Cult of Personality
A dangerous influence promoted by governments and religions is the cult of personality. A personality cult is traditionally understood to be a cult promoting adoration of a national leader or public figure. Joseph Stalin, Gandhi, Jesus, the Pope, and even the Western version of Buddha are excellent examples of these personality cults. Cult personalities are put on a level of absolute wisdom, power, and even divinity. Christian churches have propagated personality cults from their beginning. From early church fathers to Popes to saints, Christians love to idolize humans.
Jesus isn’t remotely mentioned in the Old Testament and therefore the Jews to this day stand by the very first commandment:
You shall have no other gods before me. (Ex 20:3)
“No other gods” includes Jesus. Ironically, worshipping prophets and saints is a form of personality cult which in turn is traditionally known as idolatry. As with many religious laws and dogma, idolatry is a sin that is condemned by religious people and is then committed mostly by the religious people. A common example of this is when believers follow people instead of their alleged god. Their leaders are prophets, priests, pastors, gurus, and other religious leaders. Followers lay down their lives to these religious icons who have heard from god. They simply defer to another human’s will. This is nothing short of idolatry as defined by many religions. If you want to offend God, then put another god before him, etc. Gary Lenaire, An Infidel Manifesto: Why Sincere Believers Lose Faith, p. 216
Religion often makes its fatal turn when absolutely glorifying its leaders. Early Christians, known as the Jesus Movement, were far more interested in Jesus’ teaching as a school of thought than Jesus as a personal leader. Other Christians focused on the person of Jesus. Much of the early Gnostic teachings and books were condemned by the Constantine-led Council of Nicaea. As a result, many of those books were rejected from the Bible. The New Testament Bible is the epitome of personality cult because it completely focuses on the deification of one person: Jesus Christ.
Personality cults can be so subtle that most of the followers are not even aware that it is happening. I think one of the best (and unlikely) examples of modern-day personality cult is that of Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Rand was a very gifted philosopher who made many articulate observations:
Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it … Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch — or build a cyclotron — without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957, p. 1012
Ayn Rand is a very important read. Perhaps take some time and read Atlas Shrugged (1957). She wrote it on 1,168 pages so the lazy, dull-minded folks wouldn’t bother reading. If you doubt her relevance to modern reality then read Atlas and then compare it with the oil, water, and food situation in the world today. She knew exactly what she was saying and to whom she was saying it to. In 1962 Rand summarized the core of her philosophy:
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
Ayn Rand, Introducing Objectivism, Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1962
Her philosophy, which she coined Objectivism, was not an exact science, however. Though her core views seem very plausible, there is an element in her teachings that gave root to a cultish following. Michael Shermer made this observation:
The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be true, that is the end of the discussion. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics. Michael Shermer, Skeptic vol. 2, no. 2, 1993
Notice the very close similarities between Objectivism and Fundamentalism. I grant that there is a chance that the very brilliant Ayn Rand was galaxies closer to the idea of objective truth than most humans and therefore the cultish fallout is due to the young, ignorant, and fanatical disciples exploiting her—much like the Christ Cult exploited an alleged carpenter from Nazareth. Either way, we must not succumb to the constant tendency to place nature’s enormous and wonderful truths upon the shoulders of a single person or group. People commit errors while nature at large is necessarily indifferent to error.
Take a moment and look Rand up on the internet. The Ayn Rand Institute is a good place to find some people who, in my opinion, are wrapped up in a cultish Objectivist fallout. Here are some of the documented precepts published by a close friend and follower of Rand:
§ Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
§ Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
§ Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
§ Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one's virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.
§ No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns. Nathaniel Branden, Judgment Day, p. 255
Like fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, the Ayn Rand Objectivists really dislike their prophet being represented in a way that differs with their current understanding or “traditional” views of her. The Rand followers assume (at least) two things: 1. that they completely understand what Ayn Rand wrote and said and 2. that their understanding cannot be changed in any way. How many times has the teachings ascribed to Jesus been changed, interpreted, reinterpreted, dismantled, and reconstructed over the last 2000 years? Many, many times. The same will most likely hold true for Rand’s teachings. Her philosophy is subject to the same hourglass scrutiny as any other philosophy. Like Moses, Aristotle, Jesus, and Spinoza, Rand’s words will stand or fall based on this free market of ideas.
I think Ayn Rand’s epistemology was for the most part sound and at the very least important. I also agree with Rand that reality is objective; nature is what it is, regardless of my observation and knowledge of it. And yes, 1+1 objectively equal 2. However, when individuals or groups tout that they have reached complete and exhaustive knowledge then that’s when cult-like attributes give rise to elitism. As I have said before, if you are absolutely certain about something then you are absolutely done discovering anything else about it. Since nature is a big place, better to keep your claims of knowledge within context of human senses. Humor and perhaps a little humility is also good things to remember.
Rand’s Objectivist stance seemed to permeate everything she stood for. As a musician I have a very intimate relationship with music. It moves me to deeper places than anything I can describe to you. It is, to me, beauty beyond words. Rand’s view of her own Objectivism blurred her view of how that beauty might impact someone other than her (which defeats the trans-identity and multifaceted impact of song):
The absurd lengths to which such thinking can go is demonstrated by Rand's pronounced judgments on her followers of even the most trivial things. Rand had argued, for example, that musical taste could not be objectively defined, yet, as Barbara Branden observed, “if one of her young friends responded as she did to Rachmaninoff . . . she attached deep significance to their affinity.” By contrast, if a friend did not respond as she did to a certain piece or composer, Rand “left no doubt that she considered that person morally and psychologically reprehensible.” Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand's remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. “When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, 'Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.' Often, she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks.” Michael Shermer, Skeptic vol. 2, no. 2, 1993, quotes from Nathaniel Branden, Judgment Day, p. 268
Rand’s opinionated tastes are not what concern me here. There is an aspect of Rand’s philosophy that is perhaps not so obvious. Her romantic affinity in artistic expression sought out a superhero future while negating the present moment. In an interview with Phil Donahue she cited the characters on the television show Charlie’s Angels as more interesting because they are not actually real but super heroes.
Donahue: “You’re not crazy, then, about art that reflects life.”
Rand: “Not the life of the moment. I want art that reflects life long range.”
The Phil Donahue Show, http://youtube.com/watch?v=FzGFytGBDN8
Ayn unwittingly fell for an extremely subtle but powerful form of denial. This is a construct of rejection that is primary and foundational—a platform for future, more elaborate and conspicuous forms of detachment. This is the religious meme at it most cunning and covert. Had not a genius like Rand fallen for it I may have missed it myself. It’s not a religious faith, it’s an infatuation in an other, heroic, super-world that isn’t ours—it isn’t actual reality. Rand’s artistic affections revealed her detachment from the moment—the very present that our most honest, immediate, and vulnerable selves live in. That wonderfully real thing we call “in the moment” is the purest and most genuine observation of nature we have been able to achieve as humans. It is in that consciously present instance that we are noble.
Religious faith seeks the same outcomes. It draws people away from actual nature and propels them into dogmatic fantasy. As I have said before, imaginative fantasy is a wonderful thing until it imposes itself onto practical reality. Or worse, mandates its parishioner’s conduct with silly mythological principles. Rand’s extreme bias for her own artistic taste is very reminiscent of religious absolutism. That’s because of her misplaced sense of what art really is: a human interpretation of reality, which includes all of nature’s present moments and fantasized futures. An imbalanced detachment from the moment easily leads to a detachment of nature which easily leads to cultish absolutism. Rand’s imbalanced artistic opinions were reflections of her philosophic Objectivist worldview.
The Rand cronies will most likely dismiss me on all of this. They will probably wax heroic while explaining Rand as “looking to a noble future” and “aspiring to the greatest of human possibilities” in her artistic precepts. Perhaps that is true but Rand made real mistakes like the rest of us. She wasn’t so genius that she could constantly recall all of her exquisite calculations. She, like millions of other people, had an affair while married and had social problems. She got sick and then she eventually died. She was human, that is, imperfect…mortal. She was not a superhero. She was not the greatest human who ever lived (as if such a distinction could be made). She was, however, a very important thinker, especially in her epistemological contributions.
At Northeastern University in 1971 Rand stated that homosexuality is “immoral” and “disgusting.” Ayn Rand Biographical FAQ: Ayn Rand and Homosexuality Do I need to remind any thinker out there that same sex relationships are between consenting adult choices? The gender I choose to sexually encounter is no more important than any other gender choice—it is simply my choice and the choice of my partner. It’s only gender, folks, let it go. Rand stated that “there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality” because “it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises.” Ayn Rand Biographical FAQ: Ayn Rand and Homosexuality Ayn Rand, in my opinion, was a homophobe. Like many philosophers, she was sometimes susceptible to the local and passing pressures of contemporary culture.
As a race of biological sentient beings we are most likely a mere spec in reality—a microscopic thread in time, an eventually forgotten occurrence in the stifling eons of space. In order to deeply, intimately, and (most valuable to us) memorably feel this very moment is not either under or overrated, it simply…is. What I am saying is that the closer and more frequent those real moments become the more powerful you become…powerful in the discipline or deception you choose.
More than often it is the followers of governments and religions that construct, promote, and enforce the absolute truths of their cult leader. The Jesus Christ cult of personality is the most successful in history. The teachings attributed to Jesus have some good things to say coupled with teachings that make for a great personality cult. In my view, faith combined with personality cults is the highest form of delusion accepted by mainstream society. That is a perpetual problem. Once we identify cultic leaders and their venerated teachings then we can begin the important process of cleaning the wasteful and dulling effects of faith from our minds.
The object of religious faith, whatever brand you choose, is a spiritual reference point for holiness:
Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Mohammad, Gandhi, The Pope (to name a few) are all religious icons. They are objects of faith, morality, and wisdom. The words ascribed to them echo through the ages. When we dedicate our conscience to the teaching ascribed to a certain figure, that figure becomes our reference for morality. We can actually (and often do) imagine that person when our conscience feels guilty. For example, in Christianity, the Holy Spirit convicts you when you think or do something wrong.
This is also true for other religions. Many religious people feel their god is displeased when they think or do something contrary to their religious teaching. This is because they have committed their conscience to a religious doctrine. They feel the guilt in their conscience when doing wrong. When we dedicate ourselves to a teaching we then feel the morality of it in our conscience. We also feel the guilt in our conscience. Gary Lenaire, An Infidel Manifesto: Why Sincere Believers Lose Faith, pp. 218-219
Christianity is the most powerfully attractive cult of personality in history. With over 2 billion professing followers, it rules the religious world.
I witnessed Pope Benedict XVI address the American people in April 2008. The power he wielded was underrated by many people in the world. Nuclear weapons are dangerous but the Pope’s arsenal is equally prolific. Why? Because the cult of his personality raises him to an objective, comprehensive, and ultimate truth. People of faith have abandoned their natural perception in exchange for unnatural, unverified, and cultic belief. Their concept of truth is actually based on an absence of truth. Protestants and Catholic alike suffer this mental enslavement: Catholics follow the Pope as absolute truth; Protestants follow the Bible’s Jesus myth as absolute truth. Both share the same result: a denying of nature in exchange for a super-nature. Again, if you remove nature from your conception then you remove all logical reference to reality. Because there is nothing known other than nature, the Christian faith is contradictory and therefore false.