Articles‎ > ‎

Zealotry and American Identity

Zealotry and the American Identity

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.


ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2007

This paper explores the relationship between open, pluralistic societies and zealotry that seeks to replace pluralism with ideological uniformity. To illustrate some of the dynamics of concern, the paper begins with a fictional story of a zealot’s rise to power. Then it discusses the nature of pluralism and American Identity. Lastly, the paper offers some thoughts on the relationship between zealotry and cultural identity.


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats

(From “The Second Coming”)


Yeats’ lines resonate with some cultic studies experts because they have observed the dark side of “passionate intensity,” the ways in which zealous groups can run roughshod over their members’ individual identities and occasionally change the world, as happened with Communism and Fascism in the past century. Zealous groups are not mere curiosities. They are laboratories in which individual and social identities are tinkered with and sometimes transformed. They are experiments that influence the societies in which they operate, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, sometimes insignificantly, sometimes with historic impact.

Groups of zealots may or may not be cults.

Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that “[c]ults are innovative, fervent groups.’” Zablocki defines a cult as "an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment." According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded. (Rosedale & Langone)

In this paper I prefer the term “zealotry” over “cult” because I focus on the cultural implications of fervor, of extreme, potentially fanatical enthusiasm, whether in cults, sects, or mainstream groups or movements. Zealotry can apply to all of these categories. Cult is a subcategory of zealotry, an extreme form of the fervor associated with zealotry, and focused on a charismatic leader. Because I approach the subject from a cultic-studies perspective, however, my examples of zealotry will tend to be cults.

Modern, pluralistic societies tolerate a wide range of zealous groups because by definition pluralism implies tolerance. But some zealous groups seek to replace pluralism with an ideological uniformity that would close open societies. These groups pose a challenge:

How can open, pluralistic societies defend themselves against closed-minded zealots without themselves becoming closed-minded?

This paper does not pretend to answer this question definitively. Rather, it is a speculative exercise, an attempt to explore the implications of the social and psychological dynamics of zealotry at the level of cultural identity, a reflection on how zealotry might get out of hand and threaten the ethical fabric that holds free societies together. In part, the paper derives from what I have gleaned from my life-long education in the Western tradition, so to a degree it is also a personal meditation on my view of the world, informed by my study of cults.

First, I offer as illustration a fictional story of a zealous cult leader’s rise to power. Then I discuss the nature of pluralism and the American identity. Lastly, I offer some thoughts on the relationship between zealotry and cultural identity.

Maattmo: The Fictional Story of a Zealot’s Rise to Power

Our story begins during a life crisis of 35-year-old Jonathan Smith, a popular and charismatic professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. Smith’s academic achievements, though considerable, pale before the increasing disorganization and despair of his personal life. He has just left his third wife and has angrily terminated Jungian analysis, in which he had been involved for 10 years. He takes a sabbatical and throws himself into a spiritual shopping spree, plunging into and out of Transcendental Meditation, several large-group awareness trainings, Scientology, and other mystical philosophies. Dissatisfied with all that he studies, Smith embarks on a two-week, solitary backpacking trip in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While meditating on a mountaintop, he undergoes a profound conversion experience. He returns from his retreat convinced that he has been enlightened, that he is, in fact, the avatar of the age. His duty is to help souls advance spiritually by leading them along a path of karma yoga in the political sphere (i.e., spiritual advancement through action, rather than through contemplation or adoration).

Smith resigns his university position, takes on a new name, Maattmo ("He Who Knows" in an obscure Indian dialect that Smith once studied), and founds the Institute of Noetic Politics and Social Transformation (INPAST). Because of his popularity and charisma, Maattmo quickly develops a following of several hundred people. Sensing that his mission and the doctrines he has begun to teach still lack full definition, Maattmo refers to his mountaintop experience as The First Great Receiving, implying that additional revelations will come.

The initial goal of INPAST is to place Eastern meditative disciplines in the service of political and social change. INPAST’S first year is exciting but chaotic. Locals look upon it as an innovative and stimulating institution in which idealistic persons can interact. But Maattmo becomes increasingly dissatisfied. INPAST is too academic: all talk and little action. He goes back to his mountaintop in the Sangre de Cristo range and returns to tell his followers that he has experienced The Second Great Receiving. INPAST is reorganized. It becomes a tax-exempt religious organization. An authoritarian hierarchy is established with Maattmo at the top. Dissidents are ejected and said to be “spiritually unready for the exalted path of karma yoga.” A loyal follower’s trust fund enables INPAST to buy a small ranch outside Albuquerque. The most loyal followers are pressured to come to the ranch to join a commune where all money and material goods are shared. Street fund-raising in Albuquerque and other cities helps support the commune. Others interested in INPAST and Maattmo’s philosophy study part-time at the Institute’s office near the university.

During the next two years, Maattmo tries to solidify his hold on his followers, especially at the commune. At first he relies primarily on his charisma, personal persuasiveness, and power to inspire. But his influence, although considerable, is limited. Some followers gradually grow accustomed to him, especially at the commune, and conflicts develop as many balk at the sacrifices Maattmo’s philosophy demands. Maattmo feels his vision slipping away.

He despondently returns to his mountaintop, seeking inspiration. While meditating, he becomes acutely aware of how much the illusory morality of his old dualistic self still infects his soul. The avatar of the age is chastened and thinks that this must be his Dark Night. He continues to meditate on the oneness of all existence, realizing that he cannot transform the world as long as he must abide by its rules. For the first time, he sees clearly that he is in fact beyond good and evil. He is the instrument that will do what must be done to bring about that which must be. He returns to his confused followers with news of his Third Great Receiving.

Again, Maattmo rapidly reorganizes INPAST. He now understands that completing his mission will require hundreds of thousands of dedicated followers, billions of dollars, and unflinching discipline within himself and his followers. To contain his sexual impulses, he takes his most adoring female follower as a wife. He phases out all street fund-raising and focuses INPAST’s money-making on the teaching of a hierarchy of courses that cost increasing amounts of money. He and his most loyal followers devote one year of intense work to the development of courses that are cleverly designed to lure students deeper and deeper into the organization by systematically fostering self-dissatisfaction and dependency while providing an illusion of spiritual growth.

He clarifies the principles of his pedagogy. First, students must seek purification through continual public and one-on-one confessions of shortcomings, meditation on the name of Maattmo, and a commitment to Walk in Holiness—i.e., to shun those who disagree with Maattmo’s philosophy. Second, the Pouring Out of Ignorance can occur only through the negation of mind and self; Maattmo and his lieutenants devise an ever-expanding set of hypnotic, mind-emptying rituals for this purpose. Third, students are indoctrinated to believe that the Filling Up with Gnosis (i.e., direct, unmediated knowledge of what must be done to advance spiritually and effect social transformation) can come only through absolute obedience to both Maattmo and those who are carrying out his commands. And fourth, dissidents or doubters who do not change their ways are ejected from the fold and called The Unrepentant Ignorant, those whose pride is such that they cannot submit to Maattmo and pierce the Veil of Illusion. These Unrepentant Ignorant are the lowest of creatures and the greatest enemies to the completion of The Mission.

The commune outside Albuquerque becomes the heart of Maattmo’s organization, the training ground of his most loyal and dedicated disciples. Two years after the Third Great Receiving, Maattmo has divided his following into students, aspirants, and disciples. Students, whose payments provide the money that keeps the organization solvent, are taught at branch institutes set up by followers in major cities throughout the United States and Canada. As students advance, they earn money for their own training by teaching less advanced students. Selected students are invited to become aspirants and go to the commune for six months of intensive training. If aspirants can demonstrate that their will is in harmony with Maattmo’s, they can become disciples.

Disciples also find themselves in a hierarchy. At the bottom are missionaries, those who actively recruit students for the institutes around the country. Missionaries who fail to meet their quotas are believed to have Filled Up with Ignorance and are either expelled (a traumatic experience because anyone at the disciple level has become dependent on the organization) or required to return to an institute to Pour Out Ignorance once again (and earn money for the group).

Above missionaries are teachers, the disciples who run the institutes and train aspirants at the commune. Masters train and supervise the teachers. Masters are considered Guardians of the Book, the Book being the official compilation of Maattmo’s writings. The administrators of Maattmo’s growing empire, called Servants of Maattmo, constitute the upper-level management and ensure that the goals of recruitment, money, and discipline are achieved.

Within 10 years, Maattmo’s organization has matured. He has a following of tens of thousands, an income of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and a core group of dedicated followers numbering nearly ten thousand.

Success, however, is not without problems. Disaffected and expelled members have complained to the press, set up critical Web sites, and brought much adverse publicity to the organization. But Maattmo strikes back quickly and forcefully. The more outspoken critics are attacked viciously. Maattmo’s servants use supposedly confidential information from “confessions” to discredit former members of the group. A security force, called the Purity Police, is set up to spy on enemies and find information that can discredit them, or to threaten or even frame them. Maattmo’s servants begin to dress in clerical garb and accuse critics of conducting a religious witch hunt. Selected servants are put through law school and kept busy suing critics. Before long, the media get the message: “Don’t mess with Maattmo.” Using a chant in the obscure Indian dialect from which Smith derived his post-conversion name, members justify everything that Maattmo’s followers do, no matter how dirty by the standards of dualistic morality. The chant translates: “Maattmo (He Who Knows) must do what must be done to bring about that which must be.” What dualists call “lying” is renamed “Paradoxical Truth-Telling.”

With his critics intimidated and his organization running smoothly, Maattmo embarks on the final stage of his mission. He has been privately planning his move for several years, but for the benefit of his followers he retreats to his mountaintop. One week later he returns to describe his Fourth Great Receiving. He tells his followers that they are now ready for The Assault on Ignorance. It is time to take political power in preparation for the Final Transformation, which Maattmo predicts will occur in 10 years. The Final Transformation will usher in the Gnostic Age of Peace and the Perfect Democracy of the Enlightened.

Maattmo reveals to his closest servants the secret doctrines of which he supposedly became aware during his Fourth Great Receiving. These doctrines, which Maattmo actually has written in his unique theological political jargon over a period of two years, constitute a devious plan to gain political power. Maattmo will expand the organization’s membership base immensely. He will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on public relations. He will bribe, seduce, or intimidate politicians, journalists, academicians, and other persons of influence to ensure their cooperation. His followers will systematically infiltrate mainstream religious, educational, governmental, and civic groups, with a view to taking them over. He will establish a university and set up schools for children from 3 years old through high school. He will open more Institutes in Europe. To accomplish all this, he and his followers will use whatever means are necessary: “He Who Knows must do what must be done to bring about that which must be.”

As Maattmo becomes a force to be reckoned with, his influence in the political arena mounts. Many influential persons distrust him and think that his religious beliefs are crazy. Those on the opposite side of the political spectrum attack him vigorously, for they see him as a dangerous zealot. Many persons with political views similar to Maattmo’s, however, defend him, for they see him as an eccentric but useful ally with huge amounts of money and thousands of dedicated volunteers ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Despite their squeamishness about his methods, they cannot help but admire his dedication, energy, and effectiveness. Moreover, they see him as a useful instrument with which to counter zealots on their opponents’ end of the political spectrum.

Maattmo exploits to the maximum this opportunity to make allies. He establishes a think tank for grateful intellectuals, who reason that he can’t be “that bad.” He buys and takes over a national newspaper and organizes conferences for policy makers. He runs charities that do in fact help many people. He provides volunteer labor and funds for politicians running for office. He organizes large rallies to support political causes dear to his allies. In return, he asks only for an opportunity to have more decision-making input into their common concerns. Out of a sense of reciprocity and courtesy, his allies oblige him, although many have serious reservations. But Maattmo doesn’t care. His tentacles are spreading everywhere, and his followers are loyal to him alone.

Analysis of Maattmo

This paranoid fantasy probably strikes some readers as far-fetched. Yet it is nothing more than a collection of tactics real-life cults have used, kind of a synthesis of the “best” that such organizations have to offer the aspiring world dictator. Somewhere, someday, someone will carefully study (or already is studying) this field not out of curiosity or a sense of concern, but to learn how to succeed where others have failed.

Political power tends to escape most cult leaders for several reasons. First, social conditions might not be conducive to the amassing of political power; zealots thrive during periods of social stress. Second, many cult leaders seek power to feed their vanity—adulation is their highest high—while others simply want to make money and pursue pleasure, sexual and otherwise. Third, some zealots are too fanatical to be effective; they remain on the lunatic fringe. Other zealots, however, competently apply the power of their charisma to advance sincerely held beliefs and goals.

Maatmo is one of these sincere believers. That is why his power doesn’t divert his energies into the pursuit of personal pleasure or frivolous sadism. His actions have purpose, which is a large part of his appeal. But the call of his ends is so strong for him that they justify any means.

Maattmo’s political philosophy is purposely left ambiguous. From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether the world is transformed along leftist or rightist lines. Furthermore, because zealotry is a question of process, not content, Maattmo’s Eastern religious bent is arbitrary—with a few minor changes in the story, we could make him a Bible-thumping preacher.

Maattmo’s reaching a state of a-ethical power was the end result of a long process. His first step on the road to zealotry was when he acted according to his mountaintop revelations without concern for the opinions of others. His behavior, a form of subjectivism without accountability, was clearly different from that of mainstream religious leaders, whose personal revelations are subject to the criticism and authority of others, an analogue to peer review in the sciences. Maattmo answered to nobody.

The second factor in Maattmo’s rise to cult-leader status was the tenacity with which he pursued his goal of establishing a world-transforming organization. Such perseverance is essential because a group’s growth inevitably depends upon much trial and error. Through trial and error a leader comes to learn what manipulative techniques work most effectively with his particular constituency.

Ultimately, a leader might become intoxicated by the power he covets and amasses. Maattmo crossed this bridge after his Third Great Receiving, when he came to see himself as beyond good and evil. His monistic ideology, which posits good and evil as merely different aspects of Maya (illusion), made this shift relatively easy, at least from a cognitive standpoint. Although a Bible-thumping zealot might need to show more imagination than a monist to rationalize unethical behavior, both can easily abandon ethics once they actively depersonalize—i.e., disvalue the dignity of—other human beings. The monist can depersonalize by emphasizing the illusoriness and unimportance of a “self” that goes through millions of reincarnations; the Bible-thumper can depersonalize by portraying his opponents as demonic.

Although some residue of ethical conditioning might initially inhibit tendencies to depersonalize others, the zealot will systematically work to overcome his ethical conditioning, which he sees as “bourgeois morality,” “impure self,” and the like in order to achieve his goals. What is impossible today becomes difficult tomorrow; what is difficult tomorrow becomes easy the day after.

Thus, zealots’ extreme attachment to their ideologies causes them to turn people into objects. As a consequence, anything may become permissible in the service of the ideology, for what can be wrong with manipulating or even destroying “things” in the interest of a noble, sometimes “god-given” ideal? Moreover, once the restraining influence of ethics is eliminated, the “brainwashing” techniques associated with cults become the logical end-product of a process of a-ethical trial-and-error, a dogged attempt to control “person-things” to advance the goals and satisfy the power hunger of the controller.

Anyone engaged in this process of controlling and exploiting person-things will, of course, run into resistance and opposition. Persons don’t like to be treated as things, nor do they like to see other persons treated as things. What, then, is the leader to do?

Obviously, he must lie. And, because truth threatens lies, he must control all aspects of his followers’ lives—behavior, emotion, and thinking—to manage the flow of information into and out of his group. He must “close” his mini-society to ensure that his followers (and, as much as possible, outsiders) don’t realize that he sees them as person-things. He must vilify opponents, both outside and inside the organization. He must forbid followers from associating with possibly critical outsiders, considering unapproved ideas, or exhibiting unacceptable emotions. To discredit and dismiss any information that leaks through his censorship structures, he must promulgate persecution theories and accuse his opponents of lying. He must create a system of indoctrination that ensures that he is always one-up. If a follower should question something, he will be told, for example, that he is not spiritually advanced enough to understand—i.e., he isn’t qualified to say “no” until he says “yes.” He must reward “proper” behavior, emotion, and thinking, but not too consistently (intermittent reinforcement, in behavioral terms); otherwise followers might begin to feel too secure. He must foster in them an anxious dependency in which the fear of expulsion so outweighs the distress of exploitation that they become collaborators in their own deception. He must foster an environment in which rationalization becomes necessary for psychological, if not physical, survival.

To facilitate this deception, he must develop a new language that masks authentic meaning, thereby smoothing the transition from person to person-thing. The chant, “He Who Knows must do what must be done to bring about that which must be,” for example, is nothing more than a pretentiously profound way of saying “I’ll do anything to get what I want.” “Perfect Democracy of the Enlightened” means “my gang will run the show.” “Fill up with Gnosis” signifies “believe what I tell you.” And so forth.

Thus, the zealot’s lust for power gives rise to a never-ending stream of lies.

Rule-Bound Pluralism

A free, pluralistic society seeks to limit the political power of individuals in order to protect everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although a pluralistic society contains individuals and groups with diverse and frequently competing philosophies and religions, social order can be maintained in two ways. First, diversity and competition can exist if various groups and individuals are locked in a balance of power, like mafia families observing a truce. I call this clan-based pluralism. Second, pluralism can endure when a large majority of the diverse groups and individuals who make up the society abide by ethical rules applicable to everybody. I call this rule-bound pluralism. Obviously, rule-bound pluralism, which depends upon ethical consensus, is more stable than clan-based pluralism, which depends upon the balancing of antagonisms.

Rule-bound pluralism is a natural consequence of valuing human dignity and freedom, of the centrality of the individual and personal choice. However, because human beings are diverse and fallible, free people will inevitably come into conflict. Therefore, to preserve freedom, ethical rules must exist to regulate these conflicts. But human fallibility implies that the ethical rules themselves will be imperfect. How, then, is chaos avoided?

In a nutshell, chaos is avoided through the exercise of critical thinking rooted in but not chained to tradition—the “peer review” of history. The rule-bound pluralistic society’s ethical rules can work because they derive from the accumulated, trial-and-error wisdom of countless individuals throughout history. The zealot, on the other hand, rejects this accountability to the human community across history and tries to enforce adherence to his idiosyncratic vision of what the world ought to be like. Although zealots might occasionally give a boost to needed change, they also can weaken the ethical consensus that sustains the social order of rule-bound pluralism.

The Deterioration of Rule-Bound Pluralism

The foregoing reflections suggest that rule-bound pluralism rests on five interrelated values: (1) human dignity, (2) freedom, (3) ethics, (4) critical thinking, and (5) accountability. The weakening of these values and a consequent deterioration of rule-bound pluralism can be prompted by assaults from without (e.g., the manipulations of zealots who reject these values), and by decay from within (e.g., the confusion or pusillanimity of those persons and institutions charged with upholding pluralism’s core values).

Zealots may contribute to this deterioration because their rule-breaking breeds distrust, which in turn inclines members of the society to substitute “clan-talk” for accountability. That is, instead of seeking truth through open, honest, and responsible interaction with the human community, the pluralist battered by zealots with opposing views seeks security by clinging to a clan of like-minded persons. Because the clan implicitly, if not explicitly, threatens to reject independent thinkers, the grasping for clan-based security might activate a process of increasingly defensive withdrawal from the non-clan world. Critical thinking gives way to self-justification, ethics degenerates into a double standard (one for the clan, one for outsiders), and freedom and human dignity are redefined to make the clan their sole beneficiary (e.g., invoking “free speech” to allow one’s fellow clan members to talk, while invoking some other principle, such as “justice” or “divisiveness,” to silence one’s opponents). Thus, the first sign of the deterioration of rule-bound pluralism in a society is the ascendancy of closed-mindedness.

An open society threatens a closed mind, for the former constantly assaults the latter with input from outside the zone of the cognitively permissible. Hence, an open society compels the closed-minded to do one of four things: (1) become open-minded, (2) withdraw, (3) become very adept at rationalizing away disturbing input, or (4) change the society—or a subsection of the society (e.g., a political party, a college campus organization, a church)—into something less threatening to them. Zealots bent on transforming the world come from the fourth group.

When the closed-mindedness of world-transforming zealotry reaches a critical mass within an open society, clan-based pluralism might result. The closed-minded zealots stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their well-armored clans, while they undermine the autonomy of open-minded persons with a torrent of manipulative communication that seeks to make converts or belittle opponents—not to discover and share truth. In such a climate, truth-seeking is futile. Dialogue is just another battlefield, and conciliators feel a mounting pressure to take sides. Or, as Yeats put it in “The Second Coming,” written after the First World War: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats’ poem foreshadowed what Churchill called “the gathering storm.” By the time Yeats died in 1939, his poem’s statement that “the centre cannot hold” had proved to be prophetic.

Certainly, the world is less dismal looking than it was during Yeats’ waning years. But there are disquieting signs of growing “clannishness,” perhaps made more dangerous by modern technology. Mass communication and rapid transportation make it harder for clans of zealots to physically withdraw from each other, as they were able to do in past ages, and overtax their rationalizing filters. As a result, zealots may be compelled to try to change society—or a piece of society in which they may seek refuge—in order to maintain their own identity.  Doing this can put them in competition with other zealots advocating different plans for remolding society. Since zealots cheat, “holy war” is inevitable, unless the open society finds ways to contain and restrain them without itself becoming closed-minded in the process.

The Changing American Identity

Identity refers to the individuality and distinctiveness of a person or entity that changes over time. Identity, then, simultaneously implies preservation and change. We are, for example, all very different from what we were as children, yet we consider ourselves to be the same person.

Because change doesn’t necessarily destroy identity, certain enduring attributes must lie at the heart of any identity. My bedroom, though totally refurnished, still maintains its identity as my bedroom because I continue to sleep there. If, however, I moved out the bed, moved in a desk and bookshelves, and slept elsewhere, that room would have been “transformed” from bedroom to study.

Transformation, then, implies a radical change, while identity implies a continuity of core features and usually suggests change that is gradual, peripheral, and meaningfully related to other features. Identity is “a process of increasing differentiation” (Erikson, 1968, p. 23) in which there is a continuing integration of forces of change and sameness. During certain periods in development, however, the pressure for change causes an identity crisis, “a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation” (Erikson, 1968, p. 16). Such crises might be normal and expected: “Thus, we have learned to ascribe a normative ‘identity crisis’ to the age of adolescence and young adulthood” (Erikson, 1968, p. 17). But identity crises might also be induced, as in manipulative cult conversions that seek to effect personality transformation.

Such personality transformation, however, may be more apparent than real. People might appear to be transformed as a result of dissociation, “a psychophysiological process whereby information—incoming, stored, or outgoing—is actively deflected from integration with its usual or expected associations” (West, 1967, p. 890). In apparent transformation, then, dissociation results in a compartmentalized splitting of an identity, not an increased differentiation. In some types of cult conversion, for example, a subservient, unquestioning cultist can appear to be a transformed person (“That’s not my kid!”) because the cult’s manipulations cause his old personality organization, at least in those particular circumstances, to split off from consciousness, and permit only the cult-imposed personality organization to be illuminated by what West calls “the searchlight of awareness.”

The persuasiveness of the cult-induced transformation illusion rests principally on the close connection between culture and identity. Identity, according to Erikson, is “a process ‘located’ in the core of the individual and yet also in the core of his communal culture” (Erikson, 1968, p. 22). By isolating converts in an alien subculture that mirrors the cult-imposed personality, the cult more effectively mimics transformation. But the spuriousness of this alleged transformation becomes apparent when the psychological and physical isolation of the cult is broken and the pre-cult personality springs back to life. That personality obviously continued to exist in an unconscious, dissociated state; otherwise, it would have had to be relearned from scratch. West and Martin (1996) use the term “pseudoidentity” to describe the outcome of this dissociative process.

If personal and cultural identity is as closely related as Erikson says, one would expect the genuine transformation of a culture composed of millions of persons to be extraordinarily difficult. Under normal conditions, this is the case: Cultures, like persons, tend to change gradually and to maintain stability at their cores. But when zealotry is widespread (e.g., the French and Russian revolutions, the rise of Fascism in Italy, Spain, and Germany), the situation can be different.

Even though an organized group of zealots might be composed of individuals behaving according to a spuriously transformed sense of self, the interlocking of group and personal identities permits the group to behave as if the transformation were authentic. A Marxist revolutionary supported by his “dissociated” compatriots can still murder opponents, even though his “bourgeois morality” lives on in a walled-off corner of his mind. However, because children born and raised in the group do not have pre-group personalities, their identities are “located in the core of [their] communal culture.” Hence, a group of zealots that gains power in a society can effect authentic social transformation by establishing a kind of cultural dissociation that, ironically, cannot consummate itself until the dissociated zealots who launched the transformation have died and been succeeded by those who know only one culture and one identity (e.g., the Nazi youth, had Hitler prevailed in World War II). Of course, the deaths of those who resist transformation can only speed the process along, which is why revolution and slaughter often go hand in hand.

The Contemporary American Identity: Historical Issues

The would-be revolution of the 1960s triggered a cultural identity crisis in America (and in other countries) that has yet to resolve itself. In the United States the struggle of the civil-rights movement continues, though much has changed for the better. The practice of abortion, once illegal, is now legal and widespread, although under much attack. Sexual mores are radically different from what they were 50 years ago. Religion, once deemed moribund, appears to be making a comeback, spearheaded by a fundamentalist revival and an explosion of cults and “spiritual” human-potential movements. The size of government has mushroomed. Yet, at the same time, the conservative movement that opposes big government and many of the social changes of recent decades is more influential than before the 1960s. The forces of change and of restoration are both powerful; they demand that America “move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation” (Erikson, 1968, p. 16).

In light of the preceding reflections, an important question comes to mind: Is the current American identity crisis moving us toward or away from rule-bound pluralism? Looking at America’s history, one could argue that the nation has never been a purely rule-bound pluralistic society, that clan-based pluralism has predominated throughout most of its history, even though the founders’ ideals pointed the nation toward rule-bound pluralism. After all, those Americans who before the Civil War were owned by other human beings certainly didn’t participate in a rule-bound pluralistic society.

One could further argue that the United States of America was founded on the notion of balancing power centers. The U.S. Constitution enshrines checks and balances—i.e., the expectation that “clans” will follow their own self-interest and will permit freedom only if no “clan” predominates. In other words, the U.S. Constitution assumes that all people yearn to be free, but they don’t necessarily yearn for the freedom of others, especially those whom they may be able to dominate.

Its clannishness notwithstanding, the United States of America became more free and pluralistic over time. Partly, this came about because western settlers, immigrants, blacks, and other minorities took advantage of constitutional protections and their electoral power to advance their collective interests and defend themselves against a potentially tyrannical majority. Partly, freedom expanded because the nation’s leaders and intellectual elites paid sufficient homage to the nation’s ideals to accept and even encourage the broadening of participation and opportunity. Since the nation’s founding, then, the country’s progressive tradition has struggled against clannishness and bigotry to establish a rule-bound pluralism that respects all persons equally.

This progressive movement, however, was never a runaway train. It was always restrained by powerful conservative forces bent on protecting the status quo, however imperfect, against the sometimes destructive tinkering of reformers.

It appears, then, that a core component of the American identity over time has been the creative tension between progressivism and conservatism, between those who seek to manifest the potentiality of America’s founding vision and those who seek to protect the actuality of the nation’s considerable achievement.

Through the nineteenth century, progressives and conservatives generally shared the basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Observers, such as de Tocqueville, were struck by the depth and pervasiveness of religion in America.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the rise of secularism initiated changes that upset the old order and challenged the majority’s religious principles.

The Judeo-Christian Tradition

When I was a youth, nearly all U.S. high schools and universities made the study of Western civilization a requirement. In my senior year in high school, for example, my classmates and I read selected books of the Bible (as literary history, not religion), Greek plays, the medieval play Everyman, selections from Dante, Voltaire’s Candide, Mills’ “On Liberty,” Camus’s The Stranger, and other Western classics, ancient and modern. The goal of this education was to show that the world in which we had grown up reflected the continuity and conflicts inherent in the Western tradition.

That cultural history began symbolically in Jerusalem with the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. Jerusalem said that God revealed himself to Man and called Man to a proper relationship with his Creator and his fellow humans, exemplified in the Ten Commandments. The early Christians claimed that Christ was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures and preached a Gospel of love and forgiveness epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount. The inspirational example of the early Christian martyrs helped Christianity spread throughout the Hellenized Roman Empire. In the process, Christianity was influenced by the rationalism and profound philosophical speculations of the Greeks. Athens thus became a second node of this emerging civilization, challenging, enriching, and bowing to Jerusalem as reason was ultimately placed in the service of revelation, exemplified by Augustine and later Aquinas. The Gospel verse, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” suggested that Church and State were separate, a notion that has had a profound effect on Western culture and set it apart from others, such as Islamic culture.  At the end of the medieval era, reason, which the Church had called upon to buttress the claims of revelation, took on other applications. The intellectual and artistic achievements of Greece and Rome were rediscovered, looked at afresh, and surpassed. The natural world became an object of curiosity and manipulation as the philosopher Francis Bacon and others laid the foundations of modern science. An exuberant rebirth of learning, a “re-naissance,” occurred, while the Church, the patron of so much of this rebirth, became corrupted by power and temporal riches. Ultimately, dissidents began to apply reason to the reform of the overbearing Church. Too slow and rigid in its response to dissidents, the Church found itself torn apart as “reformation” came to signify liberation from Rome. Monarchs took advantage of the splintering Church and the advance of technology. They commissioned subjects to explore and colonize the world. As monarchs grew rich and powerful, dissidents again used reason to question authority, only this time they questioned the authority of “Caesar” and laid the foundations of the democratic principles that we today take for granted.

By the time of the American revolution (“rebellion” is probably a more accurate term, since so much of the America of 1776 was built on British ideas), what we today call the Judeo-Christian tradition (now that the decline of anti-Semitism and alliances of conservative Christians and orthodox Jews on certain issues, such as abortion, permit an acknowledgment of Christianity’s Jewish roots) had an identity that persisted for well over a century. This identity, I believe, had two major components: the political and the religious. Both components accepted the following propositions, which can be derived from the Declaration of Independence, particularly its most famous line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

  1. God exists.
  2. Each human being is equal in the eyes of God.
  3. Each human being has an unalienable (cannot be surrendered or transferred) right to life.
  4. Each human being has an unalienable right to liberty, to make choices without external constraint.
  5. Each human being has an unalienable right to define and pursue happiness.
  6. The role of government—of “Caesar”—is to “secure the blessings of liberty,” not to dictate the nature of the “good life,” which is up to the individual to determine, perhaps informed by a religious faith.

The vast majority of the common people shared the religious component of the early American identity well into modern times. Indeed, my classmates at the neighborhood elementary school that I attended in the 1950s were overwhelmingly Jewish, with a small minority of Catholics and maybe one or two Protestants. Yet, every morning, the teacher read the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer (I don’t remember any of us feeling traumatized by this little bit of religious discrimination). This long-standing American (Protestant) religious tradition asserted the following propositions:

  1. God revealed himself to Man through Jesus Christ and the Bible.
  2. Good and evil have objective existence apart from Man.
  3. Therefore, Man is NOT free to determine what is good and evil.
  4. Man is free to choose good or evil.
  5. God’s revelation—concisely summarized in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount—includes concrete and clearly definable prohibitions and duties.
  6. Government should encourage social structures that help people obey God’s prohibitions and fulfill their duties.

I think that if one reflects even briefly on the second set of propositions, it will become clear why many now say that we live in a “post-Christian society.” Many people completely reject this second set of propositions.  Even among those who today identify themselves as Christians, one would find many who would dispute some or all of these assumptions. How did this profound change in cultural identity come to be?

The Assault on the Judeo-Christian Tradition

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution and the progress of science brought changes and discoveries that people of earlier centuries could not have imagined. Some of these discoveries made a literal reading of the Bible impossible to sustain. Paleontology, geology, and astronomy showed that the earth was created billions of years ago, not 5,000 years ago as biblical literalists claimed. The study of cultures around the world demonstrated that religious mythology exists in every one of them and raised the question: Is Christianity just another mythology? The skeptical deism of some of America’s founding fathers had evolved into a scoffing atheism among some members of the intellectual elite, increasing numbers of whom came to accept materialism—“the theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition—online).

The scientific materialism of the nineteenth century gave rise to logical positivism, a philosophy eloquently articulated in A. J. Ayer’s influential book, Language, Truth, and Logic, first published in 1936. Early in that book, Ayer boldly rejected all metaphysics:

No statement which refers to a ‘reality’ transcending the limits of all possible sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance; from which it must follow that the labors of those who have striven to describe such a reality have all been devoted to the production of nonsense. (Ayer, 1946, p. 34)

Later in the book, he also relegated normative ethics to the conceptual scrap heap:

But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them. (Ayer, 1946, p. 108)

Ayer’s confident dismissal of what had hitherto constituted philosophy was paralleled by work in psychology, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and other disciplines. The intellectual world was smashing the foundations of the Judeo-Christian heritage on which Western society had rested for nearly two millennia. God, whom Nietzsche declared dead in the nineteenth century, was buried in the twentieth. Freud consigned Man’s vaunted rationality to a sector of the embattled ego, valiantly warding off the irrational impulses of unconscious Id and Superego. Marx and his intellectual descendants attributed all social ills to an exploitative economic system supported by religion, the opiate of the people. Darwinists claimed that all of life was merely the result of atoms, chance, and millions of years of evolutionary struggle. All that Western man had valued seemed repressive, unnatural, arbitrary, and inconsequential when viewed in the context of an infinite, impersonal void populated by senseless atoms that were everything. Albert Schweitzer and Adolf Hitler, both mere arrangements of atoms in space-time, would wind up in the same place: oblivion. Camus captured the existential despair that permeated the first half of the twentieth century in the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy” (Camus, 1955, p. 3).

The Void, as Camus realized, is not something that one can merely accept, as though it were simply a black background to life. It demands a response. One can worship it, as in certain forms of Eastern mysticism. One can revel in it, as in nihilism and sadomasochism. One can flee it through the constant pursuit of pleasure, as in hedonism. One can ignore it and affirm that Man can create meaning for himself, as in Secular Humanism. Or, as in the Judeo-Christian tradition, one can deny it, or at least render it conquerable, by positing a personal and loving God. All of these responses to the Void have played, and continue to play, important roles in shaping the changing American identity.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has repeatedly been attacked by proponents of all the other responses. Although some Christian fundamentalists interpret this attack as a secular conspiracy, it is, I think, an uncoordinated and unplanned war. The adherent of “Humanist Manifesto II,” for example, has little praise for the playboy hedonist, the palm reader, or the egotist. But each of them chips away at the Judeo-Christian edifice that, despite its mounting pile of rubble, remains the power to be reckoned with in the culture at large.

The attack on the Judeo-Christian tradition has had three basic thrusts. First, it is portrayed as unhealthful, specifically, sexually repressive, spiritually constricting, and economically exploitative. Second, the demolition crew tends to champion an ideology of tolerance—i.e., relativism, ostensibly as an enlightened philosophy, but in actuality, considering the vigor with which some “relativists” promote their “causes,” as a tactic for weakening the strongest combatant. And lastly, reinforcing the relativism tactic is an idolizing of the “new.” Change is by definition good, because it will ultimately lead to Utopia, which is regarded as a given located in the future, rather than as a dubious possibility located in the imagination. The Judeo-Christian cultural identity, then, is portrayed as so defective that cultural transformation is not only possible and desirable, but inevitable.

In the 1960s, the transformation impulse took on two forms. The relatively quiet form was the hippie movement and the psychedelic craze: Turn on, tune in, and drop out. This movement received considerable attention, but it was quickly drowned out by the noisy, political form of transformation hunger. Folk singers sang about revolution, while college students threw Molotov cocktails and took over university buildings. To the chagrin of the participants, however, there were simply too many church-goers, engineers, accountants, and readers of Playboy for the revolution to take. Instead of transforming America’s identity, the “revolution” of the 1960s accelerated the identity splitting that had begun in the nineteenth century. There was still, of course, the Judeo-Christian component of the American identity. And there was the secular component that emerged from the scientific triumphs of the previous century. But something new came out of the 1960s, a movement that was neither Judeo-Christian nor secular.

The New Age Movement

With the political channel stymied, the transformation impulse of the 1960s abandoned politics, for the most part, and moved into religion. One strand of the religious revival stayed within the Judeo-Christian tradition and gave rise to the “Jesus people” and their cousins. But another strand built upon the pioneering experiences of the LSD flower children and the Beat poets before them. This religious movement, which preferred to call itself “spiritual,” gave us transpersonal psychology, est and its imitators, and an explosion of Eastern cults. Although the New Age movement is philosophically linked to Buddhism and monistic Hinduism, it is a Western phenomenon. Western adherents of traditional Buddhist or Hindu religions (e.g., Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki) should not automatically be associated with the New Age movement. In a compelling Christian critique of the New Age, Groothuis says:

We can see an undercurrent of expectation and excitement throughout the academic disciplines and among people in general. There is a growing consensus that the modern world is on the brink of the extraordinary and that a great transformation awaits us. Check the magazine rack of a local health-food store or visit an occult bookstore and you’ll find this unifying thread of belief. Browse through current magazines—New Age, Yoga Journal, East-West Journal, New Realities, Whole Life Times or even Science Digest—and you’ll find it. Consider the number of articles about ESP, altered states of consciousness, the new physics and Eastern religions that are appearing in establishment magazines. Ask a friend who meditates or follows astrology, or even many prominent physicists, what it’s all about and you’ll get basically the same answer. Peruse the psychology, philosophy and science sections of any major bookstore and notice how they have many of the same titles that are in the Eastern religion and occult sections. (Groothuis, 1986, p. 15)

The New Age movement is a peculiar mix of Eastern mysticism, mainstream and fringe science, hedonism, and revolutionary fervor (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1993). Its fundamental philosophical tenets are Eastern: All is one; we are all God; we will all ultimately be enlightened. But its day-to-day lifestyle varies from back-to-nature communes to $5,000 flotation tanks. Its revolutionary fervor manifests not at political conventions, but in a pervasive optimism that the “consciousness revolution” is upon us. The Utopia that has eluded the political tinkerers and revolutionaries will simply arise spontaneously out of the enlightened intent of transformed consciousness. Thus, Werner Erhard’s Hunger Project collected millions of dollars not to feed people, but to raise the middle-class’s consciousness about hunger. It assumed that if enough people make a mental commitment to end hunger, hunger will... well… end.

Although the intellectual leadership of the New Age movement may be conscious of itself as a revolutionary social force, the bulk of its followers and “fellow travelers” might not even realize the movement exists. But they might have seen and uncritically accepted naive television programs on ESP or reincarnation, embraced a self-transformation seminar at work, chided themselves for not eating more “organic” food, and now and then felt a rush of excitement because for a moment it seemed to them that the future really would be a wonderful time of peace, prosperity, and pleasure.

Unlike most religious movements, which traditionally offer hope and solace to the downtrodden, weary, and unhappy (the vast majority of human beings throughout most of human history), the New Age movement offers hope and solace to the well-off, especially those who have had at least one terrifying peek at the Void. The New Age religion tells its followers that anything is okay if it makes you feel good. We are all—starving children, lechers, ascetics, entrepreneurs, professors, loafers—simply working through our karma over many lifetimes, taking a “journey” along our unique world lines.  We are nothing more than self-conscious threads winding through space-time and converging at the same place, the godhead.

How can anyone criticize a movement that has made so many people feel so good?

The answer depends upon one’s philosophical position. The New Age “religion” views matter as illusion, subject to the will of the developed mind. At the Maharishi University in Iowa, for example, hundreds of Siddha yogis practice “levitation” daily. If, however, one—like the author—believes in a recalcitrant material world (with or without a Creator God) that doesn’t respond to mere intent, then one will tend to look upon New Age thought as a modern version of magic. In the individual, magical thinking might be a charming eccentricity. But when it occurs in leaders, or when it becomes a social movement, magical thinking can be dangerous. It is fortunate for us that Hitler and not Eisenhower consulted astrologists before he embarked on a military campaign.

The magical core of the New Age movement is obscured by the enthusiasm, intelligence, and learning of some of its leading spokesmen. Some of these persons, although very enthusiastic, are not zealots, even though others might be. Because their movement is so new historically speaking, it has not had time to develop accountability mechanisms, which would enable its more responsible proponents to distinguish themselves from zealots.

Even though society may not yet have felt the full force of the New Age movement’s potential for zealotry, deleterious effects of the movement are already discernible. Critical thinking, a fundamental value-sustaining, rule-bound pluralism, sometimes seems to be in short supply in contemporary America, in part because of New Age influence. Cultic, feeling-obsessed psychotherapy groups and self-transformation programs in the genre of est rate critical thinking rather low in their hierarchy of values. “Feeling good”—pure subjectivity—is the preferred truth criterion of the New Age.

Orthodox Secular Humanism

The other worldview competing against the Judeo-Christian tradition for dominance in the changing U.S. American identity is orthodox Secular Humanism. I refer here to orthodox Secular Humanism to distinguish it from humanist variations that embrace New Age or Christian principles. Orthodox Secular Humanism emerged out of scientific advances that initially occurred within the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ultimately, these advances led many persons to reject deism and attempt to preserve the social order through a man-centered, rather than a God-centered, philosophy. Thus, “Humanist Manifesto II” (American Humanist Association, 1973), which listed fundamental humanist beliefs and values, found “insufficient evidence for belief in the existence of a supernatural” and a need for “radically new human purposes and goals.” Although appreciating "the need to preserve the best ethical teachings in the religious traditions of humankind," the signers of the Manifesto maintained that "too often traditional faiths encourage dependence rather than independence, obedience rather than affirmation, fear rather than courage" and that "promises of immortal salvation or fear of eternal damnation are both illusory and harmful."

The signers, by affirming the importance of reason and the “preciousness and dignity of the individual person,” revealed their common heritage with Judeo-Christian traditionalism. But their espousal of a “permissive” value system clearly separated them from traditional religious views, which place more emphasis on individual restraint and obedience to all ten of the Ten Commandments.

By affirming scientific materialism and reason, “Humanist Manifesto II” and its successor, “Humanist Manifesto III” (American Humanist Association, 2003) distinguish orthodox Secular Humanism from New Age thought, which deprecates rationality and posits the existence of a transcendental realm. The signers also distinguished themselves from secular zealots:

Traditional religions are surely not the only obstacles to human progress. Other ideologies also impede human advance. Some forms of political doctrine, for instance, function religiously, reflecting the worst features of orthodoxy and authoritarianism, especially when they sacrifice individuals on the altar of Utopian promises. Purely economic and political viewpoints, whether capitalist or communist, often function as religious and ideological dogma. (American Humanist Association, 1973)

A comparison of “Humanist Manifesto II” with “Humanist Manifesto I” (American Humanist Association, 1933) sheds some light on humanism’s response to secular zealotry.  “Manifesto I” was in large part a rejection of traditional religion and an affirmation of socialism:

The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. (American Humanist Association, 1933)

When “Manifesto I” was published, few people in the world understood the true nature of Communism. The Ukrainian famine, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s slaughter of millions, and other tragedies apparently caused the signers of “Manifesto II” to moderate their socialist enthusiasm, in the process making their position more consistent with the humble pragmatism of scientific method. “Manifesto II” thus states that “humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups,” as well as noting that “reason must be tempered by humility, since no group has a monopoly of wisdom or virtue.”

Because the Manifesto is “committed to an open and democratic society” and considers humanism to be “an ethical process,” it does appear to advocate a rule-bound pluralism. The Manifesto’s primary concern, however, is not the elucidation of the ethical rules sustaining pluralism but the articulation of a particular philosophy of life. This causes a dilemma for humanists who, however numerous in intellectual circles, are a clear minority in the society at large. On the one hand, they advocate democracy and ethics, which implies respect for the majority will. On the other hand, they seek to change the American identity in a major way. As a result they clash with secular zealots who have discarded ethics, New Agers who decry the grayness of secularism and “reason,” and Judeo-Christian traditionalists who reject the Secular Humanist’s atheistic philosophy and less restrictive sexual morality.

Judeo-Christian traditionalists begin with God and ask the question, “What does God expect from Man?” The orthodox Secular Humanists begin with Nature and ask the question, “What does Nature expect from Man?”  Nature’s answer to the Secular Humanist is that between the oblivion that precedes conception and the oblivion that follows death, people are what evolution has selected them to be—organisms that care about their fellows.  Hence, the Secular Humanist can accept the core of the Judeo-Christian tradition (“Love thy neighbor”), while rejecting the details of its “revealed” morality. Caring is part of Man’s evolutionary heritage.

A biologically based need to believe in a transcendent order may also be part of that evolutionary heritage.  If a transcendent order indeed exists, such a built-in need would not surprise.  However, even if the Secular Humanist’s view of the cosmos were correct, one would expect evolution to have had something to do with the fact that all cultures have religions (even atheistic Communism, which has functioned like a religion).  Moreover, since individual variation is a fundamental principle of evolution, built-in needs, such as caring and transcendence, will be fuzzily defined and will vary among individuals so as to permit the species to adapt to a variety of environments.  Thus, to secularists, the New Age Movement may reflect a variation of Man’s transcendence “wiring,” a variation that arises in a culture in which the Judeo-Christian tradition is in decline and Secular Humanism is in the ascendancy.

Although modern Secular Humanists may tolerate the transcendence impulse, they seek to contain it in a spiritual marketplace in which no religious contender is dominant.  That is why, perhaps, certain secular institutions, such as the ACLU, tend to defend cults while seeking to extirpate all vestiges of America’s religious tradition from the public square.  And that may also be why religionists—Christian, Muslim, or whatever—seem to be pushing back forcefully so that their voices may be heard in the public square.

Image-Making: The Little Lies That Lull

During the past five decades we have witnessed the stupendous growth and refinement of a trade dedicated to managing “perceptions,” the public-relations industry. Public relations is “the professional maintenance of a favorable public image by a company, famous person, etc.” (The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English, Second Edition, 2005, New York: Oxford University Press).

I want to make clear at the outset that decent and intelligent individuals of all religious and political views work in the public-relations industry. They are good people who do their job, accepting—as we all do—many of the minor imperfections of their little region of the world.  Moreover, on the whole their work is honest and sometimes even uplifting.  However, I believe there is a subtle, negative consequence of the proliferation of “image-making.”

Almost all areas of life—from hospitals to universities to businesses to political campaigns—call upon public-relations professionals to shape public perceptions to the client’s benefit. When I was a youth looking for a job, I looked for signs that said “Help Wanted.” Today’s youth don’t see those signs; they see, at a Burger King for example, signs that say “Now Hiring!” “Help Wanted” implies a deficit. Today’s businesses don’t want to communicate anything that smacks of negativity; it isn’t good for their image. They need words that are “positive,” that communicate an impression of growth, not deficit. So when these businesses experience the true deficit of needing help, they “spin” their need into “Now Hiring!”

In a technical sense, “now hiring” is a true statement. But if one examines the emotional as well as the cognitive dimensions of the message, the exclamation point as well as the words, it isn’t quite accurate. I doubt that the manager at Burger King eagerly looks forward to interviewing job-seekers, filling out paperwork, and training new employees. She wants help because she has more work than her employees can handle. She is indeed “now hiring,” but not with the excitement of the exclamation point.

Over and over again in all areas of life, truth is subordinated to such little (occasionally big) lies of “image.” Our society’s obsessive focus on “image,” on “perception” rather than “truth,” has altered the intellectual climate of our world in subtle but pervasive ways. Not that people in the past didn’t try to manage image; however, they weren’t nearly as effective at the task as we are. Where people might once have used logical argument to advance a position, they today will employ emotionally evocative words and images to move their audience. Compare the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the show-and-tell “debates” of today’s political campaigns. Furthermore, today’s audiences have been so conditioned to emotional appeals that they frequently are unable to see through them, to subject them to rational analysis. This too is apparent at our political “debates,” where nonsensical quips that elicit an emotional response can become the sound bites of the evening news. A syllogism, which requires three sentences, is dead in the water so far as media coverage is concerned.

Granted, I exaggerate to drive home the point. But a world in which emotionally persuasive communications have largely replaced rational argument is a world in which zealots can thrive, for zealots feed on emotion. That is, unfortunately, the world in which we now live. Millions of little lies made palatable by emotionally pleasing images have dulled our capacity for critical thinking, our ability to see the Maatmos of the world for what they are—liars who want to persuade us to do their bidding, regardless of what might be in our interest.

Conclusion

Our cultural vulnerability to emotional communications, especially on television, enables zealots to gain influence far beyond their numbers. Zealots can thus come to dominate the competition among the three worldviews discussed here: Judeo-Christian, New Age, and Secular Humanist. Proponents of the three worldviews notice most acutely the zealots in their opponents’ camps and thereby identify their opponents with zealots. Hence, traditionalist Christians might be caricatured as bigots seeking to turn the world into a theocracy. New Age proponents might be pigeonholed as airheads whose staple food is tofu and favorite pastime is drug-enhanced orgies. And the secularist might be caricatured as an atheist fanatic whose ultimate mission in life is to remove the word “God” from the dictionary. Again, I exaggerate to drive home the point, and I risk committing the very error that I condemn. I hope the reader understands.

People are not stereotypes or caricatures, regardless of their philosophy of life. Zealots, however, sometimes do resemble stereotypes because their overdriven ideology tries to squeeze everybody into the same mold. These stereotypes are gifts to contemporary “spin doctors,” who are so prevalent in the media. Although they might not themselves be zealots, these “spin doctors” promote the one-dimensional thinking of zealots in their simplistic attacks on opponents (thereby driving up emotion and the ratings of media outlets). The media’s need for such emotional communications and images thus gives the perspectives of zealots more attention than their numbers deserve without necessarily putting the zealots themselves front and center. When people in a pluralist society have difficulty telling the difference between caricatures and “real people,” the rule-bound underpinnings of that society are placed in peril.

At the moment, our society does not seem to be in grave danger. We are surviving the subtle little lies of the image-makers and “spin doctors.” And we are generally, even if reluctantly, tolerant of those adhering to other worldviews. In part, this is because the pragmatic Secular Humanists who dominate the business, scientific, and political (despite the careful cultivation of religious “images”) elites are not zealots and have succeeded in creating a global economy that is indeed lifting the world up in a material sense. China and India, for example, were once economic laggards but are now powerhouses.  In many ways, then, the American identity, and that of much of the developed world, is moving, under the pressure of economic forces, in the direction of rule-bound pluralism, of increased individual freedom, despite cultural vulnerabilities to emotional manipulation and the claims of various religious world views. A healthy global economy requires that the rules of commerce be respected and that the rules of various “theologies” be kept in the private sphere so that they don’t turn commerce into an irrational endeavor.  Consumerism rests more comfortably in the philosophical materialism of orthodox Secular Humanism than in the transcendent philosophies of religions.

People are less likely to quarrel and scapegoat opponents when they are prosperous or have hope of becoming prosperous. If this prosperity continues, the nations of the developed world may experience an enduring shift in cultural identities in which, as Brian Wilson (cited in Robbins, 1988) has suggested, Secular Humanism dominates the economic, legal, scientific, educational, and political institutions that maintain social order, while a variety of religious worldviews—with Judeo-Christian traditionalists being only one of many religious camps—compete for adherents in a “spiritual marketplace.”  Thus, the political component of the early American identity (minus the “God talk” of the Declaration of Independence and translated into language agreeable to other cultures) has and will probably continue to endure as a kind of “minimalist theology” in the society at large, while the religious component of that early identity will endure only for a cultural subgroup of religious traditionalists.  Whether this is a good or bad development depends upon one’s religious-philosophical presuppositions.  However, in my view this is where our cultural identity is headed, like it or not.

A note of caution, however—the global economy is a brand-new phenomenon in history. If economists aren’t as smart as they think they are (and they probably aren’t), unexpected events, such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon by terrorists, might send the global economy spinning into a worldwide depression. Such an event would raise the level of unhappiness and resentment around the world and make people less tolerant of those with whom they disagree in fundamental ways. As with the great depression of 1929, the emotional appeals of zealots, especially given the cultural vulnerability to emotional communications, could grow enormously. And Yeats’ “Second Coming” might once again seem prophetic.

We take for granted the freedom of our open societies. We do not realize how fragile they are. Open societies are the historical aberration, not the historical norm. To remain open, especially during times of cultural shock, these societies must tolerate zealots while they contain and restrain them. Achieving this goal requires a broad understanding of zealotry, an understanding of how minds close, how emotion clouds reason and judgment, how charismatic leaders can control their followers, how liars can dupe good people, and how power corrupts.

The vision on which the United States of America was founded views the corrupting influence of power as an historical truism, which has come to be accepted by much of the developed world. If we in free, open societies are to avoid tyranny, we must never stop distrusting power. We must stand by the rules that hold our pluralistic societies together. We must respect our philosophical opponents as people, not trivialize them as caricatures. And we must keep our wits sharp, spotting and fighting the Maatmos of the world wherever they arise and however insignificant they might first appear.

References

American Humanist Association. (1933). “Humanist Manifesto I.” Accessed online at http://www.jcn.com/manifestos.html

American Humanist Association. (1973). “Humanist Manifesto II.” Accessed online at http://www.jcn.com/manifestos.html

American Humanist Association. (1973). “Humanist Manifesto III.” Accessed online at http://www.americanhumanist.org/3/HumandItsAspirations.htm

Ayer, Alfred J. (1936). Language, truth, and logic. New York: Dover Publications.