Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Part 3 - Divine Deviation: Religious Excesses & Eccentricities


Religions are undoubtedly responsible for many of mankind’s most elevated thoughts and actions and even today in our rapidly secularising world their precepts underpin most basic civilised values. Ironically, though, and precisely because they have always reflected the complexity of human needs and emotions, their contribution has never been entirely and universally beneficial. The Inverse Law that operates between certainty and reasonableness comes into play here. It seems that, because religious beliefs are usually accompanied by a high degree of conviction, they are particularly prone to deviate into objectively unreasonable behaviour. In fact it is safe to ay that, at some time or other, every imaginable error, perversion and crime has been acted out in a religious context, or justified by religious doctrines. It is a sad commentary on the human condition that, down the ages, those acting in the name of inspired ideals have been responsible for uncounted abuses and every variety of peculiar (and downright nasty) conduct …

There will always be a measure of uncertainty around the matter of what constitutes 'deviant' as distinct from 'normal' behaviour in any social setting, but the ambiguities loom particularly large in the religious sphere, where, for instance, mental instability may be taken as a sign of divine inspiration; where masochistic practices might be interpreted as a token of saintliness; where bigotry can be seen as a zealous pursuit of the truth; and where arguments over the minutiae of religious dogma can easily become an all-important, all-consuming preoccupation. There is, moreover, a high degree of moral relativism in religious matters (as in most other areas of human behaviour). This means that an important article of faith in one religious context can be entirely irrelevant in another; an event or person that is absolutely central to one set of beliefs, meaningless in another, and so on. But, as indicated, there seems to be one constant that applies across the whole subject, namely, that the greater the degree of certainty in any these matters, the more extravagant the actions that may be undertaken on their behalf - and, of course, the greater the departure from original precepts that may follow. As a result, the house of religious folly is many-mansioned.

In situations where people feel that they have little or no control over events they still try to understand what is happening to them; and they also feel the need to do something, whether it is objectively effective or not. This response underlies both magical and religious practices (and also happens to be a common reaction of the obviously deranged). But it means that Faith is never tied to Reason. In fact faith and credulity often arise and flourish precisely in those circumstances where rational explanations and a reasoned response are felt to be inadequate. For a true believer, the faith that defies rationality can indeed be a positive demonstration of virtue - obviously though, this response can also open the door to every kind of irrational and excessive behaviour.

The whole question of what constitutes unreasonable behaviour in a religious context will always be open to controversy. What indeed is ‘deviancy’ when an entire community seems to go off the rails, when, as sometimes happens, they become fixated on a particular set of ideas which, by any objective criteria, are incoherent, or foolish, or even immoral? Ultimately, the driving force behind every kind of religious activity, whether on an individual or group level, seems always to be bound up with the need to establish identity and meaning. This need can be so great as to induce believers into accepting all kinds of strange precepts, and can involve them in uncomfortable, and sometimes extreme, activities.

The resort to masochistic practices, for example, can be found in a whole range of religious settings. The reckless enthusiasm of the early Christian martyrs and the horrible self-mutilation of Hindu ascetics spring immediately to mind. In modern psychological terms the sort of neurotic activities involving agitated depression and self-mutilation are now characterised as ‘learned behaviour’, and is not even an exclusively human trait since it is found in other of the higher primates. But the notion that abasement or indignity, or even self-sacrifice, is in some way satisfying to God (or the Gods), is entirely our own. There is a common causal factor however; serious self-harm usually follows from sustained stressful experiences of some kind. Generally speaking, it is at times of personal or public crisis that the ‘remedies’ of self-abnegation and self-inflicted injury are adopted.

Masochism and cultural neuroticism are perhaps the most flamboyant, but are not of course the only unreasonable aspect of religious activity. The common failings of greed, hypocrisy, rivalry, personal aggrandisement, domination and sexual shenanigans, can all be found in various religious settings, and all feature in the following accounts. In fact, matters of faith are so frequently associated with negative behaviour of one kind or another as to make it difficult to unravel any purely religious sentiments from these less honourable impulses.

Religious beliefs are always completely bound up with notions of personal and cultural identity. Every version, every set of beliefs derive from a distinct time and place and occupies a particular stream of cultural history, but of course these beliefs and values are usually identified with in a highly personal way by individual believers. However arcane the creed, however intricate and incoherent the beliefs and forms of devotion might appear to outsiders, once internalised they become an established fixture of a believer’s personality. As a result, believers accept, and ‘know’ in their very being, a whole range of unlikely propositions – even such extreme ones as the notion that God created the world just a few thousand years ago; or that self-mutilation is a commendable act; or that flying an airliner into a skyscraper promotes His cause.

The transition to the Modern was, and still is, a painful one both for individual believers and established religious institutions. This is understandable. It is uncomfortable to abandon old certainties when they are so bound up with individual and collective identity, and it is difficult to reconcile new versions of reality with older traditions. Ancient texts do not always fit well with modern discoveries and technologies, something has to give – all too often, it seems, it is the true believers sanity.