Cults and Conversion Narratives

            There are three main positions you can take that will inevitably spark an argument where I’m from. And the people who jump up to disagree always do so with the same strategy: they tell a story. If you tell people here you’re an economic liberal, you may get a brief refresher course on supply side theory, but when you continue to disagree after hearing it, a story will inexorably follow which features the storyteller as a hero battling his or her way up from poverty into the proud and comfortable middle class. The implication is supposed to be that since the storyteller made it, it must be possible for everybody to make it. Hence financial safety nets and programs for the poor funded by the rich must be misguided ideas bound to fail.

            If you tell people you don’t believe in any god, there’s a slight chance you’ll get some inarticulate rehashing of the Argument from Design, but you’re much more likely to get a story. On this topic, there’s quite a bit of variety in the stories people tell. If the storyteller doesn’t have any loved ones who have died, you’ll likely get a story about an encounter with the supernatural. These stories always end with a statement along the lines of “There’s just no way to explain that,” or “There’s no way that could’ve been a coincidence.” But if the storyteller has had a loved one die, the story will be about how that loved one managed somehow to communicate with him or her from beyond the grave to let them know “they’re okay,” and “they’re waiting for me.” This supposedly proves there’s life after death, which somehow supposedly establishes the fact that some all-powerful deity presides over it.

            If you tell someone you don’t accept the theory of repressed memories, or point to evidence that there’s nothing especially damaging about childhood sexual abuse when compared to any other form of child abuse, you’ll first be called some choice names, then you’ll be accused of pedophilia yourself, and then finally you’ll get the poor woman’s story. There’s a lot of variation to these stories as well. But of course they all feature a male character in the role of evildoer. And they all end with a statement about how the storyteller continues to struggle with the resulting emotional turmoil and haunting memories to this day. (Repression and Severe Personality Disturbance from CSA are myths 13 and 34, respectively, in 50 Great Myths of Pop Psychology.)

            No matter which of the three topics you’re discussing, the storyteller will feel exhilarated at first because it seldom happens that they get a chance to spout wisdom to someone so hopelessly naïve. If you hold any of these three unpopular positions, you’ll get to hear lots and lots of stories, as if each storyteller is convinced theirs will be the story that finally converts you. But when you respond to their stories with alternative theories, describe ingeniously designed experiments, rattle off statistics, they’ll start to get uncomfortable. The next stage of the discussion will invariably entail the storyteller making a straw man of you: because you don’t answer their stories with your own, it’s assumed you don’t have any, and the reason is plain—you spend all your time reading. What follows will be a disparagement of “book learning,” an angry dismissal of what “you learned in some book,” and the general suggestion that you’ve lived your life sealed up in an Ivory Tower.

            I am a humanist. I believe the best we can do for humanity is to spread enlightenment principles as far and wide and as in depth as possible. That’s why I’m skeptical of all these conversion narratives. It’s not just that the evidence doesn’t support them. Each one of them implicitly conveys a message of tribalism. The hero of the rags-to-republican story is suggesting he or she made it because they were virtuous, that the people who don’t make it have only themselves to blame. And don’t get them started on that shadowy outgroup, the government. It’s us versus them and we’re better. The very basis of our ideas of good and evil rests on our innate proclivity to confuse the abstract with the supernatural. If you establish that even one supernatural event has occurred, you’ve simultaneously proven that some cosmic order underlies all existence. There are believers and infidels, saints and sinners. And if nearly every young girl in the world is living in the shadow of molestation by some unredeemable male predator then we must all mobilize to do battle against this great evil. You’re either with us or you’re one of them.

            I do not accept the idea that man is fallen, or that humans are. As a humanist, I believe that we are the most exulted beings on the planet, and quite likely among the most exulted beings in the universe. We need to act on behalf of humanity, not for some invisible entity whose interests can never be known, not for any subgroup we see as superior by dint of our individual membership in it. If you can only defend your beliefs with conversion narratives, then you are a member of a cult. And our division into such cults is precisely the impediment we need to overcome. The solution to problems like war and poverty and child abuse lies not in converting more members to this or that cult, but in our ingenuity and imagination. Just look what we’ve accomplished. Imagine what else we could accomplish.

            Are all these conversion narratives completely false then? Personality psychologist Dan McAdams, in his book The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, describes identity as “an inner story of the self that integrates the reconstructed past, perceived present, and anticipated future to provide a life with unity, purpose, and meaning.” To an adult, childhood is a welter of floating details and vague impressions. McAdams suggests that at some point we structure all this ambiguity into a set of narratives. Every time we recall an event we reinterpret or “reconstruct” it, making our memories much more malleable than most of us are comfortable admitting. The problem comes in as we reconstruct the past into a narrative that gives us purpose. Too often that purpose consists of recognizing or acknowledging evil and thenceforth doing battle against it. What we fail to realize is that the supposed evildoers have their own narratives.

            The culture in which we develop our identities provides the raw material of wider narratives for us to sample. Sometime in our late teens or early twenties, we chose elements from one or two of these and subsequently go back in time to carve the formless block of our pasts into sculptures we want to resemble ourselves. (This happened for me when at twenty-two I read Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.) Some of our memories may better lend themselves to integration into particular narratives, so it’s not as though our pasts have no bearing on who we become. But it’s also probably true that we overestimate the significance of any given experience because it’s hard to accept how insignificant most experiences are. Such thinking leads to existentialism, a doubting of all purpose. But I have a purpose. I am a humanist. I especially enjoy a good story—just not one with good guys and bad guys.