Faith & Reason: How to keep madness out of religion

Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times, argues this week that religion needs to remain a part of public life for its own good, as well as to keep society healthy.

It is healthy to be a fan. The lager cans stacked near the television for today's match might tell a different story; but better be a fan than a fanatic.

The shorter word derives from the longer; but in the shortening the fan escapes the antics of those affected by the more serious condition. Fans know deep down that they have attached their loyalty to a fallible person or group of people. (For English fans this knowledge is closer to the surface.) Fans pray with their eyes open.

Fanatics, on the other hand, cannot admit to any failings in their heroes. They have invested so much of themselves that to withdraw would leave them bankrupt, both emotionally and, all too often, financially. Thus any failing which is exposed in the object of worship is denied, or willingly transferred to the follower, or attributed to hostile forces.

Most of us stand in a muddy ditch between the two conditions, the confused world inhabited by organised and disorganised religions. To be a fan is healthy, but is it enough? Sceptical, humorous, post-modern adherence is rightly applied to a football team, or a rock band; but what degree of belief is appropriate to a political ideology, or a father, or a god?

Every now and then, in the wearisome search for life's meaning, we listen to the call of a shepherd who offers us guidance, and we take a few sheepish steps towards him. How close we approach depends more on our personal histories than on where he calls us - to green pastures, or the straight and narrow pathway, or over the rocks.

These last, most dangerous shepherds are the subject of Anthony Storr's forthcoming book, Feet of Clay (though the title could equally apply to a work on the England team). In it he considers the make-up and attraction of gurus, largely from the 20th century, but with a quick, inadequate look at Jesus and Ignatius Loyola

He contends that those who become gurus - to a large degree a process of self- selection - are driven by a combination of conviction, delusion, confidence trickery and psychosis. His sketches of Jim Jones, responsible for the deaths of more than 900 followers in Guyana in 1978, or David Koresh, who perished with 86 disciples in Waco in 1993, make this hard to refute.

Most of those whom Storr profiles, including Rudolph Steiner, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Carl Jung, experienced disturbed or isolated childhoods (similar to those of their most passionate supporters) and their belief in their own chosenness often dated from an early age. By the time they reached adulthood, the manipulation of others had become second nature to them.

This is reasonably straightforward stuff, since it is easy to understand the desire to dominate, even if few go to such lengths to achieve it. More difficult to grasp is how this destructive, selfish charlatanism actually benefited some of the followers. A survivor of one of the most repulsive gurus, David Koresh, described his time on the Waco ranch as the happiest days of his life.

The loyalty which victims of abusive people or regimes display is well- documented. Part of the reason is the contrast between the intensity of living with an abuser and the unfriendly anonymity of what passes for normal life. If neglect is recognised as a form of abuse for children, why do we discount its damaging effects in adult life? The pernicious technique gurus use for snaring disciples is usually nothing more sinister than taking notice of them. The Bhagwan might have had 93 Rolls Royces, but he had big eyes: you forgot about the cars when he looked unblinkingly into yours.

It follows, then, that one of the protections against spiritual abuse is to keep religion public. As long as a religious leader's power to befriend, and to comfort, is used out in the open, it is less likely to go bad. In public, religion is doing what it is made for: attempting to transform the whole of society. It should be combating the indifference which makes us so susceptible to the advances of the over-friendly weirdoes. Healthy religion, demands that its disciples wrestle with their idealism in the company of sceptics and unbelievers. The enormity of the task, the certainty of failure, and the constant questioning by others, encourages the self-mocking humility essential to mature discipleship. Any experience which aids this is to be welcomed.

Another lager, anyone?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea