“Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” is the heading we all see when we visit this website. It is interesting to note that this is a somewhat incomplete phrase, but not without good reason. The phrase raises an immediate question: “What are these considerations alternatives to?” And yet, no one feels a need to ask. We all instinctively know the answer.
There exists an extraordinarily rigid and sterile form which every media correspondent must follow. As with similar cases, there also exists a nomenclature, an unwritten list of acceptable descriptors (cult, fanatic, brainwashed, blind-follower, and so on). This is what American media, and indeed Americans, and perhaps all people do with an event that they cannot accept, or aren’t willing to try to understand. We have abundant data, but we don’t really know how to make it palatable. We mull through, joke about, shape, and ultimately massage the story into something a bit less scary, and a bit further from reality, so we can assure ourselves that we won’t fall into a similar condition.
When you read or hear the word “cult,” for example, your brain will begin to find images, names, situations, and fragments of your memory to associate with it. It is a term for which we have no substantial definition, yet we all seem to understand its meaning. For this reason, it is truly a useless word; there is no identifiable thing we can objectively define as a cult; this in turn should tell us, there are no such things as cults. In the modern vernacular, “cult” is a word that one individual uses to describe a group of individuals with beliefs with which he or she disagrees. These powerful beliefs are often religious in nature because we depend so heavily upon them for our sense of purpose, and our assurance of ultimate meaningfulness. Corollaries within this definition – equally imprecise, if not loaded – include: the encouragement to disassociate with friends and family, an emphasis on bloody or violent subject matter, demands for a portion or control of the followers’ money, and an unquestioning obedience to the leader. One group, of course, that our society has relaxed into adopting this definition for is Peoples Temple.
But a quick survey of some modern religious institutions will render our attempts to qualify a real cult useless, and sometimes humorous. One might ask what the objective differences are between Peoples Temple and an institution like the Southern Baptist Convention; both meet nearly every criteria that our media has been able to draw up. Member congregations and respective reverends demand quite a bit of unquestioning faith, and quite a bit of money, for the hope of celestial reward or pain of eternal burning. But more interesting is that tendency toward disassociation, which I argue is the true cost of religious faith. The Calvinists’ record for inclusivity is very slightly worse than Peoples Temple’s ever was. Of course the preachments of fundamentalists drive disassociation from family and others… And yet, cults are still cults, and religious faith, so long as it is practiced by a majority, is something that demands respect. There are no such things as cults.
A dissection of the term “blind-follower” or “blind” anything reveals a similar situation. This word is used quite often to describe tendency of Temple members. To refute this premise, I ask a simple rhetorical question: when was the last time you asked someone’s permission to think—when did you last feel you required permission to think? This exemplifies another peculiarity of human rationalizing: on some level, we want and need to believe that over 900 individuals were completely oblivious to their possible demise on November 18, 1978. It is somehow easier to see Jones as a murderer than to imagine a very large group choosing to take their own lives in solidarity with each other. That is to say: the irrationality of one is easier to comprehend than the perceived irrationality of many. The alternative consideration in this case is that some individuals (not merely blind-followers) willingly took their own lives instead of going back to a country that despised them. To what degree and what percentage these constitute, I can never claim to know.
In the end, it is an absence of security and sureness that allows for the most interesting dialogue on any topic. It may be that the less tightly we hold our own beliefs, the better chance we have at arriving at a more accurate truth. And perhaps if there is truth to be found, we will discover it in the unusual, alternative, and even speculative considerations given to the story of Jonestown and Peoples Temple.
(Darren Crawford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)