The Benedict Option: Turn on, tune in, drop out (now with more Jesus and hierarchy)

Almost fifty years ago, counterculture guru Timothy Leary proclaimed the need for America’s hippie youth to “turn on, tune in, [and] drop out” of square mainstream society by using psychedelic drugs and creating their own spiritually aware communities. Leary further explained what he mean in his 1983 autobiography:

Turn on’ meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. ‘Tune in’ meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop out suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. ‘Drop Out’ meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity.


Leary actually didn’t invent the “turn on, tune in, drop out” idea, even if he did coin the phrase. The entire history of the United States could be summed up as a continuous movement of dissatisfied people wanting to create their own communities away from the oppressive conformity of mainstream society. We see this tendency in the Puritans of the Plymouth Colony, the Shakers, the Oneida colony, the early history of the Mormons, the hippies, Jonestown/People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and now religious right separatism. While many conservatives may hold up the picture of the lone pioneer protecting his homestead from dark-skinned “others” as the prototypical American, a better image might be that of the beleaguered religious minority group trying to build a community where they can live life according to their own terms.

Many of America’s intentional communities either failed outright or evolved in something else. In the case of the Mormons, this evolution was spurred in large part due to the desire to achieve Utah statehood (as opposed to Brigham Young’s theocratic country of Utah), which necessitated dropping polygamy and the overt aggression towards the United States government. Others with a more apocalyptic vision imploded as the result of internal and external stresses, as was the case with Jonestown and the Branch Davidians (while Jonestown was technically in Guyana, it was populated by Americans and can only be understood within a framework of black American religion and mid-twentieth century radicalism, and Cold War paranoia). It’s unclear whether a colony with ideas as radical as the Oneida colony could have lasted any longer than it did, although perhaps it could have lingered on with better management.

It is with this background in mind that we must consider the Benedict Option. One of the biggest problems that closed communities of all sorts have is how to keep young people from leaving. These days, the more religiously inclined groups achieve this by cutting off contact with the secular world and limiting educational opportunities so kids don’t start questioning the dogmas of the group. Educationally neglecting kids also has the added benefit of forcing doubters in the group to remain, because they don’t have the skills to make it in the outside world. Nineteenth century sects didn’t have this problem, because most members could just farm or do something like carpentry, but in today’s high tech society, a poor education can seriously hamper one’s prospects in the world. Since Rod Dreher fancies himself an intellectual, I don’t think that he would be neglecting his kids’ education like, say, the Satmar Hasidim, but if you’re going to separate yourself from the world, the question of how much secular knowledge is too much always hovers in the background.

Then there is the fact that small, isolated communities are bad at policing themselves; Brigham Young’s Utah was a bloody theocracy, the old-school Catholic ghetto was covering up sexual abuse, and Jonestown was an armed prison camp. The fate of the now-disgraced Duggars show that abuse happens even in the most “wholesome” of Christian home school families. It’s much easier to run away from the perceived sins of the world than confront the darkness in your own heart.

The Benedict option doesn’t solve the underlying problem that white conservative Christians have with today’s society, namely that they aren’t the ones controlling society’s script anymore. I think the flirtation with this idea stems from old ideas about building a “city on a hill” as well as 60s notions of counter-cultural living. But in today’s age, you can’t really cut yourself off from the world like the monks could in the early Middle Ages (even they had to deal with the demands of the laity and the odd marauding barbarian tribe, cloister or no cloister). Even anti-tech groups like the Amish and the Hasidism are having to face the reality of young people with smart phones questioning doctrine, and children coming out as LGBT.  Religionists will have to learn to live with secular humanists and vice versa for the foreseeable future and no amount of self-isolation can fix that.