I recently watched an interesting documentary that is entirely relevant to this blog. The film is entitled Kumaré, and the idea behind it was to examine the role of a religious leader. In brief, the filmmaker is a fairly ordinary skeptic who decides that he will dress and behave like a wise and deeply spiritual leader, and simply see what happens (Netflix link).
I highly recommend watching the documentary, but here is my summary. The actor, Vikram Gandhi, advertises his services, and gains a few followers. With no real basis for them, he makes up some completely ambiguous chants and yoga-like exercises and meditations to use with his followers. Many of them are searching for answers, which he, "Kumaré" provides to the best of his knowledge as a completely ordinary person playing the role of a spiritual leader. Many of the followers express a deep connection to Kumaré, and sense his "purity" of intention. Many clearly put a great deal of faith in his every word, and even as he attempts to instruct them that everything he says and is is really an illusion, they continue to follow him and his ordinary wisdom. Something begins to happen as Kumaré connects with his dedicated followers and seeks to help them with their personal problems; He begins to understand the enormous responsibility that comes with his newfound power and influence. When the time comes to reveal to his followers that he is not, in fact, what he has pretended to be, and that he has no more knowledge or wisdom than any other person, he becomes intensely anxious, and is unable to tell them of the deception. After much more planning and soul searching, Vikram eventually reveals to his congregation that he is not Kumaré, but an ordinary person. His followers have mixed responses, but overall lovingly accept him and acknowledge that his works were valuable. One woman even insists that he does, in fact, have psychic powers even if he does not recognize them.
I wish to address several themes I gleaned from the film. First is the fact that the followers were searching for something - answers. Each of Kumaré's followers had some problem or need in their lives, and each believed that the problem could be solved or the need could be met through some "spiritual" methods. In other words, there was a clear demand for answers, and the followers believed they required someone to supply the answers.
Second, Kumaré had the appearance of a man who had answers. He had none in reality, or at least not any better answers than anyone else might have. What was important was that he supplied the illusion that he had answers, and that is all that the followers really wanted. He grew a long beard, put on a robe, carried a staff, and spoke in simple terms. The followers wanted to believe that he was wise and had an advanced perspective on the universe, so he simply met their expectations, however uninformed or faulty.
Finally, I find the interaction of the two positions fascinating. Kumaré hardly ever truly gave his followers advice, because he really didn't have any answers. He often redirected their questions back to them, asking them what advice they might give to themselves, for example. And yet, simply from the nature of the relationship, the followers needed him as some sort of symbol or direction, so remained dependent upon him. He, on the other hand, was told day after day that he was making a huge impact in their lives - the followers constantly remarked to him how he had changed their lives, how they admired him. By the end of the film, Vikram felt an overpowering need to be Kumaré for these people. Even though he had done nothing but provide some sort of superficial hope and safety for them, that was what they most needed. The meaning of what he had provided to them was far more valuable than the shallow words he had used.
I argue that Kumaré could have used any manner of words or approach, but that as long as he provided the message of hope and validation, he would have gained followers anywhere. I believe that is what religious disciples seek first and foremost. The details are almost irrelevant. This is clearly evidenced by the deliberate ignorance of so many LDS at the significant problems with Church doctrines and history. As long as the LDS church offers a message of hope and tells them they are right to believe it, almost no amount of reality will deter them. I could name any number of other spiritual groups or cults where people seeking answers were caught up in a leader's charisma and hopeful message (no matter how strange); these followers sometimes become willing to do anything the leader asks, even if bizarre or unconscionable.
In the documentary, Vikram was just a curious skeptic. With a little imagination, it is easy to comprehend the real damage he could have done if he were a manipulative or corrupt man. By simply pretending to be a compassionate, wise man, with some perspective on life, he almost immediately had control of his followers. A manipulative or corrupt man could easily begin to take advantage of their vulnerability and trust to get them to do unbelievable things.
Through the documentary, I found new perspective on Joseph Smith, Jr. Perhaps I will spend more time on this in the future, but I have pondered Smith for some time now - why did he do what he did? At this point, I do not believe that Smith started the LDS church with purely evil intentions. I believe they were selfish reasons, perhaps to make a few dollars and have some entertainment, but not purely psychopathic. I think most likely he saw the huge demand people of that day and age had for religious guidance, and so he decided that he would step in and become a supplier. Maybe he knew that all religious leaders need is confidence and a message people want to believe. He had witnessed firsthand the methods that religious leaders of his day used to gain followers and he thought to himself, "I bet I could do that." He practiced his methods by claiming to be a scryer - confidently claiming that he knew how to locate buried treasures (more). All he needed was some demand for such services - and everyone wanted to find treasure - and he would confidently deliver the hopeful message of knowing its location. The problem, of course, is that he never once actually delivered treasure.
Regardless of Smith's original motives in making spectacular claims about golden plates and visions, the documentary calls another interesting point into question - could Smith have come clean? Perhaps the whole LDS church began as an experiment for Smith. Maybe he just wanted to see if he could pull it off. But, just as Vikram found it unbearable to let down his followers, who had come to depend on him so, could it be that Smith came to feel obligated to continue his charade?
I am a doctoral student in psychology, and cannot help but consider some psychological principles here. Social psychology's theory of cognitive dissonance, for example, proposes that, when faced with such dilemmas, we typically mold our thoughts and feelings to match our actions. Perhaps at some level Smith really felt guilty for misleading innocent people, but felt that coming clean and admitting that he was no prophet would have done more damage to his vulnerable followers (or it would at least get him killed). Freud might have argued that Smith's polygynous practices were an unconscious attempt to be found out as a fraud so that he could finally relieve his conscience of its burden. Or perhaps after years of hearing his followers' praise, he eventually came to believe that he really was more than a man. After all, even palm readers and other psychics must believe at some level that they really have supernatural powers if they are not entirely malicious manipulators. People return to them, and keep paying their money. Smith may have seen his growing army of followers and their willingness to do anything for him as evidence that he must have been more than a mere man.
There may also be something to learn about subsequent Church leaders here. I recently read an interesting opinion about the current leaders of the Church. The question is if they truly know deep down that the Church is not what it claims, but feel obligated to the members to continue to put on the show (or have they become the liars and manipulators Joseph Smith was?). I think that using the Kumaré experiment as a reference point, it is easy to understand how a normal member of the Church could rise to a position of prestige, learn more of the troubling reality of the Church's history, but as a combination of their celebrity status (which extends to their family), their promised blessings, the decades and dollars they committed to the Church, and, perhaps most importantly, the millions of members whose lives depend on the message, that these leaders cannot allow themselves to entertain the possibility that they were lied to and, therefore, misled their children and friends. Truly considering that thought is potentially painful, and may have serious consequences (as any of us who has left the Church knows). Friends will be lost, social status revoked, family relationships damaged, and perhaps even marriages broken (see my earlier post on this topic).
And yet, just as Vikram wrestled with these questions and finally decided that, no matter how painful, the truth must be revealed, that is where I stand. It is because Vikram cared for his followers that he told them the truth. He knew the truth might be painful, but he believed his followers deserved to know, and that they were strong enough to no longer need the lie. Similarly, it is precisely because I care for my family and friends that I have told them the truth about the LDS church. Whether they still need the lie or not is their decision, but I refuse to perpetuate it any longer.
"Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?" - Gal. 4:16