Faith, Reason and the Mindset of a Follower

By Varkha Chulani
‘Faith is what I die for, dogma is what I kill for’ is the saying. And we saw much of that unfolding in the aftermath of the verdict against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh. All faith is dogma. And faith is nothing but belief unfounded on facts. Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, studies the nature of knowledge, of justification and of the rationality of belief.

Belief differs from knowledge in that, whereas the latter is controlled by the facts, and depends upon the right kind of relationship between mind and world, the former is all and only in the mind, and does not rely on anything in the world. One can, in short, believe anything: that pigs fly, that grass is blue, and that people who do not believe either are wicked.
AC Grayling in The Guardian

Reason is the faculty that proportions judgment to evidence after first weighing the evidence. As Grayling writes faith is a negation of reason, even in the face of contrary evidence. So all ‘followers’ — be it of the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar variety, the Sadhguru type or the Dera Sacha Sauda — are people who are negating reason or ignoring the need for evidence by virtue of their blind faith.

I would go as far as saying that ‘followers’ are conformists who have inferiority complexes and are guided by powerful emotions like fear and guilt. The inferiority complex is not just a little problem, as Alfred Adler said. It’s a neurosis, meaning it’s a life-size problem. You become shy and timid, insecure, indecisive, cowardly, submissive, compliant, and so on. You begin to rely on people to carry you along. And what better than an allegiance to a man in power – a Guru!


Cults and organisations have a well thought through recruitment, selection and socialisation process. And after initiation, “thought-reform” programs reprogram the way people see the world. Facts become replaced with beliefs.
In fact, social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory does explain this latter bit, as it consists of unfreezing: the process which involves finding a method of making it possible for people to let go of an old pattern that was counterproductive in some way. This is required to ensure group conformity and overcome resistance. Then there is changing, which involves the process of changing thoughts, behaviours and feelings and refreezing, or establishing the change as the new habit.


(As an aside: If you ask me to explain how people of science can often be people of faith, I would tell you that as humans, they are as susceptible to living with contrarian beliefs. So on the one hand doctors who know for example that a tumour in a brain is only going to get bigger no matter the surgery, can still suggest to the family to seek spiritual healing as a ‘possible’ method to ‘cure’ the tumour. See the dichotomy?!)


As Art Markman explains: There are lots of contradictions in people’s strongly held beliefs. Someone might preach self-sufficiency in politics, but coddle their children. An individual might oppose abortion on the grounds that human life is sacred and may still support the death penalty for convicted murders. A person might argue for the freedom of individual expression in the arts but want hateful speech to be regulated.


There’s a pragmatic reason for these contradictory beliefs.

Markman further states : A core principle that you hold and don’t want to have violated is called a “protected value,” which you don’t even like to consider violating. Observing other people violate one’s own protected values can cause feelings of anger and even outrage. And when we contemplate violating our own protected values, we feel guilt and shame. The thing is, once you have more than one protected value, those values are very likely to come into conflict at some point. People who oppose abortion and physician-assisted suicide, but who favour the death penalty for murderers and deadly military force for regimes perceived as threats to American lives and values, are experiencing this kind of conflict. They have two deeply held values—the sanctity of life and the prime importance of security—and different circumstances require making a choice between the two.
Such choices are rarely explicit, and most people aren’t aware of the inconsistencies in beliefs like this until it’s pointed out to them. To be fair, philosophers and ethicists have spent centuries untangling dilemmas like these, and many would argue (often compellingly) that clashing ideals—political or otherwise—are perfectly defensible, as are contingent approaches toward acting on them. And maybe so. But our brains don’t care about any of that. In other words, if you learn some new fact that turns out to be inconsistent with something else you know, there are no automatic mechanisms in your brain that point out the inconsistency and force you to resolve it. Instead, you simply end up with two different beliefs that are not consistent.
As a culture, India does not foster critical thinking. We demand compliance from our youth, conformity and subservience to our elders and frown upon questioning as a way of life. Notice a child who questions his parents, he is deemed a “back-answering” child, who lacks manners and respect and is shut down. Since this becomes his lifestyle – to follow, submit, obey, and accept – how can he develop individualistic and judicious thinking?
Add to that the training to fear authority and you have a gullible, naïve, sad inadequate who thinks he’s a nobody, and becomes ‘needy’ of acceptance from people in positions of power – his family, his school, his boss – lacking a mind of his own and becoming open to heavily persuasive techniques and emotional manipulation.
A follower is offered friendship, identity, respect and security. Since because of his early learning’s where he was taught that identity comes from belonging, respect from acceptance, people who believe they ‘need’ this become receptive to the message of sects. And in an increasingly complex world where old certainties are crumbling and things are changing fast, a secure group offering personal salvation becomes very attractive.
All humans are desirous of comfort. In the face of fear and uncertainty many look toward outlets that soothe our anxieties. The illusion of comfort that these leaders provide – complete financial security, constant peace of mind, perfect health – which are virtually unattainable, exploit sentimental cravings
Yes, all followers are anxious, insecure people. Parents need to allow their children to disagree with points of view. The hallmark of mental wellness is an ability to think, to reason, to debate. By robbing your child of this ability you inadvertently create a person who goes along.  Conformity and confidence cannot go hand in hand. And confident people don’t follow! Teaching the young to develop autonomous self-sustaining behaviour with the capacity to go it alone holds far more value in the long run and doesn’t allow for dependency. Guru’s and Baba’s love dependent personalities!
Allow for responsibility taking. “I was only following orders” is the adult equivalent of “Mummy told me to do it”! Social psychologist Stanley Milgram famously showed in his experiments on obedience that, when we obey authority, we do not see ourselves as responsible for our actions, however cruel. Cult leaders love obedience.
To prevent the rise of self-styled gurus, babas and what have you, raise individuals.
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Varkha Chulani is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai. She is an associate fellow and supervisor at The Albert Ellis Institute, New York City. 
A regular contributor for The Health Collective — you can find her piece on the need to build pockets of stillness into our lives here.Views expressed are Personal.