Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven
I just finished reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, an account of the history of the Mormon religion and the religiously motivated murders commited by the Lafferty brothers, who were Mormon fundamentalists. Krakauer is a born storyteller, and his propulsive style creates a spell which is difficult to break. If you start one of his books in a specific chair, chances are you will finish it six hours later in that same chair. I had already read his previous, propositionally phrased titles Into Thin Air, about the tragedy which befell his party of climbers on Mount Everest in 1996, and Into The Wild, which told the story of Christopher McCandless and his strange withdrawal from civilization. What all three books have in common is their portraits of humanity in extremes and the resultant behaviours that arise. What is interesting about Under the Banner of Heaven is that while it tries to draw a connection between the irrational beliefs of religion and expressions of violence, his chosen subjects serve up a more complex picture than what Krakauer's thesis proclaims.
Krakauer chooses to limit his focus to The Church of Later-day Saints. While violent opportunism and exploitation were certainly in attendence during the establishment of the Mormon faith, Krakauer is often forced to acknowledge how peace-loving, orderly, and hard-working most Mormon communities were, and are. Actually, Mormonism comes off as less inherently violent than any of the older monotheisms it drew from, more persecuted than persecutor. By contrast, the murderous, hateful Lafferty brothers seem more like anomalies -- departures from the norm that would be present in any large population. Their motivations seem more likely to stem from an abusive, controlling father than from the book of Mormon.
This speaks to the perennial debate that rages in any society in which free expression is treasured. If a perpetrator commits a wrong, how liable are his or her influences -- direct or indirect as they may be? If two teens obsessed with the film Natural Born Killers commit murder in the exact manner in which it is portrayed in, say, Natural Born Killers, can we really say that the film had no part in the crime? "Of course it didn't," we proclaim, "these are disturbed minds who existed independantly of any artistic representation. The story of NBK resonated in the way it did due to the existing mental inclinations of the perpetrators. Most who see the movie would not duplicate what they see on screen." We say this because to admit the film played a part in the crime, small though it may be, is to open a very messy philosophical can of worms.
What are religious dogmas other than standards based on stories that resonate intensely with their follower's experience and mental inclinations? In the years since the attacks of September 11, religion has been accused of shaping its own breed of natural born killer. But most of us recognize a world of difference between the Salvation Army and Al Qaeda. How much of a part does religious doctrine really play, especially when viewed in the light of a recent study that revealed that atheists were more literate in religious doctrines than the self-proclaimed devotees of those religions? If the massive protests that greeted the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ (a film that treated the divinity of Jesus seriously) illustrated anything, it's that many biblical literalists don't even know what they are supposed to believe.
One of the things religion offers is identity, a demarcation. Conflict occurs when one boundary comes into contact with another. It is an inevitable part of life. But the giving up of our precious identities seems about as likely as mankind casting off religion. The fingering of religion as the cause of the majority of the world's ills strikes me as simplistic thinking, in line with the "Natural Born Killers made me do it" defence, and is ultimately unhelpful in pointing to a solution. Yes, a line can be drawn between the belief and the action. Does anyone doubt that homophobia would largely have disappeared by now if not for certain religious texts? But some reject those hateful teachings, even if their world view is still shaped by the faith that teaches them. What makes some reject a teaching while others hold it as a bulwark of faith?
The fact is that those who reject hateful, hurtful doctrines have large amounts of empathy. They can imagine that the same things that cause them pain will cause pain to others. They are able to see outside the boundaries of identity. Empathy can be developed in most individuals. A more livable society is the one which treasures the trait of empathy. Mormonism originally advocated empathy for other Mormons, while at the same time drawing distictions between themselves and those who fell short of their standard. This lead to harmony within the community, but explains why outsiders had such little patience for the sense of entitlement shown by the early LDS church. The Mormon church has, over time, largely dispensed with its racially bigoted doctrines due to societal pressures. Religion evolves, and when a faith has traits which work against empathy, those traits must be selected against. This is done through culture. It is done through storytelling.
Conflict will never disappear completely until identity disappears, or until one identity is shared by all. The good news is that this state comes to all eventually: when we die.