Belief is a connection, a wish, a meaning-creating magic that bridges the gap between the world as it is and the world as we hope it could be. Over the past four years, I’ve spent a lot of time immersing myself in other people’s lives, listening to their innermost convictions – their certainties in the absence of evidence. The resulting book consists of six very different stories braided together to tell a seventh story about how we are more similar in our hopes and fears than we realize. Whether it’s a Buddhist death doula or Mennonite missionaries, an evangelical geologist or academic looking for empirical evidence of ghosts, the fiancé of a pilot who’s been missing for decades or ufologists who claim he encountered extraterrestrials, their voices have similar notes in the human world. song of nostalgia for the inaccessible. This gesture towards the idea that we are united in the emotions that drive us in the beliefs that separate us. The following books have helped me understand how our willingness to place our faith in something – maybe anything – bigger than ourselves can help us fly or fall.
Jon Ronson, Them: Adventures with Extremists
(Simon & Schuster)
Written before the rise of social media on a global scale, what is remarkable about this book – which Louis Theroux called “a compulsively readable picaresque adventure through a world of paranoid shadows” – is how point he resists two decades later. Ronson’s 2001 survey documented the beliefs and daily lives of marginalized residents, including white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, and New World Order conspirators. As always, Ronson’s use of humor did something deeply serious. He used it to demonstrate that one of the biggest differences between “us” and “them” is who we trust with our information, and why. In doing so, he foreshadowed the dystopian polarizations that now occur daily where many people get their news.
Rudolph Otto, trans. by John W. Harvey, The idea of the sacred: an investigation of the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational
You only need to log into your social media accounts to see that rational intellect doesn’t move the world. According to Jung, religious function is one of our basic human instincts. Call it what you will: a higher power, God or gods, life force, communities, we are wired to seek an emotional connection with something transcendent, something outside of ourselves. Present in all religions (but not limited to religion as it is traditionally conceived), Otto coined “the Numinous” to designate an enveloping experience not only irreducible to words but beyond language itself. He wrote that sometimes he “comes[s] sweeping like a gentle tide that invades the mind”, and to others it is terrifying, fascinating, a supreme mystery. How to fill this human need for unity in the absence of a common socio-political reality? Otto’s book was published, in German, immediately after the mass death of the First World War. One hundred years later, we are still looking for answers.
Martha C. Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Reflects on Our Political Crisis
(Simon & Schuster)
Despite all the enlightening work done in the fields of sociology and social psychology – since, at least, Freud’s 1921 book, Group psychology and ego analysis— there has been a strong cultural investment in an individualized conception of psychopathology. After 2016, however, we began to see more frequent discussions of how personal pains spilled over into collective life and the unique dynamics that occurred there. One of the books contributing to this discourse was William Davies’ historically grounded study, States of Fear: How Feelings Took Over the World (2018). Nussbaum’s philosophical study was another. In different ways, Nussbaum and Davies advance the compelling thesis that our political patterns can be traced to individual experience and, ultimately, to our shared “animal vulnerability.” They are particularly powerful when read alongside the illuminating works of clinical psychologist and Jungian psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched.
Kalsched’s 2020 essay, “Wrestling with our Angels: Inner and Outer Democracy in America Under the Shadow of Donald Trump” masterfully connected the inner work of psychology to the outer work of democracy. Where a dissociative psychology unconsciously defends the traumatized individual by separating facts too threatening to their self-concept in a totalitarian act of repression, a democratic psychology allows the good and the bad to sit at the table of psyche to be confronted and ultimately integrated. Elements of both mythologies exist to some degree in everyone, but the totalitarian system – with its polarized extremes of good and evil, tends to take over in times of stress or emotional overload to eject the painful aspects of the reality of the limits of conscious experience. Kalsched explains that the impulses that govern our inner lives also play out externally in our social and political lives. They are ultimately hopeful books. If the pathologies of our political life are the prolonged result of relational dysfunctions, then their potential remedies are also relational. We are wired to be stronger together.
James Baldwin, fire next time
During two essays – “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region of my Mind”, drawing on his experience with the church Christian as a Youth – Baldwin devastatingly laid bare the chasm between the country’s liberal democratic arrangements and the country’s models and practices of deploying race to maintain group hierarchies. “I imagine,” he wrote, “one of the reasons people cling so stubbornly to their hate is because they feel that once the hate is gone, they will have to face it. to pain.” In doing so, he gave us one of the best explanations of how these hatreds – like all human beliefs – are security-seeking behavior; a cutting psychoanalytical insight that highlighted just how dangerous they are.
Eric Hoffer, True Believer: Reflections on the Nature of Mass Movements
Philip K. Dick said it well: “Reality is what, when you stop believing in it, does not go away. We don’t have a high tolerance for the discomforts of this truth. We fight them or flee them, often in the form of stories of shame or blame that support personal and political bigotry. “Hate is the most accessible and complete of all unifying agents…”, Hoffer wrote after the Second World War. “Mass movements can grow and spread without belief in God, but never without belief in a devil.” The “family resemblance” that Hoffer saw between the various mass movements was, at bottom, the carrots of belonging, purpose and power that they dangled in exchange for unconditional membership.
Seven decades later, his exploration of universal human susceptibility to influence – especially in times of heightened anxiety – has devastating relevance. Since a lot of what’s old is new again, Charles Mackay’s wackiest book of 1852, Memoirs of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds and Gustave Le Bon’s study of 1896, The crowd: a study of the popular mind (1896) make interesting further reading.
Anna Merlan, Republic of Lies: American conspiracy theorists and their surprising rise to power
Our current focus on the pandemic and the climate crisis has come just in time. Merlan’s brilliantly researched and brilliantly synthesized pre-Covid book warnings of how disinformation seeping into the sphere of legitimate public discourse where it can inflict widespread damage is now confirmed daily. Instead of focusing on blame or mockery, Merlan sought to dig into history and trace the proliferation of conspiracy theories through the lens of socio-economic stressors and political disenfranchisement. Like Nussbaum and Davies, his message is chilling, but he pleads for hope: if these damages were co-created, so could their solutions.
C. G. Jung, On Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky
(Princeton University Press)
UFOs were treated with a different seriousness when this little book (from Jung’s Collected Works) was published. For me, however, the most compelling aspect of Jung’s approach is his disinterest in the question of whether UFOs are real. As always, his concern is closer to home: what do reports of UFO sightings mean about the needs of the human psyche? His reverence for the greatest mystery – the spirit – is clear in the emotional weight he places on “visionary rumors” of things that come from beyond; this place where we have always insisted on locating the source of our greatest threats and our highest powers. Interestingly, the book was written against the backdrop of an escalating Cold War – “a time when humanity is threatened like never before in history”. Considering the collective devastation that preceded, that which followed, and that which we face now, threat seems to be an integral part of the human condition. If so, we remain hungrier than ever for new mythologies, new meanings, and new certainties to cling to.
The believer: encounters with the beginning, the end and our place in the middle by Sarah Krasnostein is available through Tin House.