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?