The other day, my wife and I tumbled into the chasm of The Great Human Contradiction, which is so deep and wide that it makes the Grand Canyon look like a sidewalk crack. Somehow, we survived but wondered how the human race has survived.
At the time, she was reading "American Crucifixion," a book about the killing of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I was reading "The Gene," a book about the science of genetics and the history of the great scientists who discovered the gene and DNA. We took time from our reading to watch the film, "Holy Hell," a documentary about the Buddhafield cult.
"American Crucifixion" shows the intolerance that humans have for different religious beliefs (and tribes), while "Holy Hell" shows the human tendency to follow cult leaders, all of whom seem to have been male throughout history.
"The Gene," on the other hand, shows what the human mind can accomplish with reason, logic, rationality and science. The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a brilliant biologist, moral philosopher, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and overall polymath. Equally impressive are the intellectual feats accomplished by the scientists spotlighted in the book. The prologue alone is worth the price of the book.
The Great Human Contradiction is the name I've given to the chasm between these two sides of humans—between the emotional side and the rational side. The chasm is widened when it comes to metaphysical and spiritual matters, and specifically, with questions about the meaning of life and what happens to us after death. It is not in the nature of humans to say, we don't have the answers to such questions. Rather, it is in our nature to say with certainty that we know the answer and that our answer is the One True Answer. History overflows with the blood that has been spilled when One True Answer has conflicted with another One True Answer.
The search for metaphysical and spiritual answers is what usually leads people to join cults, and it was what led seemingly intelligent people to join the Buddhafield cult.
"Holy Hell" takes an intimate look at this cult. The film was the result of 22 years of filming on the inside by the director when he was a cult member. Viewers will have a difficult time believing what they are seeing.
It's hard to believe, for example, that the cult leader was dressed most of the time in a Speedo and nothing else, except for the times when he would wear a tank top. The climate in California where the cult began was conducive to this. And so was Austin, Texas, where the cult would later move and build a commune. Coincidentally, Austin is just 102 miles from Waco, which is where the cult of the Branch Davidians was located and where the members met their fiery end.
The cult leader went by the name Michel. By any measure, he was a weird dude, a weirdness that would be immediately obvious to an outsider but was not obvious to believers, who were blinded by his soft voice, his platitudes about love, and his clumsy imitation of Eastern mystics.
Believers were so enamored of him that they would massage and groom him, similar to chimpanzees grooming their alpha male. He espoused healthy living, healthy eating and sexual abstinence for the buff male and female cult members, who dressed in Speedos or bikinis. About ten minutes into the film, I said to my wife, "Well, I already know how the cult falls apart: over sexual tensions and relationships."
Sure enough, it comes out later in the film that Michel was gay and would have anal sex with guys against their will.
Michel also preached that members should not be concerned about such superficial matters as looks. As the film later shows, this was nothing but hooey. He was so vain about his looks that he began to get face lifts as he aged, a hypocrisy that should have been obvious to fellow cult members.
There are parallels with L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Michel would have cult members "report out" their innermost secrets and fears, going back to childhood. He also would have them disconnect from family members. Hubbard did the same but had different names for the rituals and rules.
Some observers say that there are also parallels between cults in general and religion, but I'm not about to go there. I will say, though, that there are parallels between cults and politics, in the sense that members of political parties are oftentimes as blind to the foibles and lies of their political leaders as the members of the Buddhafield cult were to those of Michel.
As the credits roll at the end of the film, photos are shown of some of the former members of the cult, with captions of what they are doing now. It's no surprise that none of them are doctors, lawyers, managers, or other such professionals. Instead, they've gravitated to such occupations as masseuse, yoga instructor, fitness coach, and artist. One hopes that they have found themselves and are happy.
Let's turn now to the other side of The Great Human Contradiction. Let's turn to the book, "The Gene."
One of the most interesting chapters is about the history of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, a movement that was led by the United States and later borrowed and taken to an extreme by the Nazis. The author goes on to make a fascinating observation about not only the cult of the Nazis but also the cult of the Soviets.
Bastardizing the science of genetics, the Soviets thought they could increase agricultural production by "reeducating" wheat and rice crops, by means of "shattering" and "retraining" genes via shock therapy, so they would be less dependent on soil and climate. Likewise, Soviet party cadres were reeducating political dissidents to relieve them of their ingrained dependence on false consciousness and material goods. The Soviets, believing in absolute genetic reprogrammability, thought they could eradicate all differences between people and thus achieve a homogenous, classless collective. By contrast, the Nazis believed in absolute genetic immutability, so that a Jew is always a Jew and an Aryan is always an Aryan. As such, eugenics was necessary to eliminate undesirable races in order to create a master race by process of elimination.
While reading another chapter in the book, I had a thought about anti-GMO hysteria and the resultant labeling of foods as "GMO Free" by food growers and processors. The chapter is about Genentech developing insulin in a test tube. Previously, insulin had been produced the "natural" way for injection into humans—by isolating the protein from cow pancreases. Genentech figured out a way to use recombinant DNA to produce a protein such as insulin in a microbial organism. Stated differently, the company placed a gene into a bacterial cell.
Later, during the AIDS epidemic, a staggering 90% of hemophiliacs requiring blood transfusions were becoming HIV-infected; that is, they were becoming infected by a "natural" pathogen. Using its recombinant DNA technology, Genentech was able to develop a clotting factor, thus reducing the need for transfusions.
Perhaps the science-deniers who say that GMOs are unsafe in foods should take the next logical step and say they are unsafe in the production of insulin, clotting agents, and other life-saving drugs. After all, these genetically-modified substances are being injected directly into humans. Interestingly, many of the deniers about the safety of GMOs ridicule those who question global warming, calling them science-deniers.
Which goes to show that it's easy to see when others are on the wrong side of the Great Human Contradiction and are therefore relying on emotion instead of science and reason; but it's not so easy to see when we're on the wrong side.
Maybe I'm a member of a cult and don't realize it. Naw, just because I go to the supermarket in my Speedo doesn't mean that I'm a cultist.