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Eric Hoffer's Perspective on Religion, Mass Movements 
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Post Eric Hoffer's Perspective on Religion, Mass Movements
Eric Hoffer is someone whom I just recently thought of again after many years. I once read a couple of his books, which are brief and aphoristic. His first and most famous book is "The True Believer," an original look at mass movements. He has one of the most interesting biographies of any writer I know of (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hoffer). What made me think of him is the breadth of his outlook on the topic of religion. His is an entirely nonpartisan view. I think that both critics and defenders of religion can get the subject only partly right. Christopher Hitchens does better than some other critics of religion, in my opinion. He is not as polarized on the topic as his title would have one think. But it's my feeling that he still oversimplifies and over-villainizes religion.

The following is a brief sampling of Hoffer's thinking on religion from [i]The True Believer[i]. His thesis throughout the book is that mass movements are fueled by religion, revolutionary ardor, and nationalism, and that rarely does a mass movement consist of just one of these unmixed. If a people are ripe for drastic change, they will be subject in some degree to any of these influences. The "beliefs" are not important in themselves; what matters is the psychological readiness of the people.

"The conservatism of a religion--its orthodoxy--is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap. A rising religious movement is all change and experiment--open to new views and techniques from all quarters. Islam when it emerged was an organizing and modernizing medium. Christianity was a civilizing and modernizing influence among the savage tribes of Europe. The Crusades and the Reformation both were crucial factors in shaking the Western world from the stagnation of the Middle Ages."
This I think is contrary to the more common view of religion as being conservative and repressive right out of the gate.

In contrast to centuries ago, "In modern times, the mass movements involved in the realization of vast and rapid change are revolutionary and nationalist--singly or in combination." (both quotations from the Perennial Library edition, P. 14.)

The leaders of these revolutionary or nationalist movements will need, however, to be skilled in the "art of 'religiofication'--the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes" (p. 15). And he comments later that revolutionary and nationalist regimes always adopt trappings of religion, complete with rituals, "articles of faith, saints, martyrs, and holy sepulchers" (p. 27).

It's a good book, with something of significance on each of its 150 pages, and offering a broader social context in which to place religion. It'd be a good choice for BT, though I don't know if it's widely available now (first published 1951).



Thu Mar 19, 2009 9:39 am
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