Friday, 12 April 2013

The cult of personality

The cult of personality is something I have noticed occurs all over the world, it is similar to Hero Worship, but has the added layer of being spread by propaganda and an added reverence for the individual at the centre.

First some definitions, the Cult of personality is typically defined as when someone uses methods to make an idealised hero or god-like persona ascribe to a person, this is usually done through mass media or propaganda.

Religion we know does this, people dare not question anything an Imam, Pope or archbishop says. They use their media reach and personality to get noticed and get their word out by any means necessary. Take a look at the pontifs twitter, every evangelical tv channel worldwide, including the international channels operated by the likes of the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists, and every Sunday morning hell that is tv evangelists.
Though some cracks are starting to form, in the Catholic Church polls have shown people disagree with what their clergy have said, but the question here would be how they were asked this very important question. For example do you support the use of contraception, the answer you may get would be fairly positive. However ask a Catholic, do you think the churches stance on contraception is correct, and you would get a similarly positive response. This is similar to the break aways in more liberal protestant denominations, removing the dietry requirements or the requirement for a literal 6000 year old creation interpretation.
This all comes down to the inability to see their hero, in this case the church as doing anything wrong.
In religion the cult of personality is rife; this is usually how a religion starts. Put yourself in the place of an uneducated peasant in the early first Millennia CE, someone tells you a story of a hero who took all your sins upon himself, committed miracles, and promised you ever lasting life. You may be convinced, and you would hold the person in those stories in the highest of regard. This behaviour over generations leads to a reverence that no being has ever earned.

For modern day examples look at the Guru's in India and you can see that they build followers via stories that are built up about them. These Guru's perpetuate and have stories made up of miracles they have performed, revelation and prophecy they have fufilled and divined.
A good documentary on how this is done is Kumare, where an American of Indian decent decides to run an experiment on some people convincing them he is a Hindu Guru.
These Guru's cash in big time and build rules up to stop them from being questioned, rules that given time would lead to the idea of infallibility or making a death sentence seem a sane punishment for simply asking a question. Does this sound like any other religion?

The very slow loading page shows how much these Gurus can amass, just in case that no longer loads.

Guru   Worth RS crore Worth RS Worth $AU
 Baba RamdevINR 40,000.00 INR 400,000,000,000.00 $7,044,840,000.00
 Mata Amritanandamayi INR 1,500.00 INR 15,000,000,000.00 $264,181,500.00
 Sri Sri Ravishankar INR 1,000.00 INR 10,000,000,000.00 $176,121,000.00
 Asaram Bapu INR 350.00 INR 3,500,000,000.00 $61,642,350.00
 Gurmeet Ram Rahim NA, but some 250 Ashrams world wide, a chain of petrol stations across India, a hospital and 705 acres of prime agricultural land are all owned by this Guru.

The lead Guru there Baba Ramdev is reportedly worth over $7 billion Australian dollars at current exchange rate of 1rs buying $AUD:0.0176121 (source

Look at the cargo cults of Polynesia, with the character who probably never existed, John Frum.
John Frum was supposedly a soldier or civilian who was an incarnation of an existing Polynesian god, who possibly during a Kava-induced vision told a prophet that he was going to return and on his return all non-natives would be exiled from Vanuatu and the natives would receive the cargo to get them to the level of wealth of westerners. John Frum is supposed to come back on February 15, he has his profits including one man who talks to Frum on a radio, a wire wrapped around an old woman who blathers uncontrollably as he talks to her and tries to discern what Frum is communicating to them. But there is a reverence for Frum, reverence in their marching and flag raising ceremonies, and in their painstakingly created uniforms and adornments. So much reverence that a man that claimed to be him was imprisoned, publicly humiliated and eventually exiled.

This reverence for a mere human being should not be done under any circumstances, sometimes it is hard with some people commanding such power and charisma that you want to give it to them. But I am sad to say I have witnessed it in non-belief. There are secular people who revere the Tony Robbins of the world, there are secular people who even show reverence for the more likely suspects of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, AC Grayling and Stephen Fry, maybe I am just being conceited but I think I have even been on the receiving end of this special treatment. Being recently given possibly better than deserved scores at a debate group. I think this reverence and special treatment shouldn't happen.
These revered shouldn't be questioned in some people's eyes, all they have are good ideas. But they don't just have good ideas, they are fallible like the rest of us, so should be questioned just as stringently if not more so.

I know this is an anecdote but it is an important one. When going to GAC (Global atheist convention) in 2012 after the first mornings introduction I starvingly raced out to get some food, wandering around looking for something that my fickle tastes would enjoy I saw Richard Dawkins. I had only seen him two days prior at the when I went to get my Magic of Reality books signed for my kids after the "Something from nothing" event at Sydney Grammar School. I was actually a little disappointed at this signing as I wanted my kids names in the books for them to have when they were older, if anything it reduces their on-sale-ability, but I digress.
At this event I had been excited to see them both, and felt I had to ask Lawrence Krauss about his pin that looked like the ever famous xkcd comic, it turned out it wasn't but he admitted to being a reader. I was a little let down with Richard Dawkins as he seemed a bit grouchy, but like anyone under the spell I equivocated and said that perhaps he was jet lagged.... although Krauss didn't appear to be.
So back to the GAC, by this stage my star-struckness had lessened somewhat having spent lunch helping AronRa fix problems with his phone. So even though I saw Richard Dawkins I decided not to intrude as he appeared to be on the same quest I was for food, but I was struck by the way I saw a person approach him at that moment. This person had hunched themselves over with hands folded into themselves, and in an almost ceremonious way approached Richard Dawkins, I thought wow, this is hero worship in the extreme, I thought to get my camera out but decided against it and I noted it in my head to write about later.
Later in GAC I remember someone commenting on how they forgot to call him Professor Dawkins, and how disappointed in themselves they were. Again odd behaviour, he is not your professor, sure he is a Professor, he is also an ape just like you so give him the same respect you give yourself.

On to another anecdote, this time from someone with more exposure to non-believer thought, Sean Faircloth and his recent jaunt in Australia.
In fact the reason I decided to hold the pub night, was in an attempt to dispel some of this Cult of personality, and hero worship that we see. I think seeing him as a human, just as prone to the effects of imbibing alcohol as the rest of us, may have gone some way towards that.
I mentioned this very talk to him and we had a good long chat on the way to the social from the far side of Hyde Park. He mentioned that on the Richard Dawkins page there have been several instances of this blind following of the exalted leader. For example if he posts an article about climate change or gun control he will get hundreds of messages of derision, some calling for his dismissal from the page as admin. The funny thing is as he puts it, Dawkins is fairly liberal and believes in climate change and gun control but these people commenting can't bring themselves to accept that they disagree with their replacement deity on anything.
Yes I said deity; I think the worship may have started to get to that level.

It is even evident in the general public, a number of times I have been asked after revealing I am an atheist "oh you must follow that Dawkins guy" or "oh you must love that biologist from England". Yes I think he has done some wonderful work in popularising science and bringing atheism to the masses, but he is not the bee's knees.

I disagree with Dawkins. 

It is a rather minor disagreement in the grand scheme of things. But it maybe that I am seen to disagree with a lot of people, even people reading this. I think evolution is important, I think our origins via Abiogenesis and evolution are of extreme importance, and I think popularising science is important. But I don't think evolution should be that big a deal. At least here in Australia very rarely do we actually meet someone silly enough to not have been taught evolution, and not to take it as the fact that it is. I think it is to some extent a dead horse, but then again biology has never held my interest for a great deal of time... unless it is reproductive biology of course.

To move on to the next of the worshipped heroes of atheism, Christopher Hitchens. A more eloquent and finer debater will never be met. The issue that arises now with Hitchens is one of his death; he is being remembered with increasingly more and more rosy glasses.
But he had his flaws, everyone even his most ardent worshippers will point to his death as his smoking and drinking, these are things I actually don't disagree with him on, it is his body he can do what he wants to it, as long as it doesn't harm another I don't care, and I support his right to do so.

I have witnessed people talking of Hitchens in hushed tones with hope to not offend anyone, I am sure he wouldn't want it this way, I am sure he would want us to fight against even irrationality in him even post-mortem.

I do disagree with Hitchens.

So there are points of disagreement with Hitchens, some I think are rather large. Nothing that would stop me reading his wonderful works. That is not how I think freethinkers should work. I once had a colleague that told me he could no longer read a particular author of physics because of the authors professed atheism. I find this absolutely stunning, it would be like me saying I can no longer enjoy the Nania chronicles as they were written by CS Lewis a Christian apologist and even written as an allegory to Jesus and God, absolute rubbish, they are fantasy just like the stories they were based on.
So back to Hitchens, most will say he was wrong to support the war in Iraq and while there was very little evidence for WMD's there the liberation of the Iraqi people seems to have been a goal and I can see support for that to some extent. So I am mixed on at least this most polemic of points.

No I disagree on Hitchens and his borderline misogyny.

No not the Hillary Clinton issue, which in context makes sense, she was kind of playing up her gender to get and maintain a spot in the race. Hitchens said she was seen crying during the primaries where she lost a state and commented, that you would never see Maggie Thatcher sinking to that emotional level.

Hitchens was a pro-lifer which I believe is removing a woman's right to choose what happens with her own body. Of course he makes the mistake that most abortions happen in the first trimester when the foetus has a chance at being a human, has little to no brain activity and very little nervous system ability. He unfortunately buys the anti-choice crowds idea that brain waves start at 8-weeks, when in fact the study that claimed this was found faulty and taken out of context and more recent studies show that bursts of Neural activity start around 12 weeks, but normal brain patterns don't start until after 22-28weeks.
There is also the issue of abortion saving an adult life at the expense of an undeveloped foetuses life, but let's leave it there as I don't want to make this a discussion about pro-choice.
I also disagree vehemently on the women can't be funny article he controversially published. Women can be funny if Julia Sweeny's excellent stand-up show "Letting go of God" or almost every "Garfunkel and Oates" song ever are anything to go by, sorry but this one is a little vulgar but I had to share. I think this is a little of his possible superiority complex leaking out, but then again he is superior to me in dictation, so what do I know.


Another person who gets revered even more possibly since his passing is Carl Sagan. A great man and incredible science communicator. He had the gift of eloquence, passion for his subjects and knowledge of science to back it up.
In fact this talk and article in part came about due to his book "A Demon haunted world" where he points out where and when he was wrong to make himself more human to those who would read his book.

Yet I disagree with Carl Sagan.

As people who know me will attest I am a massive Carl Sagan fan, I have read many of his books, sport t-shirts with quotes from him on it and love me some Carl Sagan Symphony of science or pale blue dot for when I am feeling a little down.

But yes I disagree with him on a definition. A pretty big one, he didn't say he was an atheist, he said  "An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed."
He either made this distinction as he feared coming out as an atheist, or he simply didn't research the word well enough. Atheist, from the Greek meaning godless. From his own descriptions on God he like me would be an agnostic atheist.


Another person I admire greatly is Lawrence Krauss. I have read several of his books, also have shirts with quotes from him on it, and will tell anyone who will listen of sitting down to have a drink with him and discussing physics during GAC 2012. Yes this one on one activity brings a person down to your level, but maybe it doesn't quite do it.

Yes I disagree with Lawrence Krauss.

Lawrence Krauss thinks we shouldn't send people to space to some extent, he has had this argument with the director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson thinks we should send people as it inspires people, Krauss thinks the risk is to high versus the reward and that we should just send robots to do the science for us. I think we are going to have to move elsewhere in space to give our species a redundancy and chance of surviving, as Carl Sagan said it is our duty to the universe, as we are a way for the universe to know itself.  Plus some science that we will want to do requires human ingenuity, something robots just don't have and likely won't for a long time.

One final example a person I do find inspiring, and someone who I find myself agreeing with a lot. Stephen Fry.

But I don't disagree with Stephen Fry, I just see his human failings.

No I have yet to find anything to disagree with him on, he damn well corrects himself the next week whenever he is wrong on QI, but the way he has written his biography "Moab is my washpot" he has humanised himself. He has humanised himself talking of how he cruelly as a pre-pubescent boy convince a younger boy Bunce to take the fall for him and receive the cane even when Fry himself would receive it as well. This brought him down in my eyes to the flailing mess that the rest of us are.

So my advice to solve this problem of hero worship and the cult of personality is to bring them down to your level, meet with them as I have tried to do. Dispel their power by reading of their failings, they are sure to have them and look for areas of disagreement with someone you respect, and be grateful when you find one as it is said "If you always agree with everything someone else says, then one of you is unnecessary". Don't revere a person as reverence is never warranted for a person and rarely for an object or place and most importantly remember times when you were wrong and be happy and gracious when someone points out you are wrong as I hope people will do on this talk and remember you are also a human like all the aforementioned and unmentioned great thinking heroes so you, like they make mistakes.

Slide deck and talk to come...

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