“This book concerns itself chiefly with the active, revivalist phase of mass movements. This phase is dominated by the true believer—the man of fanatical faith who is ready to sacrifice his life for a holy cause ...”
Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer”
Joan King noted last month the difficulties of talking with true believers: Their rigid attitude “dampen(s) good conversation, it stunts good thinking.”
Not to mention that in the 20th century true believers gave us the ovens at Auschwitz, the labor camps in the Gulag, and the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia — all in pursuit of their own holy causes. No doubt they also dampened many a good conversation.
King’s June 12 column told of a conversation she and four other writers of varying opinions had in a coffee shop, “sharing their views on the (usually) untouchable subjects — religion, politics and sex.”
These exchanges were rewarding, she wrote, primarily because — unlike true believers — each writer kept this approach in mind: “I may not agree with you, but it’s possible you could be right.”
She also offered this generalization about true believers and religion: “... people fight and die because they believe they know the truth. Of religion, politics and sex, the most absolutist and the least amenable to reason is religion ... religion with its promise of a life to come has the strongest hold on the human psyche.”
Before making such claims about religion again, she might consider this history: The death tolls that true believers of the political stripe piled up in the 20th century as they pursued their own holy causes. She might then want to recall the political ideologies that gripped their psyches and those of these dictators.
Josef Stalin: Low estimates put the deaths in his labor and prison camps at 10-15 million; 4.8 million Kulaks died during his forced collectivization of farming.
Mao Zedong: The number of deaths resulting from his “Great Leap Forward” have traditionally been put at 20-30 million and could be as high as 45 million.
Pol Pot: Between 1.3 and 1.8 million of Cambodia’s 8 million people — the larger number being 22 percent of the population — were executed or died in his forced collectivization.
Adolf Hitler: Six million died in the Holocaust alone.
Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II: Some 3.5 million Koreans died of an orchestrated mass starvation in the mid-1990s; more than a million in concentration camps from 197 1-2011. The killing continues.
The point: In the past century, political true believers brought about tens of millions of deaths. (Islamic terrorists who fly jets into buildings qualify as religious true believers, have killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, and remain a threat to kill many more.)
Contrary to King’s assertion, true believers aren’t always damaging to “every other aspect of society,” including community. The four black college students who sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, were a type of true believer, as were hundreds who followed them. Ultimately, they produced a victory for desegregation and an early advance for civil rights in the ’60s.
The women who led efforts to gain the vote for their gender were true believers.
The label “true believer” is used casually in America. Political commentators call a candidate’s followers “true believers;” likewise for the Tea Party and others.
Such casual use cheapens the larger idea of “true believers” as developed by Eric Hoffer and other thinkers. It also cheapens the courage of true believers like those students who first sat down at lunch counters, and the carnage and suffering that true believers have inflicted on people around the world.
King used “true believer” in the broader sense. In the past, she has often painted religion, notably Christianity, as a threat for a range of violence and oppression.
But the past century showed us that secular governments and political true believers were some of history’s greatest villains, killing tens of millions, brutally oppressing tens of millions.
The promise of life to come did not have the strongest grip on these true believers; the promise of political utopias and heavens on earth easily held that position.
And political true believers, bowing to secular ideologies, became the scourge of people and nations on God’s green earth.
Tack Cornelius is a writer who lives in Gainesville and is a member of a local Baptist church. His column appears frequently.