Thursday, August 23, 2007

still worth believing

For there’s a mighty judgment coming –

But I may be wrong

Leonard Cohen

Considering some of my reading matter of late – Boyer’s Religion Explained and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell [still unfinished], I found last night’s SBS Hot Doc, ‘Jonestown – The Life and Death of People’s Temple’, something of a godsend, so to speak.

The doco featured interviews with former Temple members who somehow escaped the carnage. One of them said ‘I’ve never in my life believed in heaven, but there was a time, in the Temple, when it seemed that we’d created a heaven on earth. Now,’ she said tearfully, ‘the idea of a heaven on earth has been destroyed too.’

I doubt that even the most confirmed atheist, after watching this program, would feel cynically disposed re this woman’s remarks, for the achievements of the People’s Temple were indeed spectacular, and would greatly repay analysis from anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists.

You might describe Jim Jones as a latter-day shaman. His movement obviously borrowed heavily from Christianity, especially some of the proto-socialist pronouncements of Jesus, but it was closer to what might be called negro spiritualism, straddling the boundary between folk religion and organized religion. It’s worth dwelling on the areas in which he was successful, and reflecting on the reasons for that success.

The key word here is community, especially as opposed to individualism. Jones started out with a tithe system, asking new members for some twenty percent of their earning or their savings, in exchange for substantial community support. Later, members were asked to give up everything.

The community support was real though. No razzle-dazzle glass cathedrals here, but community gardens, day-care centres, supported accommodation for the elderly, and a sense of family for the dispossessed and alienated. Jones himself was a neglected child, and clearly identified with black Americans, with whom he mixed from an early age.

Modern Western individualism has its winners and losers. Those who see themselves as losers – suffering under dysfunctional families, lack of skills, racial or cultural discrimination – might well prefer to give up this individualist struggle for the sake of a more secure, supportive, communal existence, in which the quid pro quos – a shitload of work and a shitload of loyalty to the group in exchange for a full belly, a safe haven and people who look out for you – are clearly spelt out. Add a touch of charismatic hocus-pocus to make you feel that you’re part of something that’s more than just the sum of its parts, and you might start to feel that you’ve found not only a home but a heaven.

It’s important to note, too, that modern individualism is a very recent phenomenon, and the People’s Temple, probably especially before the last year or so of Jones’s descent into drug-drenched paranoia, offered a community much more like the tribalism which humans have practiced throughout most of their history. This tribalism, in which the group mattered far more than its component individuals, was spectacularly successful from an evolutionary perspective, providing an organizational structure that has helped us colonise the entire planet, successfully out-competing all other species.

It seems to me that modern Christian churches play on this notion of tribalism (they would of course call it something else – like fostering close-knit communities) in their recruitment drives. It’s undoubtedly the best card they have to play, and they’re surely right to make the connection between declining church attendance in the non-American west, and what they might call rampant individualism. They tend also to associate individualism with spiritual malaise – a churchy buzz term.

No doubt spiritual malaise can cover many sins, but from the viewpoint of the Christian churches, the most disturbing one is the lack of belief in the same thing.

The members of the People’s Temple all seem to have believed in the same thing, that being the wisdom and power of their shaman-ruler. This belief was a binding force that gave the community incredible strength, unity and energy. Imagine such a community springing up a few thousand years ago, with no sophisticated outside society with its comforts and possibilities such as TV, radio, the national lottery, Hollywood and the stock exchange to entice people away, and no wider State with its laws and police to worry about. The only real threat to such a community’s survival and thriving might be another community in the vicinity with even stronger binding forces, an even more charismatic shaman-ruler (real or mythical) which might either poach people from the first community, or strengthen its own sense of community by attacking this other community with its false shaman-god. Such threats would make it seem imperative to the first community (though probably not consciously) that it needed a stronger binding, a stronger connection with its shaman, more religion.

It seems to be an unspoken article of faith with the religious that the more fervently you believe, the safer you’ll be. The more powerful you’ll be too. Faith moves mountains. And this also needs to be understood in social terms. Faith in numbers seems to increase the security and power exponentially. In such a scenario too much individuality is a danger. Difference is like a chink in the community armour.

Jones extolled the value of work constantly in the People’s Temple. Arbeit Macht Frei. When they weren’t working they were celebrating their community, listening rapt to their shaman. Those interviewed said that they slept little, especially in the early years, sometimes staying awake for days on end. They competed with each other in sleeplessness. A battle for virtue.

Talking was discouraged. I’m not sure how this was done. The voluble Jones could certainly speak enough for dozens, but surely not for nine hundred. Perhaps they were too exhausted, from watching and listening to him, to want to speak. By the end, he had loudspeakers set up everywhere; you could never escape his voice, his increasingly unhinged harangues and warnings and exhortations. Like the paranoid-schizo artist who must fill up every millimetre of space with his own visions, he could only feel safe when all other voices were silenced.

It seems easy enough for an outsider to see him as demented, even pathetic, but the power he had over his people, even at the end, was almost complete. It’s worth noting that the handful of people interviewed in the doco were the dissenters, those who left before the mass suicide/murder, or who refused to drink the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid. In incredible 909 people, including 276 kids, took the poison that day. That certainly represents power, of a kind. To know what was in each and every one of their minds, the extent of their qualms, if any, that would be something.

The implosion of the Jonestown vision was swift and sudden, and by no means inevitable. Intentional communities, as they’re called, are found throughout the USA and elsewhere, and many of them are successful within their own terms. Some have begun with the vision of some guru-shaman, but have outlived that person, who has been mythologized but also reinterpreted, like the Bible, to meet changing needs. The people of Jonestown created something to meet their needs almost in spite of their failing shaman. Those interviewed said that Jonestown was always a sunnier, happier place when Jones himself was absent. He was on the way to becoming superfluous if not detrimental to requirements. Better for him, and especially for them, if he’d died quietly and become a god.

Also, Jones, in bringing out the Flavor Aid, was responding to external pressure. Wider, stronger forces were closing in. His general decline, too, could be largely attributed to those forces. The competition was too great. As I’ve suggested, within a different, less modern context, the community would probably have survived. Perhaps it would have come to an internal power struggle, a palace revolt, and the community might have dwindled gradually or found new impetus under new management. Clearly, though, after all it had achieved, and the collective memory of its bonded community, it had plenty to live for.

Tribalism will probably never die. It offers a great deal, and we all partake of its offerings to some degree. But there are also many things that it can’t deliver. The major difficulty with all religious communities is that their ultimate ideal is essentially one of stasis. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. Nobody seems willing to think through the horror of achieved community harmony, righteousness and so forth. The religious like to say that without God, life is without meaning, but it seems to me that it is precisely belief in gods that drains life of meaning, with the god or the sacred text proclaiming the good life which, once attained, must be continued or endlessly repeated, generation after generation to the end of days. Heaven on earth or the dictatorship of the proletariat, these are scenarios that can’t withstand too much contemplation.

The West has changed very dramatically in the past four hundred years. Modern science, democracy, education for all. Stasis, it seems, is no longer the ideal. Progress, whether illusory or not, has grabbed the public and above all the intellectual imagination. The heroes of progress, whether inadvertent or not, are the likes of Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein. More or less idiosyncratic individualists, bucking the status quo, but forging new ideas and understandings with exemplary self-discipline, opening up the possibilities of human activity and achievement, redefining the universe and our place in it, wiping out old certainties, leaving us giddy with excitement and fear.

Such heroics can leave us torn. Many of us, after all, have simple desires. We just want to be happy. We want to belong. We want to feel safe, and loved. What matter the size and behaviour of the universe, the descent of our ancestors, the connection of time and space?

It’s all about survival and thriving. To love a child and be loved by a girlfriend gives us a strength to carry on that generally can’t be gotten through abstract speculation about universal forces – though such speculations have radically changed our world. And God is love, ultimately. It’s a very complicated illusion, but the most powerful one we have. People won’t give it up easily. We’re far more needy than we like to admit.


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