“Those who do not know their opponent’s arguments do not completely understand their own.” –from Cults: Opposing Viewpoints
During my 14 years as a monk, my faith in personal experiences (of gods and the supernatural) went unchallenged by outside viewpoints. My beliefs were protected and reinforced in the castled walls of certainty and religious community. As a humble, obedient monk I lived in the security and comfort of my own beliefs, devotion, and faith. In the beginning, it was a blind syrupy obedience, an unquestioning loyalty commingled with adoration for our sacred, mystical gods, saints, and gurus. The outside world was a delusion. Renunciation was a withdrawal into seclusion. Cloistered community with faith was king.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War
In my ashram of faith, I temporarily escaped the world and it’s diversity of contradictory ideas. For me, isolation was intentional, faithful. My monk buddies, fellow ashramites and members of the Self-Realization Fellowship religious organization were my protective bubble. But, lack of different perspectives shielded me from truly knowing myself. Ironic, because I joined for self-realization. Without a diversity of clashing and wildly contradictory viewpoints I was doomed to be stuck within the confines of my narrow ashram faith beliefs. No amount of cosmic soaring into meditation would expand my mind beyond my sterilized environment.
But for the grace of chance, that could still be me, inside the SRF monastery walls, sitting in my closed ashram cell, meditating, self-realizing, stuck, fearful, and unable to escape, because of fear; and only fear would have kept me inside the confines of the ashram. I thought I had joined for life. But, after 5-7 years the small space began to feel like death. Mine. A slow, stifling death of my own heart and mind. The sad part is, but for chance I could have convinced myself to stay, to remain a monk, to be loyal and devoted to the faith. How could fear and faith occupy the same space?
Fear and Delusion: Strange Bedfellows with Faith
During my meditations as a sincere Self-Realization Fellowship monk, I would affirm our guru-founder Paramahansa Yogananda’s words: “Fearlessness means faith in God: faith in His protection, His justice, His wisdom, His mercy, His love, His omnipresence. The spiritually intrepid devotee is mightily armed against any foe that obstructs advancement. Disbelief and doubt, delusion’s first line of attack, are summarily routed by undaunted faith”. [Emphasis mine].
Odd thing is, no matter how many hours I meditated and affirmed my faith and fearlessness in god or guru, I couldn’t get rid of my nagging doubts and disbelief. Today, I see fearlessness has absolutely nothing to do with faith– that is, unless a person is delusional, a psychopath, or a suicide bomber. Fearlessness has everything to do with facing reality head on, exposing myself to different ideas, and to contradictory perspectives. Fearlessness came as a result of harsh examination of my faith despite fear– and the willingness to question and argue over Satan, hell, gods, gurus, and prophets.
You may argue about the details, but there is a commonality to the underlying arguments of faiths and cults. You could protest, “Not mine, not my faith. You were the one who lived in an ashram monastery and had strange religion”. However, I’ve seen both sides of the arguments between apostles and atheists, Christians versus New Age mystics, and the classic arguments for existence for gods (Goldstein). It’s been said that fear and faith cannot occupy the same space. But, I contend that faith requires fear to exist. The kind of fear that believes in invisible boogey men who go bump in the night. We need a more mature and reliable thought process.
The Life of the Mind (Questions, Arguments, Doubt) Is In Opposition to Faith
“The life of the mind can be in opposition to faith”, says LDS senior high priest and historian Marlin Jensen in PBS documentary ‘The Mormons’. I agree emphatically. Challenging your mind and beliefs can be dangerous to cultish faith and superstition. In Amish there’s a word: “uffgevve”, which means to give in, or to give up, to give up yourself. One former Amish woman, named Saloma, confided: “When I went to my first communion [church] service, the bishop said, ‘Each individual grain must give up its individuality to become part of this loaf of bread. And in that same way, each of us must give up our individuality to become part of the community [cult]’ (The Amish: Shunned)”. How much of your mind do you give up for faith?
I see no virtue in raw faith, quite the contrary. Faith doesn’t lead to fearlessness. Raw faith requires that we hide from reality to deny it’s opposing viewpoints. Faith needs fear to survive. Faith can be a kind of cult, closed to outside evidence, indifferent to different perspectives. The degree of distinction between a religious movement and a cult is its impact upon members’ lives. Cults limit lives into narrow, claustrophobic existences whose singular purpose is the cult itself (Tamm).
Suicide bombers could be said to be the most faithful and the most delusional: the ultimate, fanatical, sacrificial cult.
Fearlessness Embraces Questions, Doubt, and Uncertainty
Should I have faith the “true” bible is Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi? Do I give my faith allegiance to an eternal yogi Babaji and resurrected master Sri Yukteswar who is supposed to live in the astral world of Hiranyaloka? Or, should I believe Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon and his divine revelations from the angel Moroni? Maybe, put my faith in a Koran, certain that Muhammad is THE last prophet? In Moses of the Torah? The New Testament of a resurrected Jesus? In Egyptian or Tibetan Books of the Dead? They can’t all be right. Too many contradictions. But, they could all be wrong!
Fearlessness means doubt in gods, gurus, priests, saints, holy books, and withholding unwarranted belief in all their personal, subjective, supernatural claims. Fearlessness is not afraid to scrutinize claims and demand sufficient, objective evidence from the claimants. Why do we accept these claims on faith or religious authority alone? If we succumb we’ve lost the battle for our own minds. Disbelief and doubt, are the skeptic’s first line of defense and protection from the onslaught of irrationality, intolerance, and bigotry. Faith and certainty are the delusion. A brute fact, but invaluable, life-lesson learned.
Knowing ourselves, our own arguments, and our opponent’s arguments will only make us stronger: a fearlessness that is open to different ideas from our own and one that faces reality, not wishful thinking. “Belief and faith are such intoxicants that logical reason and facts become blurry and nonsensical” (Espejo). Faith can be a foe that obstructs advancement.
Yesterday, I discussed my coming out as a former monk, in a podcast interview with Troy Fitzgerald, founder of Secular Safe House and author of Cults and Closets: Coming Out of Chaos. During our conversation Troy shared:
“When I first realized that maybe I wasn’t straight, that I had been in a cult and living in a bubble, this guy gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. He said, ‘Get to know as many people as possible who are different from you’. It’s really true. The more I exposed myself to people who think differently– from different cultures, from different religious backgrounds, just different perspectives and NOT the same organization, the same cult, or the same way of thinking– that’s when my growth really started, when I started connecting with people who were different from me and my experience.” [Listen to the interview between Troy and me]
The process of understanding our foe’s arguments and the willingness to examine our own requires fearlessness.
Key questions requiring fearlessness and understanding of ourselves and others:
Do I understand my own arguments? Do I allow myself and my beliefs to be challenged by people and ideas that are different from my own and my experiences?
How is faith a reliable method or process for examining if claims or arguments are valid?
Can fearlessness be a product of my faith? Or, does fearlessness come from examining my beliefs without attachment to them (Burden of Proof: QualiaSoup)?
I realized, that in this post, I’ve not offered constructive alternatives to faith (eg. like skeptical thinking methods, or humanist philosophies). However, in future posts, I plan to discuss ways we can move to replace faith with more rational, humanist, and productive alternatives.
I welcome your feedback and comments.
Check out works cited below and explore further.
The Amish: Shunned. PBS: American Experience. 4 Feb 2014. Web Video. 8 Feb 2014.
Autobiography of a Yogi. Yogananda, Paramahansa. Ch 33 “Babaji, Yogi–Christ of Modern India” & Ch 43 “The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar”. Self–Realization Fellowship. 1998. Print. 2 Feb 2014.
Burden of Proof. QualiaSoup. 25 Apr 2012. Web Video. 6 Feb 2014.
Cults and Closets. A World of Cults and Closets. 27 Dec 2013. Web. 8 Feb 2014.
Espejo, Roman. Cults. Opposing Viewpoint Series. Gale Cengage Learning. 2013. Farmington Hills, MI. Print.
Fitzgerald, Troy. Interview with Scott – Self–Realization Fellowship Monastic Order (Ashram Monk). Coming Out Conversations. Podcast, Episode 15. 6 Feb 2014. Web. 7 Feb 2014.
Holy Bible. Matthew 16:23. King James Version. Web. 1 Feb 2014.
Tamm, Jayanti. “Cults Are Harmful and Extreme Religious Groups (“What is a Cult?” Huffington Post. 14 Apr 2011). Viewpoint 1 from Espejo, Roman. Cults. Opposing Viewpoint Series. Gale Cengage Learning. 2013. Farmington Hills, MI. Print.
The Mormons. Interview with Marlin Jensen. PBS, American Experience: Frontline. 2007. Web Video. 3 Feb 2014.
Goldstein, Rebecca. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The classical arguments and perspectives on their flaws. PDF. Web. 10 Oct 2013
Sun Tzu. Art of War. 3:18. Web. 2 Feb 2104.
Yogananda, Paramahansa. “The Right Understanding of Scriptural Guidance for the Conduct of Life: Embracing the Divine and Shunning the Demonic.” God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, The Royal Science of God Realization. Ch 16. Self-Realization Fellowship. 1999. Print. 2 Feb 2014.