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Rocks and Viruses

I’ve been thinking a lot about where the line is between a religion and a cult, or a philosophy and an ideology. I think it is obvious that the main differentiator is the individual – do you need your beliefs to be simple and dogmatic, or can you engage in critical discourse? Does your relationship to the world change, or is it fixed?

But what about the nature of the belief system itself? How does it deal with challenges? Both political parties in the US have changed tremendously over the past 100 years. Sometimes one or the other seemed more dogmatic and purist, but sooner or later that purism was fractured by reality and the changing demands of society. So the two party system has continued, in spite of massive changes in the values and demographics of American society. At the same time, more extreme and ideological political systems, such as Communism, have largely failed. Pure, unadulterated capitalism has also failed. I guess I should say how I define failure – I believe a system has failed when basic ethical norms are regularly violated and are not adequately punished or prohibited by the system.

Democracy (theoretically) allows for self-correction, adaptation, change, and most importantly, ongoing challenges by members of the system. Any system that prohibits these things and threatens to harm or dissociate itself with those who challenge it is what I would consider a simplistic, dogmatic system. That’s when it enters the realm of cult or ideology for me. I think that the fact that the Bush administration is so far out of favor now is a testament to our system’s resistance to reverting to an ideology. The tension between the parties MUST continue to exist in order for our country to continue to mature.

I think an interesting analogy (and I ripped this off from Neal Stephenson) is the idea of viruses. An organism that is going to survive for the long term is one that can sustain multiple attacks from external sources – environmental and viral. It adapts, builds antibodies, evolves. If you apply this to a social system, cults don’t have much in the way of antibodies. They isolate themselves from critics, define themselves as “special” or “chosen” in some way, and those individuals involved must either turn all their energies towards accepting and supporting the beliefs of the group, or risk expulsion. I think one of the main features most conspicuously lacking in cult-like organizations is humility. From the Nazis to the Branch Davidians to Scientologists, you’re not likely to see members of these groups involved in any kind of public or academic discourse on the nature of their beliefs, and I suspect this is because these systems have no immune system. Belief in a superior race or creed does not lend itself well to humble self-examination, which doesn’t leave much room for testing and debate.

Compare this to Christianity or Buddhism, and you see organizations that have evolved, broken apart, re-formed, adapted, changed, and are very much a part of the intellectual and spiritual development of the human race. I am not claiming that there are no Christian or Buddhist factions or individuals that are dogmatic and ideological, but the systems themselves have proven over 2000+ years that they can withstand change and growth.

So my litmus test for an organization of any kind is, can you throw rocks at it? Can you test and question the beliefs, and do the members of the group regularly examine their own ethics and behavior based on those beliefs? If rock-throwing is taboo, then it’s probably not a system I really want any part of. But if rock-throwing is encouraged, if the system does not fear viruses but welcomes adaptation and change, then it just might be worth checking out.

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