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Religion, Spirituality and the ‘Inner Hierarchy’

February 25, 2018

This post is a collection of thoughts that starts suddenly in the middle of nowhere and then wanders off somewhere else. It is not especially coherent, but it is supposed to mean something. I am still clearing up the ideas involved in it. It might be interesting, dull, utterly inscrutable or mundanely obvious.

Humans, like other mammals and primates, have a more or less pre-programmed ‘inner hierarchy’. We automatically size up other people we encounter, to determine whether or not we feel dominant or submissive to them, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Much of this is learned and socialized of course, but there is also a substructure of automatic behavioral patterns that automatically kick in, especially if the dominance or submission is clear cut.

In other words, humans have a kind of map for sets of behaviors for each level of a hierarchy. Clearly, a similar set of psychological conditions accompany these.

These behavior patterns sit deep in the psyche, often largely beyond conscious awareness or control. these are triggered by certain signals — body posture, certain types of language use, adornment, etc. I assume anyone reading this has experienced a situation where they were shocked at their own behavior in some kind of unexpected response to such signals: too submissive to an authoritarian, or maybe nasty to someone who signaled submission.

I am arguing that we automatically place ourselves somewhere on a scale of dominance/submission, according to a kind of ‘inner map’, which also contains behavioral patterns which are triggered according to where we place on this scale.

Everyone tends to go a little weak in the knees when encountering an especially high status person. (There are of course good evolutionary reasons for an instinctive tendency to express submission to highly dominant individuals.) But it’s not just crass power games involving survival or receiving favors. Our sense of awe when encountering an extraordinary landscape, or a wild animal, or work of art, etc., probably comes from this same aspect of our psychology.

We are carrying, in other words, a complete program for how to act, and how to feel for each status level of this inner hierarchy.

So people can feel genuine awe for “God”, regardless of whether or not there are any gods, if they happen to stumble into that part of the brain where the feeling of awe for a higher power is located.

Mystics, especially outside the three dominant monotheisms, report feeling like they themselves have been transported to this higher status position, without feeling dominant over others, but more like they are observing themselves and everyone else as if from a great height or distance.

The existence of this ‘inner hierarchy’ makes humans very susceptible to religion. The notion of an ultimate alpha male is close enough to deep seated mammalian instinctive feelings and behaviors. We are at the utter mercy of external factors, regardless of whether they’re due to random chance or deliberate intention of a “higher” being. It’s not easy to live with that fact, and it is easy to feel stress related to powerlessness.

The biologist Robert Sapolsky has argued persuasively (using research o primates including baboons and humans) that stress is most closely associated with lower status. In fact merely occupying a lower status position is itself a cause of stress.

We can also note that under stress (aka lower status in relation to some stressor) or who feel helpless, are more likely to trust an authority figure.

All this makes it quite easy for priests to convince people that “God” is up there on the top step, and that there are steps descending downwards towards us — the hierarchies of seraphim and cherubim, the angels, a few saints, and then splashing out into physical reality, the popes, cardinals and bishops, down a few more stairs to the priest who is standing before you, one step up. You can see the stairs leading upwards, maybe the last visible step being some magnificent church, before it disappears into the clouds.

And that priest is at the immediate end of all that power, right in front of you.

Some religions and sects (and cults) are very particular about the status its sheep are allowed to occupy. They use ideology to prevent people from moving up the scale on their own ‘inner hierarchy’ as it exists in their psyche. They even define humanity in a way that denies the very possibility of such inward mobility.

Humans are guilty of original sin, or do not belong to a lower caste, etc. The whole thing is framed to keep followers stuck in one position on their ‘inner hierarchy’. (This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.)

Should a subject feel themselves being tugged upwards, they should immediately dismiss it as hubris. The fear of falling even further downwards can be used as a constant threat over them.

Gautama the Buddha said “be a light unto yourself”, implying, I suppose, that humans are in fact free to move upwardly in this ‘inner hierarchy’.

The dissolution of the illusion of self — so surprising at first, and maybe a little shocking too — is a key to this. A ‘self’ can be fixed at one level on the inner hierarchy, and held there until its future Day of Judgment, where this single unified ‘self’ will be condemned or redeemed, according to its acts.

For this reason, mystics who preach the illusory nature of the ‘self’, have never been tolerated by any authoritarian religion. The practice of meditation is also treated with immense caution at best (and seen as a subset of prayer); and usually without outright condemnation. They don’t want people locating themselves at many different points on that inner hierarchy, or maybe, all points and nowhere on it, simultaneously. That ‘self’ is the thing that authoritarian religions hold power over.

(It is instructive to note here that despite appearances New Age esoteric spirituality is also guilty of this. They have carried over the Platonic/Christian view of the “soul” as something unitary and immortal. Thus the stakes for salvation are just as high as in Christianity, and the power of its priesthood just as great — though without any moral strictures for priestly behavior. This is bad for actual spirituality, but great for marketing.)

As a small child, I accidentally discovered this myself. I used to lie awake at night looking for who “I” refers to. I couldn’t find it, yet there was still consciousness, somehow, without any “I”, just bubbling up out of nowhere like a slow, happy fountain. I used to just lie there, completely astounded by this experience. As a teenager I once remembered that I used to be able to do it, but when I tried I couldn’t get there anymore. Too much inner turmoil.
Conscious awareness is a tiny little window onto the present moment, like a little piece of sky, with clouds swirling in and out of view. It is surrounded by a wall of words and thoughts about hopes and dreams, tied together ultimately, by emotions. Emotions resulting from the pain of loneliness and the fear of death or dissolution.

It does seem to me that it is possible for the frame of this window to expand or disappear, and reveal the vast empty sky — a sky of consciousness, which is just there: it is, by its nature, aware, but it doesn’t do anything.

Posted by Yakaru

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25 comments

  1. i feel like either there’s something missing here or i’m missing something really big here.

    to me it seems like you are saying dominance hierarchies are built into the human machine, thru which one set of humans hack another set of humans in the form of religious control – and the way out of that control is thru dissociation from self.

    but when a human dissociates from self they enter a space of being where they don’t do anything or are passive? So even if one non-dissociated human remains the 99.9% ‘no selves’ would still be subject to being dominated?


  2. Thanks for this comment. I wrote this partly to try to nail down some ideas I’ve been thinking about for ages, and may have left too many things vague, or attempted too much at once.

    I’m drawing on work especially by Robert Sapolsky, on stress being related to position in a hierarchy. But I am emphasizing that mammals do have a kind of program for behavior for each level already kind of built in.

    I speculate that it is largely upon this scaffolding that the main religions arrange themselves. Gos is the alpha male, and priests use this inner hierarchy to be perceived as having special status that ultimately derives from the god who is believed to be on the top rung.

    I should probably have settled for trying to argue that point in the post.

    I should perhaps have outlined the findings of neuroscience that strongly indicate that there is no central control box in the brain — no “seat of the soul”. Rather, the brain functions in a modular fashion. This also leaves little room for the idea of the soul, as an individualized, integrated entity that steers the brain and bears the stains of guilt for “its” actions.

    It is not only part of Buddhist doctrine, but also something that can be experienced fro oneself, either deliberately or by chance, that the thing we think we are referring to when we say “I” can’t actually be found.

    Experiencing this first hand can be a very pleasant, profound experience, or I guess horrifying, depending on the situation. (People facing imminent death or extreme situations also seem to stumble on it too.)

    The experiences fades, and need not affect social functioning, or a healthy sense of one’s individuality or personhood.

    It doesn’t change the outer circumstances at all, as some fundamentalist Hindus and law of attraction loving New Age fanatics believe; and it doesn’t alter one’s status in a particular hierarchy. But it can help one back out of an unhappy identification with one’s status in a particular hierarchy.

    So that is the connection between hierarchy and illusion of self, and meditation I was trying to make.

    But I was also trying to link into it an argument that Sam Harris has made, that Christianity is opposed to the idea that the self is an illusion, because that denies the soul, which in turn is the thing which is ultimately judged by god.

    I am adding to this, by arguing that this “soul” is necessary to locating a person in a specific position on a hierarchy. In fact an individual person would actually be widely distributed over a huge area of a moral compass. But Christianity is tied to the notion that all this wide diffusion of points are to be condensed by god into one single point, where the soul dwells, and which determines if it is to be punished or rewarded.

    Does that clear anything up?

    I do think there are some important points in all that; some of which have not been made before as far as I know. I’m probably trying to cram too much into one blog post.


  3. thanks yes i think somewhat, for me this is the aspect i’m interested in getting clear >

    “But it can help one back out of an unhappy identification with one’s status in a particular hierarchy”

    I think you are saying the brain (or seat of self) is a modular system and so a part of or within an overall (universal system) which has inbuilt dominance positions and fluctuations. Stress ties or locks in ‘a self’ or ‘individual’ to a position. But if the experience of no-self is registered upon the position of a self / brain – stress is reduced and so greater movement becomes possible move to different positions in the hierarchy.

    It is hard to phrase this. I hope this makes sense.


  4. That’s not quite what I was aiming at, but it sounds like another way of cutting up the material I’m trying to work with.

    Yes, it is extremely difficult to formulate this kind of material, so I really appreciate the back and forth about it.

    I could probably reformulate it in those terms, but maybe not…

    I was using ‘seat of the soul’ in a different sense to you — to refer to the dualistic belief that humans have a disembodied soul that reaches down into the brain and controls our thoughts and actions. Neuroscientists have spent the last 350 years trying to locate the exact part of the brain where the soul reaches in. Descartes thought it was the pineal gland; last century neuroscientist and Christian John Eccles thought it could be specifically located as well.

    Here’s an article about it.
    http://dana.org/Cerebrum/2004/Neuroscience_and_the_Soul__The_Dualism_of_John_Carew_Eccles/

    (If you assume there’s a soul, then it seems logical that some special part of the brain must contact it, and that is the supposed “seat of the soul”.)

    This soul is usually also identified with whatever it is we refer to when we say “I”. The fact that I can say “I will raise my arm” and then my arm raises, seems compelling evidence that “I” gave an order to “my” arm; therefore this “I” obviously exists.

    But as a matter of subjective experience, when one searches inwardly for this “I” it isn’t there. Also, according to neuroscience, there is no central control point the brain where the decision is consciously made. And also according to Buddhist teachings it ain’t there either. But Christians and Muslims tend to get very upset about the notion that there’s no soul.

    Sam Harris talks about the implications for Christianity of Sperry’s split-brain experiments and there apparently being no soul: here–

    https://books.google.de/books?id=SpJqBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq=roger+sperry+split+brain+sam+harris&source=bl&ots=rhUhobvFWi&sig=2JHAQ3LvPOwTeE6ElHBuNsVdBRA&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwicxJKKtOnZAhWjJMAKHTRMBB0Q6AEITTAE#v=onepage&q=roger%20sperry%20split%20brain%20sam%20harris&f=false

    Specifically with the ‘inner hierarchy’ stuff, I was thinking that mammals have pre-programmed behaviors that kick in automatically, according to how we perceive our status — submissive behaviors include instinctively signaling submission, like bowing the head; or assertive body language like strutting about, if we perceive ourselves as dominant.

    We also react to loss of status by withdrawal, embarrassment, shame and depression — a sign, I think, that there is some instinctive basis for such feelings and behaviors pre-programmed by evolution (and of course added to through learning and culture etc).

    So in effect, we already have it pre-programmed into us how we would react when occupying each level of this map of social hierarchy that evolution tattooed onto our autonomic nervous system.

    Meditation seems to allow us to either disengage from a specific rung of the ladder that is unpleasant (eg., recognizing that I am more than just a jilted lover who’s a loser, forever fated to occupy that status position).

    While Christianity wouldn’t have anything against that kind of thing, they would not like the idea that you can decide yourself whether or not you are stained by original sin, and therefore destined to occupy low status until you allow Jesus to wash it away and raise your status.

    Locking you into that one position on the divine hierarchy does seem to depend on the existence of a soul — a singular entity that records all our trespasses for later reckoning.

    But if one lets go of this illusion of self/soul, one is implicitly also letting go of being fixed at one position in this hierarchy, and removing the power that a priest my have over you, to tell you’re still a worm.

    —-

    Can any sense be discerned amidst all that?

    (I guess i could have written half a dozen posts to set up all these ideas.)


  5. Yes thank you it does makes sense. I see that I missed a lot of the content of the term ‘seat of soul’ – thank you for taking the time to explain it further. I think my main question when reading was getting to what the practical outcome of these inter-linked insights were – something I couldn’t quite grasp at first (to me it can get tricky when moving from ‘an acting agent’ to a ‘no acting agent’ position) but I think I’m getting more of a sense of the function of ‘no agent’ in your further comments. Thank you very much for responding.


  6. Thanks for taking the time to try to figure out what I’m blabbering on about….


  7. “religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution”

    That claim is not merely untrue, the truth is the other way round altogether, in that the most adamant anti-evolutionists (at least within Christianity) just as adamantly reject clericalism, ecclesiastical hierachies, and anything that smacks of earthly authority.

    As for your main thesis, there is no hierarchy of souls, because God is One and every soul is His image.


  8. Yes, if you lift that phrase out of its parenthesis and its context, it lacks a qualifier.

    But in context, it is clear that I was arguing a different point. the whole passage is:

    “This is why religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution. It loosens their grip on their power to define humanity, and therefore loosens their ideological control over their subjects.”

    That stands for anti-clerical Christians as much as it does for the Catholic Church (which does officially accept evolution, but excludes humans from its influence, this maintaining their ability to define human biology and human nature.

    On the other thread, you challenged me with the question “How do you know?” I must ask you the same thing about this assertion:

    “there is no hierarchy of souls, because God is One and every soul is His image.”


  9. I’m afraid I don’t detect any form of qualification in the longer quote. It seems your bald claim still is that “religious authorities are unfailingly opposed to the idea of evolution” (not true), and thereby these somehow exert “ideological control over their subjects” (true perhaps in some extreme circumstances). Moreover, as I previously stated, staunch anti-evoloutionists are the least likely to submit to any form of clerical authority, much less “control”. As for Catholicism, it is not the case that it “excludes humans from [evolution’s] influence”. Nor does it claim that it can “define human biology” (rather, it holds that biology is necessary but not sufficient to give a full account of the human person).

    As for the concept of Imago Dei and its implications, I think I can safely refer you to any standard reference work in Western theology.


  10. Thank you for admitting that you don’t know that the soul is made in the image of God. And of course, if i refer to the theologians they won’t know it either, and will merely refer back to the Bible, which was written by others who also merely asserted it.

    Which religious authorities do not oppose evolution? I mean evolution as defined by biology.

    I can in fact name one but as he died in 1919 he doesn’t count. I did write about him though, and very positively.

    https://spiritualityisnoexcuse.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/from-a-theologian-in-1909-stop-deceiving-children-about-science/


  11. Compared with the twenty-odd centuries of recorded religious thought, the theory of evolution is quite a recent development. Whatever controversy it evokes in some quarters doesn’t amount to a hill of beans as historical controversies goes. Many great thinkers preceded Darwin, so their opinions are unknown. And it has been too short a while since Darwin to know which post-Darwin thinkers will stand the test of time.

    The main doctrinal statement for Christians is the Nicene Creed, which says nothing about evolution. And I’m not aware of any learned person today, one who could be considered a credible authority on mainstream Jewish or Christian thought, who flatly rejects evolution in favor of mindless scriptural literalism. (This is not to deny that there are anti-evolutionists, but that they don’t fit that description.)

    To the contrary, no less an authority than Cardinal Newman, a Doctor of the Church and a contemporary of Darwin, wrote that we do not circumscribe God “if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it….Mr Darwin’s theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill.” — Newman to J. Walker, 22 May 1868

    On a personal note, as mentioned previously, the biology teacher who first introduced me to Darwin’s ideas happened to be a Benedictine nun. On the other hand, I don’t recall ever hearing anything about evolution (or against it) in twelve years of daily religion class in Catholic school (much less in undergraduate theology in a Catholic college).


  12. Thanks for the details about Cardinal Newman.

    The reason I am so categorical in this statement is because religious authorities who nominally accept evolution only accept an altered version of it — with an escape clause for humans written into it.


  13. How so?


  14. Hi. I would like to comment on the escape clause, but let me also add that in Italy 50 years ago or more catholic schools were teaching Darwin without any problem. Basically Catholic theology is based on Tomism. Saint Thomas does not distinguish between soul and body and therefore does not need escape clauses. The problems came with Descartes. It is much easier to use its concepts than those of Saint Thomas when talking from the pulpit….


  15. @Fulvia — that is interesting. I know little about Aquinas, but more about Descartes, and modern esoteric spirituality in fact follows Descartes– even though spiritual teachers as well as spiritually oriented academic claim to oppose Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy. It was of course the theosophists who picked up Descartes’ idea that the pineal gland is the ‘seat of the soul’ and associated with the 6th chakra from a yogic tradition.

    @Loy–

    Evolution precludes numerous central church teachings. Accepting evolution implies letting go of ideas such as God having any role in the evolution of any and all life forms including humans, and the existence of Adam and Eve, as well as anything relating to them, like original sin and universal redemption through the crucifixion. The divinity of Christ is of course excluded too, along with the virgin birth.

    ….Oh yeh, and the exorcisms would have to go too.


  16. Well, no. Evolution is not philosophy or theology.


  17. Sorry, I assumed you were a Christian or some kind of religious believer. If you agree that the whole of Christianity is mythology or (more generously) ‘metaphor’ rather than some kind of historical fact that relates to events in the physical world, then there’s no argument here.


  18. The phrase, “the whole of Christianity,” covers an awful lot of ground, so let’s try to get down to cases. As a lifelong practicing Catholic, I’m not quite ready to agree that “the whole of Christianity is mythology,” in the ordinary sense of that word. You take the affirmative, I gather. But whether or not we agree on that is beside the point. The question at hand is whether accepting evolution compels me to abandon any of the doctrines that you cite.

    With Cardinal Newman, I say nay, for the simple reason that, inasmuch as the theory of evolution does not address itself to any metaphysical or theological propositions, and indeed is sublimely oblivious to any notion of reality beyond the “blind instrumentality” it describes, it has little or nothing to tell us about such propositions.

    Now, of course you’re perfectly free to reject these doctrines for other reasons. But you can’t blame that on evolution as such.

    May I respectfully suggest you’re trying to make the theory of evolution into a Trojan Horse with a lot of extraneous baggage stuffed inside.


  19. Evolution, or rather biological science as a whole presents a thorough explanation of the origins of humans and all other creatures. Inasmuch as a religion claims other origins or forces other than naturalistic ones at work, then that religion holds ideas that are incompatible with science.

    Personally, though, I would not expect any believer to give up their belief because of evolutionary theory. I can understand that subjective experience that is felt to confirm something about God as somehow present in one’s life or consciousness can be compelling enough for one to simply say, “I accept evolution, I accept that it appears to contradict some of my beliefs, and I’m not concerned by that.”

    I do, however, expect such people to concede the point in public, and not expect others to be convinced by their subjective experience.


  20. Thanks for your reply. First, let’s be clear that we are not talking about my own or anyone else’s subjective experience, so let’s just put that aside.

    I completely agree that any philosophy that flatly contradicts substantiated scientific findings, and puts forward its own unsubstantiated alternative account of the natural world, can rightly be called incompatible with science.

    But that is a very different thing from claiming that science has anything whatever to tell us about the character of reality beyond its sandbox; much less that somehow science can validate or invalidate a theological proposition. I’m sorry, but it seems rather obvious that simply observing the natural world is not going to reveal the meaning of the Trinity nor of the Paschal Mystery. In the absence of data, science is silent and indifferent.

    What am I missing? I look forward to a clearer explanation of the supposed implications of “accepting evolution”.


  21. I would point to two things, especially.

    One is that if a theologian claims, for example, that humans are made in God’s image, that contradicts everything we know about the origins of our species — the various processes and parameters of mutation, selection, genetic drift etc. I guess someone could confabulate some way that God might have “made” us arise somehow. Manipulating the genome is a popular ruse here, but the rates of mutation are known, and such manipulations would have left “fingerprints” all over our genome, and they aren’t there.

    The second thing is that theologians themselves have no way of distinguishing the merits of one idea from another. Why is the Abrahamic God to be accepted rather than Shiva?

    For millennia these differences were either ignored, accepted, fought about or discussed theologically, but they were never resolved. Theologians are always trying to argue for their ideas being in accord with or an improvement upon science, and at least they have some kind of standard for comparison — namely science. But if they try to explain why it’s better to invite Jesus into your life than Ganesha, they can’t do it. Or they haven’t done it.

    This is what happens with ideas that arise from intuition or imagination, or interpretations of subjective experiences. There is no commonality to them. Even people use the same word but apply it to utterly different conceptions, usually without even realizing it. Massive differences get papered over by shared terminology.


  22. God is the source of all that is, including the “various processes and parameters of mutation, selection, genetic drift etc.” (or, borrowing Newman’s words, “such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it.”) A scientific description of such laws and processes and instrumentality is necessary but not sufficient to give a full account of the human person, who is a spiritual being made visible in a transitory physical world. Now, you may agree or disagree with that proposition, but science has nothing to say about it.

    Which I suppose brings us to your second point, namely that empirical methods can feel like a more certain path to reliable knowledge than philosophical or theological speculation. With respect to questions that are amenable to those methods, that is undoubtedly the case; when I’m in need of a sound medical diagnosis, I want rigorous empiricism. But that’s a small part of what life is about. Yes, one could devote an entire lifetime to studying various theological traditions without ever “resolving” which is “best”. Or she could devote herself to following a particular tradition. Either path would lead to a richer life than blindly committing oneself to mere empiricism. Perhaps in a more enlightened day that will be seen as the false choice it is.

    A certain degree of epistemic humility would seem to be called for when one contemplates the incomprehensible intelligence of the universe. There are around seven billion minds that we know of, and perhaps trillions more out there at other points in space and time. The hardest thing to imagine is that there are not more advanced schools of thought than those we’re familiar with.


  23. Well, now you’ve gone back to making factual assertions again without any evidence.

    And how exactly do you know that “God is the source of all that is”? How do you know that there even is a “source” of all that is? And what do you say to religious people who say that God is not the source of all that is?

    You are right that science has nothing to say about it — because it is meaningless.

    There are, I think, realms of human experience which are profound and not accessible in the manner that science and scientific inquiry is accessible and definable and shares a common language. But for me, this pointless theology which claims greater factual knowledge than science, without contributing a jot to science, is utterly foreign to it.

    I agree entirely about humility in the final paragraph, because it contradicts and chastises you for the baseless assertions you make in the preceding ones.


  24. It’s great that we agree on practicing epistemic humility and recognizing the limitations of science. Maybe we’re getting somewhere.

    If I may say, however, you seem to have an inordinate concern with encumbering every factual statement with elaborate lawyer-like disclaimers. (Or maybe you just have an irrational fear of theology.) I don’t “know” that God is my Creator in the same sense that I “know” that my older sibling is my sibling. To different degrees I take both on faith. No reasonable person sees the need for a disclaimer in either case.

    Your own unwarranted assertion is that scientific and non-scientific accounts of the human person are mutually exclusive. My limited objective is to refute that assertion, as I have done. Whether or not you personally give credence to any theological “facts” in themselves is irrelevant. That has no bearing on the logical validity of your basic claim.


  25. The whole of science revolves around recognizing what it does and does not “know”, or that of which it can be certain or less certain. But theologians tend to talk as if theology somehow starts where science stops.

    And lawyerly disclaimers would in fact be an excellent exercise for theologians, as they are so accustomed to asserting facts as if they are indeed as certain not only of God’s existence, but even its attributes and demands and decisions about whether or not pets go to heaven, or whether or not you can buy absolution for crimes.

    I would not argue that scientific and “non-scientific” accounts of the human person are mutually exclusive. There is no reason to suppose it, and there does appear to be some crossover between careful, open-minded subjective experience (aka meditation), and modern neuroscience.

    I also think humans do need to have some kind of “working model” of how the world works, and another “working model” for how their own autonomic nervous system works. It’s necessary for social functioning and to maintain one’s own sanity. I don’t expect everyone to square that with science, nor to leave the gaping holes in it that the current state of science dictates.

    But it doesn’t hurt to say “it appears that…” rather that “it is so”, when speaking with non-cult-members.



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