What If The Future Has Past?

(This is continuing thoughts from Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard and Why Science Fiction Will Never Die, both of which are related to a science fiction story I’m working on writing.) As I’m working on a Science Fiction story about the first ship from the Milky Way to explore the Andromeda galaxy, the various sorts of magic required to make any sort of space exploration story weigh on my mind because I tend to prefer hard SciFi to soft SciFi. I think that this is in part because if one is going for magic, why bother with the SciFi at all—why not just go whole hog and actually have fun with the fun parts?

But the problem is that you can’t do space exploration as hard SciFi. This was captured fairly well in a post by Jasyn Jones titled, Hard SF Does Not Exist. And he’s right. There are of course exceptions like Andy Weir’s recent book The Martian, but the sorts of stories one can tell in hard SF are not very different from the sorts of stories one can tell on earth. People get trapped for many months at a time on Antarctica, and there is nothing preventing someone from setting a story on a desert island. (For example, two women were recently stranded at sea for months.) But if you want to actually do space exploration, you need magic to accomplish it. To put things in perspective, it took 9 years for New Horizons to get to Pluto. Proxima Centauri, the closest star we know about, is approximately 5,400 times further away than Pluto is. Even if we could travel to Proxima Centauri ten times faster than New Horizons (which seems doubtful), it would still take more than twice as much time to get there as has elapsed since Julius Caesar became the emperor of Rome. Just the amount of fuel necessary to power a ship for 5400 years would be staggering (ball park, assuming a gigawatt nuclear power plant, it would need about 5.4M Kg of fissile material, according to this), to say nothing of the near-perfect oxygen and water reclamation necessary, the meters of shielding necessary to protect the people from cosmic rays, etc. It would take tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of rocket launches just to assemble such a generation-ship in orbit around the earth. And heaven help the people on it if they need any spare parts for their ship during those five millenia.

I should probably note that there are proposals, like Project Daedalus which can span that distance much faster—on the order of 50 years. But they involve fusion engines firing for years and consequently truly massive amounts of deuterium and tritium, both of which are extremely rare. Project Daedalus depends on a bunch of stuff which there’s no good reason to believe can reliably be made to work, and that in order to get a 500kg mechanical payload to do a flyby. To move people in a way that they can land on a foreign planet requires exponentially more mass and consequently initial fuel, etc. In short, the human race is not going anywhere outside of our solar system in real life.

And yet, as I said in my last blog post on the subject, I do think that exploratory Science Fiction is great because it is the heir to Greek epics like the Odyssey. (Of course, the Odyssey did have magic in it, but the magic wasn’t Odysseus’s, it belonged to the people he met.) But all exploratory sci-fi relies on what amounts to teleportation. Does this mean that Science Fiction is just bad fantasy? Is it just fantasy for people whose imaginations are too weak to entertain the explicitly fantastical?

There is another possibility, though: what if Science Fiction was possible in an earlier time, but isn’t now? The Science Fiction written from about 1850-1950, was often set in our solar system. There are a million counter-examples, I have no doubt, but what if it was the Science Fiction (scientifiction, as C.S. Lewis called it in the days when he was writing it) that was set in our solar system which was the source of vitality in science fiction?

Space exploration set in our solar system actually did have the right scale to it. One can get to the moon in days; one get can to Mars in months. The moons of Jupiter are more like a year’s travel time; and all these are the right time scales for the Greek epics. Stories set here were—when we didn’t know what was on the moons and the planets—actually were quite plausible for the future. The science involved in getting to these places was actual science, not merely magic with a veneer of science lightly glued on top.

Alas, time moved on and we found out that there are no civilizations to explore on the moon or on the other planets; any civilization which happens there will be human settlers living in very highly technologized dwellings. They will live there, if they live at all, in little bubbles of planet earth which they’ve brought with them.

I grew up on Star Trek; there is something utterly magical about Science Fiction. But it seems very possibly that true, hard science fiction is as much a thing of the past as the wild west is. We may be in the unfortunate position that to recapture the magic, we must capture it in a genie’s bottle. And that will always leave us with the question of where we got the genie’s bottle, and why we take it for granted.

The Angriest Atheists

If you hang out in the right parts of the internet, and especially if you’re a Christian who ever talks about atheism, you’ll encounter a variety of atheists lecturing you about:

  • Atheism just means a lack of belief in God, despite acting as if God doesn’t exist
  • Atheism is a free-floating proposition with no consequences or presuppositions
  • Theism is irrational
  • Despite possibly being true
  • There’s no evidence for God
  • No religion has even a shred of evidence for it
  • Evidence can’t exist for religion
  • Logic!

And so on. Many of these people seem to be simply repeating things they’ve heard from more charismatic people. But among the atheists one meets, there’s a subset who is astonishingly angry. They’re extremely aggressive, and at the same time generally very poorly educated and uninterested in thinking. By and large, they do nothing but make extremely confident assertions and accuse you of logical fallacies in your response. Even if you didn’t make any sort of argument at all but just asked a question. And very curiously, they get almost frothing-at-the-mouth angry if you simply make contradictory assertions to their assertions.

One possibility for some of them is that they are cult recruiters. Many of their qualities are exactly the approaches of cult recruiters when interacting with skeptics in front of potential recruits. (The key is to realize that attacking the skeptic is showing off for the potential recruit, who in this case would be a non-cult-member atheist looking on.) I’m only at the stage of wondering about this possibility; the behavior seems to line up fairly well, but that’s circumstantial evidence at best. All sorts of things are compatible with all sorts of theories; compatibility is very weak evidence.

Another interesting possibility is demonic possession. Some of these sorts of atheists may be cooperating with demons for the purpose of sewing discord and disorder, and whatever the man may think the object is, demons are concerned with souls. To try to make Christians angry and wrathful would be a victory for a demon. Peace is the right ordering of the world according to God’s will; sin is, therefore, disorder. Demons like to scatter out and separate.

And again, actions merely being consistent with a theory is extremely weak evidence. I’m not trying to oversell this; while demonic possession is real it seems to be uncommon and so skepticism at any given possession is not the same thing as skepticism of possession in general. But the nice thing here is that erring on the side of caution is practical. At least it seems to me that the best thing to do after interacting with an anonymous demoniac online would be to keep the knowledge of God’s dominion over the world close to one’s heart, to keep in mind that Christ has defeated death and overcome the world, and to pray for the demoniac. That is also a very good strategy if it’s merely an angry unthinking blasphemer one is dealing with.

Fun Exploratory Sci-Fi Without Magic is Hard

C.S. Lewis once propounded the theory that Scientifiction (what science fiction was called in the days when he was writing it) was really the modern form of the Greek epic like the Odyssey. In the days of Homer you could set a tale in a land where all the normal rules didn’t apply by merely putting it on an island no one has been to in the Mediterranean sea. Since modern man has been to all of the islands in the Mediterranean, we have to put the far-off lands farther off. In the 1800s it was still possible to put it deep underground, as in H.G. Wells’ Journey to the Center of the Earth, but in the 1900s the only real candidate was on another planet.

I think that this theory is essentially correct, especially as regards science fiction which is about adventurous exploration of places as yet unknown. I don’t think it applies nearly as much to space empires made up entirely of humans which are set in the far future as much to have a free hand with the political setup as for any other reason. But space exploration is the sort of story I’m writing for NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m having a lot of fun with it. But unfortunately, (so far) writing relatively hard sci-fi, where faster-than-light travel and free energy for propulsion are my only two main cheats, this brings me into language difficulties with encountering new species. There’s no plausible way in a relatively hard sci-fi way to have two creatures who developed along entirely different evolutionary pathways would have worked out the same language when they may not even both have heads.

I believe I’ve basically just committed myself to ignoring the problem of microbe contamination; when two unrelated species meet there’s an overly good chance that one or the other will contaminate the other with microbes to which the other has no resistance and thus inadvertently wipe most or all of the other species out. Basically, an even worse case of what happened when Europeans came into contact with Native Americans. This is basically an insoluble problem since we need our symbiotic bacteria to live. One could, possibly, confine everyone to leak-proof space suits on away missions, but that has its own problems, especially where the fun is concerned.

But language is just really a problem. If one can’t speak to another or even figure out that the other is speaking, it really cuts down on the dramatic possibilities. On the plus side, my story is set within a Christian universe so I could always introduce something like a “soul stone” which allows rational souls to communicate without words. For added fun, it could even be something like a statue to the archangel Gabriel.

Anyway, the point is that hard sci-fi is very difficult to write without plot holes for the sort of stories one often wants to write because the sort of stories we often want to write are not really about outer space in the future. That setting is just our excuse.

The Four Horsement of the New Atheism

Or you can watch it on YouTube:

Or here’s the script. Bear in mind that was written to be read aloud by me. It wasn’t written to be read by a general audience, though it should be generally readable.

Having looked at each of the Four Horsemen individually—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—I wanted to turn my attention to them as a group. There are a number of interesting questions to ask about this group, and since it is basically defunct, but we’re still close to it historically, the answers don’t seem that hard to come by.

The first question I had was: how did these four men come to be called The Four Horsemen. I’ve heard it said that many second-string atheists aspired to be numbered among the Four Horsemen—P. Z. Myers, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Richard Carrier, and others—which suggests the question: what was the original selection criteria? Dawkins and Hitchens are obvious enough, and Sam Harris isn’t too hard to see, but Daniel Dennett is something of a mystery. He doesn’t really seem to be the same league as the rest—whether you’re talking about charisma or popularity. So I did a little digging, and the answer surprised me, though it shouldn’t have.

In 2006, after the success of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins founded The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Interestingly, The God Delusion was published on the second day of October in that year, so he didn’t wait long to consider it enough of a success. In late September of 2007, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science—I love how pretentious that name is—convened a meeting of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennet which was recorded and released on a DVD titled, “Discussions with Richard Dawkins, Episode 1: The Four Horsemen”. So, in effect, they gave that title to themselves, which I find very fitting.

Though, in strict accuracy, it is possible that it was the producer of the DVD who came up with the title. His name is Josh Timonen. He was, incidentally, also the director, editor, and cinematographer of the DVD. According to IMDB his other credits are performer/writer for the soundtracks of Hallowed Ground and Safe Harbor, and he did visual effects—specifically the main title designs—for Carjacked, Never Cry Werewolf, and Hallowed Ground. Also interesting is that there is no episode 2 of “Discussions with Richard Dawkins,” though apparently Timonen did film a public discussion with Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss in 2009. I’m guessing that it’s not on Timonen’s IMDB credits because the DVD does not appear to have been published; the recording is available in twelve parts on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website, which still says that it will soon be released on DVD along with other discussions with Richard Dawkins. Also, the video continually loads without ever playing. Well, once again we see that only God accomplishes all things according to the intentions of his will; the rest of us only grope around in the dark largely doing what we don’t mean to do and not doing what we do mean to do.

So, our two possibilities for the origin of the name is that the group gave it to themselves or that a marketer employed by Richard Dawkins came up with the name to sell DVDs. Both possibilities are extremely fitting for a group of New Atheists; atheists rarely do anything glorious because, after all, what is glory? Money, everyone over the age of fifteen knows, is far more directly measurable. And indeed, the new atheists stand for nothing if they don’t stand for only believing in the directly measurable.

Also somewhat ironically, according to Wikipedia, which cites a 2012 video presented by the Australian Atheist Alliance—sorry, the Atheist Foundation of Australia—with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, and Ayan Hirsi Ali, Ali was invited to the 2007 conversation with Dawkins but had to cancel at the last moment. Had she been able to make it, it’s likely we’d never have had the four horsemen at all, both because “horsepersons” doesn’t scan well and because “the five horsepersons” wouldn’t really be a recognizable reference. They’d have had to have been called, “half the plagues” or something like that.

This doesn’t fully explain the four horsemen, though. Why were these particular people invited rather than others? I don’t mean in the proximal sense of exactly what were the precise criteria used in the decision, but rather why were the conditions such that the decision was made the way it was? Dawkins of course was obvious, since it was his foundation which convened the discussion, but the other three raise questions.

The most obvious answer seems to be book sales. The Four Horsemen conversation took place on the thirtieth day of September in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2007; Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great was published in May of 2007. Dennet’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a  Natural Phenomenon was published in February of 2006. Sam Harris had two best sellers, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004 and Letters to a Christian Nation in 2006. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel, was also published in 2006. The other aspirants to horsemanship I mentioned before didn’t publish anything relevant until after the fateful conversation which crowned the four men it did.

But this only pushes the question back a little; there have been atheists writing books about atheism for over a hundred years. Why did these men become popular in the time period they did? A few pages of The God Delusion are sufficient to prove it wasn’t for the quality of their thinking or writing.

One interesting answer is giving by The Distributist in his video on why he isn’t a New Atheist any more:

[CLIP<8:23-8:43>: And you see here how the new atheist narrative really rescued the optimism and the idea of the end of history that was popular in the 90s from a lot of events that I think should have caused a much deeper cultural consideration of that optimism.]

He develops his point in some depth and I recommend watching his video in full; this clip doesn’t do it justice. But as much as he makes a very good case, I take a somewhat different view, though I think a compatible one.

As I mentioned, atheism has been on the rise in the west for a long time; in the early 1900s G.K. Chesterton talked about the absurd pretence that then-modern England was still Christian. Both Freudianism and Marxism are doctrinally atheistic, and both were popular for quite some time—Marxism is still popular—despite being thoroughly discredited over and over again. But there is a facet of Christianity which, outside of Marxist hellholes, tends to let atheists get along with Christians, which is that  Christianity recognizes a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Edward Feser goes into this in depth in an essay called, “Liberalism and Islam” where he explains them as opposite Christian heresies, where liberalism denies the supernatural and Islam denies the natural. It’s an interesting essay where he argues that this makes them essentially invisible to each other, especially Islam to liberalism, but that’s not my concern here. More to the point is that Islam does not have any sort of mode of co-existence with atheists in the sense that it doesn’t have any secular principles an atheist could agree with for their own reasons.

As the Distributist rightly points out, the secular west became significantly aware of Islam on September 11, 2001 and was more than a little bewildered by it. This could itself be the subject of an entire video, so suffice it for the moment to point out that people who had never thought about the supernatural had no idea of what to do with a religion that didn’t think much about the natural. And you need to know something about an idea to argue against it, which because of an accident of geography, UV intensity in sunlight, and the pigment animals use to protect themselves from UV radiation, secularists were in a bad position to do. And I think this is where the New Atheists got much of their popularity from. People who could not reject Islam specifically had to, instead, reject it generally.

At the same time, I think that the Distributist is right that dashed utopian hopes make people long for an alternative utopian promise, and the New Atheism did tend to have a sort of promise of scientific utopianism. For example, Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near, came out in 2006, in the thick of things. Yet at the same time the New Atheists were remarkably light on actual utopian promises; they tended to concentrate on the implied utopianism of identifying a major problem. It’s all too easy for people to confuse that with having a solution.

There are, I think, other, longer-term factors which also come into play. The New Atheism movement came on the scene as the Internet was revolutionizing culture and bringing people into closer contact with strangers than they ever had been before; the same is broadly true of college, which due to explosions in student debt had been mixing people far more than they had in previous decades. At the same time there’s a heavy marxist strain of thinking—if you can call it that—which is popular in universities. And yet proper Marxism can exist in few places besides universities, in the modern west, especially so soon after the fall of the soviet union. Communism’s legacy of death and misery was too well known in the 1990s and early 2000s for it to be respectable anywhere else. Freudianism was old and largely the butt of jokes—such as people blaming all their problems on how they were potty-trained. There was no vital atheist movement. And that vitality is very important, because we live in a world which is dying. Death lurks around every corner, and indeed every corner is itself withering and decaying. Even on a basic biological level we are heterotrophs. We don’t make our own food, even in the limited sense in which plants make their own food. And even they are only converting the energy of spent star-fuel into food for themselves. The whole world longs for a source of life which is not running out, but within the world we have to settle for the second-best of finding sources of life which are running out more slowly than we are in order to feed.

The conditions were ripe for Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet to write popular books, so that when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens added more books to the genre it became, for a time, something growing. And growth always attracts for where there is growth there is nourishment. It’s one reason why our society has grown so fascinated with youth; young people aren’t tired.

Of course the attractiveness of growth only lasts for a while; eventually growth only signifies the swarming of people looking for life to feed off of, rather than people who may have found some source of it themselves. To borrow a metaphor, vultures will circle lions with a fresh kill, and will even follow other vultures flying down to a carcass, but they have to find something once they get there or they will just leave again; vultures don’t tend to follow vultures who are leaving. This is why the saints are so important to the church; by being so profoundly counter-cultural they continually prove that there is a source of life they’ve found even though they’re surrounded by a crowd not nearly as sure of where it is.

Clearly that didn’t happen with the new atheists, and for the most part people have moved on. Christopher Hitchens died, and his tomb is still with us. Daniel Dennett is lecturing neuroscientists that they shouldn’t tell people they don’t have free will. Sam Harris has a podcast, which is a bit like having an AM radio show. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has become a subdivision of the Center for Inquiry.

I’m not sure how much longer any of the four horsemen will be remembered; no one remembers any of the atheists G.K. Chesterton publicly argued with a hundred years ago. Except, perhaps, George Bernard Shaw, who’s only remembered as a playwright. Bertrand Russell is only remembered (popularly) because of his wretched tea pot, and while Antony Flew was the world’s most famous atheist in the 1970s, in 2004 he became a deist and it doesn’t seem that anyone remembers who he was any more (he died in 2010). They don’t even know that he was the one who first proposed defining atheism as a psychological state to avoid having to come up with some reason to believe in it.

But whatever the fate of the New Atheists, I think that this appearance of vitality played a key part in the movement’s popularity, and the very fact of its fading only a few years later is key to seeing that. Things which are popular for being popular don’t last more than a few years; once everyone has jumped on the bandwagon they must do something, and if it turns out that they don’t like the music they’ll hop off again. And here’s where I partially disagree with the people who believe that Atheism+ killed the New Atheism.

For those who aren’t familiar, Atheism+ was the somewhat indirect result of what was called elevatorgate; at an atheist convention a man followed Rebecca Watson into an elevator and asked her if she wanted to come to his room for coffee and conversation. She publicly complained about this and it sparked a large conversation within the atheist community about what we might loosely call sexual morality and propriety. We might alternatively summarize it as some atheists realizing that without God to enforce good behavior, society must do it through repressive authority. This didn’t sit well with the atheists who thought that in becoming atheists they had finally thrown off the shackles of conventional morality, and long story short: the atheist community split into the feminists versus the anti-feminists. Atheism+ was created to be the feminist side, though it never went very far and last I checked the only activity consisted of a few people who got to know each other through the forums occasionally talking with each other about what courses they’re taking at school.

It is fairly incontrovertible that New Atheism was different before and after Atheism+, but I think it’s a mistake to think that Atheism+ had much of a causal effect. Just as in 2006 the time had been ripe for the New Atheist movement, by 2012 the time had become ripe for something else, because New Atheism was rotting. Actually, rotting is the wrong metaphor; it turned out that New Atheism was infertile. Once you were a New Atheist there was nothing to do but complain about God. But while supernatural movements can be eternally new since they draw their energy from eternity, natural movements must always grow old. Basically, one can only complain about God so much before getting bored. It is true that New Atheism did supply an enemy to continually fight, but one need only watch the recruiting video for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science titled, “if you are one of us, be one of us” to see how toothless this enemy is. People who don’t believe in ghosts can only be so frightened of the ghost of Jerry Falwell. At some point one has to accept that the scopes monkey trial happened in 1925; it is history, not prophecy.

Something with more substance needed to be found, and in particular something winnable—you have to be an idiot to believe religion can be eradicated in our lifetime—but equally importantly something not yet won. Refighting old fights is safe but unexciting. This, I think, is the best explanation for the bifurcation of New Atheism into feminism and anti-feminism. A civil war satisfies both criteria rather well. But as of the time of this video, which is mid 2017, it seems that the feminist/anti-feminist civil war is itself winding down. It’s too early to write a history of it; looks are often deceiving and wars often have lulls in them before surges in violence; even metaphorical wars with metaphorical violence. But it is interesting to speculate what will happen next.

Certainly the atomizing tendency of modern technology is likely to play some role. With several hundred TV channels and several hundred thousand youtube channels, the ability to find entertainment which suits one very precisely is having an effect on making more people popular, but fewer people very popular. On the other hand people do need community; they must have movements to join. But these two things do not seem necessarily contradictory; it is possible that we will see minor cults of personality largely replace more major movements. You can see precedent for this in the church hopping which evangelicals are famous for; it’s common for people to feel a lack where they are, go looking, find a new church they fall in love with—the feeling of infatuation and novelty usually being described as “feeling the holy spirit”—stay there for a while but then acclimate and return to feeling normal, at which point they have to go looking for a new church again. (It’s a far less harmful version of what some people do with husbands or wives.) I see no reason this couldn’t happen with minor cults of personality around youtube personalities, effectively depopulating larger movements.

There are of course still some elements of traditional morality which are yet to be overturned; polygamy and incest are not yet legal in the west and at some point atheists will notice that their arguments in favor of every other overthrow of traditional morality work here too. There are people who long for a race war since they have nothing else to fight about and this could have a certain appeal to some atheists; after all, evolution could be turning the races into different species. Sure, that’s got no scientific basis, but being on the wrong side of science rarely seems to bother atheists.

Oh well, as has been said, of all things the future is the most difficult to predict. Whatever does happen, though, it is very likely to be governed by the two big problems atheists can’t get rid of: it’s not good for man to be alone, and without God, they have no intrinsic reason to get together.

Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.

The Difficulty Defining Cults

(Part of a series of ongoing thoughts about cults. See Online Cults and A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults.) I suspect that the fundamental problem with defining a cult is that a cult is, essentially, a parody of legitimate religion. This gets complicated because not all legitimate religions are correct; Christianity is correct and legitimate religions are correct only insofar as they agree with Christianity. But they can still be legitimate religion—as opposed to a parody of a religion—where they are wrong. And now I need to explain what the heck I mean by this.

A legitimate religion offers several things to a person:

  • Something greater than themselves to exist in relation to
  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Peace

These are related things, in that peace comes from living in a proper relationship to the ordering of the universe, which means in a proper relationship to that which is greater than oneself. Meaning and purpose are related, since purpose comes from meaning; meaning is intrinsic to reality but comes from religion in the sense of “is learned about from religion”, which consists of knowing how one’s life fits into a greater whole.

And of course these are the things which a cult offers. What makes the cult a parody is that the thing greater than themselves is typically just another thing in the world which itself needs justification—the cult itself. Sometimes it is a sort of esoteric knowledge, but always a kind of esoteric knowledge about which no thinking is possible, and therefore the only real concern is, once again, the cult. And there are some cases where the esoteric knowledge might legitimately be something one can think about, but it comes with the provision that the one revealing the knowledge is the most important man who ever lived. As such the man and not the knowledge is the focus of the cult. That last type is, I suspect, the sort of cult which actually lasts and becomes something of a real religion—once the man is dead. Though the degree to which that happens probably varies; and worshiping a man is worse than worshiping even a god, which is much worse than worshiping God. And such a cult will probably be plagued with the difficulty of keeping its later religious adherents from learning about its origins; that will probably trap it in cult-like behavior since there’s no way to escape from a bad founding.

Similarly the purpose a cult offers is a parody in that it all relates to the cult itself, and not to any greater good. The expressions will vary, but cults are often quite destructive of family ties, for example; they tend to discourage any sort of involvement with outsiders beyond proselytizing.

And relatedly, the peace that a cult offers is a parody because it consists of unthinkingly accepting the teachings and practices of the cult, that is, the meaning and purpose which a cult gives. This acceptance without understanding is essentially reducing a man from a rational animal to an irrational animal; it is the peace of giving up being a man and instead being a horse. That brings relief from the troubles of being a man, but not by rightly ordering one’s life but instead by simply refusing to live most of one’s life.

And all this is what makes it so difficult to distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion. Counterfeits are, of their nature, hard to spot. That superficial similarity is where the counterfeit gets all its power from, so there is both a motivation and an evolutionary selective pressure on cults to be superficially similar to legitimate religions. In short, distinguishing unrelated things tends to be easy but spotting fakes is much, much harder.

A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults

I’m still in the early phase if thinking about this subject (my earliest thoughts are in Online Cults), but as I read about offline cults, a thought occurred to me about how to sift out what’s necessarily in person from what isn’t.

Many cults use techniques to pull people in quickly which rely on being in-person, especially cults that use very long classes which cause sleep deprivation and hunger to dull the thinking of their victims. But while this may be a common tactic, it may simply be more effective than the tactics which can be used online. Hence if it’s available, it will be preferentially be used but where it is not available its lack of use will simply lead to less (or slower) efficacy.

Of course, it’s always important to be careful with this line of thinking, because if applied incorrectly it can be used to wave away crucial distinctions in a plausible-sounding way. But I don’t think that’s the case here; and I think this can be seen by looking at something of an analog. Nigerian Oil Scammers (the scams where someone claims to be nigerian prince with lots of money he needs to hide in a foreigner’s bank account) tell a very implausible story, and I’ve heard the theory that this is to weed out anyone who isn’t extremely gullible. Every person who responds costs them time, so their time will be better spent with as few false positives as possible. Accordingly, they make their story sound ridiculous so that the only people who respond are people who will believe and go along with anything.  This of course means that they get false negatives—i.e. people who, with a defter hand, could have been swindled. It seems very plausible that something analogous is working, or could work, with online cults.

They can’t be with a person every minute, they can’t make a person not eat or sleep, but they can sucker in those who simply don’t think well enough to require those sorts of impairments to be convinced to join. Especially since they won’t be asking nearly as much of the applicant. If you remove the requirement for all attractive female cult members to sleep with the leader and all male cult members to travel far and wide to attract new cult members, they don’t need to be nearly as brainwashed to join. Essentially, cults may exist on a spectrum.

Again, this is all very speculative, and further any time one defines things as being on a spectrum one has to answer the question, “how far along the spectrum do you have to go before there’s actually a problem?” Spectra can easily be used to tar the low end with the reputation of the high end.

But there is the curious thing that many atheists one meets online do have an odd sort of aggressiveness, a hyper-pronounced us-vs-them mentality, an inauthenticity to their conversations which makes it feel like one is dealing with a robot or a telemarketer, and an odd obsession with scoring points as if that somehow accomplishes anything. It’s suggestive, but as of yet I’m not sure precisely what it suggests.