Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy

Exploring the spiritual web of trust and remaining true to ethics, right speech, and right action. Avoiding spiritual fakery.

I recently completed a five-part series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom” which actually covered many topics related to faith and reason, apostasy, anti-cult groups, faux therapy, and the victim mentality. That series was largely analytical, but I wanted to follow up with some comments which are more personal and philosophical, plus some good old-fashioned ranting. 😉

The type of faux therapy discussed in Part 2 — whether practised formally or by a loose-knit group on the Internet — robs former spiritual seekers of something precious: of a valuable relationship (with the spiritual teacher), and of what they had previously achieved in the spiritual life.

To borrow a quote from Doctor Who: “Every life is a pile of good things and bad things.”

When people pray, meditate, and engage in selfless work, they add to their pile of good things. But when people become doubting and hostile, and consciously try to take away the faith of others, this negates the good things and adds to their pile of bad things, their negative karma.

Life is cyclic; people sometimes go through phases which are more spiritual or less so. A wise person gradually adds to their pile of goods things, and even during a less spiritual phase they don’t subtract from it by committing acts which are spiritually destructive. In this way, they make gradual progress.

Even a squirrel has this much wisdom: that it gathers nuts for as long as it can, and when deep winter has set in and it can no longer gather, it enjoys the benefit of its good labours. But some spiritual seekers foolishly throw away all the good they have worked hard to accrue, casting it to the four winds so that it is scattered and wasted.

(Of course, with a wry smile I can say that attorney Joe Kracht is good at “gathering nuts” and turning them into witnesses for mock show trials, where he is both judge and jury and no defense is permitted.)

When a dog does not wish to enjoy food, the dog will sometimes urinate on it so that no one else can enjoy its good taste. Like this, some former seekers are carried away by their impetuous nature or by bad counsel. They try to destroy what they had built in concert with others, or they try and make the spiritual life unpleasant or unpalatable for others. They foolishly imagine that because they once helped to build something, that means they also have the right to break it. But building and breaking are not ethically equivalent.

You may earn high praise for helping to build something, but if you try and break that very thing, you may be sent to jail or suffer other consequences. Therefore, if you cannot do good, at least make a firm resolve to do no harm. This strategy will help you survive a spiritually low period, secure in the knowledge that such a period does not last forever.

A wise seeker recognizes that he is an eternal traveler. As a human being, his nature is mixed. He may still be troubled by desire and ambition, he may still have some destructive tendencies, but still he is trying to move toward the light. Even if his nature rebels against the difficulty of the spiritual quest, still he tries to gradually tame his nature and to refrain from becoming an outwardly destructive person. He knows that what he destroys today he will only have to rebuild tomorrow; he knows that if he causes other seekers to fall by injecting his doubts into them, then he will become karmically responsible for their suffering — suffering they would not have had to endure were it not for his wrong actions.

Building is synonymous with self-giving, and self-giving is a universal constant recognized as a virtue in both spiritual and humanistic philosophies. Often we see that the pinnacle of self-giving is reached by those who have purified their hearts through spiritual practice. (More here.) How does a great ultra runner like Sarah Barnett manage to complete 3100 miles? It is through heart-power, through dedication and selflessness. For 50 days she dedicates herself one-pointedly to the task of running, and afterward she basks in the joy of knowing that she has given her all. It is not just a physical, but a spiritual achievement, and at the core of it lies self-giving.

To become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative ego reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

Bad counsel may come in the form of apostates who urge people to burn their spiritual bridges behind them, to loudly and public denounce their faith. This is sheer stupidity when we understand that we are eternal travelers, that life is cyclic, and that we need to accomplish as much as we can in a spiritual phase, then hold onto it — do nothing to destroy it.

Just as worldly people have their pride, there is also Divine Pride — the pride which will have nothing to do with a person who has become false or treacherous, or who consciously and deliberately tries to sabotage others’ spiritual efforts. If you take bad counsel and burn all your spiritual bridges behind you, if you become a “spiritual saboteur,” then how will you cycle back to a spiritual phase of life? The spiritual world will disown you, and spiritual people will want nothing to do with you.

In Part 3 I talked about anti-cult groups which put on spiritual trappings or a spiritual veneer in order to fool people. These groups are populated by apostates and are primarily concerned with opposing or undermining bona fide faith groups, but they try and generate interest by disguising or mislabeling their activities. I talked in particular about “Abode of Yoga,” an anti-cult web site (Blogspot blog plus Facebook group) started by attorney Joseph C. Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego. Though much of “Abode of Yoga” consists of apostate testimonials of the why-I-left-the-cult variety (and some fake revenge porn), the site’s name, artwork, and header quote are all designed to imply that one is visiting a spiritual site rather than an anti-cult site — to pull in people with positive spiritual interest who would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site.

Spiritual seekers tend to seek out spiritually supportive venues, and spiritual experiences tend to occur in a spiritual set and setting where there is support for them — a sacred space. When people leave the sacred space and immerse themselves in an environment which is doubting or hostile, they may find it difficult to retain their spiritual experiences or to have faith in their reality. They cannot make sense of these experiences apart from the sacred space, so back in the secular world they tend to passively accept the explanation that they must have been “brainwashed.” This can easily lead to an alienation syndrome in which they blame a spiritual teacher who only tried to help them, and whose counsel they actively sought at the time.

Truth must be lived. There’s a sense in which one can only understand spirituality by practising it; one can only understand devotion by feeling it; and one can only understand the essence of a mango by tasting it. This view is not totally illogical. After all, one can only understand differential calculus by studying it. Idle opinions from those who never cracked the book or who long ago abandoned their studies count for little.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, one way media bias operates is by choosing to interview a failed student rather than a successful one. If someone (by their own admission) lost spiritual interest as soon as they discovered dating, how much can they possibly tell us about spirituality? We may like Gidget, but can we really trust her advice on deep metaphysical matters?

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Gidget — a nice girl to date (if you’re 16), but maybe not a profound source of spiritual wisdom.

Because the secular world has developed a supercilious attitude toward spiritual groups, populist media tend to pay more attention to palpably foolish sources. They interview Gidget and overlook Radha — overlook knowledgeable adherents who never broke with their faith and continued on with their studies. Such adherents tend to have a more mature understanding of what it means to lead a spiritual life. They are able to explain the teachings of a spiritual master.

Those with an immature or even hostile attitude are often turned into media darlings or mascots by the anti-cult movement, despite lacking spiritual insight. Anyone bagging groceries at a Trader Joe’s can become a “cult expert” on the Internet.

An apostate account saying “I used to be self-giving but that was all rubbish — now I’m materialistic” will be hoisted to the skies, billboarded, and given maximum bandwidth on the information superhighway. Such a view panders to what many materialistic people want to believe: that spirituality is all pie in the sky. One can even make money hawking this view, but just because it’s marketable doesn’t make it true.

There is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that the purpose of life is production, consumption, and procreation. Spiritual teachers who say that the purpose of life is self-knowledge and self-giving are going against the grain. No matter how kindly and politely they try to deliver the message of renunciation, they are apt to be hated for it — even by those who asked to receive their teachings.

Likewise, there is a confluence of interests who want to persuade us that every human problem can be solved solely through politics and social programs. At times, these interests also form a powerful bloc which stands against those who rightly claim that human beings are not merely political, social, or material creatures.

As I discussed in Part 5, human beings also have genuine spiritual needs. For human progress to be meaningful it must balance material progress with spiritual progress. This balance has gotten out of whack, which is the root cause of many people’s unhappiness. The latest upgrade to “Materialism 2.0″ won’t solve this core problem. I strongly favour universal health care and similar programs, but we also need to honestly acknowledge our spiritual needs, and to create a culture which is broadly supportive of spiritual practice, rather than tending to be hostile to it. In short, we need more religious freedom.

In practical terms, this means respecting the integrity of sacred spaces, not trying to destroy them literally or figuratively — neither burning them down, nor circulating hate propaganda (in the form of misinformation) intended to discredit them, thus severely limiting their influence and ability to function. (See Part 4).

One way of undermining sacred spaces is by substituting insipid imitations: fake spiritual groups for real ones, even fake spiritual functionaries. China has taken the latter ploy to embarrassing extremes. See the NPR news story “Tibetans Reject China’s Panchen Lama,” which states:

In 1995, the Chinese [government] rejected the Panchen Lama chosen by the exiled Dalai Lama and had him taken away, along with his family. He has not been seen since. On April 13 [2011], the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama made his first international appearance, advocating for national unity [as opposed to Tibetan independence]. Tibetan Buddhists, however, reject the Panchen.”

There’s a Chinese saying: “Hanging out a sheep’s head to sell dog meat.” This is exactly what the Chinese government is doing with their fake Panchen Lama. This tactic is also employed by U.S. anti-cultists, e.g., parading around a fake “Chosen One” who disavows spiritual teachings and stumps for materialism. It’s also the tactic used by attorney Joe Kracht in creating a fake spiritual site in order to circulate anti-cult material of a salacious nature. This is seen as unethical by people who value truth in labeling, integrity of purpose, and respect for sacred spaces.

Again, when we pray, meditate, and do selfless service we add to our pile of good things. But when we engage in low gossip on Facebook, we don’t accrue any spiritual merit from that. Quite the opposite! If with a posion tongue we attack those who are good and do good — if we desecrate the memory of a realized spiritual teacher — we are only adding to our pile of bad things.

A respected spiritual group like Sri Chinmoy Centre is respected precisely because for over forty years it has been a reliable source of quality information about meditation, yoga, and the spiritual life. That source was Sri Chinmoy himself, who developed a sterling reputation in the interfaith community, and was known to be an authentic teacher of bhakti yoga who never wavered in his commitment to spiritual truth and the highest ethical standards. He was a deeply good and spiritual person.

It’s no wonder that groups and individuals peddling something foul would try to piggy-back on his sterling reputation; but genuine truth-seekers should accept no substitutes. Perhaps a better label for the anti-cult activities of Joe Kracht, Gary Falk and Anne Carlton would be “Fugazi Disciple Experience.” They are spiritual fakes, and I would not trouble them if their fakery remained their own private misfortune. But they try to mislead genuine truth-seekers, and therefore pose some danger to the general public. That’s why I feel the need to speak honestly about their public activities. I mean no personal offense.

The problem may be understood in terms of a “web of trust.” On the Internet and in cryptography, this term is used to describe people or entities that are known to be trustworthy. They have been found trustworthy by a community, or they have presented proper credentials.

Despite the tremendous diversity found in the interfaith community, many spiritual leaders have been active for decades in meeting with others at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and similar venues. These leaders have become known quantities in the broader spiritual community, and have been found to be trustworthy through extensive personal dealings. It’s extremely difficult to impeach their reputation or portray them as monsters because everyone knows them and knows their inherent goodness. A person of no reputation who tries to attack a person who has built up a good reputation through innumerable acts of kindness and benevolence will find it quite difficult.

Therefore, the tactic of some anti-cult groups is to infiltrate the web of trust. They know they lack a reputation of their own, so they piggy-back their activities on the good reputation of the organizations they oppose, through mislabeling and impersonation. Apostates who have lost or squandered all their faith, all their devoted qualities, and who left a spiritual group 10, 20 or even 35 years ago, nonetheless try to gain publicity by misappropriating the name, symbols, and icons of the group they oppose, thus infiltrating the web of trust.

YogaloyThe deception does not always end at the front door, with mislabeling. It may run deeper, as in the case of people who have returned to worldly life, but who want to be known by the spiritual name they used 20 years ago — pulled out of mothballs, as it were. By this means they hope to gain credibility with the current faithful, and to likewise persuade them to abandon their faith. Their approach, in practical terms, is something like this: “Oh, you know me. This guru said I was an angel! Therefore, if I tell you now is the time to start doubting and suspecting, you have to believe me.”

Yes, that guru once said you were an angel, at a time when you were acting most angelically; but since then you have discovered doubt and treachery. You have completely disavowed your former spiritual life. You are acting like an ingrate, not an angel. I don’t need your doubt! Your spiritual practice of 20 years ago doesn’t entitle you to harass or impersonate the teacher who once gave you shelter, helped you when you needed help, and taught you the abc’s of spirituality.

In this way, when people make a very definite decision to abandon their spiritual practice and to snatch away the faith of others, we may need to revoke their credentials so that they’re no longer part of our web of trust. Otherwise, they can drag us through all kinds of suffering. They may come to us in the guise of friendship, but in many devious ways they will try to influence us negatively. Of course, I’m not saying we should hate anyone or treat them unkindly. But in important spiritual matters, our web of trust should consist of those we know to be spiritually trustworthy today, not those who use yesterday’s faded credentials to gain entrée and wreak havoc.

The Internet presents unique challenges. It differs markedly from the real world. In the real world, Park Avenue is not next to the Bowery. To go from Park Avenue to the Bowery, you will have to pass through stages, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. There is some physical distance, and you will notice the scenery changing. When you reach the Bowery, no one can put up a sign that says “Park Avenue” and fool you, because the surroundings are totally different. The Bowery itself has a different look and smell.

But on the web, everything is one click away, and it’s so easy to put up fake scenery! Just as there are “phishing” sites which are made to look like Yahoo or Citibank (but aren’t), there are sites which put up a fake spiritual veneer, but actually specialize in doubt. The way these sites are designed, they implicitly say: “Trust me, I’m a spiritual person and a friend.” But when you trust them, you suffer. You find that you are put in direct contact with the worst kind of doubt, which destroys all of your inner purity sooner than at once. (Call it “spiritual malware” if you like.)

These things might not be of concern to the average person, but they are definitely of concern to spiritual seekers who have worked hard to build something in their lives which they value, but which may still be fragile, easily destroyed. For most people, faith is like that; it can be so easily destroyed if we don’t take proper care of it! Such care includes spiritual self-protection, which at its simplest means knowing who is a true friend who will help you in your spiritual quest, and who may come to you in the guise of friendship but will try to sabotage your spiritual efforts.

This is not a Manichean world view which sees everything in terms of absolute good and absolute evil. Human nature is mixed and often changes over time. We sometimes need to track the changes and respond accordingly. A student may have great spiritual potential, but then he takes a fall and becomes an unreliable source of spiritual wisdom, and an unreliable friend.

An ordinary person may have the potential to lead either a spiritual life or a worldly life. If she chooses a spiritual environment, the virtuous circle of influences will work its magic and she will act in a spiritual manner and have spiritual experiences — especially if she is under the guidance of an advanced spiritual teacher.

But over time, she may fail to renew her spiritual aspiration, and allow worldly desires to enter in. Then, if the spiritual teacher dies, she loses interest and gets married or goes into politics or business or bagging groceries. The same person may totally forget her spiritual experiences back in a worldly setting where there is no support for them. In some cases, it is not insincerity but more like amnesia.

One person, two completely different phases of life. Away from the spiritual teacher, spiritual teachings, and spiritual community, she cannot make sense of things, so she just makes up some crazy story.

Back in the secular world, former seekers want to enjoy desire-life; but worldly people too have their pride, their sense of boundaries, their rules for re-entry. Worldly people are often suspicious of former seekers. They say: “How is it that you now want to party with us? We thought you wanted nothing to do with desire-life. We thought you were a spiritual goody-goody.”

Spiritual people know firsthand what it feels like be cold-shouldered by worldly people. So they say: “Oh, it was all a mistake. I wandered into the wrong auditorium by accident. Then a big brainwashing machine came down on my head. That’s why for 20 years I prayed and meditated and did selfless service. I’m just a poor cult victim. Won’t you let me party with you? PLEASE LET ME PARTY WITH YOU!”

In this way, pretending to be a “cult victim” becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counseled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

Needless to say, they are not being honest with themselves, nor with others. This “innocent cover story” leads to a host of problems down the road. Simply labeling oneself a cult victim may not cut the mustard. People want to know: “Well, how were you victimized?” So there emerges a need for legends of abuse which will entertain and satisfy a worldly audience — an audience awash in hackneyed stereotypes about spiritual groups.

As many feminists would point out, in worldly life women have to compete to show that they’re sexually desirable and sexually experienced in order to attract a partner. In worldly life, celibacy has become the ultimate dirty word. Spiritual people are often “accused” of being celibate. Anecdotally, I remember that on the TV show Boston Public the ultimate put-down of one schoolteacher who wore longish skirts was that she “dressed like a nun.” Also anecdotally, YouTube’s community guidelines take pains to point out that: “We’re not asking for the kind of respect reserved for nuns, the elderly and brain surgeons.” The implication is that YouTube is for coarse, young, not-too-clever people. This is often borne out in the comments section. 😉

So, in creating a legend or cover story for returning to the world, former spiritual adherents tend to be wary of how they handle the issue of celibacy. If the truth is that a spiritual group encouraged (and lived) a modest, chaste lifestyle, that truth makes the former member look plain and boring, not glamorous and desirable.

What a worldly audience wants to hear is that spiritual people are all hypocrites and sex fiends, so among the more fantasy-prone and less conscience-driven ex-members, making up stories which pander to that view — and which also make the storyteller out to be sexually experienced and desirable — has become a form of self-indulgence. It’s often carried out in public, with no sense of shame and no empathy for those who suffer as a result of the made-up stories.

For people who still need to work out their desires in the world, there is such a thing as reasonable desire, ethical desire. This means working out one’s desires in an ethical manner. You have desires, but you don’t tell hateful lies; you have desires, but you don’t rob or kill. For those not quite ready for the spiritual life, to pursue their desires in an ethical manner can be a gradual preparation for the spiritual life.

However, apostates often find themselves ethically challenged. Much of their ethical sense is connected to their faith, so when their faith goes, their ethical sense also goes. Otherwise, they would not be able to tell lies with such impunity; they would not be able to harass those who were their former friends, colleagues, and spiritual mentors or treat them with such cruelty.

Ethics helps us understand what is valuable in life, and ethics also tells us not to destroy what others value. After a political revolution, there will usually be some people at the head of the crowd who are rowdy and eager to destroy something. They may break into a museum and start destroying works of art, because they feel that these works only have meaning for their enemies and not for them. They don’t realize that God often speaks through artists, and that beautiful art works are a universal treasure. They don’t understand why the world considers them vandals and criminals. They imagine that because they cannot see the beauty in something, therefore no one else can see it either.

People come and go from the spiritual life. Most come and go in joy. Even if they return to worldly life, they try to remember and cherish their spiritual experiences and all that the spiritual life once meant to them. These are the good and wise souls who remain rooted in ethics, and who continue to add to their pile of good things.

Those who act like vandals, who try to destroy the beauty of the Three Jewels — the spiritual teacher, the spiritual precepts, and the spiritual community — are only adding to their pile of bad things, their negative karma. Naturally, they will take hundreds and hundreds of years to realize the truth.

Often, the same people who are doing wrong things day in and day out are also searching frantically for some new enlightenment method that will magically transform them. Without knowing it, they are re-enacting the myth of Sisyphus. They do a few minutes of meditation. Fine. Then they go on the Internet and harass someone. Very bad!

For such people to make progress, they should remove the obstacles created by their own habitual bad actions. Learn right speech, right action. Practice basic ethics. Become a deeply good person, and you won’t have to chase after enlightenment — it will chase after you! Remember this helpful quote from Taoist Hua-Ching Ni:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

— Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

Each life is a pile of good things and bad things. Both good and bad persist long after the initial actions which created them. The wise seeker tries to accrue good actions while avoiding destructive actions which harm others. He or she learns right speech and is not misled by those of bad character to engage in false or hateful speech.

The law of karma does not apply only to spiritual people. It governs the entire world, but worldly people are unfortunately unaware of it, so they commit Himalayan blunders.

Spiritual people who return to the world because they still have some unfulfilled desires need to be careful of losing their ethical sense, their understanding of cause and effect. Otherwise, they can very quickly undo all the good they have done.

Worldly pleasures are like an invitation to enjoy unconsciousness. In unconsciousness, a person can easily do many things wrong. It is like driving: You can be a safe, careful driver for many years, but then if you fall asleep at the wheel, in only a few moments you can cause an unimaginable catastrophe.

Just because we don’t see the law of karma in our immediate vision doesn’t mean it’s not operating. There are two kinds of karma: near karma and distant karma. Near karma is: you stick your hand in the fire and immediately you are burned. Distant karma is more subtle: In this life, you tell millions of lies that hurt people; in the next life, you may be born mute because you abused the power of the tongue. Or, in this life you used your intellect not to illumine people, but only to cleverly plot how to harass spiritual people or bleed them for money; in the next life, you may be born a simpleton because you abused the power of the intellect. This is distant karma.

Sometimes a characterless fellow will try and incite people to take wrong actions. Even in this life he has suffered because of his wrong actions, but he doesn’t tell you that. Yet, if you investigate you can learn the truth: For harassing people, he was fired from his job, underwent a painful divorce, had problems with substance abuse, went through a twelve-step program, ended up living with his 100-year old mother until she finally died, and also had to undergo treatment for prostate cancer. Yet, the same individual will insist there are no consequences for wrong actions. Is this wisdom?

We cannot avoid some suffering in life, but through insight and ethics we can minimize our suffering and also learn from it, allowing it to ennoble us. By engaging in right speech and right action, we don’t harm others, and also we bring less suffering upon ourselves. This is wisdom.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Of Further Interest

Making Sense of the Spiritual Life
A Question of Forgiveness
Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches

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4 comments on “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy

  1. Pingback: Paint It Black! | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Joe Kracht and Lavanya Muller (parody) | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: Making Sense of the Spiritual Life | Ethics and Spirituality

  4. Pingback: Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches | Ethics and Spirituality

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