the leaders of this group deny that they had any sort of harmful intent towards themselves or anyone, they clearly have a warped understanding of what “truth” is (denying their own children), what objective actions are or are not tolerable, and thus ultimately, what “good” is.
It’s all to easy to believe that these folks were indeed on a short path to self-destruction. They really believe in heaven and they really want to go there. That’s scary stuff. That’s the harm I see coming from literal or next-to-fanatical adoption of religious teachings.
Nice people who instinctively stop acting on their religious beliefs when doing so becomes socially unacceptable are not the targets of my epistolary venom. It’s the crazed fanatics that scare me, and the whole world now knows that there are some crazed fanatics right here in California’s high desert.