“Don’t do that!” We hear this a lot when we’re children. Often for good reasons. Like when we want to flush kitty down the toilet, or see what happens when the bathtub water just keeps getting higher and higher.
But once we can think things out reasonably for ourselves, few of us want to be treated like two year olds. So why are so many people attracted to religions that demand blind obedience, no matter how nonsensical the command?
I guess because humans also value security. If we let someone else make decisions for us, we may not be free, yet we have something to cling to: our submission. “I’ll do whatever you want” is a solid unequivocal statement. No distressing ambiguities.
Some people love being part of a military-like chain of command. I understand the appeal. I’ve been a committed religious soldier myself. However, now I look back on my jump and ask “how high” on the way up days with more than a little embarrassment.
One example: I used to be an enthusiastic Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) “sevadar” (volunteer). After I started learning Shotokan karate, I got to be a security sevadar during the guru’s occasional visits to the United States and Canada.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with security. Except when it’s overzealous. During a visit Master Gurinder Singh made to Honolulu I was standing outside the auditorium when the guru’s entourage strode by.
Gurinder Singh walked past me and toward the building where he was to speak. He stopped and turned around about thirty yards away, looking and waving his hands in a “no, no” gesture toward my general direction.
The reason? A man near me had pulled out his camera and was taking photographs of the guru. From a good distance—not at all a paparazzi sort of intrusion. But RSSB initiates were under firm orders not to photograph Gurinder Singh or record his words.
However, this guy was in a public place. And we had no way of knowing if he was a member of RSSB. Plus, even if he was, what right did we have to stop him from taking a photo of the guru?
Such considerations didn’t enter the mind of the aggressive security sevadars around me (myself, I had no inclination to confront the man). They yelled “Stop!” He looked confused. “You can’t take photographs of the master,” he was told.
It was a unpleasant scene, especially considering this was supposed to be a weekend of spiritual love. I can’t recall all of the details of the encounter. I’m pretty sure the man got talked into taking the film out of his camera and handing it over.
I do know that I’ve seen a similar scene in movies, like when a Mafia boss is photographed in a compromising situation and his goons rough up the camera man.
What’s most disturbing to me now is how little I was disturbed at the time. Like everyone else around me, I assumed that obedience to the guru trumped respect for non-sectarian niceties like the First Amendment. After all, the guru was considered to be God in human form, and it isn’t a good idea to disobey God.
In short, I was enmeshed in a cultish way of thinking back then. Heck, I may still be, but at least now I’m a devotee of the Cult of Me—which has a much more flexible code of conduct. Scanning these “Warning signs of dysfunctional cults,” I see quite a few that apply to RSSB.
Proud feeling of being the chosen people, of possessing the exclusive truth or means of salvation, or being superior to those outside the group.
Blind obedience to harmful or unwise directives from on high.
Suppression of dissent, doubt, critical thinking, sincere questions, discussion or independent judgment.
Legalistic obsession with myriad rules. Enslavement to authoritarian, military-style organization and procedure.
Before my Church of the Churchless days, a few years ago I wrote on my other blog about giving a talk to a large gathering of RSSB devotees in Petaluma, California. In that post I said, “No, I’m not a member of a cult, no matter what my wife says.”
Well, once again Laurel is right. Maybe I should always unthinkingly do whatever she commands. No, wait, there’s no “maybe” involved here. I forgot that I’m married. (Cultish behavior is entirely acceptable if you’re a husband, so sayeth the sacred Book of Woman).