The Island

August 26, 2020 Category: Religion

Heaven” And The Peddling Of False Hope

In 1996, a South Korean named Woo Myung founded a spiritual (meditation) movement called “Maum”.  Later, he published a booklet entitled, “Stop Living In This Land; Go To The Everlasting World Of Happiness; Live There Forever”.

What does this have to do with the Koran?  Well, technically nothing…and yet, in another sense, almost everything.  As it so happens, “Maum” resonates with certain people.  Why?  Because it speaks to universal human yearnings.  Indeed, the enticing prospect of immortality–and the lure of eternal happiness–is older than the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Indeed, the Sumerians were far from the first to muse about such things.

People have always needed a reason to hope; and when they did not have a reason, they often invented one (often without realizing that they were doing the inventing).

Fancying the idea of a wonderful afterlife is a reminder that if people really, really, really want to believe something, no matter how outlandish, they will invariably find a way to believe it.  An ardent desire to think something it true–regardless of how cockamamy it might be–will drive people to convince themselves that it is INDUBITABLY true.  Such a conviction–insofar as it is a personal commitment–will then spur them to earnestly (one might say, obstinately) concoct rationalizations–no matter how specious–for this conviction.  The True Believer will do undertake this vociferous process of rationalization POST HOC (and, as the occasion warrants, AD HOC) with a pathological obduracy.

There are both healthy and dysfunctional ways of being “lifted up”, of being inspired.  This juxtaposition is best illustrated by aesthetic activity vis a vis cult activity.  There is nothing audacious about hoping.  Hoping is not an act of courage.  It is not the same as unshakable determination.  Keeping one’s chin up is a sign of resolve; but this stems from grit, not from wishful thinking.  Hope is an analeptic.  People crave something to hope for.  False hope can be intoxicating; and can be very addictive.  It facilitates a dopamine rush–serving as a sort of epistemic amphetamine.  That’s why it’s so easy to peddle it.

When it comes to the peddling of false hope, it might be noted that the phrase “wishful thinking” is misleading; as the vast majority of thinking is wishful–and, for that matter, wistful.  Only in moments of strict mental discipline, in which a concerted effort is made to be objective, is wishful thinking temporarily suspended.  Wishful thinking is the default mode of thought–every waking moment, in virtually every situation.  We humans are impetuous and mercurial creatures–susceptible to the forces of provocation and inducement.  To be human is to be–intermittently–held captive by one’s cravings; and to be inclined toward caprice.  In other words: To be human is to be desirous and fanciful.

It is important to bear in mind that hope in and of itself has never accomplished anything.  Nevertheless, it serves an important purpose.  Since time immemorial, there has been no shortage of dejection and disillusionment, conditions in need of amelioration.  To have aspiration is to invariably experience intermittent disappointment.  Contending with setbacks is part and parcel of endeavor.  Hence we need hope to forge on.  Resolve–nay, dauntlessness–could not exist without hope.  The key, then, is to keep one’s hopes consummate with Reality–to remain grounded even as one reaches for the stars.  This means not succumbing to the trappings of hucksters (a.k.a. proselytizers) and thereby descend into intoxicating delusion.

Both great art and religion invite us to imagine.  The former urges us to formulate possibilities; the latter urges us to indulge in delusion.  The former helps us be more in touch with Reality–by CAPTURING Reality even as we are inclined to escape it for a moment.  The latter leads us to become terminally disconnected from Reality…while convincing us we are becoming more connected to it.  

Put another way: The former involves BALD fantasy while the latter involves VEILED fantasy.  With great art, the unreal needn’t masquerade as the real.  With religion, the unreal MUST masquerade as the real.  The aesthete takes something from the art, but eventually comes back to Reality.  The religionist aims to escape Reality–seeking permanent refuge in what Nietzsche ironically dubbed “True Worlds”.  Art is a round-trip ticket; religion is a one-way ticket.  When the symphony finishes, when the novel ends, one comes back to the real world; when one goes down the rabbit hole of magical thinking, the cultic mindset does not urge one to climb back out.

So what IS the allure here?  The prospect of a final reckoning (a settling of accounts) is tremendously reassuring, as it makes the future a promise rather than a specter; a consolation rather than a peril; thereby allaying anxieties whilst bolstering hope.  The program on offer urges us to envision better things on the horizon–a tremendously gratifying exercise.  The perpetual reassurance that everyone will get what’s coming to them enables people to endure the “slings and arrows” of worldly life–girding people to persevere through trying times.  It is another version of the Karmic justice posited in Hinduism–though a linear narrative with a terminus (a discrete temporal telos) rather than a perpetual cycle of iterations (“samsara”).  Abrahamic eschatology involves a singular Day of Judgement instead of an open-ended process (see my essay, “Brink Porn”).

For religionists, there is something more going on than the conjuring of a fantastical destination–a magical place that they might look forward to.

What better way to entice those who are unsatisfied with their lives–disenchanted, even frustrated, with human existence.  “What’s the point of it all?  What’s this all for?  Why bother?”  And so we invent what Nietzsche dubbed “True Worlds”: a “hereafter” to look forward to; to make it all seem worthwhile (what is dubbed “akhira” in Islam).

In his “Atheist Manifesto”, French philosopher, Michel Onfrey noted: “The three [Abrahamic Faiths] call on their faithful to renounce life in the here and now because they will one day be forced to accept its loss.  Their glorification of a fictional beyond prevents full enjoyment of the real here…  They establish death on earth for the sake of eternity in heaven.  In so doing, they spoil the only gift we possess: the living matter of a potential existence killed in the egg just because its life is finite!  Fleeing life in order not to have to die is not a good bargain.  It pays death twice, when once is enough.”

Onfrey notes how humans “invent afterlives, gods, or a single god… prostrate themselves, humble themselves, abase themselves, weave fables, and believe unquestioningly in the tales they have so painstakingly concocted in order to avoid looking their [mortality] in the face… extract from this fiction a delirium that draws in its train a welter of dangerous nonsense and of new ways out.  [Humans] work passionately to bring about what they nevertheless hope more than anything else to avoid: death.”  (Here, Onfray echoes the insights found in Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”.)

Onfrey thus expressed dismay at “how readily men construct fables in order to avoid looking Reality in the face.  Tee invention of an afterlife would not matter so much were it not purchased at so hight a price: disregard of the real, hence willful neglect of the only world there is.”  But trafficking in this enticing vision is a very useful way to bring people en masse into one’s thrall.

The peddling of false hope is astoundingly effective at keeping people docile, compliant, deferential to the established order (read: incumbent power structures).  In the modern age, the commodification of false hope has streamlined this process.

As a con artist might say, “I plucked his dreams right out of his head and then sold them right back to him–and at a good price too!”  In the Koran, we find the longings of disaffected Bedouins: shaded pavilions, flowing streams / fountains, lush gardens, plenteous fruit, angelic concubines with ample breasts, etc.  (Not only is the Koranic heaven a splendiferous seraglio; it is a bordello.)  The adolescent male’s vision of heaven is an eternity’s worth of ice cream and blow-jobs.  There can be little doubt that, had the technology been available, they would have thrown into the mix a large-screen TV with surround-sound and a Sony Playstation as well.

That the authors of Islam’s holy book–Arabian men during the Dark Ages–conjured an luxury-resort-in-the-sky of this comically puerile nature is completely unsurprising.  So far as they would have been concerned, the epitome of human existence would SURELY be lounging around in the shade–on comfy, well-upholstered couches–surrounded by an endless buffet, with a coterie of large-breasted virgins at their beck and call.  Indeed, this is STILL the template for the daydreams of virtually any teenage boy, anywhere in the world, regardless of the era.  Paradise is simply the satiation of primal appetites.

Origen once noted that Paradise is not a place; but a condition of the soul.  We would be wise to bear this in mind as we ogle visions of a celestial Cockaigne worthy of an adolescent’s daydream.  Yet this doesn’t detract from the fact that dangling the mesmerizing allure of eternal Paradise under the noses of wayward desert-wanderers was a promising venture in Arabia during the Dark Ages.  Indeed, in such environs, charged as it was with disenchantment and superstition, the trappings of such an enticing offer surely had a pungent air of plausibility about them…especially to vulnerable, illiterate Hijazis who felt aggrieved / disaffected in some way…and especially with wayward Bedouins who were likely contending with a severe bout of disillusionment.  As Walter Benjamin aptly put it: “It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”  Alas, this is the case even when the hope being peddled is fraudulent.

The notion that most of what is GOOD about human existence is found after death (in “another life”) is as old as the yearning for immortality.  It is concomitant with the universal craving for a “final reckoning”.  Judgement Day is, after all, an ultimate settling of accounts–whereby everyone eventually gets what’s coming to them.  What’s not to love about THAT?

So it comes as little surprise that “heaven” continues to be a booming business today just as it has been since time immemorial.  The prospect is especially alluring if one can convince one’s followers that it’s just around the corner (see Mohammed of Mecca and his Bedouin followers, William Miller and his flock of apocalypse-junkies, Charles Taze Russell and the Watchtower Society, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate, etc.)  Human credulity knows no bounds.  This has been true virtually everywhere for all of recorded history. 

If one packages it well, delusion can be drummed up, and parlayed into a cash cow.  For the savvy false-hope-peddler, promises of a magnificent afterlife can be turned into a cash cow.  This goes back to Isaac Watts’ “The World To Come” in 1745, and on through Rebecca Ruter Springer’s “My Dream Of Heaven” in 1898 and Gary Woods’ “A Place Called Heaven” in 1902.  Today, the cavalcade of trash-pulp on “heaven” persists year after year–a publishing bandwagon that follows from the ironclad law of supply and demand.  Case in point is 1992’s mega-seller, “Embraced By The Light”.  Let’s survey the incidence of similar publications (in America) going back two decades:

  • 2001: “Heaven” (Ryle), “Heaven & Beyond”, and “Someday Heaven”
  • 2003: “A Brief History Of Heaven”, “The Five People you Meet In Heaven”, and “Heaven Is So Real”
  • 2004: “Heaven” (Alcorn)
  • 2005: “Heaven: My Father’s House” (paperback edition)
  • 2006: “50 Days Of Heaven”, “One Minute After You Die”, “Life After Death”, and “Nine Days In Heaven”
  • 2007: “90 Minutes In Heaven” and “Revealing Heaven”  
  • 2008: “Glimpses Of Heaven”
  • 2009: “Heaven and the Afterlife”, “Evidence Of The Afterlife”, and “My Time In Heaven”
  • 2010: “My Dream Of Heaven”, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven”, “Flight To Heaven”, “40 Days In Heaven”, and “More Glimpses of Heaven”
  • 2011: “Heaven Is for Real” and “My Trip To Heaven”
  • 2012: “My Journey To Heaven”, “Heaven Is Beyond Your Wildest Expectations”, “To Heaven And Back”, “Heaven Changes Everything”, “Proof of Heaven”, and Billy Graham’s “The Heaven Answer Book”
  • 2013: “Conversations Beyond Proof Of Heaven”, “Appointments With Heaven”, “Waking Up In Heaven”, “Touching Heaven”, “Heaven: Better By Far”, “The Story Of Heaven”, “Beyond Heaven’s Door”, “Heaven Hears”, and “Heaven Is Real, But So Is Hell”
  • 2014: “Glimpsing Heaven”, “Falling Into Heaven”, and “The MAP of Heaven” (Eureka!)
  • 2015: “Imagine Heaven”, “The Physics Of Heaven”, and “Answers To Your Questions About Heaven”
  • 2016: “The Real Heaven”, “When Heaven Invades Earth”, and “Visits From Heaven”
  • 2017: “The Gift Of Heaven” and “What Happens After You Die: A Biblical Guide To Paradise, Hell, and Life After Death”
  • 2018: “People I Met At The Gates Of Heaven” and “A Place Called Heaven: 10 Surprising Truths About Your Eternal Home”
  • 2019: “Heaven: Your Real Home” and “Heaven: The Place We Long For”
  • 2020: “A Place Called Heaven: Your Journey Home” and “Secrets Of Life After Death” (a compilation of Beyond The Veil To Heaven, Beyond Earth Through Heaven’s Gate, and Conversations From Heaven)

When it comes to perfidious expositors who prey on society’s most gullible, the list is endless. The dogmatic landscape is ripe for charlatanry; and the peddling of false hope is a lucrative business. Americans especially are given a steady diet of delusive thinking–be it the “American Dream” for those embrace free-market fundamentalism…or some paradise awaiting them after death. The promise: Things will turn out well for you…if you play your cards right. If you fail, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Afterlife pablum is a booming business. Scam artists exploit the yearning for “something more than just this” felt by those who are existentially beleaguered.  Each publication provides a gratifying answer to the pressing question: “What’s the point of it all?”, furnishing the audience with something to look forward to (that is: something to make it all worthwhile).  Beholding this barrage of trash-pulp, one can’t help but wonder: What in heaven’s name is going on here?

Many of the above books were blockbusters.  All of them claimed to be “true stories” or genuine accounts or some kind of “inside scoop” (often capitalizing on the “NDE” craze).  Every one of them was a sham.  Yet millions of credulous Americans bought into it.  In each case, the authors don’t quite let on how, exactly, they became privy to this incredible information.  No matter.  The publication of such pablum has–as always–been a bonanza.

Dependably, uneducated Christians eagerly ate up every word.  But WHY?  For the very reasons that so many have bought into the idea of “Jannah” portrayed in the Koran.  (2009’s “In Heaven! Experiencing the Throne of God” could have been the title of a book by an Islamic theologian.)

What’s going on here?  Are votaries really this credulous?  Is it possible that so many people could be so prone to delusion?  The unfortunate answer: yes.  It is instructive to note that the same psychological mechanisms are at work with those seduced by get-rich-quick schemes.  We are all susceptible to the trappings of false hope; especially when we feel desperate or frustrated.  Bear in mind that the powerful allure of such operations (i.e. pyramid schemes; a.k.a. “multi-level marketing”) is not the ACTUAL products they might happen to be selling; it’s the dreams of fabulous wealth that they are peddling.  In other words: They’re selling a VISION (read: mirage), and thus a FEELING (read: intoxication).  People are duped into joining these organizations for the same reasons people are persuaded to join cults.  A savvy evangelist is simply a kind of skilled salesman.

As with the film, “The Island”, we all want to get to some kind of Promised Land–however we happen to define it.  The American Dream–replete with Rolexes, penthouse suites, and yachts?  An eternal orgy with a coterie of nubile, young nymphs and an endless buffet of tasty snacks?  Pick your fantasy.

People are hungry for hope.  They simply require something enticing to hope FOR.   (For men, this is often some combination of pussy and food.)  Consequently, they are predisposed to embrace the alluring fantasy hawked in the above books.  Assuming it’s packaged well, such material will tend to sell like gangbusters (and be quite lucrative for those who concoct compelling narratives).  This is not some secret that was recently discovered by imaginative authors in America during the past few decades; it has been the case since time immemorial.  Indeed, the “lush garden with rivers of milk and honey” leitmotif goes as far back as archaic Egypt.  An endless supply of scrumptious dining options?  Well-upholstered couches in shaded pavilions?  Access to sex with buxom women…FOREVER?  (The “houri” in the Koran were ripped straight from Zoroastrian lore.)  The Church of Latter-Day Saints even promises men the chance to rule their own planet.  Once one is convinced that such prospects are REAL, one will be ready to do just about anything to secure the reward.

Amusingly, per the aforementioned book titles, contemporary readers were treated to sojourns to the hereafter that lasted for 50 days, 40 days, 9 days, 90 minutes, and 1 minute.  (The visits reported in the other books listed above seem to have transpired over a variety periods.)  In each case, one wonders how the elapsed time was measured. (?!?)  But the duration of the visit is beside the point; it’s the proposition that some people have been treated to a SNEAK PREVIEW of what’s in store for the rest of us (if, that is, we play our cards right).

We might imagine what a book would be like after having spent a BILLION YEARS in heaven.  “One day, we did this.  And the next day we did this.  And the day after that, we did this.”  “A Billion Years In Heaven” would be a very long, tedious book, indeed (where “this” would be something between “eating grapes” and “basking in the glory of god”, whatever that’s supposed to mean).  I discuss the insufferable tedium that would be “eternal bliss” in an astral Paradise in my essay, “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”.

In 2012, “Heaven Is For Real” was the best-selling (non-novel) book in America.  Smelling cash, Sony’s TriStar would make it into a movie the following year (released in 2014); and ended up grossing a staggering $91.4 million in the U.S. {8}  That such an obvious sham was such a big hit is testament to the kind of blatant nonsense people are willing to swallow whole–if, that is, it is sufficiently captivating.

The psychological mechanisms that enable millions to believe the claims in “Heaven Is For Real” are the same ones that enable HUNDREDS of millions to believe the claims in Islam’s holy book.  (Well, ALMOST the same psychological mechanisms.  There were no concubines in “Heaven Is For Real”, as the target audience was not EXCLUSIVELY horny men, as it was for the Koran.  The rated-PG nature of the American tale limited the carrots that it could deploy to rainbows and butterflies.)

In the Abrahamic tradition, the notion of a hereafter began as the conception of “Sheol” in early Judaic lore–which, like the ancient Greek “Hades” or ancient Egyptian “Duat”–was neither heaven nor hell.  However, the ravenous hunger for a fantastical hereafter is not limited to the Abrahamic religions.

For splendrous depictions of the hereafter (as a place for the righteous), we can go back to legends of “Deva Loka” in Jain cosmology.  Or we can look to “Khembalung” in Buddhist cosmology or the “Field of Reeds” in ancient Egyptian cosmology or the “Elysian Fields” in Greco-Roman cosmology or “Tian” in Ancient Chinese cosmology.  Members of Heaven’s Gate posited the “Next Level”–the gateway to which was awaiting them behind a passing comet.  The examples go on and on (as enumerated in my “A Brief History Of Heaven And Hell”).

The key is to provide a FINAL DESTINATION that makes it all worthwhile–thereby catering to the universal craving for something to “shoot for” and the yearning for a final “settling of accounts” in which everyone ultimately gets what’s coming to them.

Some surveys report that more than half of American Christians think that not only will Jesus (literally) return to Earth to inaugurate the “Rapture”, he will come back IN THEIR LIFETIME…and whisk them away to heaven.  Such false hope does nobody any good.  But that is precisely the kind of outright delusion enjoined by both Christian Millenarians AND by a literal reading of the Koran.  We often underestimate how powerful such staunch conviction is for the True Believer.

With a well-crafted sales pitch, intense yearning can be parlayed into false certainty.  Because of this, the art of persuasion can be even more compelling than sound argumentation.  Facts are beside the point when one is committed to–nay, has become dependent on–a proposition being (considered) true.

To instill false hope, Abrahamic lore has proffered a fantastical array of utopian idioms from Zion to the Kingdom [alt. City] of God.  With all the delusive talk about a coming “New Jerusalem”, the Judeo-Christian strain of utopianism has been the predominant version in the West (see my essay: “City Of The Beloved”).

Understanding all this, we discover that a hyper-romantic reading of the Koran is predicated–in large part–on the infantilization of the audience.

The point is worth repeating: The fata morgana proffered by the Koran is a seductive vision reiterated with each daily prayer.  It is the incessant repetition (over an entire lifetime) that makes it so effective; as such a strictly-enforced ritual is designed to keep certain mental habits deeply ingrained.  (This is, after all, how conditioning works.)  Hence “salat” is mandated five times each and every day.  Following this routine (the key is that it is ROUTINE) engenders deep-seated false hope; thereby helping to ensure that everyone remains “in line” and continues to play along.  This process involves what behaviorists dub “reinforcement”—PERPETUAL, CHRONIC reinforcement.  (I discuss how scripted / choreographed propitiation “trains” neural pathways in my essay on “Prayer”.)

When the prospect of placating a vindictive deity is the sine qua non of life, then all conception of “hope” becomes rather blinkered.  Surely, Progressive Muslims have a more expansive, Reality-grounded conception of “hope” than this.  It is safe to assume that no sane Muslim is waking up each morning eagerly awaiting the celestial fanfare–a LITERAL blowing of horns–heralding the arrival of the Apocalypse.  (For more on that topic, see my essay, “Brink Porn”.)

Even so, per Islam’s holy book, the promise of bountiful remuneration in an after-death Valhalla is the basis for all hope.  Indeed, this is the ONLY sense of hope proffered by the Koran’s authors.  Presumably, most denizens of the Ummah do not deign to limit themselves to such an obtuse existential purview; so they should have no qualms embracing a non-fundamentalist approach to their scripture.  

Since time immemorial, society’s impresarios have controlled people via the systematic inculcation of false hope.  The “something wonderful to look forward to” gimmick typically involves some kind of utopian destination…conveniently situated AFTER death so that the bold claim can never be verified.  (It’s amazing what people will accept on blind faith if the offering is enticing enough.)  Today, the peddling of salvation is a booming industry (see my essay, “The Island”).

The allure of some “Kingdom of God” is strong–as demonstrated by, say, the members of Heaven’s Gate, who eagerly looked forward to moving on to the “Next Level”.  This is a form of the old “Chance to free a prisoner who’s an extremely wealthy man (who’d be very grateful for your contribution)” con–in which a massive pay-day is promised to the “mark” in return for participating the noble cause NOW.  Grifters have been using this scam since time immemorial, exploiting the (near-universal) penchant for false hope.  If the “sales pitch” is good enough, those who are easily-duped will swallow the story hook, line, and sinker.

Anticipation for the “big pay-off” is often too tempting to resist.  The prospect of being recompensed with bountiful rewards at some undisclosed point “later on down the road” is often met with: “Great!  Where can I sign up for the program?”  There is no greater instance in which people “took the bait” than with the “Sahabah” (earliest Mohammedan acolytes).

In order to cope with the drudgery of everyday life, and as a way to cope with life’s travails and set-backs, we all need a fantasy–of one kind or another–to cling to.  Such pending consolation helps us “get through” in the meantime.  In terms of corralling people and keeping them subdued (and placated), this works like a charm.  For if everyone is under the impression that the tribulations of the “current” life are a moot point (because what REALLY matters is the Valhalla to come), then everyone will become resigned to even the most dire lot in life.  So long as they have something to look forward to, it makes it all worthwhile.  They will cope.  They will endure.

This urge can be exploited.  As any savvy politician eventually learns, it’s all about making bold promises–preferably with grandiose proclamations–that attracts a following.

The trick is to cajole the audience into embracing a proposition by showing them why they should WANT to believe it.  One can do this by repeatedly reminding people how wonderful it would be if the proposition were true.  This is how faith-healers, preachers, and snake-oil salesmen work.  People buy magical elixirs not because they have good reason to believe they’ll actually work; but because they desperately want to believe such things will work.  When yearning is strong, it is a small step from wishful thinking to steadfast conviction.

We humans are eminently pragmatic creatures; so we will tend to do what (seems to) work.  Considering that we are meaning-making machines, the implications of this can be rather surreal.  When meaning is conferred, the act ITSELF of believing has utility.  Certain beliefs can be tremendously gratifying (and offer solace in trying times) irrespective of their credence.  When people really, really, really want to believe X, they will find a way to believe it.  In getting themselves to believe an enticing-yet-groundless proposition, some will tend to hoodwink themselves into, well, actually believing it.  The second-order belief (belief in believing X) is soon construed as a first-order belief; and the rest is history.

Such epistemic somersaults are done whether it is wanting to meet grandma in an afterlife or wanting the magic crystal hanging around one’s neck to protect one from misfortune.

Under the right circumstances, nascent hankerings within every one of us can be parlayed into false hope with surprising ease.  False hope is what enables faith healers and snake oil salesmen to prey on those who are especially desperate and credulous.  (One might say that fundamentalist religion is like plunging into a frothing sea of snake oil rather than merely sipping it from a flask.)

Exploiting the (universal; inherently human) craving for hope is probably the SECOND oldest profession.  Get-rich-quick hucksters get rich quickly by selling get-rich-quick schemes to those who long to get rich quickly.  At the end of the say, it’s all about selling dreams to suckers.  (Indeed, one of the most expedient ways to become wealthy is to write a best-selling book on how to become wealthy.)  The gimmick is as old as the existence of dupes.  Simply promise what people can’t (or probably won’t) get in “this” life in “the next” life…if only they follow THESE instructions, that is.  Having knowledge constitutes power, as the old adage attests; but sometimes even more indicative of power is the ability to doll out the ILLUSION OF knowledge to others. {15}

Sapience entails recognizing that a healthy version of “faith” operates in a very different way than it does in its religious sense.  It is faith in humanity rather than faith in a deity that makes people better people (and the world a better place).

This involves measured hope (grounded in Reality) rather than a delusive wishfulness (based on flights-of-fancy).  Think of the kind of belief in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.  Such belief is a function of humanism, not of dogmatism.

To conclude: The peddling of false hope has been a viable industry since The Day of Final Judgement was propounded in ancient Egypt (ref. the opening discussion of the present book).  In other words, the authors of the Koran were capitalizing on the exact same human proclivity that exists today, the same one that enabled the corporation in “The Island” to pull off its elaborate stunt, and the same one that kept the Egyptian rabble “in line” five millennia ago.

The moral of the story: False hope sells.  Always has; always will.

The neuro-science involved in such delusive thinking helps to explain much about our human nature.  Cult activity is largely about manipulating people–and doing so by triggering the dopaminergic system (that is: instigating dopamine rushes).  Here’s the key: A dopamine rush is more about ANTICIPATION than it is about the actual reward.  This is why instilling a sense of hope–even if utterly spurious–can be incredibly persuasive.  When it comes to anticipating reward, a sense of certainty–even FALSE certainty–significantly reduces the cognitive load, thereby stream-lining the activation of the dopamine pathways.

Moreover, dopamine-release reinforces MOTIVATION.  Indeed, dopamine is not merely about the anticipation of reward; it facilitates goal-directed behavior (actions that are seen as necessary to secure the anticipated reward).  As Robert Sapolsky put it in “Behave”: dopamine “binds” the value of a reward to the resulting action.  The motivation arising from dopaminergic projections to the prefrontal cortex are what move us to take action.  “In other words, dopamine is not about the happiness of reward; it’s about the happiness of pursuit of reward” (p. 74).  He adds that contemplating a deferred reward (what promises of heaven are ALL ABOUT) can amplify these effects.

In the Occident, notions of heaven date back to Mithra-ism and Orphism.  In the Orient, notions of heaven go back to the “Bhagavata Purana” and the Sutra of the “Land of Bliss”.  The leitmotif is roughly the same: A wondrous afterlife awaits those who do the right things in THIS (worldly) life.

From the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” to the Tibetan “Book of the Dead”, man has speculated about an after-death “life”–and the logistics of a hereafter–in countless ways.  The notion of heaven in Abrahamic theology goes back to the Book of Enoch; while the notion of an End Days goes back to the Book of Daniel (put into overdrive by the “Book of Revelation”).

Instilling hope is, of course, the best way to buoy people who are enduring tribulation.  The trick is to convince people that wonderful things are held in store for them.  Creating an effective incentive structure involves both carrots and sticks.  In the case of Christianity and Islam, this takes the form of Paradise as a lure; while Perdition is used as a scare-tactic.

The focus on heaven in Dar al-Islam was captured in the theme of all the works by the renown Chinese (Qing) proselyte, Liu Zhi of Ying-tian (late 17th / early 18th century).  Each pertained to heaven [“Tian”]: “Tian-fang Xing-li”, “Tian-fang Tian-li”, “Tian-fang Zimu Jie Yi”, and “Tian-fang Zhi-sheng Shi-lu”.

The gimmick here is timeless, for it is a matter of exploiting the vulnerabilities in human psychology, which–by definition–exist across cultures.  Those who are most cunning in perpetrating this scam do so to staggering aplomb.  Indeed, the more savvy con-men (read: religious leaders) target the most anxious, the most credulous, capitalizing on the foibles endemic to human nature.

The ultimate carrot is a COSMIC carrot.  Some marvelously euphoric afterlife is presented to eager supplicants in the way that a magician offers the audience a card–in that it is a ruse, a distraction from what’s REALLY GOING ON.  The more existentially disoriented one is, the more likely one is to fall for it.

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