I just finished reading “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer (who also wrote Into the Wild and Into Thin Air). It was an interesting book – different from other things I’ve been reading lately. The book covers the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty, who in 1984 killed their 23 year old sister-in-law and her 15 month old baby. They claimed they committed the murders because they were ordered to kill by God. To better understand the crime, Krakauer looks into the history of the Morman Church and the development of fundamental Morman sects.
I think the book is interesting, and I did learn some things I didn’t already know, but it is definitely written in a skeptical style. He focuses on many of the negative and violent aspects of Morman history, without dealing much with the average people, who are mostly normal, friendly religious people. Also, I think it would be possible to write equally violent histories of any of the major religions, all of which have questionable events in their histories. I think it’s important that the reader is able to separate historical events and the belief of fundamentalist sects from the beliefs of the majority of people currently practicing a religion.
That in mind, he does an interesting job discussing the way people deal with inconsistencies in their thinking. How do people justify violent events in this history of their religion with their current beliefs and practices? Should people learn about and study these events, of should the history be more focused on the positive aspects important to the development of the religion? Personally, I think the more information you can gather, the better, you just have to be able to think carefully about what everything means. He looks at how fundamentalism begins, and how people think about the way they practice religion, and how literal interpretations should be.
He also deals with a really interesting issue regarding sanity. Part of the trial of Ron and Dan Lafferty dealt with whether or not they were crazy. So in the trial, and in the book, there was discussion of the definition of insane. I think many people would argue that because Ron Lafferty believed that he talked to God, and that God told him he needed to kill people, that automatically made him crazy. But lots of people pray, and lots of people say they’re following what they believe to be God’s path. So are all of these people crazy? Are you only crazy depending on what God tells you? Are you crazy because you believe something that’s not very logical or rational? What about all the people who are very serious about wearing their “lucky T-shirt” to football games? That’s an illogical belief, but most people wouldn’t call them crazy.
In the trial, they actually found that both Ron and Dan Lafferty were not insane. Though they had some really odd religious beliefs, they understood what they were doing. The psychologists in the trial said Ron had a very extreme case of narcissistic personality disorder – so he thinks of himself as very important and has trouble feeling empathy for others, but this is a common disorder among many highly successful people – scientists, lawyers, doctors, etc., who perform very highly, think of themselves as very important, and often feel like others are less competent or less important. I thought this section of the book was especially interesting to think about. What is rational and what isn’t? What makes the difference between rational and irrational beliefs? What drives some people to take extreme actions?