Monday, May 16, 2016

As an Atheist, Can I Trust True Believers in American Politics?

The 2016 primary season has cluttered my Facebook feed with cultish posts by supporters of Bernie Sanders.  While I agree with almost everything Sanders has said or done, and I would love to see our first openly secular president take office in January, the cultish nature of his fanclub has given me the willies. They are so unquestioning, paranoid and insular that they are starting to remind me of religious cults.

 And since I have a variety of friends, I have also seen cultishness on the other side.  They want to "Take America Back."  Blech!  And I also have friends who are extremely religious.  I haven't seen any political posts from them lately.  Ted Cruz's theology would have been appealing, but well... he's ugly.  Yes, it matters.  I am interested to see if his failure represents the death knell of fundamentalist political power or if he was just the wrong person for them.  Was George W. Bush the peak of their power?  After selling out the economy and jacking up the national debt with an unnecessary war, could it be that politicians who are "on a mission from God" are now laughingstocks, even among conservatives?

Well, I hope that political trend is over, but I'm not a big fan of Messianic leaders on the left either.

From a list of the qualities of a destructive cult, Bernie supporters among my friends have demonstrated those in italics:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
  • The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.  -- No, but if you disagree, expect to be unfriended.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
Many of these do not apply, but the unwavering devotion, pressure to put in time phone-banking and knocking on doors, the attitude that they represent a "movement" that is superior, and relentless fund-raising and prosletyzing are true.

My friends who have become involved in Bernie's "movement" had not previously been involved in politics, or didn't even pay attention to it.  Now they're experts.  They're like teenagers who attended a Christian rock concert, went to an altar call, then couldn't shut up about Jesus even though they've never read the Bible, studied doctrine, or belonged to a real church.  They don't understand the primary system, and they can't see why a guy who joins the Democratic party just to be able to run for president on their side doesn't have the whole-hearted approval of people who have poured their hearts into the party for decades.  They are True Believers, zealous new converts set out to convert even more to their (supposedly) morally superior leader.


  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.  
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.


  • Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality




  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
Every political candidate has to make money, but it seems the Sanders supporters are constantly reminding each other to make a donation, and they make a point of letting each other know when they've donated.  Unfortunately, a lot of them haven't studied election law and they have gone beyond the maximum individual donation of $2,700 per person.  And he has been too slow to send them refunds.  As a leader, and someone whose main platform is economic, shouldn't he 1) teach his naïve followers how to do this and 2) follow the law?

So... I find this campaign very creepy.  Sanders is no Messiah, and he's not running for King, yet he promises a "revolution" and promises to change things that can't be reversed with a flick of a finger. Vilifying the very rich and powerful borders on demagoguery.  The very rich will simply move their assets to off-shore accounts, or to The Netherlands (as Bono & U2 did).

I don't know Trump's followers well at all (thank the FSM!) but he has overpromised on so much that's totally impractical I have started to see the two campaigns as two sides of the same coin.  Being sure of yourself and unwilling to change is a good quality sometimes never.  As a skeptic I base decisions on facts and evidence, not dogma.  My best guess about Trump's dogma would be that he merely believes in his own intellectual superiority.  In Bernie's case, he believes in his moral superiority.  I see willingness to look at alternative points of view and gather evidence and change one's mind as a positive, not a negative, yet a Bernie-or-bust friend on Facebook vilified Hillary Clinton for supporting Goldwater over 50 years ago, when she wasn't even old enough to vote!  (I responded that she also changed her mind from shitting in her diapers to going potty on the toilet, but he never answered that one)

Religious zealotry is dangerous not because it's religious, but because it's zealotry.  2016 is making me very queasy.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good post. (Aren't they all...as long as you agree!!) And great to see you posting once again. Always good to see posts by a fellow Hoosier who isn't blinkered by conservative fundamentalism! It ain't always easy to find one.

LadyAtheist said...

Thanks. Likewise.

I try not to be blinkered by anything, if possible.