The Abject Failure Of Religious Studies

by Blair Gadsby

(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted and adapted from a chapter on Peoples Temple from Blair Gadsby’s book, Religious Delusions, American Style: Manipulations of the Public’s Mind. It is available through Amazon.

(The chapter, entitled “The Dangerous Religious Cult: Jonestown,” includes the following sections:

The Mother of all Cults
U.S. Clandestine Activities
Anomalies of the Event
Media and the Event
The Cold War and Liberal Religion
The Abject Failure of Religious Studies
Another Warning from the Past

(Future editions of the jonestown report will include some several of these sections.)

In the minds of many baby-boomers and older North Americans, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple constitute Exhibit A for religion becoming evil.
Charles Kimball, 2002 in When Religion Becomes Evil, 85

The academic field of Religious Studies is thoroughly derelict in its research of Jim Jones, Peoples Temple, and the Jonestown massacre – in fact, it is wretched.

Most certainly unwittingly, though not by accident, academe in this case has functioned as an unofficial flack for, by all appearances and likelihood, the CIA’s mind control operation against Peoples Temple members (medically) and the public (in propaganda). It was the public who was the target of the brainwashing, that is, the controlling of their thoughts. Less so the population of Peoples Temple or Jonestown – they were drugged or coerced by other means. Jones’ victims were psychologically, physically, sexually, and economically abused by the leadership of Peoples Temple and deceived about the nature of just who Jim Jones was. This reaches far beyond mere manipulating people’s thoughts. These are sociological and criminal acts of aggression and intimidation, pure and simple.

But is Religious Studies aware of these facts which have been long-available to the public? It appears not. These elements remain elusive to academe, and to its own impairment.

Jason Dikes gives a (partial) chronological outline of the historiography of Jonestown and Peoples Temple as it has evolved over the past forty years. Initially after the event, the writings were sensational, lurid and exploitive of the events. The second type of literature is historiographic and academic. Thirdly, Jonestown and everything, both fact and fancy, that has come to represent it, has secreted into the broader culture – think only of the drinking the Kool-Aid meme.

Examples are legion in the field of Religious Studies wherein reference to JJ-PT-Jonestown are given light treatment and taken for granted as what the first category of historiography describes: a sensationalistic example of evil. The quote at the beginning of this chapter is taken from Charles Kimball’s When Religion Becomes Evil (2002). He demonstrates no awareness of the historical elements presented here. “They were blindly obedient to a charismatic leader whose journey…would seem to an outside observer too implausible to carry the story line of a fictional book or Hollywood screenplay” (90). So too with Steve Bruce’s Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (1996) which unquestioningly accepts the Jonestown deaths as mass suicides with no qualification (191). Mark Juergensmeyer in his Terror in the Mind of God (2000), though without going into any depth on the JJ-PT-Jonestown subject, ascribes the “suicidal act of violence” to what Jones thought “would elevate the struggle to the level of cosmic war” and so he chose to “escape what he feared would be capture and defeat” (165). Derek Daschke and W. Michael Ashcroft’s New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader (2005) includes an edited version of the so-called “death tape” (a tape-recording made during the final hours of the massacre) where the reference to Richard Dwyer is removed, and they conclude “918 people, including Jones, died, mainly by the self-inflicted cyanide poisoning, though some had been shot or had their throats slit” (243). George Chryssides’ Exploring New Religions (1999) states the

event was so extraordinary that some commentators have – perhaps understandably – resorted to conspiracy theories: Jones, they argue, was no mere clergyman, but a CIA agent commissioned to conduct an experiment in thought control. The most commonly offered theory, however, is that the group was an example of religion gone wrong, a fanatical group into which its members were brainwashed, and would do anything that Jim Jones, its authoritarian ‘messianic’ leader, commanded (34).

I wish that as much had been acknowledged in Jonathan Z. Smith’s Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (1982) which on this issue is, very regrettably, a work of theoretical imagination as suggested by the chapter titled “The Devil in Mr. Jones.” Though not mentioned specifically in Dikes’ historiography, Imagining Religion falls squarely in the first school (lurid and exploitive) while claiming to be in the second (academic and historical). Smith’s is a work of, at times, garish exploitation (he includes as an appendix the final “death tape” transcript!) while presenting itself as an academic examination and interpretation of Jonestown in which “most apparently died willingly” (108).

It is anything but.

His choice of references, though much more limited at his time of writing, are represented in the photo above. Hold Hands and Die, The Suicide Cult, and Guyana Massacre all appeared before the end of the year of the tragedy and hardly constitute reflective research. In fact, Smith additionally asserts that “Despite a number of more recent works, published since 1980, I have not seen cause to alter this essay in either matters of fact or, especially, in conclusions” (Smith, 162).

Unfortunate indeed. I will use his own words to make an appeal:

As students of religion, we have become stubbornly committed to making the attempt (even if we fail) at achieving intelligibility. We must accept the burden of the long, hard road of understanding. To do less is to forfeit our license to practice in the academy, to leave the study of religion open to the charge of incivility and intolerance. Against this backdrop, I have deliberately chosen for my topic and event which is a scandal in the original sense of the word…For those of us committed to the academic study of religion, a comparable scandal is that series of events which began at approximately 5:00 P.M., on 18 November 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana. From one point of view, one might claim that Jonestown was the most important single event in the history of religions, for if we continue, as a profession, to leave it ununderstandable, then we will have surrendered our rights to the academy (104).

I would suggest, instead, academia has surrendered its responsibilities to the political elites and so have lost their nerve in the face of the elites’ political means of coercion.

Smith’s is an otherwise esteemed career in the field of Religious Studies, and which has received due recognition thus making it that much more imperative for his body of work to be corrected. He notes the “daily revisions of the body count” (109) but infers nothing from them. Hidden in plain sight, in the death tape appendix, are the incriminating words “Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him. Dwyer. I’m not talking about Ejar [Ujara]. I said Dwyer” (130). Any number of contemporaneous newspaper accounts call into serious question the official version of events. But not a peep from Smith. There is simply no explaining it. I cannot reconcile the December 28, 1978 news report by Peter King in The San Francisco Examiner describing the psychotropic pharmacopeia found at the Jonestown site, and Smith’s assertion that “most apparently died willingly.”

It appears that currently Religious Studies as an academic field is simply unable to metabolize the forensic information presented in the research readily available through numerous sources. And this portends a very bleak future for the accuracy and efficacy of subsequent religious and political analyses and how they come to bear upon public policy as they will be hampered with severely tainted information. This will inevitably thwart and corrupt academic research and theorizing (Bainbridge, 359). The melding of academic discourse with the political elites’/establishment’s (including military’s) concerns is alarming. This is a very degrading dynamic in current American academic life and is something of an indication of a societal drift away from democratic institutions and toward fascism.

Despite the current state of affairs in academia, I find it fitting, if respectful, to give the now-late Jonathan Z. Smith another hearing on the matter:

It is now for others to continue the task, with Jonestown, or wherever the question of understanding human activities and expression is raised. For if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them (120).


Bainbridge, William Sims (1997). The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York: Routledge.

Bruce, Steve (1996). Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Chryssides, George D. (1999). Exploring New Religions. London: Cassell.

Daschke, Dereck and W. Michael Aschraft, eds. (2005). New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press.

Dikes, Jason (2013). A Brief and General Overview of Jonestown Historiography. The Jonestown Report. Vol. 15. (accessed March 2019).

Juergensmeyer, Mark (2003). Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Original edition, 2000].

Kimball, Charles (2002). When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

King, Peter (1978). How Jones Used Drugs. San Francisco Examiner. Dec. 28. Front Page.

Smith, Jonathan Z. (1982). Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Originally posted on August 1st, 2020.

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