The Island

August 26, 2020 Category: Religion

“Faith sees best while in the dark.”  –Soren Kierkegaard

“We have fed the heart on fantasies / The heart has grown brutal from the fare.”  –William Butler Yeats

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”  –Steve Jobs

Two of the most powerful motivating factors of human thinking / behavior are hope and fear.  Manipulate either—or both—of those two things, and one will have legions of sycophants eating out of the palm of one’s hand.  This is what demagogues do; and it is how most religions work.  (After all, most demagogues are effectively cult leaders—a matter I discuss in my essays, “The History Of Exalted Figures” and “The Long History Of Sacred Texts”.)

Other than serving as an explanatory device, religion serves as an incentive structure.  While religion provides participants with a map of meaning to help them navigate the beguiling—and often bewildering—world in which they find themselves; and, in doing so, it furnishes them with the tools to make sense of everything.

In short: Religion gives participants a sense of purpose; something to live for.  Christianity and Islam do this most decisively, as they present a binary choice: two starkly contrasted destinations in the hereafter.  Consequently, participants find themselves longing to gain access to a celestial paradise…even as they are terrified of being consigned to hellfire.  Hope and fear: each of them based on a consideration of how things will turn out for oneself in an imagined afterlife.  What else are promises of salvation and threats of damnation than a way to manage people’s lives?  Here, we focus on the carrot (“the Island”); and in “Nemesis”, I focus on the stick.

So far as Christianity and Islam are concerned, this importune alternative is presented as a matter of PIETY—that is: whether one appeases or defies the godhead.  And how one goes about appeasing / defying the cosmic overlord is a function of OBEISANCE—that is: conformity to prescribed norms; compliance with the diktats of worldly institutions.

Such schema is staggeringly effective, as it resonates with us on a primal level.  That’s why Emanuel Swedenborg’s “Of Heaven And Its Wonders, And Of Hell” made so many waves when it was published in 1758.  The book addressed the two alternatives: afterlives in heaven or hell…just as had Catholics like Dante, Petrarch, and Pedro Calderon de la Barca had done during the Italian Renaissance.  In his “The Great Theater Of The World” and “Life Is A Dream”, Calderon held that insofar as one makes life entirely about an AFTER-life, our worldly existence is merely a test; or even just a phantasm.  Life, then, is all about the destination; and it doesn’t have any point beyond that.  The implications of this: the world is but a staging ground; and the sine qua non is earning admission into a luxury-resort-in-the-sky for an eternal membership.  It’s not exactly an eternal Walpurgis Night on the Brocken in the Harz mountains; but it is—effectively—a celestial bordello, equipped with fine dining and plenty of shade.  Super-terrestrial delights are quite enticing for horny, young men enduring the sweltering heat of the desert sun.

But then again, this is nothing peculiar; it reflects some of the most elementary aspects of our universal human nature.  While enduring the trials and tribulations of our worldly existence (a.k.a. the human condition), it is only natural that we all yearn for a Shangri La—typically rendered as some Edenic venue with lots of flowers, rainbows, gumdrop trees, verdant meadows, majestic waterfalls, placid lagoons of pink lemonade, and rivers of milk and honey…plus lots of hot, naked chicks frolicking around some sort of lagoon.  Oh, and lots of scrumptious food.

Different people handle this reverie in different ways; as they seek this fantastical destination in different places; consider different ways of getting there; and even have different expectations / hopes for what it might entail.  Where we look for it and how we conceptualize it dictates what sorts of things appeal to us.

Once we find ourselves in the desired afterlife destination, the question goes from “What do we need to do to get into heaven?” to “What do we do now that we’re here?”  Imagine devoting extensive time and energy to gaining access into an ultra-exclusive nightclub; and once one is finally inside, wondering: “Ok, now what?”  After the initial rush, one is sure to experience some sort of denouement.

As they lounge on well-upholstered couches, sipping some delicious libation and nibbling on the grapes served by buxom angelic concubines, denizens of the celestial paradise will invariably find themselves wondering: “Are we to now just sit around, savoring euphoria every minute of every hour of every day for the rest of eternity?”  After having copulated with a “houri” for the ten-thousandth time, the novelty might start to wear off; and the titillation would surely wane.  The fantastical would eventually become rather mundane.

The result is not as advertised.  This realization would soon strike us as we transition from one mode (having a point to our existence) to another (having an utterly pointless existence).  If heaven is, indeed, chronic euphoria; then we would find ourselves in a rather tedious condition: an existence with no aspiration; just unmitigated satisfaction.  (Eternal bliss, it seems, is rather over-rated.)  But such concerns usually do not pose a problem.  Consider the first Mohammedans.  The carrot worked quite well with wayward Bedouins pining for pussy and glory; so the inducement served its purpose.  14 centuries later, it continues to have purchase.  Islamic apologist, Mark Hanson (a.k.a. “Hamza Yusuf”) has openly admitted that, pursuant to a near-death experience at 17 years old, he surveyed the various religious options, and chose Islam due to the fact that it offered the most enticing afterlife.  Like many, he was clearly pursuing the juiciest carrots (and may have also been influenced by the most menacing sticks).  He was right.  Islam offers the most graphic description of both: the most prurient salvation and most lurid damnation—each of which is likely to be persuasive to the adolescent mind.

The details proffered by Islamic scripture about “jannah” are comically overwrought; but for horny, young men, it’s just what the doctor ordered.  It comes as no surprise that the teenage Mark Hanson—as with tens of millions of other male youth around the world—was mesmerized by the lotusland on offer in the Koran.  This makes sense; as the Paradise hawked in the “Final Revelation” were DESIGNED to captivate horny, young men who covet an endless supply of milk and honey that they can enjoy while reclining on plush sofas under shaded pavillions.  Having a coterie of buxom angelic concubines at their beck and call didn’t hurt either.

Our perpetual hankering for escapism inclines us to “take the leap” in cases where there is an extremely alluring outcome: “Wonderful things are in store for me; as well as for my kith and kin.”  Such prospects can be quite compelling; so credence is rather beside the point.  People rarely think about the logistics when they are transfixed—nay, hypnotized—by the beguiling visions on offer.  This is especially so when people are desperate for hope—no matter how false that hope might be.  When life is trying, the reassurance that “it will all be worth it in the end” is hard to resist.

Alas.  Such illusions disintegrate upon scrutiny; especially when logistics are taken into account.  For example, if either Christians or Muslims are correct about heaven, we’re looking at a venue populated by HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of lucky souls.  In the case of Islamic theology, where scripture is highly specific in its descriptions of the venue, we’re looking at a massive network of shaded pavilions—furnished with well-upholstered couches—capable of accommodating well over a BILLION people (assuming all devout Muslims are admitted into Paradise).  The ancient Norse seemed to be under the impression that brave warriors would feast in a great hall: Valhalla.  But exactly how gigantic would this dining establishment need to be?  And what was there to do between meals?

By indulging in these flights of fancy, we wind up engulfed in a crucible of swirling absurdities.  Yet True Believers are too entranced to bring their critical faculties to bear.  The ensuing intoxication is taken as a validation of their musings.

It is no secret that people can be manipulated / exploited.  History has shown us that integral to manipulating / exploiting people is ensuring they are (blissfully) unaware that they are being manipulated / exploited.  It is commonly supposed that this must involve devious machinations of some sort–whether by an overtly dastardly villain or by a sinister cabal that operates in the shadows.  But this is a mistake; as it is a crude caricature of how things usually occur.  Subterfuge needn’t be the ambit of odious parties of the sort we find in comic books, triller novels, and fairy tales–where the nemesis takes on palpably monstrous incarnations for the sake of titillating dramatization.  As Hannah Arendt noted, “evil” is most insidious in its more banal forms.

Those in power often instill a sense of buoyant expectancy in the masses as a way to ingratiate themselves with the rank-and file…and thus in order manipulate them.  This stratagem accounts for the prevalence of promised rewards in most theologies.  The key is that the best way to control people is to convince them they are not being controlled; and–by the same token–the best way to exploit people is to distract them from the fact that they are being exploited.  (In social media terms, people are under the impression that they are using Facebook even as Facebook is actually using them.)

A metaphor for this existential heist can be found in the 2005 film, “The Island”.  The idea is presented in a straight-forward manner: “Just keep your head down, do as you’re told, and YOU TOO might someday be chosen for…THE ISLAND.”  This captivating narrative serves as an apt illustration of the social architecture of false hope. {1}

There is a caveat that bolsters the anticipation of the Promised Land: “If your life sucks, don’t sweat it.  Because, gosh darn it, it’s eventually gonna be FANTASTIC.  Just hang in there; and follow these instructions.  TRUST us.  We have your best interests at heart.”  The “it’ll all be worthwhile in the end” schtick can be stupendously successful when people are in dire straights, and desperately need a reason to persevere in the face of tribulation.

The moral of the story: “Stay in line, and all will be will.  But get out of line, and you may forfeit your chances to win the ultimate prize.”  This should sound familiar–as it is how strict disciplinarians ensure children remain well-behaved.  In this Pavlovian scheme, the oft-advertised Paradise serves as an irresistible carrot…or, that is, the PROMISE OF a carrot, which will be given only once…and at some unspecified time in the future.

Such is the nature of false hope.  The prospects needn’t be real; it is the ILLUSION OF hope that does all the work.  It is the BELIEF IN a fata morgana awaiting those who toe the line that behooves people to toe the line.  “The Island” illustrates how this works quite well.  For the willing captives (who–it is crucial to understand–saw themselves as protectees), the carrot was an island paradise–replete with sun, surf, and carefree living.  As it turned out, there was no more potent a ruse for ensuring they remained compliant; as their entire lives amounted to a mundane existence of a highly-regimented daily routine.  Their lives were strictly choreographed “for their own good”, all while being cooped up in an underground compound (seen as a kind of holding place until they would finally–at long last–be delivered to the longed-for destination).  For the denizens of this subterranean North Korea, the idea of a tropical island under a blue sky, with pristine beaches and sublime sunsets, was exactly what the doctor ordered.

In other religions, the carrot may be an open-air seraglio in a lush garden, replete with splendorous raiments, a delicious buffet, and an unending orgy with a coterie of angelic concubines (see my essay on “The Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”).

Spoiler alert: The Island doesn’t really exist.

The name of the game is to keep everyone’s hopes alive.  Nobody wants to bungle their chance to be admitted to the magnificent hereafter (“akhira” in Arabic)…where, they’re assured, they’ll get to see their (departed) loved ones once more.  (Gee-wiz!)  “Just hang in there.  This worldly life (“duniya” in Arabic), trying as it may often be, is only temporary.  It’ll all be worth it…if, that is, you play your cards right.”  The result of this elaborate charade is a population of groveling supplicants waiting for their celestial Godot (see my essay, “Brink Porn”).

Tragically, this devious scam works like a charm.  It is testament to one of the simplest and most effective Machiavellian ploys ever devised: Distract the rabble with something mesmerizing, and they’ll be putty in your hands.  As was shown in “The Island”, when this boondoggle is well-orchestrated, one can corral a pliant flock in whatever way one wishes.

Even more staggering is the possibility of sustaining the illusion of free will.  If one can control what people want, then one doesn’t have to MAKE them do anything.  They will eagerly do as one wishes; and FEEL as though they have made their own decision.  This is what makes scams to dangerous: a faux sense of empowerment even as one is being demeaned / exploited. {16}

Those who have even a rudimentary understanding of con-artistry can see through such smokescreens rather easily.  Yet therein lies the rub: In order to even TRY to see through a smokescreen, one must recognize that the smokescreen exists.  (Illusions don’t readily announce themselves as illusions; lest they not be effective AS illusions.)  After all, much of the point of the facade is to ensure the facade does not appear to be obfuscating anything.  Pretense only works when it isn’t seen as pretense.  (And as any cosmetologist will attest, the most tactful application of makeup makes it look as though one is NOT WEARING makeup.)

The allure of an illusory freedom (the Koranic “horriya”) is elementary.  It constitutes freedom from want, from confusion, from disorganization, from uncertainty, and from unpredictability.  In the film, “The Island”, everyone is fed very well, and has a comfy place to sleep each night…all while in holding.  There is no insecurity; only calm anticipation.  For this ruse to work, structure is paramount.  The ruse is that the governing corporation is “protecting” the residents from the farcical evil the corporation itself concocted.  This is reminiscent of god’s statement in the Koran that he will provide refuge from the evil of that which he himself created: the ordeal that is worldly life (“duniya”; ref. the opening of Surah 113).  Shaded pavilions as reprieve from the scorching heat; sumptuous feast to satiate hunger; plenty of wine with no hangovers to quench any thirst (while presumably offering a pleasant buzz); and–of course–plenty of fucking.

The anticipation of eternal bliss is enough to get people through the day…and help them sleep at night.  We might recall the tragically-deluded members of the People’s Temple.  Unfortunately, the case studies of this duplicitous motif are numerous: Haredim, Evangelical Christians, Salafis, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, etc.  As far as supplicants are concerned, “We’re here of our own free will.  All is well.  We’re taken care of and don’t have to worry.”  And what of the top-down control?  “The powers-that-be have our best interests at heart.  Their unimpeachable authority is for our own good.”  In each case, the captives perceived their candy-coated prison as their Argo to salvation.  The message is loud and clear: Better days lie ahead, just be patient.  (And don’t get out of line.) {17}

In this duplicitous scheme, the message from the powers-that-be is: “Do as we say, and everything will turn out well.  Just hang in there; stick with the program…and things will eventually pan out.”  A sense of urgency can be inculcated with the perpetual assurance that “salvation is just around the corner” (see my essay on “Brink Porn”).  With this being incessantly drummed into supplicants’ heads, they will eagerly acquiesce to the imposed regimen–no matter how draconian.  (Sometimes, the more draconian, the better; as compliance signals fealty.)

As it happens in the real world, “the Island” takes many forms.  It can be “the American Dream” or what Liu Mingfu called “the Chinese Dream”–either way: a socio-economic hoax. {11}  It can be a right-wing libertarian utopia (think of Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch”).  Or it might just be a vision of fame and fortune–as with the countless get-rich-quick schemes hawked in late-night info-mercials.  The key is to provide tantalizing imagery–to SHOW what it’s like for those who have purportedly “made it”.  The message is always the same: “This too could someday be YOU.  Imagine!”

Much of world’s sanctified folklore has offered its own version of “the Island”.  Throughout history, theologies have proffered their own info-mercials–dating back to the Sumerian tales of the garden-paradise, “Dilmun”.  In Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo posited the “City of God”: his own take on the Hebrew “Yahweh-shammah” [“Where God Dwells”], which was often equated with Zion / Jerusalem.  This was essentially what came to be viewed as “Kingdom Come” (alt. Kingdom of Heaven; Kingdom of God). {3}

The common thread is a utopian destination–typically in the form of a verdant (celestial) garden, where there are no worries, no suffering, and an endless supply of euphoria.  It is usually located in an otherworldly place (accessible only to a chosen few).  Members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were convinced that, in dying, they would be magically transported to the “Next Level” via alien spacecraft.  (THEIR path to “akhira”, they believed, awaited them behind comet Hale-Bopp.)  Indeed, it was the eager anticipation for ascending to the “Next Level” that impelled them to take their own lives.  Such a leitmotif is captivating, which is why it crops up in so much fiction:

  • In James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” (1933), it was “Shangri-La”
  • In the Disney film, “Pinocchio” (1940), it was “Pleasure Island”
  • In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1944), it was “Sugarcandy Mountain”
  • In William F. Nolan’s “Logan’s Run” (1967), salvation was delivered in the form of “Renewal”
  • In Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” (1993), it was “Elsewhere”
  • In the Brasilian series “3%” (2016), it was the “Offshore”

The 2018 film, “Level 16” is a variation on “The Island”. Girls are bred in an enclosed compound in which every moment of their lives is stringently controlled, and perpetually monitored. The idea is to OBEY, and thus remain “pure”. Their hope is that, if they do as they are told, they will eventually be “chosen” (i.e. adopted by a loving family, and thus released into a wonderful world beyond the walls of the compound). As with “The Island” the residents are made to believe that they are blessed to be confined to the compound, as it is PROTECTING them from a dangerous exterior. In “The Island”, the danger is the radiation from a (fictional) nuclear winter; in “Level 16”, it is poisonous air, perhaps from some kind of (fictional) environmental disaster. Thus fear (based on some sort of hobgoblin) is employed in concert with the false hope (visions of a promised hereafter). Of course, the scheme is a ruse, from which those in charge stand to benefit. (In both cases, it is a for-profit venture running the show; one selling healthy organs, the other selling healthy skin.)

The girls in “Level 16” are told that the highest virtue is obedience; and highest vice is curiosity. Their existence is defined by strict daily ritual. They are to never question anything, and are to follow every rule. Otherwise, they will face punishment. The promise of being “chosen” is enough to keep each girl in compliance–all the while keeping her hopes up. For, in the end, each girl is led to believe that it will all be worthwhile.

Even the most sanctified folklore has employed the motif of a Paradise in a far-off land…a place that only THE ELECT might find.  Medieval Europeans dubbed this fata morgana, “Cockaigne”.  Medieval European sailors told of “Fiddler’s Green”.  Here are 62 more examples of this leitmotif in sanctified folklore:

  • Vedic legends of “Videha” and of “Sveta-Dvipa” [White Island, the abode of Vishnu].  Hindus also posit “Svarga” [alt. “Vaikuntha”; “Paramapadam”].  {5}
  • Jain legends of “Saket[a]”.  Jains also posit “Siddha-sila” [alt. the “Deva Loka”].
  • Buddhist legends of “Jambu-dvipa” [Island of the Jambu trees].  Buddhists also posit “Khembalung”, “Tushita”, and the (Sukhavati) “Pure Land”. {12}
  • Tibetan legends of “Shambhala” (with its city of “Kalapa”); as well as the mythical Mount Potalaka.  Tibetans also posit “Nghe-Beyul Khembalung”.
  • Tamil legends of “Kumari Kandam” / “Kumari Nadu”
  • Chinese legends of “Penglai” / “Horai”
  • Korean legends of “Asadal”
  • Japanese legends of “Takama-ga-hara”
  • Siamese legends of “Muang Thaen[g]” and “Ko Kaeo Phitsadan” [Magical Island]
  • Malay legends of “Gangga Negara”
  • Sumerian legends of “Dilmun
  • Akkadian legends of “Aratta” (a place of gold and jewels; home of Inanna).
  • Assyrians told of the mythical Cedar Forest in the Far East (ref. the Epic of Gilgamesh; likely Elam or Dilmun), at the far end of which there is the mountain known as “Mashu”. {6}
  • Persian legends of “Kaaf-kuh” / “Kuh-y Kaaf”.  Ancient Persians (i.e. Zoroastrians) also posited “Frashokereti”. {2}
  • Ancient Egyptians posited the afterlife paradise, “Sekhet-Aaru” [the “Fields of Aaru”; i.e. Reed Fields].
  • Ancient Greek legends of “Themiskyra” [in Pontus, fabled city of the Amazons] and of the blissful gardens of “Erytheia” (the Red Isle, associated with Tartessos).  Ancient Greeks also posited the “Elysian Fields” (as with Homer); or as Virgil later dubbed it, “Elysium”.  Hesiod posited “Makaron Nesoi” (Isles of the Blessed). {7}
  • Judaic legends of “Gan Eden” and of “Ophir”.  The first Hebrews also seem to have told of “Olam Haba” (a precursor to “Gan Eden”).
  • Practitioners of Kabbala posit “Shamayim”–comprised of seven layers.
  • The earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth (members of “The Way”) spoke of “Shamayin” (the Syriac derivative of the Aramaic, “Shamayim”, which was also used in Classical Hebrew).  Nicene Christianity eventually adopted the Koine Geek moniker, “ouranos”.  This is what Christians now refer to as “heaven”.
  • Pre-Islamic Arabian legends of “[w]Ubar”
  • The first Mohammedans adopted the Syriac Christian notion of heaven, dubbing it “Jannah” (as it remains in Islam today).
  • Turkic / Altaic legends of “Uçmag”
  • Mongol legends of “Ötüken”
  • Gothic legends of “Arheimar”
  • Celtic legends of “Annwyn”
  • English legends of “Avalon”
  • Welsh legends of “Cantref y Gwaelod”
  • Irish legends of “Hy-Brasil”.  The Irish also posited “Mag Mell” (a.k.a. “Tir Na nOg”).
  • Norman legends of “Ker-Is” [a.k.a. “Ys”]
  • Spanish legends of “Cibola”
  • Frisian / Dutch / Flemish legends of “Luilekkerland”
  • Norse legends of “Vineta”.  The Vikings also posited “Valhalla”.  {4}
  • Finnish legends of “Pohjola” (a local to the far north) and Vainola
  • Slavic legends of “Buyan”
  • Dacian / Romanian legends of “Solomanari” [a.k.a. “Sholomance”] (purportedly located somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains)
  • Maori legends of “Hawaiki”
  • Polynesian (esp. Hawaiian) legends of “Kahiki”
  • Yaruba legends of “Ile-Ife” / “Ife-Lodun”
  • Toltec legends of “Tollan”  {9}
  • Aztec legends of “Aztlan”.  The Aztecs also posited “Tlalocan”.
  • Mayan legends of “Xibalba”
  • Incan legends of “Paititi”
  • Taino legends of “Aumatex”
  • Iroquoian legends of “Saguenay”
  • Inuit legends of the “Land of the Moon”
  • Following Theosophists, Wiccas posit the “Summerland”

These are ALL variations of “The Island”: a magical place to which we ALL aspire to end up (if not in this life, then in some sort of hereafter).  The enticing gimmick has continued into the modern age–each time, yet another version of “the Island”.  (Edgar Cayce, for example, referred to it as the “Plane of Venus”.  For more versions of an Edenic “hereafter” in a celestial realm, see my essay: “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”.)

The magical destination does not necessarily have to be in a hereafter.  The myth of “El Dorado” impelled Spanish explorers to engage in a wild-goose-chase for farcical city’s of gold (during the 16th century). {10}  For other Mahayana Buddhists, the vision is of a “Pure Land”.  For Pol Pot’s followers, it was a return to the glorious “Angkor”.  For Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s going to be heaven here on Earth (a return of “Eden”).  The idea began in Judaic lore as the coming Messianic Age, as expressed in the Book of Isaiah (2:4 and 11:6-9; and explored in chapt. 53); then in the Book of Daniel.  It was then coopted for propagandistic purposes in the “Book of Revelation” by John of Patmos, thereby becoming a key component of Pauline (cum Nicene, cum Roman Catholic, cum Millenarian) Christianity.

However, “the Island” typically exists only in an otherworldly place (accessible only after worldly death) because the claim needs to be un-disprovable in order to “work” over a long period of time.  If it can never be corroborated, it is–by the same token–not susceptible being invalidated…EVER…by meddling inquirers.  (This is why no sane person is still searching for El Dorado or Atlantis.  They’re not there; and we can now SEE that they’re not there.)  Meanwhile, nobody could actually see whether or not there was an alien space-craft hiding behind comet Hale-Bopp…leaving room for a leap of Faith for followers of Heaven’s Gate, who were craving the fantasy that had been peddled to them.

The key is to maintain a state of blissful obliviousness. For the game cannot be exposed for what it really is. The facade must be maintained at all costs. Those in power are DOING EVERYONE ELSE A FAVOR by wielding their power as they do.

Those WITH power USE that power to MAINTAIN that power.  As John Stuart Mill put it, throughout history, “all privilege and powerful classes have used their power in the interest of their own selfishness.”  Do this entails keeping the rank and file in check.

There are three nations in which the level of totalitarianism is absolute: Turkmenistan, Brunei, and North Korea.  Granted, ABSOLUTE totalitarianism is quite rare; but, in being an extreme case, it is illustrative of how the phenomenon operates in lesser degrees.  The trick, we find, is enforced insularity: In such nations, NOBODY is aware of how dismal and backward it really is.  They are utterly oblivious, as they are cut off not only from the rest of the world, but from Reality.  It’s no wonder that—as with Burma and Djibouti—these nations are referred to as “hermit kingdoms”.  We find this to a slightly lesser degree with certain other fascist regimes—as with Saudi Arabia and China.

And so it goes: The thinking and behavior of the masses is MANAGED in order to ensure everyone countenances the prescribed thoughts / acts—thus sustaining the status quo.  Orthodoxy serves those who benefit most from the incumbent power structures…even as those who are duped into playing along are under the impression THEY will be the ultimate beneficiaries.  Consequently, compliance is held up as the highest virtue while heterodoxy is seen as heresy.  This is how fascism works: a fact that, at present, is most blatantly illustrated by the aforementioned nation-States…as well as Israel (see my essay on “The Many Faces Of Fascism”).

Attempts to de-construct false consciousness (by understanding the power structures that facilitate it) were pioneered by the Frankfurt School (as Critical Theory).  Sycophantic followers are duped into playing along with (what is often) a choreographed false consciousness, where those in power serve as the impresarios, demanding we all follow the assigned choreography.  Edward Hunter, the psychologist who coined “brain-washing”, defined it as the methods by which an entire nation can be put under hypnotic control—as found in Stalinist Russia, North Korea, and Maoist China.  The trick is to ensure that those who are captured develop a dependence on—nay, reverence for—their captors.  Their subjugation is seen as a mode of salvation.

This involves many things—from the deployment of mind-numbing distractions to a regime of surreptitious monitoring.  But more than anything else, it is a matter of conditioning—be it through propaganda or incessant repetition.  It is within this climate that pathologies germinate; and neuroses flourish.  The point, of course, is for those in power to ENGINEER those neuroses such that they serve the desired purpose.

Freud pointed out that the manipulation of powerful myths often plays to subconscious hopes and fears; thereby stoking—then exploiting—desires and neuroses to its own ends.  He noted that this psychical boondoggle often leads people to embrace their own subjugation.  In the 1920’s, Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew, who worked for the right-wing political operative, George Creel) and Walter Lippmann pioneered propaganda theory.  They showed how this ability to “manufacture consent” (which they were enthusiastically FOR) was useful for managing public sentiment.  In the 1950’s, C. Wright Mills explored how the “power elite” (from investment bankers to impresarios of the military-industrial complex) were gaming the system for their own ends, at everyone else’s expense.  In the 1960’s, theorists like Michel Foucault showed how those in power manipulate people’s worldview (often via Orwellian language games), lulling people into a sense of complacency; thereby snookering them into glibly acceding to their own subjugation.

Noam Chomsky would further critique how socio-economic elites (from corrupt politicians to avaricious corporate executives) “manufacture consent” in order to get the rank and file to acquiesce to their agenda.  This can be done by inducing fear (be it Cold War paranoia or anxiety regarding perdition) or hope (be it of a promised land or an afterlife paradise).  When people are either neurotic or delusional, it is much easier to manipulate them (to wit: engineer assent to something that would otherwise seem untenable).  In the U.S., it was stoked trepidation about communism or terrorism is that led to sanguinity vis a vis the obscenely bloated budget of the military-industrial complex.

The key with being hoodwinked is that we are moved to THANK those who’ve pulled a fast one on us.  If the con works, the con man is seen as a hero, not a villain.  It is, after all, this misapprehension that serves as the fulcrum of the con.  So it goes with charismatic cult leaders, slick snake-oil salesmen, and—especially—savvy political demagogues.

The aim, then, is to get people to comply, not begrudgingly, but EAGERLY.  This resembles a kind of collective Stockholm Syndrome; though it differs in a key respect.  For, even in the midst of their infatuation, those afflicted with S.S. are still aware—on some level—that their captors are captors, and that they are captives.  They recognize their captivity as captivity even as they become enamored with it.  Here, though, while the subjugated become infatuated with their subjugators, they remain utterly oblivious to the fact that that their subjugators are—in any sense—subjugators; or that they themselves are—in any sense—the victims of some kind of subjugation.  They see their subjugators as saviors.  And their submission is seen as a form of empowerment.  Ergo the utility of false consciousness. {18}

All this amounts to a kind of (centrally orchestrated) cognitive debilitation, something that is most flagrantly exhibited in cults—from Haredism / Hassidism to Salafism, from Juche to Scientology.  Here in the U.S., the classic cases are cults that are Christian adjacent—from the Watchtower Society to the Church of Latter-Day Saints.  (I explore examples at length in “The Long History Of Sacred Texts” and “The History Of Exalted Figures”.)  I might be a fringe case (like Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple) to mainstream (like Seventh Day Adventism or Pentecostalism).  Of course, the biggest cult in history—and the institution most responsible for the phenomenon with which we are presently concerned—is the Roman Catholic Church.

We humans are often inclined to submit to authority because we have been convinced: “If you follow your marching orders, then things will go well for you.”  Instilling hope is a potent persuasive tac.  (Again, carrots are not the only way to get people to play along.  There are sticks in the form of: “Get with the program or you will be consigned to eternal hellfire.”  A quasi-plausible admixture of hope and fear serves to incentivize the desired thinking / behavior.)

And so it goes: While religion tends to play off of our deepest fears / insecurities, it also works by instilling a sense of false hope.  So it not only thrives off of neuroses; it thrives off of delusive—even fantastical—thinking.  The trick is to exploit those who are existentially beleaguered and/or existentially disoriented.  (The impresarios of any given religion excel at drumming up—then exploiting—some combination hopes and fears, and using those neuroses / delusions to manipulate the laity.)

Delusive thinking stems from a contrived—though compelling—narrative, which consists of an etiology (fanciful origins) and an eschatology (fanciful destinations).  Hence a gilded legacy augers—and justifies—a resplendent destiny.  The legacy offers justification for the designated agenda; the destiny offers vindication—and, in the case of Islam, endless sex with buxom concubines in a celestial seraglio.  The ensuing false pride (i.e. the conviction that WE are special) plays an integral role in cult activity, as it convinces participants that they are uniquely positioned—amongst the rest of mankind—in some important way, per whatever captivating cosmogenic scheme those in power have constructed.

The present essay focuses on the destiny part of this false-hope-inducing narrative—specifically as it pertains to a longed-for afterlife (that is: an after-death “life” of irresistible wonders).

The hereafter serves as both a carrot and a stick—that is: it offers reward or punishment depending on how one plays one’s cards.  We are thus presented with an enticement vs. a deterrent (typically couched in terms of salvation vs. damnation).  This gives believers an incentive structure within which they are behooved to operate; as carrots and sticks are each effective at creating motivations.  (I explore this binary treatment of the hereafter in “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”.)

It is the reward / enticement that we will be discussing here.  This generally takes the form of an afterlife paradise: an amazing treat that is promised to those who play their cards right (that is: do as they’re told).  This works best on those who are existentially destitute, and who feel lost at sea.  More than anyone else, they are looking for something to shoot for (even if illusory)—which is to say: something that gives them hope (even if false hope).

“The Island” motif is timeless.  People are desperate for the hope engendered by the promise of the hereafter–which is why ANY book making the case will sell phenomenally well.  The Koran uses the schtick with its depiction of “firdaus” in the afterlife: a lush garden designed like a luxury resort in the sky.  The book’s authors even adopted the Judeo-Christian “Kingdom of God” leitmotif by rendering Paradise a KINGDOM, “mul’kan” (6:75).

The key to pulling off this scam is to have the vision of the promised destination relentlessly ingrained into the participants’ minds.  In the film, “The Island”, this is done via seductive video footage, simulcast on a jumbo-tron screen EVERY DAY.  In Islam, the same thing is accomplished by repeatedly reminding oneself of the promised reward (during “salat”) at regular intervals, each and every day.  (Psychologists call this “priming”.)

Pace the dubiousness of neuro-linguistic programming, conditioning oneself via routine affirmation can be astoundingly efficacious.  By incessantly reminding oneself of a given proposition, the chances that anyone might diverge from the designated “straight path” are mitigated.  For, just when one might consider “getting out of line”, one is yanked right back into the (fabricated) seductive ethos with the next iteration of the entrancing image.

And what of fear (to wit: the threat of punishment for getting out of line)?  If the false hope is powerful enough, there is no need to drum up fear; for hope alone can do the trick.  (I explore the use of fear to manipulate people in my essays, “Nemesis” and “The Siege Mentality”.)  Supplicants will willingly comply if they are sufficiently transfixed.  Remarkably, in “The Island”, the “carrot” worked so well, the corporation did not need to use any “sticks”.

The result is a highly-controlled state of affairs.  Everyone knows their place; and the established order is maintained without threat of subversion.  The constant message by which the plebians are inculcated is: “Don’t question it.  Accept it; because that’s just the way it is.”  The con job (what practitioners refer to as the “long con”) has worked since time immemorial.  And it has served as a theme for some of the most classic narratives.  For example, Frank Herbert’s “Dune” illustrates how those in power use religion to manipulate society.  (The “Missionaria Protectiva” was largely about controlling people en masse; and moving the levers of power as they saw fit.)  Those in the thrall of the engineered fantasy are rendered pawns in the larger game.

The peddling of false hope is not limited to religion; it can be used politically as well.  The quasi-plutocracy that the United States has become (since the mid-70’s) placates the rabble by hawking the so-called “American Dream”.  We’re told that “it’s morning in America” by leaders who deign to “keep the hope alive” and instill “false pride” in those entranced by notions of Exceptionalism and divine Providence…even as those same leaders plunder society–ensuring that the well-positioned few can accumulate ever more wealth for themselves at everyone else’s expense; and do so in perpetuity, with impunity.  (“This too could be YOU.  So just play along, and someday, the spoils WE have may somehow “trickle down” to the rest of you.”)  Hence the political Stockholm Syndrome that plagues the United States.

Thoroughly bamboozled, denizens of the underground compound in “The Island” were persuaded to never challenge the established order; and to play along with the prescribed routine–under the impression that it was in their own best interest.  Those in charge were in charge because they DESERVED to be in charge; and everyone was believed to be all-the-better-off for it.  Call it “trickle-down deliverance.”

To reiterate: The authorities in “The Island” convinced everyone that EVERYTHING was being done for their own good.  (The use of “We’re doing it for your own good” is standard in political propaganda and religious apologetics…just as it is for, say, domestic abuse.)  In the story, until we meet our iconoclastic heroes, it did not not occur to ANY of the residents that they were being manipulated or exploited.  (Understandably, the thinking went: “Too much curiosity killed the cat.  Why jeopardize my chances of getting to THE ISLAND?”)

The unwitting captives were constantly monitored by “the powers that be”…just to ensure everything was copacetic.  “Don’t forget, we’re keeping tabs on everything you do each day.  So watch your step.”  (Sound familiar?)  The authorities offered constant reassurance to their subjects: “Don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control.”  Of course, that was the problem: They had EVERYTHING “under control”. {1}  The hoodwinked denizens of the compound remained blissfully ignorant, day in and day out.

The only ingredient missing in “The Island” was the use of SEX as a “carrot”.  There is nothing as effective as the prospect of sex when it comes to the manipulation of men–as any well-compensated female “exotic dancer” will attest.  Strippers needn’t perform any sexual favors in order to swindle a man out of hundreds of dollars.  Usually, it’s like taking candy from a baby.  How so?  At strip clubs, men pay for a whimsical IDEA, not for an actuality.  The fantasy is all the female performers need provide.  This reveals something fundamental about male psychology: It’s the PROSPECT OF the yearned-for spoils that work; whether or not the expectation is realistic. {13}

We don’t need to watch beer commercials or see cologne ads to be reminded that the mere NOTION OF sex persuades–and can hold sway over men in profound ways, regardless of how illusory the prospects of it REALLY HAPPENING might be.  For this reason, women have been able to use their sexuality to control men since time immemorial–from plebeians to Roman Emperors.  (Rumor has it, some temptresses have even had American presidents eating out of the palm of their hands.)  It’s not for nothing that wily seductresses populate folklore–from Delilah in the Hebrew Bible to Matilda in M.G. Lewis’ “The Monk”.

Add the prospects of a carnal dream-come-true to the mix, and the enticement becomes extremely difficult for men to resist–be it a disaffected Bedouin during the Dark Ages or a U.S. Senator last weekend.  Unlike in “The Island”, this particular (highly potent) ingredient is not missing in the Koran; it is one of its primary features.  “The Island” is an apt metaphor for Islamic eschatology in spite of the fact that sex is not one of the things being peddled.  But when the target audience is horny men, hawking coitus with buxom concubines is a surefire way to catch their attention.  It’s surprising that MORE religions don’t employ this carrot.

We should bear in mind that life is riven with let-downs and set-backs.  Throughout human history, there is no phenomenon that has occurred more than dashed hope. {14}  It is a daily occurrence for most of us–from not making a traffic light to a pivotal interaction not panning out as well as we had wished.  It does not help when anyone deliberately contributes to this existential trammel by generating false hope in others.

That the human condition is besot by such dispiriting hinderances should not deter us from embracing life–THIS (the only) life, in THIS (the only) world.  After all, it is much more difficult to accomplish goals without a positive mental attitude.  The trick is to maintain positivity in the midst of adversity…without allowing oneself to become quixotic.  Measured optimism ensures one will not become delusive.

Sooner or later, all humans come to realize that–in many situations–it is difficult to discern where hope ends and delusion begins.  But there can be little doubt that religion regularly engenders the latter–typically, under the auspices of the former.  Level-headed religionists are often aware of this pitfall.  They therefore remain cognizant of how their Faith informs their highest aspirations, and are vigilant of the point at which Faith needs to be reigned in.  As we navigate the slings and arrows of human existence, it is important to bear in mind that it’s not about what purportedly becomes of us in some after-death “life”; it’s about what we become in this life.

Rather than being thought of as a destination; heaven might instead be thought of something one forges with other people.

Pages: 1 2 3

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF