LAST WEEK'S surrealistic nightmares from the jungles of Guyana have once again put the issue of religious cults squarely in the center of the American stage. In a way that the scattered rumors of mind control and depersonalization among Moonies and Hare Krishna devotees could not, Guyana deaths have focused U.S. public attention on the cults and on the question of what the cults are all about, why people join them, and what import this movement has for our society.
On the whole, the answers have been highly unfavorable towards the cults, and highly narrow in outlook. The whole spectrum of U.S. opinion has come down hard on these groups. The traditional establishment correctly perceives them as destabilizing, offering alternative values and lifestyles not easily controlled by the usual middleclass institutions and therefore dangerously unpredictable. In rejecting the acquisitive values of the mainstream the cults reject America. The political left and remnants of the '60s movements also attack the cults with a passion; after all, the cults focus attention on spiritual matters, self-realization, mystical attainment, and divert attention from the ever-delayed but inevitable revolution, or at least from reform and restructure of the economy and political life. The established religions also turn away, secure in the knowledge that they have the true message and all others must be frauds and charlatans. This leaves little more than a small lunatic fringe in defense of the cults; Mark Lane, famous for conjuring conspiracies and playing games with committees attempting real investigations into recent U.S. political assassinations, was busy defending Jim Jones of the People's Temple when all hell broke loose in Guyana.
Recent books on the subject of religious cults have been extremely disappointing, for the most part ignoring the central experience of the newfound religious life of the devotees and instead concentrating on the incidental issues of mind-control, the megalomania of many cult leaders, the legal questions of parental responsibility and freedom of choice of the offspring involved. But it is the religious experiences at the heart of the cult movement that are precisely what must be confronted if we are to understand at all the wave of spiritualism that has surged through America during the '70s.
Any analysis is suspect if it conjoins such disparate groups as the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, the practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, the Jesus freaks, Scientology, est, the newfound devotees of Oriental religions in the U.S. like Sufi or Zen Buddhism, and the followers of individual cult leaders like Jim Jones or Guru Maharaj Ji. But since academic sociologists refuse to take these groups seriously enough to study them, the general ignorance on the whole matter may be lightened by a few generalized stabs in the dark.
If a single belief common to most of these movements can be found, it is that at the center of a person's being is a spark of divinity, of spiritual soul, which is part of the spiritual energy of the whole cosmos and which a person may be able to tap through various means--meditative, introspective, or ritualistic. This spiritual energy can not be found in our materialistic world and cannot be discovered by scientific experiments or theorizing: it must be encountered through direct experience after considerable effort.
If a person does reach his innermost being, the result is ecstatic union with himself, with his divine core, with the universe, with existence--surely a goal worth striving for, if such a spiritual center to man indeed exists.
Of course, Western religion has taught the same doctrine for millenia, but in recent decades has fallen into disuse while religious doctrines imported from the East have been all the rage. Perhaps that is because western religion has lost touch with its mystical roots and its spiritual bases. It became established, easy, mundane, and could not provide the actual enervating, uplifiting experiences we poor sinners need to get through life.
Western religion has always had trouble justifying its beliefs, resorting in the last analysis to exhortations to "Take it on faith." Fine, if as a result of faith people could experience their own innermost being and achieve religious ecstasy. But except for a few mystics and saints who starve themselves (and possibly affect their perceptual systems through vitamin deficiency) and thereby find God, the mass of westerners live spiritually devoid but hopeful. Religion has ceased to give them the real psychological experiences they seek.
Not so for the Eastern religions, even in the pre-packaged form they take when they are shipped over to the U.S. Many Hindus and Buddhists actually attain inner peace, actually experience their spiritual souls as part of the spiritual energy pervading the universe. Western religion is stingy: God came to earth (so the story goes) in only one incarnation, Jesus. In the East, there were many incarnations, many teachers, many who attained nirvana. The spiritual struggle in the East is not so hopeless, with divine grace coming in the last moments of submission and despair like some celestial cavalry riding over the hill as the archangels play their bugles.
Other facets of the great Eastern religions give them clear advantages nowadays in attracting devotees in the west. Rather than personalizing the cosmic spiritual energy as God, as a being not unlike your father who demands certain things and says certain things and before whom man is totally degraded and who maybe, if you're lucky, if he feels like it on a whim, gives you grace, the East prefers to keep such psychological games out of the matter. Each person has this energy at his core, each person can reach his innermost being (and many do) and each person therefore is his own salvation on earth.
THUS NO RIGID church hierarchy is needed in the East, no state dogmas, no equivalents of the social power of corporate religion in the West. Each man should realize them himself, by himself, and then submit himself to the larger reality he has just discovered.
How many cultists have found such truth is indeterminable: those in the cult are hard to reach and interview, and those outside (parents or excultists) also have an inherently biased view. Clearly some cult leaders unfortunately add demonic or hateful doctrines to the core teachings, such as making themselves personal messiahs and predicting Armageddons. But other movements, less the products of half-crazed do-it-yourself-messianic minds and more the product of thousands of years of religious evolution in India, China, Japan, also abound, attract followers, attract attention. The latter group should not be grouped with the former for attack.
If the '70s is the ME Decade, perhaps this is not all bad. People may be quitting political movements to Find Themselves, may be leaving the New Left communes as well as the nice homes in the suburbs to become Zen Buddhists, may be giving up trying to save the world to experience union with that world, but who can say they are objectively wrong? With political change as a value, of course one rejects beliefs like, "The best thing a man can do for his fellows is to achieve enlightenment" or "Everything is interconnected, the good with the bad, how can you change anything in the universe or in man. Accept the world as it is, here and now." But while rejecting such beliefs for causing people to look inward, one must realize the rejection is based on one's own set of values and beliefs, which are no more right or wrong than those under attack.
We may be undergoing the third great wave of religious awakening in America (the first in the 1740s, the second between around 1825-1850); we may be witnessing some great dialectical resolution of West and East; we may simply be watching the aftermath of a million LSD trips and the casting-about of a hundred million turned-off, disillusioned people; but clearly Something Big is happening, and by refusing to take it seriously except when it leads to such macabre events as the Guyana massacre we are quite possibly missing the boat on the most crucial historical event of our lifetime. Wake up America, your children are chanting in the living room, and it isn't Rock of Ages.
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