When it comes to the subject of obedience, South Park's Eric Cartman pops naturally into my mind. I'm a big fan of his classic Respect my authoritah! (authority, pronounced au-thor-i-TAH)
For quite a while I used that line a lot with my wife and dog, until I realized that it wasn't having any effect. Still, it worked for Cartman in the scene below. And religions are able to get people to believe it.
(Click on the video to start it playing.)
In a synchronistic moment this morning, shortly after I finished reading the Just Following Orders chapter in Margaret Heffernan's "Willful Blindness," I saw that Jon Weiss had left this comment on an earlier post:
I have talked to many Western satsangi's who admit to being deeply divided. On the one hand they have such loving experiences around the guru (esp. at the Dera and the sangat in India). This is felt deeply. I have had that experience as well. It is extraordinarily loving and positive --- so much so many disciples find little to nothing to replace that feeling of love. On the other hand for many there are things they feel deeply uneasy about. Think the reason this blog, and David Lane's RSS Yahoo, is so widely read is that there are many disciples that want to find a way to resolve that tension.
This is an interesting insight. I think the tension Jon speaks of is largely the result of obedience and love pulling in opposite, yet related, directions.
Meaning, when we love someone, we're inclined to do what they want. But when this desire to please edges into blind obedience territory, the positivity of love morphs into something negative that can be decidedly harmful.
Obedience, of course, isn't always founded on love. The guy Cartman pulls over for speeding doesn't stop his car because he loves an (assumed) motorcycle policeman he sees in his rear view mirror. He's afraid of the consequences if he keeps on driving.
In like fashion, religions put the Fear of God into believers when they demand obedience to commandments, rules, rituals, and such.
Jon's comment is referring to disciples ("satsangis") of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB) guru, whose headquarters is at the Dera Baba Jaimal Singh religious community in the Punjab, India. For over thirty-five years I was an active RSSB member, so I know whereof I speak when it comes to the obedience-love connection.
As Jon said, devotion to a guru or God can feel wonderful, in much the same way romantic love does.
I've seen disciples staring at the guru in rapt, teary-eyed attention. I've watched them ooh and ah when the guru looked their way. I've heard lengthy conversations after the guru gave a talk where almost every word he spoke, and gesture he made, was excitedly recollected by devotees in a high school crush manner. "Do you remember when he answered that blond lady's question? It was so cool!"
But... (there's always a "but") anything taken to extremes has a down side.
In a religious organization, hierarchy usually rules. This is especially true in a guru-centered group, where the supposedly divine guy or gal at the top has almost unlimited authority, since he or she is considered to be directly connected to God.
There are lots of examples of people doing crazy things because a cult leader commanded it. In the case of Jonestown, over 900 people belonging to the People's Temple committed suicide. Obedience led to death.
In the above-mentioned Just Following Orders chapter, Heffernan writes about psychologist Stanley Milgram's groundbreaking experiments on obedience, which found that people are willing to inflict a lot of harm when told to do so.
Milgram struggled long and hard to understand his own highly disturbing findings. He concluded that when we are part of a group, or an organization, we change our focus.
"Although," he wrote, "a person acting under authority performs actions that seem to violate standards of conscience, it would not be true to say that he loses his moral sense. Instead, it acquires a radically different focus. HIs moral concern now shifts to a consideration of how well he is living up to the expectations that the authority has of him. In wartime, a soldier does not ask whether it is good or bad to bomb a hamlet; he does not experience shame or guilt in the destruction of a village: rather he feels pride or shame depending on how well he has performed the mission assigned to him."
...Milgram concluded that this shift of focus wasn't a personal failing and the problem of obedience wasn't wholly psychological. It was an inescapable aspect of belonging to a group. When the individual is working alone, conscience is brought into play.
But when working within a hierarchy, authority replaces individual conscience. This is inevitable, because otherwise the hierarchy just doesn't work: too many consciences and the advantage of being in a group disappears. Conscience, it seems, doesn't scale.
So here's another way to look at the tension Jon mentioned -- as the inevitable conflict between someone's individual conscience, and the dictates of a group. If the group is religious, led by a must-be-obeyed guru, Pope, master, or other authority figure, the tension can become extreme.
Because following one's conscience may mean deviating from the group's path. If we can't do this comfortably, that's a sign we've fallen into a form of groupthink. We've surrendered our own way of looking at reality to a religious vision that requires blinders be put on.
A commenter on this blog recently asked what I meant by spiritual independence. Well, this is one aspect of it: feeling free to do what you think is right, rather than what is commanded by an outside authority.
I belong to a political party. But I certainly don't feel like I have to agree with the Democratic party line (assuming there is one; Democrats are notoriously hard to herd). Many devotees of a guru, though, find it extremely difficult to go against a Divine Dictate.
If you can't say "no way; I'm not going there" to some commandment issued by a religious authority figure, you've gone over the edge of the obedience cliff.
Climb back onto the ground of your own conscience, because it's better to risk being ostracized by an overly obedient group than to lose your sense of what's right and wrong.