The Tyranny of Faith
Reflections on the Death of a Patriarch
As I write these words, an estimated three million people are gathered in Rome to observe the funeral services of Pope John Paul II who died on April 3. The figure is impressive, and this is just the people who have come to Rome for the event, not those already there. News commentators marvel at this tremendous “outpouring of humanity.” On the day of the event, and for long afterwards, we can expect to be barraged by close-up images of people in prayer, bereaved, devout, reverent, their faces and indeed their entire bodies seized by deep emotion.
What are they feeling? What do they believe? Why are they there?
We tend to assume we all know the answers to these questions, more or less clearly. We also assume that those participating in the event also know the answers.
Granted, the participants know why they are there. They are moved by emotions rooted in their faith, and they have reasons relating to their deepest, most cherished beliefs concerning God, humanity, and the world. The strength of their faith does not incline them—nor does it permit them—to put any of these factors in question. At a moment such as this, faith prevails. Faith leads. Faith decides how people will act by a power all its own.
Faith may be defined as the power invested in beliefs, but, more precisely, the power invested in unquestioned beliefs. It could as well be said: the power derived from unquestioned beliefs. The strength of faith consists in its not being questioned, challenged, doubted. Once it is put in doubt, faith weakens. Hence, the beliefs associated with faith must remain unquestions for faith to stand.
The dynamic of faith is extremely difficult to grasp, because faith seems to have an almost magical ability to grant power to those who give power to it. This dynamic has been called the placebo effect. It works with many things, from medicines to mantras. The efficacy of a placebo inheres in a feedback loop: it gives power to those who give it power. For instance, taking the Host at Mass gives power to those who give it power. To those who give it no power, it is ineffectual.
However, the placebo effect does not consist just in this two-way exchange. There is a trick involved: the returning power of the placebo (be it an object, such as the Host, or an idea, such as grace) appears to be independent of the power granted to it in the first place. The feedback is effective, and tends to quell any doubting or critical observation, because the way it works tends to conceal the true nature of this exchange: giving away power to get power. Those who receive the Host in Catholic mass, believing in the independent power of the Host, get back far more through their faith than they give. Or so it appears.
But the operation of faith here is deceiving. We are not yet at the core dynamic of the placebo effect. There is another layer of dissimulation at work. The placebo effect makes it appear as if believers get more than they give (first level of dissimilation), but in reality believers may be giving more than they get (the second, deeper level of dissimilation). The placebo effect is wonderful, and really works, otherwise there would not be so many deeply religious people in the world, but what goes without notice is the investment that must be made to get a convincing return.
It has been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but a little faith can also be dangerous. The old adage suggests that knowledge becomes safer as it increases. Unlike knowledge, faith can become even more dangerous as it increases. Its hidden dynamic makes it almost impossible for the faithful to see what they are giving in return for the boost they get from their beliefs. And the bigger the boost of faith, the more must given. It could happen that believers give away what is most precious in their humanity, that which lives in the unsounded depths of human potential, without knowing what they are losing, or even that they are losing anything at all. The returning effect of faith, the boost, fills the void inside, but never fills it completely, for the power rendered to the placebo always exceeds the power that comes back from it. The second dissimulation, hiding what is given away, conceals the huge inegality that makes the exchange work so effectively. The inability to see this double-dissimulating dynamic, and measure its toll upon the human spirit, is the immense, unspeakable tragedy of human faith.
The Abrahamic religions have existed since 600 BCE (Judaism, founded on the codification of the Torah under King Josiah), 33 CE (Christianity, founded on the fable of the god-man, Jesus Christ) and 600 CE (Islam, founded on a book attributed to a male “prophet” whose authority exceeds all others), and humanity may not be getting any better for them. The trajectory of these 2600 years is one long jagged plunge into terror and destruction. Whatever good has been achieved in the name of these religions (and may well have been achieved without them, if we believe in the basic goodness of humanity – more below) has been massively overruled by the behavioral insanity demonstrated through the ages by believers, behavior that is now culminating in the threat of a global holocaust, eagerly awaited, and perhaps deliberately precipitated, but a great number of the faithful.
Things in the world stand today as they have for a long time already: the most violent, threatening developments on the planet are driven by religious beliefs drawn from the three Abrahamic creeds. The worst hatred confronting humanity is, and always has been, “sectarian” hatred. Why?
One explanation is: Abrahamic religion is the supreme expression of patriarchy, and patriarchy, by definition, is a program of control by covert psychological coercion and overt violence. Patriarchy has been called dominator culture or domination culture. Discussing this term in an interview for The Sun Magazine, Marshall Rosenberg closely relates the act of domination to “salvationism.” He uses this term in the context of research conducted by Milton Rokeach:
The Sun inverviewer remarks, “The idea that we are evil and must become holy implies moralistic judgment.” Rosenberg replies: “Oh, amazing judgment! Rokeach calls that judgmental group the Salvationists.”
Judgment is a basic element in the salvationist program. Jehovah judges, Christ judges, Allah judges. All the creeds are unanimous on this point. Bear in mind that "You are judged by God" is a human statement, made by men who claim to be emissaries of the judgmental father-son deities. This assertion that God judges us exemplifies the tactic of the Abrahamic religions: a man tells us what God wants of us. Presumably, the man who speaks in this way has been previously briefed by God. That is an issue of faith. Patriarchial religion demands that we believe the men who speak for God, that we take them on their word, which is God's word. And consistent with the violence inherent to patriarchy, the word of God is threatening, menacing. God judges you, so you must do this and that in order to be well judged, to get good marks, to have your soul saved by the very entity who threatens to condemn it. The threat tactic is very effective in setting up a social control program.
Millions of people submit to this tactic. Bear in mind, however, that submission is gained from an early age, when the believer-to-be is weak and impressionable. The tactic is applied within families, exerted on children before they can even speak, and enforced in all kinds of ways. No choice is involved in adopting the belief that God rewards those who obey His rules as defined by the men like John Paul II. Children have this belief laid into them long before they can question or protest it. Later in life dissent is nearly impossible. The die is cast.
Walter Kaufmann proposed the term "prudential morality" for the kind of behavior that results from threat tactics: people act kindly toward others because it is prudent to do so, because it increases the odds they will be saved and rewarded, rather than damned and punished. In The Faith of a Heretic, he makes the observation that “the notion of a deed done for its own sake is unknown in the Old Testament.” Everything is done prudentially, as a means to an end. The universal end, the transcendent purpose of doing good, is the eternal salvation of the soul of the doer. It takes faith to act morally, because prudential action assumes that its reward comes in another world, through the agency of an invisible spiritual power, whose existence must be taken on faith.
Kaufmann is one of the rare few who has the courage to argue that morality is possible without coercion, without the prudential ethics policy. This argument is regarded with deep suspicion by people of strong faith, because religious people consider that irreligious people are, by definition, immoral. The belief that there is no morality without a religious framework (divine commands, reward and punishment for the soul) is a classic example of the placebo effect: the more you believe there can be no morality without religion, the more potent religion becomes in your life. Kaufmann would observe that in holding this belief, the individual is giving away their power of moral choice, rooted in the essential goodness of human nature. But as we have seen, the hidden dynamic of faith makes it almost impossible for the believers to see what they are giving away to their faith. Or even that they are giving anything away at all.
In the extortionist framework of patriarchal religion, human
action has no authenticity apart from the framework of redemption,
human kindness has no value except as a means to an end. A deed
done for its own sake, for the pleasure of seeing someone benefit,
and, indeed, for the sheer pleasure of performing it, is not
forbidden, but it is assumed that we are unlikely to perform such a deed,
left to our basic inclinations. To act morally we must
go against our natural inclinations, for they will never lead us to do
The belief hidden in this view of human nature is that we are innately
corrupt. Therefore, prudential morality appeals to those who believe
they are corrupt. Or, to peer through yet another lay of dissimulation,
who have been made to believe they are corrupt.
Patriarchal authorities such as John Paul II insist that we need the Redeemer because we are corrupt. But what if we are corrupted by needing the Redeemer?
The redeemer complex is the set of beliefs that provides the theological basis of the salvationism common to the Abrahamic religions. Many beliefs cluster in this complex, but two are primal and essential: the belief that the suffering of the Redeemer atones for human sin, and the belief that the Redeemer is an immortal, superhuman being. Thus, the Redeemer serves a dual purpose: he insures us that our suffering is meaningful, or will be rewarded or compensated, and he presents an ideal for the world to follow. The ideal (or idol, if you will) is superhuman, and giving credence to the superhuman model of humanity seems to return a terrific boost of faith.
But what is more productive and sane, in human terms: living up to a possible ideal, or to an impossible (i.e., superhuman) one? It is difficult for believers in the redeemer complex to formulate this question. Why? Because the placebo effect operates at a terrific return on the superhuman model: give power to it, and you get or seem to get a lot more back, an enormous return. The belief that human suffering is somehow connected to the suffering of a divine being is probably the most powerful placebo known to humankind. But if the above analysis of the dynamics of faith is true, what has to be given away to get this kind of return?
What if adopting a superhuman model for humanity requires the inner surrender of our humanity? The terrible truth is, it might really be that simple.
The crowds are gathered in Rome to honor the life of a role model for humanity, yes, but they may also be there because they have surrendered something deep in their own humanity, and the aching emptiness so produced acts like a reverse vaccuum, sucking them into the collective wave of experience. Faith can reward us generously for what it takes away from us by stealth, through our feat of self-deception.
Does it sound arrogant to propose that millions who are deeply moved by the death of the pope are deluding themselves in their religious beliefs? Perhaps it does, but the suggestion is not original to this writer. Almost two thousand years ago, people in the ancient world who witnessed the rise of the redeemer complex were deeply critical of the what they saw, and deeply concerned about how the salvationist belief-system would affect humanity:
(From The Apocalypse of Peter, VII, 3.74, Nag Hammadi Codices.)
Heresy derives from a Greek word meaning “able to choose.” A
heretic is “one who embraces heresy,” but heresy
is not a preset body of doctrines comparable to the orthodox
doctrines it opposes. Heresy is an alternative way of looking
at issues that are defined, once and for all, in unchallenged
beliefs and doctrinal and dogmatic propositions set forth
as the sole truth by self-defined groups or institutions. In
all cases of patristic religious extortion, the tradition of
orthodoxy relies on a story, a sacred narrative about how certain
men, at a certain time and place, received instructions from
the Creator God. Whatever does not fit into this story is condemned
as heresy. In 425 CE heresy was declared by Roman authorities
a crime punishable by death. That law has never been rescinded.
Adoption of religious beliefs happens without a critical quest for truth, but the beliefs so adopted come to be regarded as absolutely true.
Like all other adherents to the Salvationist creeds, the young Poles hold their beliefs to be true, but not because they discovered truth in them through the act of searching and questioning, and then embraced the truth so found. Having received their beliefs under coercion and without choice, they came to regard them as true after the fact. They embrace Christianity, yes, with all the innocent passion in their hearts, but they did not choose it. Imagine how terrible and humiliating it would be for them to realize that the beliefs they hold so dear are false, deceptive, and harmful.
Yet the most liberating thing that could happen to them, perhaps, would be to realize that they do not really believe, after all, what they have been told to believe. The strength of their faith depends on ignorance, on their not knowing how they acquired their faith. The strength does not reside in the faith itself, but it seems to. That is the intrinsic treachery of faith.
Gnostics taught that "ignorance is the mother of all evil." The heretical teachings in the Gospel of Philip say:
To ignore how we acquire faith is a terrible act of abdication that undermines our humanity, even though the faith we embrace seems to enforce and enhance it. The placebo effect again. The tyranny of faith is worst where it binds us to this, the ultimate act of self-betrayal.
Ever since the faux-convert Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion, patriarchy has used the redeemer complex to implement control and repression. Among the things it represses most forcefully is the power of imagination. Theodore Roszak has pointed out the salvationist system of Christian faith favors history over myth and, in doing so, supports the repression of human imagination. In Where the Wasteland Ends, he says "there occurred with the advent of Christianity a deep shift of consciousness which has severely damaged the mythopoeic powers [of humankind]" (p. 132). The image of one supreme male divinity is deeply conflictual for our species, yet it suits patriarchal domination to a T. One must wonder if Roman fascist ideology merely merged with salvationism—a marriage of convenience at one historical moment—or if the two systems were not made for each other from the outset.
The result of repressing human imagination is an epidemic of make-believe and pretending. Evidence of this pathology is widespread in our global culture—the media, entertainment, escape from reality via the internet and an array of other channel. The power of imagination cannot be entirely repressed, so it manifests in grotesque ways. In the realm of religious imagination, the image of a crucified man become the emblem of divine love. Is this not a grotesque twist?
All the images around the funeral of the Pope feature men, men, men.
Consistent with patriarchal use of redemption theology, the division
of the sexes is vividly and constantly reinforced. Believers are allowed
to imagine that Pope John Paul II was the Holy Father. But
she to be imagined?
Reply: She has none.
So, the Holy Father is there, a man on earth, but the Holy Mother
is not represented by any woman on earth?
Would it be possible to draw the attention of the crowd to this story? It is, after all, a holy story about a sacred act. Yet the image of "sacred mating," with man and women figured as equal participants, cannot reach the imagination that has been overwhelmed now, for almost two thousand years, by the image of a man alone, bloody and tormented, crucified on a cross. The image of divine suffering that atones for the sins of the world brands human imagination like a hot, blinding stigma. This is what Roszak meant when he said that the redeemer complex has severely damaged our mythopoeic powers.
The Holy Father, John Paul II dedicated his life to ease the suffering of others. Well, perhaps he did. And perhaps you do not need to be the Holy Father, or even a Catholic, or even a person of religious faith, to live out such dedication. (Rokeach found that "the nonreligious were more compassionate.") But even if he did act in this way, he did so as the figurehead of an institution that has inflicted and continues to inflict enormous suffering on the world, both through its ideology and its social imperatives, not to mention its financial and political alliances. An institution that denies women, a denial that goes back to the repression of the Goddess, the rejection of hieros gamos, a rite of gender balancing that assured society of the moral quality of the man who would be king.
Gnostic heretics have been compared to Romantics of the European movement, visionaries who called for religious experience without rules, doctrines, priests, or institutions. In a book on Romantic attitudes, The Vision of the Voyage, Robert Combs wrote:
Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of a culture. Therefore, if an individual can express what is undeniably real to him without invoking an authority beyond his own experience, he is transcending the belief systems of his culture
Neil Evernden, who quotes Combs in his book The Natural Alien, says that the Romantics "challenged not only conventional beliefs but the very processs of formulating beliefs." He suggests that if we were able to do what the Romantics proposed, we could have deep and genuine religious experience "without translating it into the abstractions of the dominant social paradigm." That would be true religious freedom: not belonging to whatever faith you choose, but having religious experience without the framework of institutional faith of any kind.
I submit that the above definition — faith is the power invested in, and derived from, unquestioned beliefs — is fair and can be used in an open, honest discussion of what salvationist religion really is, and what it actually does to human beings, by contrast to what believers may believe iit does, or like to pretend it does. Once it begins to be doubted and put into question, faith immediately weakens and soon is no longer worthy to be called faith. It has become compromised. It must remain unquestioned to be effective. The purest kind of faith does not question the beliefs that are embraced by the faithful. The Koran opens: “This book is not to be doubted.” There are over a billion faithful Muslims in the world, and it’s no great wonder why. If their faith is based on a document that demands not to be doubted even before you read a single line, then the faith of the adherents is assured, isn’t it?
The double dissimulation of the placebo effect must not be analyzed or exposed, or faith will be plucked out at its root, and the ignorance that makes it possible will dissolve, the fabric of pretending that embellishes faith will disintegrate.
But this will not happen easily. To argue against faith is like using a peashooter against a cruise missile. Religion is a smart weapon, the oldest and most reliable weapon in the arsenal of dominator culture.
In reflecting on the crowds gathered in Rome, I have no intention to dismiss, demean, or belittle the experience of the people there, but I would point out that those masses are experiencing what they have been told to experience, based on what they have been told to believe, without questioning their beliefs or asking how they acquired them, from whom, and why. Paradoxically, by challenging what they believe, I may be more on their side they they realize.To speak like a Gnostic (or like the Gnostically minded R. D. Laing, who made this observation years ago), I would warn those masses that their capacity to have their own experience can be destroyed. That is precisely how domination succeeds: by alienating us from our own deepest resources, our precious spiritual birthright, human potential. And I would propose that the critique of redeemer theology formulated by Gnostics is sane and plausible on three counts:
First, it is valid to observe that people ignore how they acquire their beliefs.
Second, it is valid to observe that the glorification of suffering enshrined in the redeemer complex is patriarchy's legitimation of the suffering it inflicts. In other words, the ideology of salvation is the operative pretext for the setting up and maintaining the victim-perpetrator bond.
And third, perhaps most decisively at all, it is valid to assume that all the good done in the name of religion could as well have been done without it—but only if we grant that human nature is inherently good. This is the dealbreaker. If we do not or cannot grant that humans, left to their own deepest inclinations, will do good and act in a kind and caring manner, then it is worth considering if our view of humanity has not been corrupted by the supreme patriarchal ploy, the ruse of redemption. Faith in humanity does not require a redeemer, but faith in corrupted humanity does. This is the spiritual entrapment the Gnostic teachers wished to expose, and for that intention they were annihilated.
If it is possible to admit that the corruption of humanity is a judgment that comes from corrupted humans, and serves an insidious program of spiritual and social control, having nothing to do with genuine religious experience, then the reign of the patriarchs may have an ending, after all.
It is not the death of a patriarch we need to celebrate on this tormented planet, but the death of patriarchy itself.
jll: April 8, 2005.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.