Monday, July 16, 2007


Long ago while playing Dungeons and Dragons, my character was presented with a supposedly good cleric whom he suspected was evil. To test him, I asked him to lead a service in the temple of that god. The cleric did so without ill effect--but later, it turned out that he was evil, and not even a cleric. I pointed out to the friend running the game that the god in question would have struck down the pretender for doing what he did. He shrugged and said that there were plenty of real clerics who were quite evil, but led religious services all the time. What he didn't understand was that in the fantasy world of D&D, the gods were real--and that changed everything. I realized then that a fantasy world would be remarkably different from our own, even our own in ancient or medieval times--for in our own world, people merely believed that magic was real. Real magic and real gods, however, would radically alter the social, political, and economic reality in which humans lived. Clerics would be afforded sanctity--the certainty, in the eyes of others, that the cleric is everything he appears to be, because there is a divine authority watching over him constantly, advising him, and ready to unseat him should he violate the codes of conduct.

Understanding what some of these differences would be can help us to understand some of the unspoken premises that believers and the superstitious hold. If the gods are real, then they interfere in the affairs of men. That's what it means do be omnipotent--or even, for your old school pagan gods, very powerful--you notice events in the world and affect them. Even those that are not omnipotent will have their attention drawn to acts of worship. This means that those who lead this worship will be under the direct scrutiny of their god, and must be scrupulously faithful to the moral tenents of their faith. This is why Divine Right was such a useful ploy; the king can't be all bad, or God wouldn't let him rule, would he?

Now consider a large group of people operating upon this premise. Their leaders cannot be wrong, because God would not permit it. The assurance and peace of mind that this would provide cannot lightly be written off. If they are lucky enough to have a genuinely ethical clergy and competent, moral leaders, then they will enjoy the best of all possible situations; their world is in good hands, and they don't have to worry about it. If, on the other hand, they have a leader like Jim Baker, or a pedophile priest, or God help them (if you'll excuse the expression), Jim Jones, then they are sheep being led to the slaughter.

But still, what are the odds that the worst will happen?

Pretty good, actually. There is nothing so attractive to the truly villainous as a station in society which is above question. As Frank Herbert put it, it is not so much that power corrupts, but that power attracts the corruptable. And there is no power so attractive to the sociopathic as the veil of sanctity, an armor which deflects all accusations. The worst of humanity claim the highest of motivations. Bin Laden claims the sanction of Islam; Stalin began his career in a seminary and later invoked the secular faith of communism; Hitler and Goebbels invoked Christianity and public morality while embarking on a course that was nothing short of Satanic. Charlie Manson's followers thought he was Christ. L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and a long list of cult leaders attest to the attraction of sanctity for those without conscience. Idolatry, again, arises and proves itself the corrupter of the religious impulse.

Sanctity lays at the very root of problems which occur when politics are mixed with religion. David Sloan Wilson, objecting to Dawkins characterization of religion, talks about the Jains. The impoverished ascetics go from household to household begging--but in households which do not adhere to the customs and ethics of Jainism, the ascetic will refuse the food--a strong rebuke and embarassment to the members of the household. This, Wilson argues, serves as a strong policing mechanism for the members of the community. But take note--the ascetics are dirt poor! This simple fact, this lack of political and economic power, makes the role of the ascetic completely unappealing to the sociopath, who is, after all, out for personal gain. The police are themselves policed by the extreme sacrifices demanded of them.

Contrast this with Christian and Islamic religious leaders. Bishops live in a palace, sit on a throne, wear a ring and robe of office, and are, in all respects, nobility--the last nobility left in many Western countries. Televangelists and the leaders of Mega-Churches control pools of wealth in the millions, are afforded expenses and large homes, and wield great political power. Imams pass laws and often control the government, and draw upon the wealth of the Mosque. All of these people are in a position which would make the unscrupulous drool.

Like the Jain ascetics, Jesus and his followers lived hand to mouth. So too did the Cathar ascetics. Indeed, Jesus' career was so disastrous to his own personal fortune that Christians felt compelled to put a happy ending on it. Yet we instinctively understand that where the lure of wealth and power is, we are likely to find people of questionable motives--or we would know this if we are not blinded by faith. Even if the ascetics get it wrong (and there is no guarantee that they don't), we understand that the mistake is an honest one. Wilson takes issue with Dawkins for dismissing all religion--and yet, the overwhelmingly predominant form of religion which is now rising in the West holds the impoverished in contempt and believes that God will shower you with wealth if you pay proper obeisance. In the Muslim world, religion is politics. Like so many of religion's defenders, Wilson has mistaken a small proportion of believers as a representative sample. But they aren't, and I suspect that they never were.