Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson, author of the Illuminati trilogy and 32+ other great books on thought, existence, hallucinogens, conspiracy, epistemology, being, etc. died a few days ago from post-polio syndrome. After G. Ford and J. Brown, I was wondering who would complete the triad (don’t great people often die in threes?)

Read a lot of RAW in my early 20s, and he had a big effect on me – he was the anti-philosopher foil to the academic stuff I was immersed in back then. Malcolm points to a fairly obscure piece of his on the difference between religions and cults, In Doubt We Trust. Reading his piece on Doubt reminds me why I liked him, though it feels fresh now.

The function of religions and cults, including the political or ideological ones, is to short-circuit the normal “common sense” process of doubt, investigation, further doubt, further investigation, further doubt, etc. The person with BS* knows the “right answer” at all times and knows it immediately. This makes them very happy, and very annoying since most of their “right answers” don’t make sense to the rest of us. Common sense and/or science require investigation and revision, etc. BS only requires a Rule Book — sacred scripture, Das Kapital or whatever — and a good memory.

* BS = Belief Systems

I’ve been asking people over the past year what they think is the difference between a religion and a cult – turns out to be one of those questions everyone thinks they know the answer to until pressed, at which point definitions crumble to dust. Wilson attaches the notion of religion to money and politics, which make religions part of the social game. Without money or politics, a group remains an out-lier, too formless in the eyes of society to be considered a religion.

Hail Eris, Goddess of Discordianism!

19 Replies to “Robert Anton Wilson”

  1. My warning signs:

    1). Incredibly structured lifestyles; e.g. eating. Kosher passes the cult sniff test. Eating only a list of 5 vegetables does not.

    2). “We don’t _______,” prohibitions for bizarro things. No meat on Friday for Catholics, or no pork for Muslims passes the sniff test. “No singing, ever,” does not.

    3). Massively invasive grooming guidelines. The fact that Buddhist monks must shave their heads annoys me here. Muslim guidelines on dress can be taken too far, IMO. But those Heaven’s Gate members all dressed *exactly* the same? Whoa.

    4). The general trend described above “subsume yourself to the group,” in oddball, overstated ways.

    What is art and what is pornograhy? Same here. I can’t describe it exactly, but I know it when I see it.

    Religion and cults tie into belief. There are extreme believers in almost anything, who will “know the ‘right answer’ at all times and knows it immediately.”

    This includes science, IMO.

    You may have absolute faith in our ability to describe our reality based on our ability to measure it. I’m … not so sure. I’m certainly not going to be more forgiving of some physics grad student (I might have gotten drunk with) than I am of Jehoshivaweh.

    It’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but I’m open to the possibility.” Both for religion, and science. Those are the people who are most open to actually getting closer to the “right answer.”

  2. Scot, I’m surprised.

    The #3 to Ford and Brown was Hussein.

    And one might argue that the #2 and #3 to RAW were the two other recent Iraq executions.

    Group them any way you like. 6 total.

  3. The difference between cult and religion to me is quite simplistic. If you take a catholic, or any other robed ceremony and imagine you have never seen it before, it feels and smells like a cult. The difference to me is cult becomes culture with time. Religion was just another name put on it to remove it away from cult in hope nobody would remember its origins. KKK, white robes of the Vatican, its all the same. Maybe I’m simple, it helps with the complexity of the DF and our blind faith.

  4. mnep: Interesting observations on cult/religion distinctions.

    I differ with you here:

    This includes science, IMO.

    Science differs from religion precisely in its ability to be self-questioning. Scientists are committed to re-evaluating their world view as soon as their models no longer work. Questioning and doubt are baked into the material of science. Thus, science is not subject to the wearing of blinders, to dogma, as religions are. Any scientist would believe in a flat earth if you could prove to him/her that the spherical earth model didn’t work and that the earth was indeed flat. They are not wedded to the idea of a spherical earth just because it’s traditional or “written.”

    I never quite understand when people say that atheists or scientists are just the same as religionists. To me, they’re fundamentally different in this important respect – atheists and scientists are committed to questioning their own reality.

  5. BBT – Or it could go the other way around: “Cult” could simply be a diminutive / derogatory term used to cast a religion one doesn’t like in a negative light.

  6. Science differs from religion precisely in its ability to be self-questioning.

    Buddha explicitly told his followers to examine his teachings and reject what did not make sense. I know many Christians who have re-examined their faith with the blessing and support of their clergy. The Second Vatican council reexamined the Roman Catholic church in the modern world and made huge changes.

    It seems you want to paint all religions and their adherents with the zealot or orthodoxy brush. Not fair, IMO.

  7. Those are good examples of exceptions to the rule, but they are just that. Even most moderate Christians have trouble with homosexuality. Not because Jesus ever said anything about homosexuality being wrong, but because “It’s in the Bible.” No matter what happenstance path of handed-down oral history led to it being there. Yes, room is made in modern times for gays in some churches, but not without much gnashing of teeth and personal conflictedness. Even those who interpret the Bible loosely still look toward it and try to determine which morsels to interpret literally and which not to. They’re forced to examine every passage and try to make sense of it in the context of modern culture.

    The Bible doesn’t say why homosexuality is wrong – it just says that it is. I can’t accept that kind of thinking. Reason does not lead people to intolerance; dogma does.

  8. You’ve spoken to “most moderate Christians” or seen a well-crafted survey that says they have problems with homosexuality?

    No offense, but I’m calling bullshit. If you can, show me the empirical data, please.

  9. Mnep is on a roll here! W00t!

    And BTW, I’m a “moderate to progressive” Christian and I have zero issues with GLBT folks. And the same is true of the vast majority in my large (2000+) Episcopal Church parish here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt (Dallas ;)

    We’ve got a large Gay & Lesbian group that meets regularly. Our Music Director is a partnered gay man. Heck, when my daughter was baptized, one of the other babies there was the recently-adopted son of a lesbian couple.

    Now, of course, we’re sorely outnumbered here by huge congregations of homophobic, misogynistic, bigoted, anti-Liberal Baptists and other, really “way out there” Protestant churches. But in no way could they be described as “moderate Christians” in the first place :P

  10. And Episcopals are on the far left of the Christian political spectrum. The issue of homosexuality has pretty much split the Anglican church in two over the past few years. That’s what I call “gnashing of teeth.” There’s a slow-burning thread going on in an older post on this blog involving a gay man who is in counsel with his church to “stop his wicked ways,” though he cannot, because he is who he is. He wants to be part of the church, but he is gay in every fiber of his body. His life is riven by this conflict. That’s what I call gnashing of teeth. My brother in law is a philosophy professor and a Christian. His faculties of reason tell him homosexuality is no problem, while his religion tells him it is. He exists in conflict on this issue. That’s what I call gnashing of teeth.

    No, of course I don’t have access to some kind of empirical study/data. But I do talk with people about this kind of thing quite a bit, and I don’t think I’m being exaggerative in any way. Rules on homosexuality are just one example of ways in which dogma creates moral conflict.

    You can call it bullshit. I call it “Looking around and seeing what I see.”

  11. You can call it bullshit. I call it “Looking around and seeing what I see.”

    When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. :)

  12. You definitely have more than a hammer, but IMO when it comes to religion you are as predisposed to dismiss all religions as cult-ish as much as the zealots are predisposed to label you a heretic.

    Zealotry in the name of science is still zealotry. It does more to close your mind to possibilities than it does to open it.

    The religious zealots cannot see that questioning faith is not necessarily a bad thing. The science zealots can’t see that having faith is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Either way, it’s someone telling me what it behooves me to think. And as long as my beliefs do not harm others, what I think is no one’s business.

    Now, before you go off on how, “Religion DOES harm others! Look at the homosexual debate!” I would posit that religion does not do this at all. Some adherents might, but religion itself does not. This is how tolerant and moderate Muslims, Catholics, Anglicans, Buddhists, etc etc exist. It’s like a gun. It is not inherently good or evil until a human gets involved and puts it into practice. Scream at the gun all you want, it will change nothing.

    If you want to change zealotry into loving-kindness, use a laser beam against the bad bricks in the building, not a shotgun against the people inside.

    Hating religion and its effects is still hate. It’s the same as people hating homosexuals. It’s hate. It leads to unquiet mental states in which our ability to embrace those with whom we disagree and maybe help them through example is lost in a maelstrom of negative emotion.

    Patience and empathy, not anger, is the proper response to religion run amok, IMO. Works for me. :)

  13. when it comes to religion you are as predisposed to dismiss all religions as cult-ish

    I don’t think I do that. I don’t think I have a good handle on the distinction between religion and cult, (in fact I think it’s probably a false distinction – one that makes a certain amount of sense in context of conversation, but that can’t be described in a consistent or way we can all agree on).

    But more to the point, I don’t think all religion is harmful. Well, let’s break that down. There are two levels of what could be considered “harm.” There’s dogma that encourages adherents to act in ways that hurt others. That’s level one, and history is made of its examples. The other way in which many atheists consider religion “harmful” is that it discourages rational thought, posits wild claims as truth, blurs the line between consensus reality and fairy tales… encourages sloppy thinking in general. I personally don’t think that kind of “harm” is actually harmful, except insofar as it makes me sad to see children being taught that the universe is 4,000 years old or that we didn’t evolve — a sort of cognitive harm. I think that’s a real danger, but it doesn’t upset me as much as seeing Catholic priests in Africa telling congregations not to wear condoms.

    I acknowledge that some (much?) good comes from religion as well. I appreciate ritual, tradition, beauty, etc. as much as anyone. Dawkins encourages atheists to continue to participate in their churches on a cultural/community level, if they wish to. It’s great when humans get together.

    I don’t think I’m guilty of what you accuse me of — hatred toward religion, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    If I say I can’t see a concrete distinction between religions and cults, that’s not an attack on all religion – that’s me making an epistemological/semantic point. From the Wikipedia entry on cult: “Some anthropologists and sociologists studying cults have argued that no one yet has been able to define “cult” in a way that enables the term to identify only groups that have been claimed as problematic.”

    Goog results for “hammer nail maslow” turn up 4x more results than for “hammer nail baruch” – but I didn’t dig more deeply to get to the bottom of that one.

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