Why, asked Shirley MacLaine the other day, is human behavior becoming "more erratic and bizarre. Why does this all seem like a science-fiction movie? Why does the world seem like it's having a nervous breakdown?" When Shirley MacLaine thinks that things are moving in a weird direction, we had better pay attention. Naturally, she puts it down to the planets. But whatever conjunction is responsible, it does seem that odd, irrational and frequently dangerous beliefs are growing, both in the numbers of their adherents and in their impact on politics and culture in many societies.
It is a phenomenon that overlaps with fundamentalism, but is partially distinct from it, its causes lying in the need for belief, secularism's loss of energy, the failures of mass education, and the shrewd use of new technologies by cult leaders -- sincere and charlatan alike -- of modern techniques. Paul Boyer, whose book on American millenialism is both scary and enlightening, has listed the devices through which beliefs in the coming end of the world are propagated in the United States. There are the watches bearing the motto "One Hour Nearer the Lord`s Return" and the bumper stickers (reflecting the belief that true Christians will rise into the air to meet Christ as the world ends) which say "Beam Me Up, Lord."
Leaking into the cultural mainstream are films like The Omen, songs like David Bowie's We've Got Five More Years or Elvis Costello's Hurry Down, Doomsday. Indeed, Boyer argues that the premillenial cults, those who believe in Christ's return before his thousand-year reign on earth, have, in particular, "played an important role in shaping public attitudes on a wide range of topics from the Soviet Union, the Common Market and the Mideast, to the computer and the environmental crisis."
Millenialists do not have it all their way in the States.
Increasing numbers of Americans believe in visitors from outer space, and some demonstrated outside the UN building in New York a couple of years ago, because they hold that Perez de Cuellar had been abducted (and then returned) by aliens. They have had prestigious reinforcement from a Harvard university psychiatry professor, who, after studying many cases, has concluded that the abductees are telling the truth.
There is greater cause for concern in the rise of the crude black nationalism, associated with names like Louis Farrakhan and Khalid Abdul Muhammad, whose followers share a hatred of homosexuals and Jews with the white racism which often co-exists with fundamentalist Christian beliefs.
The recent successes of the religious right in the American Republican party and the daily attack on President Clinton for immorality by TV evangelists -- most of them millenialists -- are the latest reminder that something strange is stirring.
Noam Chomsky has argued that the United States is remarkable among industrial societies in its irrationality. Three-quarters of the American population, he says, believe in religious miracles, numbers not "duplicated anywhere else in the industrial world. You'd have maybe to go to mosques in Iran or do a poll among old ladies in Sicily to get numbers like this."
Chomsky also quotes a recent poll in the U.S. on evolution, which showed that the percentage of the population that believes in Darwinian evolution was nine per cent -- "not all that much above statistical error."
No people are immune. In Mexico, Mayan elders specify Pepsi for religious ceremonies, warning that the use of Coca-Cola will bring divine anger. The Iranian mojahedin, supposedly free-thinking and Marxist, has in exile taken on the dimensions of a cult. In China, Maoism has re-emerged as a kind of popular talismanic religion.
In the former Soviet Union, American evangelists compete with homegrown sects like the White Brotherhood, which has survived the failure of the world to end last Nov. 14, as it had predicted. The panic when the White Brotherhood was at its height was almost as irrational as the cult. Kiev schools shortened the teaching day so children could go home in daylight and thus reduce their chances of being seized by the Brotherhood.
In western Europe, far-right groups are perhaps the main receptacle of irrationalism so far. But miracles which embarrass bishops are not uncommon in southern Europe.
The common thread in all this, perhaps, is ignorance. It may well be an ignorance equally of both secular and religious traditions. Poll after poll in North America and Europe show amazing gaps in knowledge. It is not only, for instance, that 45 per cent of British 17-year-olds cannot find Bosnia on the map, but that less than a quarter can quote five of the Ten Commandments.
Minds emptied of traditional belief, but not necessarily filled with a coherent non-religious system of knowledge, are peculiarly open to new belief systems. But high levels of formal education do not necessarily bestow immunity. One of the most successful black anti-Semitic hate sessions was held at Howard College, which used to be called the "Harvard" of American black education. Educated youngsters thus participated in what one writer has called "the sheer lunacy of turning towards anti-Semitism as an explanation for what ails black America."
The view that religion adapts to the growth of secular thought, so that by definition it becomes a different thing in each age, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a fundamentalism which seems to demand that the religious system of a particular moment in the past be applied for all time. In fact, fundamentalism is a kind of aggressive modernization, but distinguished by a refusal to relate to the general consensus, shaped by intellectuals, scientists, and artists, which exists at any time.
Those modern cults which are more zany than fundamentalist equally undermine a rational view of the world and, it should be said, rational religion, even though they may be more appealing, more kindly, in their message.
Twenty years ago it was possible to believe that the process of secularization would simply go on until it had encompassed all religious traditions, affecting them without destroying them, and that flat earthers and seventh monarchy men would not be with us for much longer. Now, in Chomsky's words, the possibility of a regression to "pre-Enlightenment times" cannot be altogether ruled out.