Back in my early twenties I encountered the Church of Scientology, and became interested in cults and how people could be convinced to abandon their own ability to think. I collected cult literature of all kinds (this was before the internet) and read books about various odd sects, including Christian Fundamentalists. I also remember coming across a movie called Ticket to Heaven, a Canadian movie with a very good cast (including a very young Kim Catrall and a riveting performance by R. H. Thomson as the deprogrammer) which was a fairly accurate portrayal of a young man’s induction and rescue from a Moonie like cult.
One common feature to all of these organizations was a process of epistemological isolation, which usually began as physical isolation but then moved on to instilling a distrust of all other sources of information. Once this was achieved, the convert could be released into the world, albeit with frequent guidance from the cult, because they would meet any disconfirming views with distrust.
I believe we are witnessing something similar, but on a unprecedented scale, with alt news. It is not merely the lies that are told, but a systemic and comprehensive attack upon other sources, and worse, the capacity for independent critical thought. It is also unprecedented in that this is not a centralized strategy, but a distributed ideological cluster which has linked up on the internet to form a cohesive whole. This is something that was not possible without the internet—indeed, the very structure of the internet not only makes this possible, but likely.
I had originally thought that this attack on reason and evidence was the fallout of post modernism, with both the right and the left drawing on the epistemological relativism of the academic left. This certainly seemed to be the case with Karl Rove and his “reality-based community” rant. But the real roots of this go back much further, to the amateur theology of Fundamentalist Christians, and their attempts to defend it.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, North America was a cultural backwater, with barely trained ministers coming up with doctrines that no respectable Christian Church would support: Biblical Literalism, the Rapture, and wild speculations about the meaning of the Book of Revelations. Many were expelled from traditional Churches and went on to found their own. As they coalesced into a movement, they were faced with opponents on two fronts: science and the theory of evolution, and the learned elites, particularly theologians, who knew that their version of the Christian religion was a heretical break from all tradition and therefore illegitimate. To counter this they invented an ideology of falsehood, by which reason, evidence, and learning are the enemy, the imposition of arrogant elites, and even the tools of the devil. The ideology of Christian Fundamentalists kept their members safe from outside influences, but also kept them hermetically sealed from the truth.
This idea has spread and become quite useful to certain political factions (not all of them on the right), but I think it is clear that these factions are operating as cults, and now the cult-like nature is made clear by its source of origin—an actual Christian Cult, which came to dominate the political right in the 1980’s, and that still thrives and animates much of conservative politics. I was astonished to learn, in the early 80’s, that my father, an apparently devout Catholic, had in fact become a Fundamentalist Christian through conservative tracts from America, which carried within them the assumptions of that sect.
The task remains to prove to many of those involved that they are in fact part of a cult. Of course, the basis of most political affiliations now is emotion, not reason or evidence, but it might be worth a shot. That will be the subject of my next posting.