Religion Is Not Withering Away
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
“Religion didn’t begin to wither away during the twentieth century, as some academic experts had prophesied. Far from it,” says Toby Lester in his article, “Oh, Gods!” in the February 2002, Atlantic Monthly. “And the new century will probably explode–in both intensity and variety. New religions are springing up everywhere. Old ones are mutating with Darwinian restlessness. And the big ‘problem religion’ of the 21st century may not be the one you think.”
“The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that last, vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture, religion.” But the world today is as awash in religious novelty, flux, and dynamism as it has ever been–and religious change is likely to intensify in the coming decades. The spectacular emergence of militant Islamist movements during the 20th century is only a first indication of how quickly, and with what profound implications, change can occur. We usually think of a few clashing civilizations as made up primarily of a few well-delineated, static religious blocks: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. That’s dangerously simplistic, assuming a stability that is completely at odds with reality. New religions are born all the time, and old ones transform themselves dramatically. Schism, evolution, death, and rebirth are the norm–and not just for cults. Today hundreds of widely divergent forms of Christianity are practiced around the world.” Islam, usually referred to as monolithic, has more than 50 million members of the Naqshabandiya order of Sufi Islam and 20 million members of schismatic groups. Buddhism is a vast family of more than 200 religious bodies. Major strands of Hinduism were profoundly reshaped in the 19th century, revealing strong Western and Christian influences.
History bears out the continuing changes in religion. Early Christianity was deemed pathetic by the religious establishment. Islam, initially a faith of a band of little-known desert Arabs, astonished the world with its rapid spread. Protestantism started out as a note of protest nailed to a door. In 1871 Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed Mormonism as nothing more than an “afterclap of Puritanism.” Until the 1940’s Pentecostalists were often dismissed as “holy rollers,” but today there may be more than a billion people affiliated with the movement. After World War II so many new religious movements grew up in Japan that local scholars had to distinguish between “new religions” and “new new religions.” One Western writer referred to the time as “the rush hour of the gods.” What is now dismissed as a fundamentalist sect, a fanatical cult, or a mushy New Age fad could become the next big thing.
The only serious reference work in existence that attempts both to survey and to analyze the present religious make-up of the entire world is the World Christian Encyclopedia. Its mover and long-time editor, David B. Barrett, recently observed that 9,900 religions have been identified in the world and that this number is increasing by two or three new religions every day. “It’s massive, it’s complex, and it’s continual…new religious movements (long derided and persecuted as cults) are not just a curiosity,…they are a very serious subject.”
The study of new religious movements (NRM’s) has become a growth industry. NRM scholars examine such matters as how new movements arise; what internal dynamics are at work as the movements evolve; how they spread and grow; how societies react to them; and how and why they move toward the mainstream. NRM scholars played a key role in de-fanging the influential anti-cult movement in the U.S. in the 1970’s and 1980’s, which engaged in the illegal practice of kidnapping and “deprogramming” members of new religious movements. Since Waco, the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple suicides, and the subway poisonings in Tokyo by Aum Shinrikyo, NRM scholars are regularly consulted by the FBI, Scotland Yard and other law-enforcement agencies to avoid future tragedies. They are currently battling the anti-cult legislation in France, passed last year for the “repression of cultic movements which undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The law was rooted in a blacklist targeting 173 movements, including the Center for Gnostic Studies, Hare Krishnas, some evangelical Protestant groups, practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, Rosicrucians, Scientologists, Wiccans, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Even the Vatican hired NRM’s as advisors to help them meet the challenges posed by neo-religious, quasi-religious and pseudo-religious groups. The surprisingly liberal report of the advisors, not referring to NRM’s as “cults” or “sects,” suggested that these movements had something to teach the church about how to make its missionary activity more dynamic.
The one significant religious fact of our time is the failure of religion to wither away on schedule. Why? British sociologist Colin Campbell suggests an answer. It is to examine what happens on the religious fringe, where new movements are born. Maybe the very processes of secularization which have brought about the “cutting back” of the established forms of religion have allowed “harder varieties” to flourish. The groups that generally grab all the attention–Moonies, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans–amount to a tiny and not particularly significant proportion of what’s out there. Here are some samples: 1. The Ahmadis, a messianic Muslim sect based in Pakistan, with perhaps 8 million members in 70 countries. Mirza Gulam Ahmad, a Moslem, proclaimed, “Almighty God has, at the beginning of this 14th century (in the Islamic calendar) appointed me from Himself for the revival and support of the true faith of Islam, who must, under divine command be obeyed by all Muslims.” Members are considered heretics by most Moslems and are accordingly persecuted. They say Jesus escaped from the cross and made his way to India, where he died at the age of 120; 2. The Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, a prosperous ascetic meditation movement based in India with a half-million members, mostly women. The group was founded by Dada Lekh Raj, a Hindu diamond merchant who in the 1930’s experienced a series of powerful visions revealing “The mysterious entity of God and explaining the process of world transformation.” It was rooted in a desire to give self-determination and self-esteem to Indian women. Members wear white, abstain from meat and sex, and are committed to social-welfare projects. They believe in an eternal, karmic scheme of time involving recurring 1,250 year cycles through a Golden Age (perfection), a Silver Age (incipient degeneration), a Copper Age (decadence ascendant) and an Iron Age (rampant violence, greed and lust–our present stage); 3. Cao Dai, a syncretistic religion based in Vietnam, established in 1926, with more than three million members in 50 countries. It combines the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and builds on elements of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Geniism. It has a pantheon of divine beings, including the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Qnan am, Ly Thai Bach, Quan Than De Quan, and Jesus Christ. Its three saints are Sun Yat-sen, the Vietnamese poet Trang Trinh, and Victor Hugo. The movement gained more adherents in its first year of existence than Catholic missionaries had attracted during the church’s previous 300 years in Vietnam. Four other examples given by Lester of new religions were the Raelians (Canada, Europe and Japan), Soka Gakkai International (Japan), the Toronto Blessing and Umbanda (Brazil). In order to save space, I won’t describe these except to point out that the last one has 20 million members and was founded in the 1920’s. It leaves the LDS Church, founded in 1830 and vaunted for its rapid growth, in the dust with only 11 million members.
Lester used to expect that people he would find in cults would be strange and mysterious, but experience has shown him that they demonstrate an essential blandness. They are no more or less eccentric, interesting, or threatening than people he rides with every morning on the London underground. They are very ordinary people. New religious movements are not as exotic as they are made out to be, or as they themselves would make themselves out to be.
What have the NRM scholars learned? Lester says several ideas recur again and again. “In an environment of religious freedom, NRMs emerge constantly and are the primary agents of religious change. They tend to respond quickly and directly to the evolving spiritual demands of the times, they are the ‘midwives of changing sensibilities.’ They exist at a high level of tension with society, but they nevertheless represent social and spiritual reconfigurations that are already under way, they almost never emerge out of thin air. Their views can rapidly change from being considered deviant to being considered orthodox. The people who join NRMs tend to be young, well-educated, and relatively affluent. They also tend to have been born into an established religious order but to profess a lack of religious belief prior to joining. They are drawn to new religious movements primarily for social reasons rather than theological ones–usually because of the participation of friends or family members… This last phenomenon is profoundly symptomatic because the fact is that almost all new religious movements fail.”
Sociologist Rodney Stark is one of few people who have tried to develop specific ideas about what makes religious movements succeed. He summarizes his thoughts, “The main thing you’ve got to recognize is that success is really about relationships and not about faith. People form relationships and only then come to embrace a religion. It doesn’t come the other way around, it’s something you can only learn by going out and watching people convert to new movements. We would never, ever, have figured that out in the library. You can never find that sort of thing out after the fact–because after the fact people do think it’s about faith. And they’re not lying, they’re just projecting backwards.
“Something else, give people things to do. The folks in the Vineyard are geniuses at that. The Mormons are great at giving people things to do too, they not only tithe money, but they also tithe time. They do an enormous amount of social services for one another, all of which builds community bonds. It also gives you this incredible sense of security–I’m going to be okay when I’m in a position of need; there are going to be people to look out for me…And if you want to build commitment, send your kids out on missions when they’re nineteen! Go out and save the world for two years! Even if you don’t get a single convert, it’s worth it in terms of the bonds you develop.
“You’ve also got to have a serious conception of God and the supernatural to succeed. Just having some ‘essence of goodness,’ like the Tao isn’t going to do it…even…in Asian countries. They hang a whole collection of supernatural beings around these essences. So to succeed you do best by starting with a very active God who’s virtuous and makes demands, because people have a tendency to value religions on the basis of cost.”
Stark’s rational choice theory of religion proposes that in an environment of religious freedom people choose to develop and maintain their religious beliefs in accordance with the laws of a “religious economy.” The essence of the idea is this: people act rationally in choosing their religion. If they are believers, they make a constant cost-benefit analysis, consciously or unconsciously, about what form of religion to practice. Religious beliefs and practices make up the product that is on sale in the market, and current and potential followers are the consumers. In a free-market religious economy there is a healthy abundance of choice, which leads naturally to vigorous competition and efficient supply (new and old religious movements). The more competition there is, the higher the level of consumption. This would explain the paradox that the United States is one of the most religious countries in the world but also one of the strongest enforcers of a separation of Church and State.
Stark argues that all social science is based on the idea that human behavior is essentially explainable, and it therefore makes no sense to exclude a major and apparently constant behavior like religion-building from what should be studied scientifically. The sources of religious experience may be mysterious, irrational, and highly personal, but religion itself is not. It is a social rather than a psychological phenomenon, and absent conditions of active repression, it unfolds according to observable rules of group behavior.
Religious institutions often go to pot, but religion doesn’t. Early Christianity was a rational choice for converts because its emphasis on helping the needy “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.”
“What new religious movements will come to light in the 21st century? Who knows?” asks Lester.
African NRMs have been successful,” says Rosalind I. J. Hackett, “because they help people survive…People forget how critical that is.” The course of missionary activity is now moving from South to North. African, Asian and Latin American missionaries are establishing themselves in Europe and North America. The present rate of growth of the new Christian movements and their geographical range suggest they will become a major social and political force in the coming century.
Phillip Jenkins makes a prediction, “I think that the big ‘problem cult’ of the 21st century will be Christianity.”
What You Can Do
Do you hate what’s happening in our country? Feel like democracy is slipping away? Feel like the nation is racing toward war and destruction, while important questions are not being answered or even asked? What about all of our other problems, concerns? Who is listening? Feel helpless? Hopeless? Angry? Read on.
Get a computer and get on the internet. Quit making excuses-if you have to, use the one at the public library. Politics is history, and, even if you’ve lived through a lot of it, remember that you perceived it largely through the opinions of family members, through newspapers and television news that may or may not have reflected reality. Much of what happened during World War II and Vietnam, for instance, was classified for decades. We are only now beginning to have a clear and comprehensive picture of those complex eras. Most of the major newspapers and magazines of today have online content that you can, for now at least, read without paying a fee. Take advantage of this. There are also websites available that have, not only text archives, but even photographic archives. Some of these are private collections, others academic. A sampling of political and historical websites are available at the end of this article. Keep in mind that websites are often fronts for organizations that have political agenda, so “consumer beware.” Besides the web, internet newsgroups are sources for postings. Many of the postings are of the “spam” variety, but you can also post questions of your own and often a helpful fellow netizen can answer your questions or refer you to sources that can.
Read. You can’t possibly buy all the books, so go to the library. One way to find interesting and relevant books is by using the internet. I go to Amazon.com and read their reviews, then find the books in the local library. A card for the Salt Lake City system also gives you access to the Salt Lake County system. Both have internet access to their collections, so you can see if a book is available. If it’s a hot book, you may have to put a hold on it. If it’s a rare book, you may have to request it through interlibrary loan. Your reference librarian can guide you through this process.
Change the Channel-with a very few notable exceptions, it’s corporate fluff and propaganda. “Survivor” will survive without you and the “Wheel of Fortune” will go on turning. Your brain deserves better. Some alternative news is available through satellite channels.
Listen to Community Radio. Go ahead and enjoy your musical programs, too, but recognize that there is newsworthy stuff on community radio. KRCL (KZMU in Moab) and KUER provide intelligent talk radio. You won’t even miss Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. I promise.
Watch movies and videos. Huh? Yes. Go to your local library and browse their video selection. You might be surprised. Documentaries abound. Not just travelogues, but historical productions and political and cultural commentaries that you may not have even known existed. Be sure to consider unusual local video outlets, such as the Tower Theater.
Take a deep breath and call up your Congressman, Senator, State Representative, Governor. Bitch loud and long and often. After the first time it gets easier. Also, be sure to tell them what they’re doing right. Program their phone numbers into your phone and have fun! In the words of Thomas Edison, “Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.” Contact information for your representatives can be found in the blue pages of your phone book or visit our Humanists of Utah web site.
Write letters to the Editor all over the local area: to dailies, weeklies. If you have a great letter, send it to everybody. Again, some addresses are to be found on our web site.
Find good groups involved in significant causes and support them, if not by time and labor, then by money, even if it’s only a few bucks a year.
Call local television and radio stations and ask them to air more issue-based political coverage. Get involved in the Free Air Time Campaign
Top 10 Reasons to Register and Vote-from the League of Women Voters
- It’s your money. The county commissioners, governor, state treasurer, legislators, president and members of Congress you vote for will decide how much of our wealth to invest in public services and how to fairly share the tax burden.
- It’s your children’s education. You elect local and state school board members who set public education policy and budgets that will affect how well prepared your children and grandchildren will be for the future. Decisions by our legislators, governor, members of Congress and president also affect the public schools-and the quality and cost of higher education as well.
- It’s your job. Congress, the president, the governor and your legislators influence what job training is available, minimum wage, pay equity, fairness in hiring, health insurance through your employer, job and pension security, and workplace safety.
- It’s your health care. Action by the governor, legislature and Congress has made health insurance accessible to thousands but 1 of 10 Utahns is still uninsured. Their decisions on Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance laws determine your access to health care.
- They’re your highways. Utah’s population and traffic are growing rapidly. Your county commissioners, legislators, governor and members of Congress decide what highways are needed, what alternatives to highways such as public transit to support, and how to pay the bill.
- It’s your Social Security. The president and your members of Congress decide how much payroll tax you pay, cost of living increases and benefit schedules for your Social Security pension, and what Medicare services you receive and share payment for.
- You breathe the air and drink the water. Your county, state and national elected officials set pollution standards, enforcement strategies and budgets. They plan and zone where roads and industries will be built and how public lands will be used-decisions that can determine how safe your air and water are.
- It’s your neighborhood. Your elected officials and judges you vote to retain make daily decisions about crime prevention, laws and law enforcement, safe and affordable homes, traffic patterns, where to put schools, parks and recreation.
- They’re our children. We do our best to keep them healthy, fed, safe, educated and cared for when we are at work or unable to provide. The officials you elect can help or hinder Utah families trying to do their job.
It’s your democracy. Make it work. Register and Vote.
Reflections on Being Tried for Murder
I have recently had the misfortune of being tried for the “untimely deaths” of five of my patients, not just once but twice. In each of the two trials I learned a great deal about the judicial system, some of it positive and illuminating, and some of it quite distasteful. It was certainly positive to finally have my innocence vindicated, but unfortunate to have spent every last cent and then six months in prison.
The first trial lasted five and a half weeks. The prosecution tediously presented volumes of trivial detail and irrelevant minutia that not only confused the jury but also left them bored to distraction. This first jury refused to convict me of the charge of first degree murder, as requested by the state lawyers, but compromised with a verdict of guilty on three counts of negligent homicide and two of manslaughter, leading to a sentence of fifteen years. The second trial of three weeks was conducted in a much more expeditious way; the defense witnesses were knowledgeable and informative in their testimonies, while the state witnesses were a bit more circumspect than the last time. The jury quickly acquitted me of all charges.
Prior to my arrest none of the patients’ families had filed a complaint with the hospital, state agencies, or the medical societies, nor apparently had any even met with a lawyer. I can only imagine the scenario, but there came a day when a state investigator knocked on the door of each family to announce that their loved ones had not died natural deaths but had been murdered. One can imagine the rush of emotions that each of these individuals must have felt, running from fear, to guilt, anger, and pain. The loss of the departed had already been grieved, the dead had been buried, and the pain had been accepted and resolved. Then the prosecutors arrived to exhume the bodies. The survivors were now given a new and grisly burden to bear. The exhumations raised again the grief of their loss, not this second time to be so properly borne, endured, and buried.
As I sat in court each day listening carefully to the ebb and flow, the whole significance of our system of trial by jury became clear to me. I watched the families of the alleged victims sit through every pretrial hearing and both courtroom trials, waiting impatiently for the justice they felt they deserved. I was dismayed that they had become so righteously indignant over care I had provided and believed was appropriate and ethical. I now listened with the hope that after these family members had heard the facts and the expert explanations, they would feel relieved. I hoped they would find some peace when they learned that their decision had been a rational and wise one: to have me withdraw aggressive medical interventions from their dying, demented loved one and to replace that with compassionate comfort care.
It is now clear that the second jury did indeed hear the message. Justice was done, although at great expense to the state. The parade of experts provided a thorough explanation for those family members who were open to hearing it. This opportunity to hear a full disclosure of all the relevant facts is the true intent and meaning of justice, so that those who continue to harbor inner conflicts or ill will may be able to reach closure.
Among those less well informed I have no doubt that many questions, suspicious, and unresolved issues remain, many of which I believe arise from our widespread ignorance about the process of dying. Our society has essentially denied the reality of death. Most people have very little contact with death, and with our prolonged life expectancies we are not touched by it as closely or frequently as were people only a generation or two past.
A Latin term used in Medicine, in extremis, denotes not simply a state beyond which nothing further can be done to save life; it describes a process through which the body passes as it prepares to shut itself down, permanently: The process of dying.
Lewis Thomas in his book Medusa and the Snail has a chapter entitled, “On Natural Death,” which contains ideas so important to this subject it should be included in every pamphlet provided by hospice services. Thomas describes a process that takes place in the mouse at the instant it is caught by a cat. He writes,
“…peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and the
pituitary gland; instantly these substances, called endorphins…[exert]
the pharmacological properties of opium; there is no pain.”
He ends with,
“Pain is useful for avoidance, for getting away when there’s time
to get away, but when it is endgame, and no way back, pain is
likely to be turned off, and the mechanisms for this are wonderfully
precise and quick. If I had to design an ecosystem in which creatures
had to live off each other and in which dying was an indispensable
part of living, I could not think of a better way to manage.”
Thomas then quotes the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne, who had had a near death experience which led him to write,
“If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will
in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly
do that business for you; take you no care for it.”
It should certainly serve to support the faith of those who believe in a merciful Creator to know that with all the violence built into the law of the jungle, prey are provided with this mechanism to guarantee a gentle and merciful demise. And this mechanism is fully active in humans.
During my second trial some experts discussed the notion of delirium, which is commonly seen in the demented. Since the five patients who died under my care were all in advanced stages of dementia, there was also substantial testimony about both the nature of dementia and the meaning of delirium. Dementia, a disease condition of the brain, results in destruction of large amounts of brain matter, leaving the afflicted individual trapped inside a tangle of non-functioning brain structure. In the later stages of dementia the process also leads to a general wasting of the entire body, eventually and inevitable leading to death. It is not in any way the same as psychiatric diseases such as phobia or neurosis, which are conditions of the mind, not the brain.
Delirium is rather difficult to define, but it is an altered state of mind that may incorporate hallucinations or other reality distortions, frequently associated with wild swings in brain activity. Delirium can be either pleasant or tragic. The endorphins provide a kind of quiet, pleasant delirium, but dementia can result in a delirium that is frenzied and destructive. The experienced caregiver knows it when she sees it, just as the knowledgeable caregiver can recognize the dying process when she sees it.
The demented individual presents many difficult problems for the caregiver, but one of the most perplexing is the inability of the demented to be able to identify and describe physical pain. The destroyed brain not only does not allow effective communication, it frequently does not even give the demented patient a correct interpretation of the problem, so they may not even recognize that they are in pain. Such patients may exhibit agitation or bizarre behavior in their response to unrecognized, painful stimuli. Since we have no blood test or “pain-o-meter” to measure the symptom of pain, we can sometimes only ascertain this by giving an opioid to see if the patient’s behavior improves.
In the normal, natural death, passing is made gentle and pleasant by the brain’s release of its own natural endorphins. Although we know of the severe pain many cancer patients suffer, once the dying process begins their pain is often relieved. In many of the demented, however, there appears to be the worst of all possible worlds; the brain seems to be both unable to discern the pain and unable to release nature’s merciful endorphins. This necessitates the administering of powerful pain relievers in generous dosage to help nature do what the disease process has forestalled, if one is to be as kind as we have seen nature to be when death is natural.
Our country is currently experiencing something just short of a war occurring between the regulatory agencies and those physicians responsible for compassionate pain treatment. The knowledge gained just in the past ten years about the proper use of opioids has been significant, and the new knowledge suggests that much of our past use of opioids has been meager and stinting. Now that bureaucrats, middle managers and lawyers have an ever increasing involvement in the way health care is delivered, innovative modalities and changing treatment practices are challenged almost everywhere, as one might expect. Perhaps the successful outcome in State v. Weitzel will help to further assertive and compassionate palliative care; I hope so.
I am very happy that I have been acquitted and that I may once again look forward to regaining my livelihood and respectability, but my greatest happiness comes from knowing that a jury of laypersons can and did hear the message; they saw the bigger picture. Although all my own assets have been spent, as well as considerable funds provided by donors, I still feel my optimism has been redeemed, and I am hopeful for my own future as well as that of conscientious and compassionate physicians everywhere, and most important, the patients we serve.
–Robert Weitzel MD