RR Excerpt #10: Gullibility of Followers of Religious Leaders

This is excerpt #10 from The Reason Revolution: Atheism, Secular Humanism, and the Collapse of Religion, a short, FREE e-book available at Smashwords, Goodreads, and Amazon

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This is the 8th of nine posts describing "Reasons for Skepticism" derived from scientific discovery, not from wishful speculations about the supernatural. These will be followed by several "Reconciliation Theories" for bridging the growing chasm between science and religion.

8. Gullibility of followers of religious leaders. Leaders need followers. More relevant to this discussion, followers need leaders. In every human group and society, charismatic individuals emerge as opinion leaders (i.e., they influence the opinions of others).

However, leadership would not exist without followership—people need someone whom they trust to be wise and competent to influence conditions favorably. Individuals who display leadership qualities fill that void and perform the role. The implicit trade-off is, "We'll let you tell us what to think if you'll promise to lead us to our desired goal."

Over time, as societies grew larger than small clans, leadership became institutionalized. Organizations and political systems emerged. Faith traditions also became institutions, well exemplified well by the Catholic hierarchy.

Of course, leadership is a good and necessary factor in every organizational and societal achievement. But in addition to their visionary guidance toward a shared goal, leaders are often also motivated to contribute to institutionalization by their own emotional needs for power and influence. Unsurprisingly, most leaders throughout history have been men, who have greater innate personal need to exercise power and control than do women, for reasons understood by evolutionary psychologists and cultural anthropologists. The followers (i.e., the faithful) gladly yield power and authority to leaders whom they assume to be knowledgeable and capable of serving their needs. As a result of that largely unconscious symbiosis, leaders are selected, elected, and otherwise chosen to exercise power to shape followers' opinions and beliefs.

In this way, faith leaders and their followers collude in a shared delusional belief in the veracity of their particular doctrine—the glue that binds them together. Once fully institutionalized by an established hierarchy, by multi-generational belief (after all, children generally adopt the beliefs of their parents), and by an authoritative "holy book" containing the alleged thoughts and words of a deity, the faith tradition is complete, self-sustaining, and resistant to change. Christianity is the most "successful" contemporary religion, as measured by number of adherents, and is also clearly the most institutionalized—a coincidence?

News headlines inform us daily of religious leaders (e.g., abusive priests, corrupt evangelists, and imams promising virgin-equipped paradise to prospective suicide-bomber martyrs) who lure trusting followers into victimization. Those treacherous leaders are often blind to their own unconscious motives—child sex abusers typically claim, perhaps sincerely, that they love children. Of course, most clerics in all faiths are compassionate humanitarians who, along with saving souls, value human welfare—a value they share, incidentally, with secular humanists.

Still, how confident can we be that our pastors are immune to this common emotional undertow that can draw them into demagoguery? Are they truly god's representatives on Earth? If so, the hiring process is seriously flawed.

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Tags: followership, gullibility, leaders, leadership, pastors, religious

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Comment by Tom Sarbeck on August 29, 2014 at 11:36pm

A leader's dilemma: "I am their leader; I must follow them."

I first saw it in remarks by one of the leaders of the French Revolution.

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