Connecting History

Connecting History logo

Milestones

Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Gullible Americans?

by Jon Butler on May 1, 1997

Explanations of the Heaven’s Gate suicides now blame everything from comets to cults to cyberspace to the dead themselves — the “weak” among us, as commentator David Gelernter put it.

Perhaps when we have finished scapegoating we might look more closely at ourselves to understand the Heaven’s Gate debacle. Could we be an astonishingly gullible people in an indifferent society whose stress on individual “rights” leaves many Americans unprepared to confront life’s complexities, challenges, and disappointments?

More than a century ago, Herman Melville made the case for American gullibility in the novel “The Confidence-Man” (1857). It was the story of a Mississippi riverboat crook who left passengers penniless and disillusioned because he lured them with false hope and specious empathy.

Nathaniel Hawthorne made a similar case in his short story, “The Celestial Railroad,” published in May 1843, which caricatured pre-Civil War religious idealists and their incessant talk of heavens beyond us. But some readers proved more gullible than Hawthorne could have predicted. In July 1843 Hawthorne’s story was republished in the Adventist newspaper, The Midnight Cry, which supported the Adventist “prophet,” William Miller, who believed that the world would end on October 12, 1844. Neither editors nor readers seemed to understand that Hawthorne was mocking their silliness.

A half-century later, Mark Twain pilloried the hypocrisies of Christian nationalism in “The War Prayer,” a petition to the Almighty to mangle the enemy, and later lampooned the naivete of “mind cure” practitioners from Mary Baker Eddy to Ralph Waldo Trine.

American gullibility now extends far beyond mere naivete or silliness. Our nation’s mental geography in the 1990s is strewn with prophets offering cheap tickets to true heaven — UFO cultists, conspiracy theorists, New Age metallurgists, environmental doomsayers, and apocalyptic millennialists, to say nothing of get-rich infomercialists promising the riches, or at least the glitz, of Donald Trump.

Even the Internal Revenue Service has been gulled into dispensing a tax exemption to the Church of Scientology, on grounds both suspicious and inexplicable.

Why are so many of us, including the IRS, so gullible, so eager to believe that zero plus zero equals five and maybe infinity? One reason is that we have tired of the work demanded by the critical thinking that Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain practiced. Certainly, we live in an increasingly antagonistic and disagreeable society — just watch such programs as “The McLaughlin Group,” where shrieking and insults pass for informed political inquiry.

But learning, discernment, criticism, and reasonable standards of proof — each a sine qua non in an achieving society — flew the coop some time ago. We are afraid to say, “UFOs don’t exist” — because we might violate someone’s right to believe anything.

We are afraid to say, “Your ‘faith’ is a self-indulgent melange of escapist dreams” — because we are afraid to encroach on someone’s religious freedom. 

We are afraid to say, “Your conspiracy theories are undocumented, paranoid, and racist” — because we worry about being sued.

Societies rightly worry about many things, of course.  But they should worry most when they are afraid to question the dubious, the incredible, and the dangerous.

This questioning takes work. It demands knowledge and astuteness in the face of complex facts and intractable problems. Little wonder, then, that it was easier to watch the 39 Heaven’s Gate believers pass into sweet death in their rented tract home than it was to tell them that their beliefs reflected their troubled selves, not new spiritual or material realities.

After all, the gullible have their rights, rights that were easier to honor than was a rigorous moral citizenship that demanded criticism and discernment — of us as much as them.


Jon Butler teaches the history of religion in America at Yale University.