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Sep 1, 1975

Evans, “Cults of Unreason”

“Even occasional scientists and philosophers, a few of them brilliant, have been trapped into nuttiness: for instance, Sir Oliver Lodge or Bertrand Russell.”

If you want an entertaining read, this book is for you. If you want some disturbing, insightful ideas which may cause you to modify cherished beliefs of your own, then this book is absolutely for you. The subject is important as hell—the hell which credulity has again and again made on earth. Not that the author’s generally good-humored account of eccentric modern faiths comes right out to make any such portentous point. But Evans goes at least partially into the reasons for their existence and the explosive growth of several. And those reasons bear plenty of thinking about.

One would expect this of Christopher Evans. A British research psychologist, he includes in an adventurous background not only study at orthodox institutions, among them a physics laboratory, but at Duke University with Joseph Rhine, the advocate of psionics. Evans remained unconvinced—but went on to do work himself which appears to be leading toward breakthroughs in our understanding of the human nervous system and mind. Frequent public appearances at home and in North America, in the cause of scientific popularization, have helped keep his own mind healthily uncloistered.

About half the present book he devotes to Scientology, “the science fiction religion” as he calls it, from its origins in L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics—a crude mishmash of the most simplistic concepts proposed by early speculative thinkers—to its current status as a church of world-wide membership and developing respectability. Thence he goes on to “the saviours from the stars” whom flying saucer enthusiasts insist are among us, to various “black boxes” for which superscientific properties are claimed, and finally to a glance at certain of the Oriental and fake-Oriental religions which in the past few generations have gained considerable ground in the West.

It is easy to show up revelations of that kind for the nonsense they are—unsupported assertions, outright misstatements, logical non sequiturs, meaningless noises—and debunking writers like Martin Gardner have done this over and over. Unfortunately, they hardly ever convince a believer. When the latter does become disillusioned, as happens fairly often, he seldom turns into a rationalist; he embraces another creed, usually just as crank. Even occasional scientists and philosophers, a few of them brilliant, have been trapped into nuttiness: for instance, Sir Oliver Lodge or Bertrand Russell.

Why? Evans thinks the decline of established religion, as well as general social upheaval, is responsible for the rise of new dogmas. He points out how much more readily a rootless, half-educated modern person is impressed by pseudoscientific jargon—especially if it relates to powers higher than human—than by appeal to a Bible which the churches themselves have been busily stripping of its mystery. In wry fashion, he declares that many of these cults do fill a need, and some may have the potential of becoming valued parts of society as a whole. (Thus, whatever its faults, Scientology has been in the forefront of the battle against involuntary psychosurgery.)

To this I would add with more pessimism that the same will to believe has given power to such blatantly unscientific systems as communism, nazism, or, in lesser degree, twentieth-century liberalism. There is a very common personality type which L. Sprague de Camp has dubbed the credophile. Can this be the breed that, when deprived of a satisfactory traditional faith, turns into Eric Hoffer’s True Beliver?

Libertarians had better not feel too smug. They are at least prone to wishful thinking. Thus, in order to oppose a domestic military establishment, they are apt to maintain—in the teeth of history and easily available contemporary data—that the Soviets and slave Chinese are no threat at all. Additionally, they credit our species with more objectivity and independence of spirit than the bulk of it seems to have. This question has not yet been properly answered: “How can we win and secure freedom when many people, probably a large majority, don’t want it?”

 

Evans asks this only by implication, but should jog readers into thinking about it. His book has flaws, including slipshod grammar and proofreading, and a minor error concerning Tolkein’s hobbits. But don’t let that stop you. If nothing else, as said, you’ll get fun out of it, which is a rare treat these days. Reviewed by Poul Anderson / Social Psychology / LR Price $7.95