Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
American Family Foundation
The transcript of the symposium with Dr. Aagaard raises many important and interesting issues. I wish to comment here on two that are interrelated: the nature of pluralism, and the deed versus creed posture of secular countercult organizations.
On page 187, I state: "I think that what's going on here is the argument about whether or not American culture and American freedom are rooted in religion." Paul Eckstein says, "Of course they are." I reply that "the regnant pluralism is denying that." Later, Paul Eckstein says: "All that stuff turns out on a deeper level to reveal that everyone is conscious of the fact that it's incoherent without the grounding [the religious grounding of the concept of equality]. And the grounding is really still there. It's just not talked about, we are all pretending that that's not how it's grounded." I reply, "So, the American nation has divorced from its own grounding. That's my point."
The exchange between Paul Eckstein and me reflects, in my view, a socially and psychologically destructive change that has taken place in the American concept of pluralism. This concept is defined by the prevailing opinion of the intellectual classes in academia and the media, who are the most influential opinion makers because they are the most prolific opinion givers. Even if, as some surveys suggest, the populace at large is more traditional than the opinion givers, the latter can still confuse the former, even if they can't completely convert them. The result is the disparity between the historical reality (what Paul Eckstein was talking about) and the distorted current perception as promulgated by the opinion givers (what I was talking about).
I believe that American culture has at least ostensibly been characterized by five values: freedom, tolerance, common sense (critical thinking), fair play, and connectedness (the individual's integration into his community). Equality and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are presuppositions, not values ("we hold these truths to be selfevident"). Presuppositions are fundamental beliefs; values are desired ends. The five values build upon the religiously grounded presuppositions in that they enhance individuality (the essence of equality, which is not "sameness") but discourage egoism (which undermines the individuation of others).
During the past century, three social trends have directly or indirectly enfeebled these values and presuppositions. First, the ascendancy of secularism within our social institutions has denied the religious grounding of equality and changed it from a presupposition to a moral and socioeconomic goal (i.e., universal "fulfillment" in the positive sense, “leveling” in the negative sense). Second, the growing influence of libertarianism (which has affected the political Left and Right) has, to use Paul Eckstein's terminology, markedly expanded the sphere of "want" and diminished the sphere of "ought." And third, the (if temporary) rejection of traditional philosophy by Heidegger's phenomenology, atheistic existentialism (recall when the "theater of the absurd" was the intellectual fashion of the day), and logical positivism (which reduced all moral values to mere "emotive" statements with no truth value) gave rise to an intellectual solipsism (e.g., deconstructionism) that challenges the validity of making any objective moral evaluations of different points of view. The attempt to synthesize or at least to live peaceably with these incompatible trends has resulted in a bundle of contradictions commonly referred to as "relativism."
The libertarian expansion of the sphere of "want" at the expense of "ought" has created unprecedented opportunities for many individuals to break free of traditional moral restraints and to do much better socioeconomically than their fellow citizens. At the same time, socioeconomic and moral "equality" is a prized goal, even though there is no intellectual basis for saying that one way of life is superior to any other. Thus, in one breath our culture seems to say that the "disadvantaged" ought to be lifted up while the "advantaged" are given free reign to "actualize" themselves, even though it is vacuous to say that being "disadvantaged" is "inferior" to being "advantaged" because there is no objective "truth" that declares one way of life superior to another.
This confused state of affairs is based upon the following propositions at war with each other:
1. Morality (i.e., the "ought" sphere) is not a truth concept and cannot be objectively evaluated.
2. Nevertheless, the following moral ("ought") values are propounded:
"We 'ought' to be free to 'actualize' ourselves as individuals (i.e., to pursue pleasure in whatever way suits us).
"We "ought" to be socioeconomically "equal."
"We "ought" not injure others. (Often a hypocritical emphasis on physical injury is used as an excuse to justify nonphysical injury to persons, e.g., the arguments of certain cult apologists who suggest that coercion does not exist without physical force.)
3. Sometimes one person's socioeconomic status or moral values ("ought" sphere) are injured (or "offended") by the "selfactualizing" of other persons.
4. Because differences in "ought" judgments have no truth basis (and no grounds for rational analysis), "injured" parties can only protect themselves through nonrational means, that is, through emotional manipulation, the exercise of raw power, or the denial of contradictions in specious "arguments" advanced to give the appearance of rationality.
The "political correctness" (PC) movement, which has become a powerful force in academia, seems to be codifying and attempting to enforce the implications of this bundle of contradictions. For example, "tolerance," which originally implied not attempting to hinder the freedom of speech and movement of those with whom one disagrees, now often implies the obligation to approve of all beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles (except those that challenge this ideological relativism). Because relativism abandons genuine rational dialogue, PC relies upon ad hominem attacks, emotional manipulation, and power politics to overcome its opponents--which gives it a disturbing totalitarian flavor. The chilling climate created by this movement causes the majority to tacitly approve of relativism or to emasculate itself in a sheepish silence.
My depiction of the prevailing attitudes is supported by the unanticipated success of philosopher Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. This academic book became a bestseller several years ago because, in my opinion, the multitude who have been "chilled" into silence or tacit approval found an erudite and articulate champion in Dr. Bloom. Bloom's book described how bad things have gotten; the book's success testified to the hope that renewal is still possible if those who value rational dialogue speak up.
Dr. Aagaard puts his finger on the problem when he comments that American culture "lost its memory. Isn't it so symbolic that in your question, how many believe in equality, you couldn't substitute any other word for belief? It's a belief word, it's a religious word. You can't get away from it."
The reigning secular notion of pluralism is in fact a religious position that makes "equality" a fundamental item of faith. By denying or trivializing religion, however, this position divorces itself from the historical tradition on which the notion of equality rests and, in so doing, distorts the notion, turning it into an unachievable utopian fantasy, made even more "fantastic" by simultaneously exalting individual liberty and denying the possibility of reasoned judgments about moral issues (which is why being "judgmental" is a cardinal "sin" of relativism). Through the pervasive influence of opinion givers in academia and the media, even centers of religious education are affected.
Thus, we wind up with situations such as that described by Dr. Nieburg on page 121: "I teach at Jewish Theological Seminary and one of the things we teach is critical thinking. Students don't know what that is. They think critical thinking means you make fun of someone else!" Of course, that is what they will think if the culture around them says that equality is the greatest good, and equality means tacit or explicit approval of all beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles. Critical thinking means subjecting beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles to logical criteria, such as that of consistency. The result will be that some come off "better" than others. This contradicts the reigning dogma and, therefore, must be avoided, if not condemned.
I believe that Dr. Aagaard would agree that this contemporary notion of pluralism is a pseudopluralism and a "bad" religion because it is impossible to live in good faith with its contradictory presuppositions. As he says on page 189, "You either have your presuppositions in order or you don't. You have them anyhow." Contemporary American pluralism's presuppositions are not in order. Moreover, its fundamental articles of faith implicitly demand that the orderliness of its presuppositions not be investigated--because these presuppositions are contradictory. This is why I say on page 117 that "pluralism, as we define it in this country, is based on the assumption that we must not publicly examine our assumptions."
This conceptual disorder has many destructive consequences, not the least of which is providing fertile ground for the growth and proliferation of cults. This is why I refer to the conceptual disorder as a "cultural fault line." This cultural instability is unpredictable and potentially catastrophic. "Cultural seismologists," such as Dr. Aagaard, study the minor quakes that rock us from time to time and warn us that something much more severe may await us in the future.
If our culture refuses to rationally examine and debate presuppositions, it encourages the growth of predatory sophistries. Charismatic charlatans, frauds, and megalomaniacs need only devise a specious argument or an emotionally persuasive rhetorical system in order to win over and control minds, because these minds are either not trained or unwilling to look beneath the surface. Those that add thought reform techniques to the sophistry augment their capacity to control.
As contemporary culture becomes more and more tolerant of sophistry, deception, and manipulation, it further divorces itself from the moral and intellectual tradition responsible for the residual sphere of "ought" in contemporary culture's contradictory presuppositions. If the trend continues, even this confused homage to morality may give way to the unabashed use of power that characterizes fullfledged totalitarian movements.
Dr. Aagaard challenges those of us associated with the American Family Foundation (AFF) and the Cult Awareness Network (CAN). For years we have emphasized that our concern is the deed not the creed; the thought reform, not the sophistry. Dr. Aagaard maintains that the creed fuels the deed and must be examined and criticized when appropriate. He says, "Everything was there as creed in Hitler's book--all stated. We could have acted. Because we waited until it was transformed into deed, we were too late" (p. 127).
The discussion on pages 109-110 summarizes the difference between our two approaches. I say that Shirley MacLaine's beliefs, however silly one may judge them to be, are not a concern to us. If, however, someone were to use those beliefs in a coercive psychological system, then "our alarm bells go off." Dr. Aagaard's alarm bell, on the other hand, goes off earlier, "when they start talking stupid."
AFF sends up its "interceptors," to use Rabbi Rudin's military metaphor, when the deeds are clearly unethical. Dr. Aagaard sends up his "interceptors" much sooner, when a conceptual analysis indicates that the "creed" doesn't make sense.
Paul Eckstein supports Dr. Aagaard: "It seems to me that saying we don't wish to hold Shirley MacLaine responsible in a social context for being inconsistent is to take pluralism precisely too far because what we would like to be able to say is that the one thing we all need to share in order to guarantee pluralism is a commitment to some kind of rational dialogue in the public sphere" (p. 115).
Mr. Eckstein and Dr. Aagaard are defining the problem as cultural confusion resulting from the abandonment or at least the denigration of rational analysis. They recognize that a culture resolves disputes either through reason or through subterfuge and coercion (the three forms of persuasion discussed in Dr. Margaret Singer's work). Undermining or disrespecting the former invites the latter to take over. Therefore, in order to avoid totalitarianism, competing cultural belief systems must be subjected to rational analysis.
But rational analysis of fundamental presuppositions results in invidious comparisons and stimulates the condemnation of the reigning relativism. Consequently, the rational analysis advocated by Eckstein and Aagaard cannot occur within the dominant cultural house, without causing an uproar.
Secular countercult organizations have implicitly decided to operate within that dominant cultural house and risk rejection if they directly confront creedal issues. They can, however, take advantage of society's residual distrust of coercion, deceit, and manipulation to combat wouldbe totalitarians by focusing on unacceptable deeds. The focus on deeds becomes especially attractive given, as Rabbi Rudin notes, the very limited resources available to these organizations.
Dr. Aagaard and Mr. Eckstein want to repair the cultural fault lines. Most of us working with secular cult educational organizations are too busy repairing structures damaged by earlier tremors to attend to the fault lines. But both jobs need to be done. Indeed, some specialization of focus has occurred. Dr. Aagaard's Dialog Center, as well as a number of Evangelical ministries (e.g., the Christian Research Institute) concerned about cultic groups, attempt to rationally analyze the competing religious and philosophical conceptual systems by which people live, that is, their religions. AFF and most other secular cult educational organizations focus on helping individuals readjust to the existing culture, however confused it may be, and giving people in this dominant culture information that they are willing to hear, that is, information about unethical deeds.
Unless the cultural renewal that Bloom and others call for gains momentum and many more people become willing to rationally examine and debate presuppositions, I do not believe it would be prudent for those of us associated with secular cult educational organizations to put too much energy into the religious/philosophical dimension because we will influence fewer people and will not be able to help as many victims. Furthermore, we will waste much energy arguing among ourselves because our own religious/philosophical commitments vary so much (e.g., is evangelical Christianity a sounder standpoint from which to criticize cults than secular humanism?) and our own capacity for religious/philosophical discernment has been dulled by the culture in which we have grown up.
Nevertheless, these broader issues should not be forgotten or ignored, even by us. Eventually we will have to face them. Hence, we should support, and to some extent contribute to, the attempts of Dr. Aagaard and his colleagues to expose today's "Mein Kampfs." But we must also work within the dominant cultural house as we attend to the innumerable "miniholocausts" that occur every day in the oppressive, totalistic worlds of cults.