Jesus and Charles Manson

Charles Manson
Charles Manson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a large group of people were raised from birth to believe a certain set of stories, it is reasonable to expect that many of them would continue to believe these stories into their adolescent and early adult years. The stories, even if they seemed highly implausible to those not raised to believe them, would likely retain some influence over many of those who had been raised to believe them. Stories involving prophecy, prophets, gods, "holy" men, angels, and the like would, at the very least, prepare those who had been raised to believe them to interpret their experiences in certain ways.

If the group of people who had been raised to believe these stories was large enough, we can safely conclude that at least some of them would be less intelligent, less capable of critical thinking or skepticism, more gullible, suffer from more emotional problems, and/or easier to manipulate than others. Individual differences in these characteristics would - in a sufficiently large and diverse group - make this a reality. So within this group of people who had been raised to believe a certain narrative, some would be at an added disadvantage relative to others in the same group.

If an unscrupulous but charismatic figure were to emerge and claim that he or she had been sent to fulfill the sort of prophecy these people had been raised to believe, some of them would undoubtedly accept this person's claims. Such claims would fit the narrative and seem far more plausible than they might otherwise to those who had been indoctrinated to believe the stories. And while many of them would certainly remain skeptical, some of them - those disadvantaged in some of the ways mentioned above perhaps - would be ready to accept the claims. Some might go so far as to follow this prophetic figure. And some of them might go so far as to kill or die for this sort of leader.

Jim Jones, Charles Manson, David Koresh, and countless others throughout human history have claimed to be "holy" and have been regarded as "holy" by a group of devoted followers. The right ingredients, properly combined into just the right mixture, has produced explosive outcomes. And among the key ingredients that seem to show up again and again are religious stories and the adulation of faith. It is not that people can't be manipulated into doing awful things without these ingredients; they can be. The issue is that it becomes much easier when they have been primed by religious stories and faith.

If stories of Jesus and end times theology didn't already permeate nearly every aspect of U.S. culture, Jones, Manson, Koresh, and others would have seemed far stranger to those they were attempting to recruit. They probably would have been less persuasive, as they would not have had the luxury of fitting into an already familiar narrative.