The Price We Pay - A Closer Look

San Diego Source/April 8, 1997
By Mike Fredenburg

In science and indeed in everyday life we depend upon certain things being true. We have faith.

A scientist implicitly or explicitly believes in the principle of repeatability -- if you do something and repeat it under the exact same conditions you will get the same results. We expect the gravitational constant to be the same tomorrow. We expect the weak and strong nuclear forces to be the same tomorrow. We cannot prove that anything will be the same even one second into the future. Nevertheless, no reasonable person would argue it is unreasonable to assume repeatability and move ahead on faith. A very reasonable, rational faith, with a lot of evidence to support it, but faith nonetheless.

On the other extreme is a belief that is held with no evidence or even with evidence against it. Often such beliefs will be religious in nature. Various religions have sprung up around central figures who have set themselves up as purveyors of God's truth and/or the ultimate reality. These same purveyors would make concrete predictions about specific events happening. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses predicted the second coming of Christ on numerous occasions along with a myriad of other predictions. None of which have come to pass. This is all a matter of public record and available to anyone who cares to investigate. This has not stopped the JW's tremendous growth.

Marshall Herff Applewhite, the charismatic leader of Heaven's Gate, also made various claims about reality and the afterlife. To be fair his followers had less evidence that he was wrong than followers of some of the bigger more established cults.

Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician, and an orthodox Christian, once commented that every man has a God-shaped hole in the soul that can only be filled by God. If this is true, then perhaps the explosive growth in cults comes as a result of people rejecting traditional Christianity only to find that the hole in the soul remains. They still have that need, and at particular times in their life they are going to be more susceptible to cults as they attempt to fill the void.

In the United States the vast majority of cults attach the word Christianity to their name, but almost uniformly reject the most basic of Christian tenets that Christ is the one and only God. There are exceptions to this rule. The Boston Church of Christ is fairly orthodox in its doctrine regarding who Christ is, but practices the mind control and coercion common to cults. Besides monitoring their members' finances, their dating habits, where they live, etc., etc., the Boston Church of Christ also claims to be the one true Christian church, i.e. the Catholic's church and other Protestant churches are highways to hell. The local instantiation of the Boston Church of Christ is the San Diego Church of Christ.

Just sit down in a park or a college campus and you have a good chance of having a conversation with a San Diego Church of Christ member. They are very sincere about their being the one true physical church. Applewhite's followers were really, really sincere as well. But they were sincerely, tragically wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Yes, there is the logical possibility that they might have been right, but what is logically possible is often no where near rational.

Fortunately, Jonestown and Heaven's Gate are not the rule when it comes to cults. The San Diego Church of Christ isn't calling its members to commit suicide. Neither are the Jehovah's Witnesses or any number of other cults. Calls for more investigations of cults and their religious beliefs are not warranted. As much as we may not like it, people do have the right to believe in wacky things. Certainly, the government should not be the arbiter of what is and what is not reasonable when it comes to religious beliefs.

Perhaps the law ought to provide some leniency when it comes to actions taken by family members to break a family member away from a cult. Such desperate actions would have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by a jury. If family members could convince a jury that their actions were reasonable given the dangerous nature of a particular cult's beliefs, they would be acquitted or at least treated leniently. On the other hand a jury might decide they were out of line. This is the risk family members would have to take.

Perhaps the best thing that could be done is to return to a curriculum where critical thinking skills are taught. This would provide a sharp contrast to the mindless cynicism too often preached in the schools today.

It is imminently rationale and logical to believe in God and some kind of afterlife, but that does not mean all beliefs about such matters are equal. Human beings do have the ability to think rationally. Any religion making such claims about ultimate reality ought to be able to defend itself on a variety of levels whether it be philosophic, historic or scientific.

Heaven's Gate was a tragedy. Thirty-nine people took their lives based on a belief in a lie. Unfortunately, Heaven's Gate is part of the price we pay for living in a free society.

Mike Fredenburg is the founding president of the Adam Smith Institute.

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