Religious Cause, Religious Cure

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 28, 1979, p. 210. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a need for thoughtful people to make some discriminations between and within religious groups — to look for curing impulses that are latent in the faiths that so easily can spread disease.

She calls herself “Lord Zealous.” Her religious master on the west coast gave her that name; his “family” insists on helping her forget her real name. She meets with me only because I will call her “Lord Zealous.” Since she is not my daughter, I find this merely embarrassing but not impossible. As we converse on a gray afternoon in my campus study, I learn that she will not read or even open mail from her parents because they cannot bring themselves to address her as “Lord Zealous.” Nor -- and this seems even more painful for all concerned -- will she respond in conversation with them unless they force themselves to use her new name.

“Of course, I am willing to call you whatever you’d like,” I find myself saying, but isn’t ‘Lord’ a strange designation for a woman?”

She is ready for that. “Oh, no, all of us are ‘Lord’ Something-or-other. Our master assigns these names. His every wish is my command.”

During the next hour a familiar-sounding story unfolds. She had been a sophomore at one of the best schools. (They all seem to have gone to the best schools.) No, she had not been on drugs. Her parents had told me that, she had always been an idealist of sorts, and her master promised her that their group would improve the world.

As she talks on about her new life, I glance over her shoulder at that whole shelf of ‘70s books that comment on the new intense religious groups: The Mind Benders; Going Further: Life-and-Death Religion in America; Youth, Brainwashing, and the Extremist Cults, All Gods Children; Those Curious New Cults; The New Religions; Turning East. They had been gathering dust ever since the new religions began looking like the same old thing, ever since they seemed to start declining late in our decade. Now, after the Peoples Temple murders/suicides in Guyana, the shelf has had to be dusted off; the books have seemed relevant again.

I am thinking: I must understand her. We have to keep communicating. So I ask her about her biological family, her old world.

“I don’t hate them, Professor. It is simply that after my New Birth, I became someone completely new, and don’t belong to them any more. And if I see too much of them” -- she was home for a day because they had helped bail her out of some legal scrape her group had gotten her into -- “they will taint me, and might lure me back to the old ways. Certainly you as a scholar of religion, must know what it is to believe something deeply, to belong to the true Community. . . .”

Lord Zealous, it turns out, will talk to me because she sees me as a professor, a scholar, a relative neutral. Her trust level is inevitab1y low, but it is a good sign that she will talk at all. She can tell that I have taken lessons from Spinoza, that here on this campus preserve there must be an effort not to judge or to laugh but to understand. But I am also a parent and a member of a civil society, naturally uneasy about Peoples Temple and other groups that no one quite comprehends. Does she detect my nervousness?

We converse almost as calmly as though she were here to talk about next week’s examination or the virtues of the Chicago Symphony. Yet I know that to say the wrong thing at any point will mean that all the logic and history can summon will go out my Gothic Window into the quadrangle, and Lord Zealous will slam the door. I must understand her. So this professor of religion, this scholar (as she insists on calling me), must call on whatever anthropology, sociology and psychology -- yes, most of all, psychology -- have taught me about absolutism and conformity and fanaticism.

Religious Explanations

The tentative answers those disciplines give come easily to mind: Nothing else works, so she might as well turn to religion. Modernity forces cruel choices on the young, and some of them turn to the most severe authorities for the Big Answer, the shortcut or short circuit, that knocks out other signals. She needs closure and cannot tolerate ambiguity; Robert Jay Lifton would call her a “constrictive type.” Yes, here is nothing but another example of fanaticism seen as “overcompensated doubt.” C. J. Jung taught me that. She shows nothing but an “escape from freedom.” Thanks, Erich Fromm.

Though I don’t want to let go of any insights from the social sciences, all this “nothing but” leaves me a bit edgy, and Lord Zealous has seized on my restlessness: There is a hint of a taunt behind her slightly glazed smile as she keeps reminding me that my community is devoted to scholarship; the history of religion. 1-las religion nothing to say? “You, as a theologian, must understand. . . .”   

Yes, of course, I do. And after my young friend leaves me and turns her back again on her family, once more to take refuge in the commands of her master, I rejoin that community of scholars and reflect on the religious context of what has gone on here, just as it has in a hundred other interviews. Our community knows very little about Lord Zealous and zealotry, about the religious impulse. We know that it can be risky. Some years ago, when I was venturing to raise some funds for our divinity school, a colleague offered a rationale for supporting the advanced study of religion. “I’d make the case now just as 20 years ago I would have made it for sex education. Like sex, religion is too dangerous a subject to get wrong.” However, our advanced study has not yet told us much. The week of the Guyana horrors, several thousand scholars met in New Orleans to enjoy the restaurants and to sharpen their scholarly tools. Yet a participant later observed that elevator and corridor conversation left these members of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature almost numb: “No, we just cannot understand how Jonestown could happen. . . .”

No one can. But gradually it dawns on some of us: insofar as the intense groups are religious problems, we should look for some beginnings of religious explanations;. if there are theological causes, there must be the beginnings of theological cures. If the couch can help, so can the confessional. If the language of statistics informs the inquiry, so should the language of salvation.

The Appeal to Absolutism

Lord Zealous was right, and every historian of religion knows it: the idea of putting oneself under a master, of feeling absolute and even fanatic about the cause, is an old one in religion. The sense that Israel was a “chosen people,’ especially called of God, gave that nation strength, but it also legitimated bloodshed. The Hebrew Scriptures are no stranger to the world of Lord Zealous: “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord. God of Israel commanded” (Joshua 10:40 [RSV], italics added). And the Shi’ite Muslims in Iran today will not let us be content with the notion that only communists or the politically repressed were doing battle with the shah. This round, they insist, was a jihad, a religious war against the modernizer and trampler of traditions.

The members of today’s intense religious groups and not a few members of the larger public like to get even closer to home, rubbing texts like these into contemporary Christian consciousness: “Now great multitudes accompanied Jesus; and he turned and said to them, ‘If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple’ ” (Luke 14:25 f.). Lord Zealous, they tell us, has caught that spirit better than have the namby-pamby compromisers in mainline religion. That is why the intense groups are growing; that is why the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the fundamentalist branches of the born-again movement outstrip the ecumenical-minded folk who let members keep their ties to the best colleges and the lures of a pluralistic culture.

Luke 14:26, a passage tempered a bit in Matthew 10:37 (“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”), had been a forbidding problem for almost 2,000 years before the master of Lord Zealous called her to follow. The commentators have had plenty of chances to dull its call. “The Saviour, of course,” says one, “does not mean that he who desires to follow Him must hate his parents . . . but . . . if loyalty to Him clashes with loyalty to them he is to treat his loved ones in this connection as though they are persons whom he hates.” Another tells us that the modern Western reader cannot easily recapture the Semitic mind’s comfort with extremist language, that we must learn to know that Jesus is here talking only about preferences and priorities. That is all true, but even after the glossings-over and bluntings of the text, it remains a scandal.

The appeal of absolutism, conformity and fanaticism did not end in the first century. New England’s sick comic-cleric Nathaniel Ward, who styled himself The Simple Cobler of Agawam, set the tone for the New World: “He that is willing to tolerate any Religion, or discrepant way of Religion, besides his own, unless it be in matters merely indifferent, either doubts of his own, or is not sincere in it.” The religious impulse calls people from the distractions of a random world and helps them make sense of things. Religion could be called “Meaning and Belonging, Incorporated”; when those who find meaning around the same vision or the same master link up, they can become dangerously intolerant.

As the cause is religious, so may be the cure. The Bible includes texts that call into question the idea of chosenness and absolutism. These are subversive of the world of Lord Zealous and the intense new groups, each of which is sure that it is the only bearer of the truth. Thus the prophet Amos (9:7-9) thundered against the exclusivism that could accompany the idea of a Chosen People. He hears Yahweh, their Lord, say: “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of. Israel?” While God was bringing Israel up from the Land of Egypt, who did they think was handling the affairs of others; who was bringing “the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir”?

And if the disciples of Jesus were too sure of themselves, they could always listen to the most zealous among them, Paul, who in his best-known chapter, I Corinthians 13, reminded them that “now we know in part.” The German has it better: our knowledge is piecework, patchy, fragmentary. The believers have much about which to be humble intellectually and morally.

The Missionary Impulse

The conversation in my office at one point took a strange turn. Suddenly it became clear that: Lord Zealous was out to convert “the scholar.” So many members of intense groups who collar travelers in airports or shoppers in centers want to interrupt the metaphysical shoplifters of our culture and sell them the Big Answer that comes with membership in their group. As they pester us, we are often tempted to ask for a moratorium on the conversion business until young minds can build defenses against the most exotic and extravagant appeals. Jimmy Durante comes to mind: “Why doesn’t everybody leave everybody else the hell alone.”

Yet Zealous’s master did not invent the impulse to do missionary work, to engage in converting efforts. In Conversion to Judaism Joseph R. Rosenbloom has shown how deep was this drive in Judaism, though it has been dulled in recent centuries. Christianity is a history of mission and expansion, usually by the sword and not infrequently by methods that would make the current masters look mild. Even today, we are regularly reminded, it is the most fanatic and frantic born-againers who most disrupt the families of Jews and other outsiders when they wrench the young out of context to bring them to a new master. Lord Zealous is correct; I as a historian of religion and -- is she rubbing it in as she draws out the third syllable? -- a theologian, must know that. It is in the books.

What is at the heart of the impulse to convert others to the vision and the group? We used to think that it was exclusively the sense of being privy to the doings of a Supreme Being who controlled reality from an unseen world. In the West and especially in the United States, religion always meant transactions with such a Supreme Being. As late as 1931 Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was saying that “the essence of religion is belief in a relation to God involving duties superior to those arising from any human relation.” But by 1961 the Supreme Court found itself having to acknowledge that “a sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God” in the life of others qualified as religion in our civil society. The new master does not claim to speak for a transcendent God beyond, the range of vision. He is the God. Thus did the Reverend Jim Jones ask his adherents in Peoples Temple to think of him.

Ultimate Concerns

What is integral to the religious vision, then, is not necessarily a belief in a Supreme Being. It must, however, include what Paul Tillich called “Ultimate Concern.” Ordinarily this concern comes coupled with impulses to form tight communities, to make total demands on adherents’ behavior. Usually there will be new myths and symbols; the intense groups like the Unification Church are extremely fertile generators of new myths. And even when the Messiah is palpable, even when the leader “tangibilificates” deity, as Father Divine claimed to do, a kind of burdening metaphysical claim accompanies him. He leads adherents into arcane wisdom and superior knowledge about what the meaning of life truly is. That sense, at once so salvific and therapeutic, can also be dangerous.

At this point we do tend to draw on the psychologist to make sense of what novelist Mary McCarthy observed: that religion makes good people good and bad people bad. But the psychology of character does not tell us all that we need to know. Aristotle prepared us for that. “Choice is about things in reference to the end,” so “rectitude of choice requires two things; namely, the due end and something suitably ordered to that end.” We are back, then, to theology, to making some judgment about which “due ends” are humanizing and which are endangering.

By now Americans have learned that disputes over theology are arguments without ends. Some invoke absolute authority to settle them: my friend parts from me with “Well, then, let’s agree to disagree. You do things your way and I’ll do things God’s way.” However sure of themselves the authoritarians may be, they do not usually convince us that theirs is the only true theology. We are able to talk only about the types of religious visions which today can minimize the damages of tribal warfare between religious forces, or of brainwashing or mind control in the intense groups.

To make such judgments about types, it should be noted, is not to suggest that civil authorities have any right to be the endorsing or disapproving agency, or that in the reaction to Jonestown, majorities have a right to go backlashing or would be wise to undertake a binge of repression. Even if the rights were there to do so, it would be stupid policy: intense religious groups prosper when persecution makes them alluring.

What is left, then, is a need for thoughtful people to make some discriminations between and within religions groups, to look for curing impulses that are latent in faiths that so easily can spread disease. On this level, one looks to the scholars for some help, but there are distressing signals on this front. The academic taunters of civil-minded believers are of little help. Many agnostics have come to profess admiration for the days when people really believed, when they cared enough to persecute or form inquisitions or go on crusades. Real belief, in such terms, must be absolutist. Thus Will Durant: “Tolerance grows only when faith loses certainty; certainty is murderous.” Durant himself is not nostalgic  for the murderous days or groups, but it is not rare to hear intellectuals speak in envious terms of the young who have found something to believe in, or to hear them deride mainline religious groups for seeing their young drift, such churches having failed to demand absolutism and conformity and fanaticism.

Kelley and Cuddihy

Two outstanding examples of misusable observations relate to two books of the 1970s. National Council of Churches staffer Dean Kelley in 1972 produced a best-selling analysis, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. In sociological terms he spelled out why Black Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other intense groups were growing while liberal and tolerant ones were losing position. His book has become a manual of arms or mainline church leaders who think a bit of zealotry and absolutism might help them regain the young.

Last year John Murray Cuddihy came up with a disturbingly ambiguous discussion that he called No Offense. Cuddihy showed how in civil society people had to let their old faith and behavior get ground up and refined. Jews who used to say they were the Chosen People now had to say, “I happen to be Jewish.’’ Catholics, who formerly insisted that ‘outside the church there is no salvation,’ now excommunicated a Boston priest, Father Leonard Feeney, who was guilty of insisting a bit too long on that very theme. And Protestants, who believe that salvation comes in Jesus alone, were asked by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to call off the mission in Jesus’ name to the Jew. Even the president’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, who backed off from a rally of would-be converters of Jews on Long Island, and evangelist Billy Graham, who had to correct or retract a McCall’s magazine interview on the subject, were not astute enough to avoid crossfire in the no-man’s-land between the zealots and the civil. Cuddihy’s studiously double-minded book is being used single-mindedly by some academic folk who have tried to turn civility into a dirty word.

Cuddihy thinks that the civil choice in a society where we must not give offense results in henotheism. Henotheism is the belief that there are many gods; that “my god is better than your god,” but yours is good enough. To be sure, there may be a good deal of henotheism in the American environment. Those who prefer the tolerant way of James Madison to that of Jim Jones are willing to be grateful for it. But henotheism can also be dulling to the religious impulse, and most believers will insist that they do not hold it; they cannot hold it. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord. . . . Our Father, who art in Heaven . . .”  Must such proclamations and prayers lead to mindbending arid brainwashing, or is there another alternative?

The theological community insists that there can be. Paul Tillich put it abstractly, as was his wont and we do well to quote him before setting forth a few concrete illustrations of an alternative:

In the depth of every living religion there is a point at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.

Not many of us talk that way. But we are invoking something similar to Tillich when we recall a Pope John XXIII. As pope, he could hardly he described as marginal or fainthearted, so far as Catholic belief and behavior were concerned. Far from being a henotheist, he was ready to state the claims of his church’s truth. But when he received a company of Jews, mindful of centuries of Christian persecution and futile dogmatic debate, he simply greeted them with outstretched arms: “I am Joseph, your brother.’’ The biblical allusion helped him and his guests overleap the centuries and the tired explanations.

Mohandas Gandhi never deserted his historic faith, though he could appreciate the Christ of the Western believers. Martin Luther King remained a firm old-time Baptist gospel preacher, but he could appropriate Gandhi’s nonviolence without surrendering the Jesus his parents gave him -- thanks, in part, to the Tillich about whom he wrote his doctoral thesis. Martin Buber remained a Jew to all but the most anxiously orthodox, yet his I and Thou spelled out terms of dialogue with people of other faiths and of no faith. Dorothy Day is a rather old-fashioned  pre-Vatican II kind of Catholic mass-goer who could never quite figure out back in the 60s why her guests -- among them, Father Daniel Berrigan -- were interested in “mod’’ masses. Yet she was so secure in her Catholicism that she could be open-minded, expansive, boundaryless in her dealings with others.

Each of these persons -- and scores of others come to mind -- is likely to be looked back on from a 21st century vantage as one of the universal people of our time. Yet each spent a lifetime ransacking and living into a specific religious tradition. They found meaning and belonging in a truth, a group.

A Game of Inches

Two sets of elites in our society reject their experiments. One does it in order to lump all religion together and dismiss them all. The other does it to call forth the troops from the camps of the compromisers, to do new battle for the minds of the young against the masters of the day by insisting on ultimate absolutism.

The Tillichian vision calls for some discriminations to be made, yet these subtleties are often overlooked. Seven years ago, after the first International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, which then was sponsored by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church as covertly as it is overtly sponsored today, I asked a colleague whether he did not fear that his enthusiastic participation might be used chiefly to give plausibility to a potential new Messiah and a possibly dangerous group. I have long since stopped making such inquiries, both because of a desire not to sound shrill and shrewish -- what business is it of mine? -- and because of the openings I gave him and others of the new mentality: “Well, so I go to a Unification Church conference. Didn’t you attend the Presbyterian General Assembly? Didn’t you go to the Second Vatican Council?” The import is clear: all religions are equally false, equally persecutory at heart. Did I not know about the Inquisition, and about John Calvin’s standing by with assent as Geneva burned the heretic Servetus four centuries ago?

To avoid being tedious in rejoinder, we are reduced to mumbling, thinking, hoping: do such academic colleagues not realize that civilization, like football, is a game of inches? Yes, all religions may be on a kind of continuum, in the fullest theoretical sense. For comparison: a caress and a rape are both forms of sexual activity, but it does make a difference whether society cherishes one over the other. Chess and nuclear war are both forms of conflict; let no nonplayer think that chess is not intense. But it matters very much which of these activities people indulge in. Attempts by the academic community to erase distinctions between levels of intensity, and the “ends’’ of which Aristotle spoke, leave little room for the civility that is one of our society’s almost accidental inventions and one of its most cherished if precarious achievements.

Conviction Blended with Civility

Rather than engage in constant historical apology for the Jews in Joshua’s day or a passage of Jesus ripped from context, and rather than skim past crusades and inquisitions, the historical-minded scholar who is a member of a believing community knows that he or she does well to accept the judgment that religion has been, can be and is rich in absolutisms and zealotry. Claims made on the Almighty often do legitimate the passions; Peter Finley Dunne’s Mister Dooley was right: “A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks th’ Lord wud do if he knew the facts in th’ case.” The Lord does know; old Bishop Eunomius of Cyzicus (d. 395) said it so well: I know God as well as He knows himself.”

After the lessons in groveling which the historically aware must make in the field of religion as in any other field, there are other things also to be said. Religion, including biblical faith, has produced awesomely humble characters. Israel’s chosenness was designed not for luxury but that Israel might become “a light to the nations.” So expensive was that call that the waggish prayers of some modern Jews can thank the Lord of the Universe for the inestimable privilege of being chosen as Jews and then move on to ask him to “bestow on us a greater honor yet. Choose someone else.” In regard to the demands of Jesus as Master of disciples, we find his Lordship turning out to be not numbing but liberating: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). And if many establishmentarian religionists were dragged screaming by the Enlightenment and practical necessity to grant religious freedom, some very firm believers, from colonial Baptists to Jesuit John Courtney Murray in the Second Vatican Council, also kept making the case for conviction blended with civility, commitment tempered with empathy.

Peoples Temple on its scale, and Synanon and Scientology on theirs -- and let us make discriminations in this part of the spectrum, too -- are coming to be stamped on the cultural mind as code words, like Watergate and Vietnam. They are serving to suggest the folly of admiration for fanaticism because it seems so real and intense in a half-believing age. Their critics are expressing the treason of intellectuals who refuse to allow for development in religion, who insist that only bad faith, malgre foi, produces empathic faith. What is needed now and what shows sonic signs of emerging is a kind of commitment that French existentialist Gabriel Marcel called “counterintolerance.” Marcel would guarantee freedom to others, whether they were in his sect or church or outside it. To the extent I hold to my opinion, he remarked, I envisage someone else doing the same. “My awareness of my own conviction is somehow my guarantee of the worth of his.” To do otherwise is to surrender conviction and make belief worthless or, on the other hand, to make myself seem “a servant of a God of prey whose goal it is to annex and enslave.” This for Marcel meant to spread forth a loathsome image of God in the name of absolutism, conformity and fanaticism.

Whether this new stage of believing is to emerge depends in part on circumstances that are beyond the control of the thoughtfully religious. But in an age when a fanaticism linked with cyanide or weaponry has become murderous, we have new motives for finding ways to combine passion with empathy and openness, to help “counterintolerance” emerge without seeing a loss of faith.

One hidden assumption needs unmasking. I have set forth this case without asking whether religion as such is a good thing. Last autumn after I lectured to University of Chicago alumni on the turf of New York’s Harvard Club, one alumnus put forth a creative stinger of a question. He had found that the way to overcome repression and fanaticism was simply to chuck religious belief as such. He had overcome the antievolution ignorance and moral persecution of his parental world in a library in small-town Tennessee. Should we not help others to do the same? The question made sense, given the damages we see in the eyes of Lord Zealous, the corpses of Jonestown, the streets of Iran.

Retrieval of Initiative

Still, I wonder. However much it may be relocated today, religion is not going away, nor is the impulse to believe and belong dying out. The act of being missionary against faith has often involved as much zealotry as has the effort to spread belief. As G. K. Chesterton once observed, to stop believing in God does not mean that people will believe in nothing. The trouble is, they believe in everything. As the historic and often empathic faiths wither, the intense fanatic groups grow up on the vacated soil. And where the new faiths are not sectarian, they may be nationalistic, in a day when quas-religions of nationalism kill their legions.

I cherish instead the notion that if we could understand not only the sociology and psychology of religion but also the religion of religion; if we could get at the roots of conviction in the lives of profound believers in the open society; if we could combine civility with devotion -- if we could do these things, religious forces might retrieve some initiative and offer examples for coexistence in the world of the nations and the military powers. That idea sounds utopian. I am not a Lord Zealous for utopianism. But religious vision ought to allow even the most thuddingly realistic among us to dream a bit, to set forth new “due ends.”