In his book about extreme forms of religious practices, former Rancho Bernardo resident J.C. Hallman did not have to look far for one of the most striking examples of a belief gone wrong.
Heaven’s Gate, the cult that ended with the suicides of its 39 followers in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion in 1997, kicks off Hallman’s “The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe” ($25.95, Random House).
“I think I wanted to address the cult idea right from the get-go,” said Hallman, 39, the writer in residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.
Inspired by philosopher William James’ 1902 book, “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature,” Hallman set out to study religion in what he considers its most extreme forms, which James had said was the best way to understand the true spirit of religion.
In defining extreme, Hallman said he looked for religions that were outside the mainstream, that had emerged in the 20th century and that had a strong American component.
James acknowledged that many bad things, such as the Crusades, have been done in the name of religion, but also wrote that some of mankind’s best achievements have come from religion.
Hallman said the Heaven’s Gate cult, which ended with members taking their own lives in the belief that they would be whisked onto a spacecraft trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, is a clear example of religious belief gone wrong.
Another UFO cult in San Diego, however, is a peaceful and friendly group whose members seem fulfilled and content. As peculiar as their beliefs appear, Hallman said, their religion has been a good thing for them.
He also writes about UFO cults, Satanists, the Christian Wrestling Federation, the dog-raising monks of New Skete and other groups and personalities on today’s religious landscape.
Although Hallman said he never identified with any group’s philosophy, he also never condescends, mocks or belittles anyone in the book. The followers are real people with real beliefs, and although some of those beliefs catch even the author off guard at times, he still sees them as sincere.
Most important, he sees these beliefs bringing meaning and happiness to people’s lives, an observation in line with the philosophy of James, a pioneering American psychologist, philosopher and Harvard professor.
In the book’s introduction, Hallman calls James his patron and writes, “I carried him through the adventure of ‘The Devil Is a Gentleman,’ his voice like a conscience as I wandered from monks to Druids to Satanists to Christian wrestlers and Scientologists and witches.”
Hallman also was inspired by James’ writing about pragmatism and truth. For James, truth was defined as what is useful to a believer.
“James acknowledged that different molds of people had different kinds of happiness available to them,” Hallman writes. “There were varieties of religious experience precisely because people came in varieties.”
Understanding that practical view —- that different people find different means to happiness —- can help people become more accepting of opposing religious beliefs, Hallman said.
“That’s the problem with most religions. They require everyone to get on board with the same thing. James felt because there are varieties of people, that obviously you need a variety of religions.”
Hallman’s research in San Diego also brought him to El Cajon, where he met the Unarians, who still are waiting for the arrival of spacecrafts that their founder assured them are on their way.
“It’s easy to look at groups like these and think, ‘My God, they’re really crazy,'” Hallman said.
Yet the Unarians also were benign and content with who they are. And like most other groups he studied, they did no recruiting for their cause, he said.
Once people look at groups like the Unarians with a Jamesian point of view —- that they are just another example of the many kinds of people following many kinds of beliefs —- it is easier to understand their view of truth.
“You don’t need them to be wrong in order for you to be right,” he said.
The book’s title comes from the Percy Shelley poem, “Peter Bell the Third,” an apt description of the well-dressed, polite Satanist whom Hallman describes in one chapter.
“What was interesting to me about Satanism is how they embraced ritual,” he said. The Church of Satan does not believe in a literal devil and its members do not see themselves as evil, Hallman said, and their dedication to rituals make them very religious in their own way.
Hallman concludes his book by saying that at the end of his research on religions, he was “a bit less baffled than I used to be” because of James.
He also wrote that it is customary for a writer to hope his work will spark a renaissance in his subject.
“This was one of the things unstated in the book,” Hallman said about James. “If America really wants to live up to the promises it shouts to the world, celebrating diversity and a country based in freedom, it really has to figure out how to embrace a philosophy that accounts for and embraces variety. James is the only philosopher who provides a very good system for doing just that.”
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