Man is the only unnatural animal - that is why religion is needed." One thinks of Nietzsche. The claim is actually made by the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and quoted by Anthony Storr in this entertaining but philosophically naive essay. Rajneesh claimed to be a king in a previous life. After his "enlightenment", he mocked asceticism and himself opted for wealth. Sex was declared therapeutic; complete nudity was required in the ashram because underwear "interfered with psychic energy". The guru boasted he had bedded more women than any man in history. He had not heard of King Solomon.
How did Rajneesh get away with it? According to Storr, people detest doubt and crave certainty; and gurus exploit this fact. Freedom is a burden; we would prefer guidance. Storr explores the seductive charisma surrounding men of absolute convictions. We think: "I can't understand this man but somehow he knows. Let him decide for me: I don't want to make my own mistakes." Such blind faith and the cult of personality it inspires can lead to mass suicide and collective madness. But as long as we lust for certainties about the meaning of life, gurus will not go out of business.
For Storr, gurus can be religious or secular. He includes not only religious dictators and cult leaders but also Freud and Jung. All gurus disdain experimental proof. Their certainty, observes Storr, is based on a "revelation" vouchsafed to them as a consolation for an earlier period of trauma. Depression of psychotic intensity is followed by a euphoric commitment to a utopian vision. A guru mistakes a solution to a purely personal problem for universal esoteric wisdom. The whole world is then made in his own image; the guru offers himself to the rest of us as a model of perfection. And many believe.
The "revelation" a guru brings, continues Storr, is seen as a gift of grace, beyond all rational criticism. A guru may revise his own ideas but only as a result of new insights he himself experiences. He has privileged access to truth and the right to amend his opinions. All independent critics are enemies; doubt is from the devil. The guru has only disciples, no friends. Yet, for all his hyperbolic confidence, the guru experiences self-doubt. Hence, concludes Storr, the infantile need for external validation through disciples and fans. The master has feet of clay.
Storr rightly notes that the content of religious revelation is a subjective confession, not a branch of knowledge. But he hastily concludes that religious belief itself is a crutch for emotionally weak and crippled folk. Yet a man can be religious out of motives of weakness or strength. The modern objection is to weakness, not to religion. We no longer admire the strength to suffer but we do admire the strength to do daring things. If so, Storr's critique applies primarily not to gurus but rather to the yes-men who follow them.
A better argument for atheism is that religious conviction is incoherent and false but remains emotionally appealing in our harsh world. It is not enough to say that religious belief serves human needs, therefore it is a falsehood designed to do so. For, possibly, God (if He exists) finds a basis in an aspect of our psychological constitution, namely, our need for emotional security, in order to establish the faith in our hearts. Storr is misled here by his commitment to a naive (and, these days discredited) positivism that identifies all knowledge with mathematics and science.
As for the trauma suffered by gurus, perhaps mental disturbance is an invitation to truth. Storr would readily admit that mentally ill people often have insights denied to the mentally healthy. But this is too weak a concession. Perhaps profound inner anxiety is epistemologically good for us, a precondition of profoundity. This is not to medicalise the philosophical problem of the human discovery to truth but merely to admit that the wounded man often has the best view of the whole battlefield.
Storr classifies Jesus as a guru. But Christianity is a world religion, not merely a local sect designed to oppress western artists. In discussing the life of Jesus Christ, Storr the urbane disbeliever gets a chance to tell his best jokes. I sensed an anger against a Christian upbringing. The Greek controversialist, Euripides, whom Storr cites as his guru, said: "The wisest men follow their own direction and listen to no prophet guiding them." Fine. But once Euripides had abandoned his gods, he lost no sleep over it. Modern western sceptics, Storr included, say they have no use for their god but then they never stop writing against him. Faith says farewell but does not depart; religion is a burden, its condemnation as arduous as its defence.
Storr issues an Orwellian warning against the dangers of idolising authority figures who seek to seduce us from the straight path of reason. The eventual emancipation of public opinion from the shackles of mystery is the philosophical foundation of our western democracy. Typically, a guru orders his disciples to love him above all else, even family members. It is the cost of discipleship. Storr wisely counsels us to see mature personal relationships between equals in a democratic society as the only source of true happiness for everyone, including those arrogant and self-absorbed gurus.
Shabbir Akhtar is a philosopher of religion, who teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.
Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus
Author - Anthony Storr
ISBN - 0 00 255563 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £18.00
Pages - 254