(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted and adapted from a chapter entitled “The Dangerous Religious Cult: Jonestown,” from Blair Gadsby’s book, Religious Delusions, American Style: Manipulations of the Public’s Mind. It comprises a continuation of the article published in 2020. The book is available through Amazon.
The political capital gained by the meme of Jonestown as suicide cult presents a stark warning to us all, in that it makes it easier for law enforcement to dupe the population against subsequent religious groups such as the Branch Davidians in 1993, almost fifteen years after Jonestown. The myth of Jonestown was used to justify the use of force against the Branch Davidians and for officials to save the Branch Davidian children from abusive adults. The mere mention of the possibility of a group-suicide seemed sufficient to intervene (Moore, 2009: 117).
But this was wildly overblown both in the case of the Branch Davidians specifically, and against religious groups generally. Chryssides said it best in concluding a section on Jonestown:
The anti-cult prediction of a wave of suicide cults simply did not materialize. Years passed without any similar incident, and no NRM [New Religious Movement] has ever led to a mass-suicide on that scale since Jonestown. It was not until 1993 – nearly fifteen years later – that 82 Branch Davidians died at Waco, Texas (46).
The facts surrounding the stand-off at Waco, Texas are as badly distorted as those of Jonestown and provide an instructive moment for our field of study. That Chryssides’ observation holds should not be surprising. People are not inclined toward mass-suicide. The very notion is rather absurd on its face, but the political capital embedded in such a narrative has already had tremendous effect in this regard. And while this has not gone unnoticed, it has gone mostly un-remedied – even in the field of Religious Studies.
The teaching of Religious Studies, as well as instructors in a variety of cognate academic fields, must be very cautious in their representations of groups like Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Otherwise the very establishment of academe, designed to promote accurate knowledge about the world, becomes an unwitting purveyor of false information and historical distortions. This has an intellectually – and socially – degrading outcome upon those who consume this information.
Consider the assessment of the sociologist Williams Sims Bainbridge of the mindset of the agents and officials overseeing the Branch Davidian stand-off at Waco. Bainbridge’s characterization of the mentality of the agents is that they thought of Koresh as a deranged man on the order of Jim Jones and as one “who possessed diabolical power over his brainwashed followers” (116). I agree there is little doubt the federal agents thought that, which is in keeping with the narrative about Jonestown and constitutes the cultural symptom within which there is much political capital (i.e., justification for a raid). But the federal agents’ thoughts and assumptions about the Branch Davidians were purely delusional.
Hence, my use of the term event horizon.
Furthermore, it is Bainbridge’s comments that most trouble me here, and which reflect his failure to recognize the forensic realities about the Waco event. He states most confidently that these agents
could not recognize that charisma and an alternative symbolic world can be created through intensive interactions among members, in which the leader plays a key role but is far from a dictator. Put another way, the law enforcement agencies never seriously recognized that religion was the motive behind the actions of the branch [Branch] Davidians” (116, emphasis added).
Whether intended as such or not – and I suspect not – this is a demagogic statement that is both inflammatory and unjustified. Religion was not the cause of their deaths, government action was. No amount of inflammatory rhetoric, academic or political, will alter what can be observed in the behavior of officials during the standoff and that be seen in the video footage of the final day.
Religion as the source of the tragedy at Waco is a false narrative. It amounts to a strategy of creating otherness (they are not us), or the pathos of distancing. To put it into “conspiratorial” terms, media and academia never seriously recognized that the activities of government officials rather than religion, was the motive behind the actions of the Branch Davidians.
A reader could not be faulted for thinking he or she is reading from Bainbridge a passage better-suited from People’s Temple – People’s Tomb or other polemic published by a Christian press in an attempt to deflect responsibility and blame away from orthodox or mainstream Christian beliefs and onto beliefs of a more “cultic” nature. As a researcher, I find this distressing. I’m afraid that a modern sociologist referring to “symbolic systems” in the case of the deaths of the Branch Davidians has no more explanatory value and is tantamount to the spiritual explanations offered by conservative Christian apologists and authors such as Kerns-Wead. Mel White in Deceivedseeks to, however empathetically and compassionately, distance mainline Protestant Christian religion and beliefs from Jones’ activities. Jesus and Jim Jones by Stephen C. Rose also does this, but from a more liberal and ecumenical Christian point of view, wherein Jones had “largely rejected Christianity for Communism” (60). These literary responses are understandably concerned with the Christian religion and its appearance to the general public.
With the prevailing corrupted narrative placing the source of death squarely in the hands of a cultic religious leader and his pathological behaviors, the demagogic possibilities are potentially rich for both academic-theorist and defensive Christian-believer alike.
But this demagoguery has no place in scholarship, even that which is unwittingly perpetuated, and must be resisted for the sakes of civil society, civic pluralism, and the historical record. The social price paid for such corrupted myths is far too steep. Political powers feed off of these distortions, and it is high time we recognize this both as scholars and citizens. Further, the line between scholarship and activism becomes somewhat blurred in the process. It is not easily avoidable that a scholar may experience a moral compunction to make others aware of this situation and to seek to disseminate a more fact-based explanation of events, which in turn has political capital vested in it. The degree to which one does so may initiate labels upon her or his scholarship that, in turn, can be exposed as polemic. When in the media a scholar is labelled a “conspiracy theorist” or “activist,” this serves only to denigrate the research conclusions and to treat them and the scholar in a dismissive manner.
Suspiciously, no similar protest is launched by the media when the government makes claims or files charges consistent with “conspiracy theory.” These are the Principles of Newspeak, articulated by George Orwell in his novel 1984.
If scholars are condemned for holding conspiratorial theories when presenting their peer-reviewed conclusions, and yet political officials (including the legal apparatus) are heralded as truth-speakers, then the intellectual degradation of society is well underway, if not fully completed. It is nothing short of a direct assault against reason and research to demagogue these topics. History has shown – and continues to reveal – just what the political and power elites are willing to do by way of their cultural means of coercion.
In the end, Jonestown is one of those instances wherein the government’s tight control of the forensic evidence, the absence/destruction of any relevant paper trail and related documentation, the plausible deniability of officials, and the straight-up nefarious tendencies of certain human beings, all collude to cast a long grey shadow over the iron-clad certainty of claiming direct and active government involvement through one of its MKULTRA-MKDELTA programs.
But common sense and past experience tell us where there is smoke there is usually fire.
For my part, having left home in Canada to be a missionary in Africa and join a group of unknown people whom – I took it by faith – shared my views, I feel a certain empathy for the residents of Jonestown. So much about other people we associate with in life we take on faith, especially in the social groups outside our families. Belonging to a community of like-minded people is one of the strongest and most fundamental characteristics a person can display. Manipulating this characteristic with intent for social and political control would be empowering to governments and their operatives, e.g., the intelligence services.
Consider the following quote, which describes a CIA modus operandi identical to that of Jim Jones’ story.
The CIA used the pastor of a church in a Third World country as a “principal agent” to carry out covert action projects, and as a spotter, assessor, asset developer, and recruiter. He collected information on political developments and on personalities. He passed CIA propaganda to the local press. According to the CIA’s description of the case, the pastor’s analyses were based on his long-term friendships with the personalities, and the agents under him were “well known to him in his professional life.” At first the CIA provided only occasional gifts to the pastor in return for his services; later, for over ten years, the CIA paid him a salary that reached $11,414 annually (Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 1976, 202-203).
At what point does it become irresponsible more so than prudent for the scholar to deny when faced with forensic evidence the involvement of government agencies? When does it cease to be naïveté and become complicity with altering the historical record, and worse, denying justice for the abused and deceased? Even though he or she may be exempt of criminality, the scholar, much like the investigative journalist, bears a certain accountability for the status of knowledge in the broader culture.
Fortunately, it is in the power of human reason and decency, coupled with courage of convictions, that the hidden and suppressed truths can be discerned. The Critical Theory of Religion’s quest to understand the root of human suffering demands the evidence fit the agony. Jonestown was the source of much agony. On this count, tepid though it may be, John R. Hall gives affirmation to the possibility of government complicity in the essay “The Apocalypse at Jonestown” wherein he states:
Because the United States government might have been able to prevent the tragedy, and also because government officials and representatives may have acted in ways that propelled it, there has been considerable speculation about the government’s role… Whatever the truth of the matter, such accounts cannot be easily assessed because the U.S. government has suppressed information about its dealings with Peoples Temple, partly on the basis of the sensitivity of its geopolitical interests. If remaining government files on Peoples Temple can be examined, they may well yield significant reassessments of its history (same holds for the NBC video “outtakes” from its Jonestown coverage, which the network has refused to make public). Whatever comes of the search for more information, causal analysis of available evidence substantially revises the popular myth of Jonestown (Dawson, 205).
Scholars need find it their purview to sensitize readers to these realities of officials’ malpractice when the evidence leads in that direction. Doing so will require a certain amount of nerve that must not fail. And to avoid doing so is dereliction of responsibility. Marginalizing information in this way fosters the degradation of language itself. The term “conspiracy theory” is a case in point. The historical record depends upon the human fortitude to seek and acknowledge all relevant facts which help explain the phenomenon under scrutiny. Human decency demands it. Science demands it. And the health of civil society and civic pluralism require it. In addition, it just may be that by voicing our awareness, their hands may be stayed. Call me an optimist.
 I use this term (here in a novel way) in parallel to its astronomical meaning in which a perimeter around a black hole demarcates an area from which nothing can escape. In my use, it refers to an event of such importance that subsequent similar (or perceived as similar) events cannot help but be seen in relation to it, and interpretations of events subsequent to the original are manufactured with the parts of the original. Similar to the meme (a social fact replicated through culture), an event horizon can be detected among social facts as all too frequently the efficacy of the event horizon to help shape public opinion is recognized by the political elites with their various means of cultural coercion. This was nakedly on display in the Branch Davidian siege with the frequent use of the rhetoric of Jonestown.
Chryssides, George D. (1999). Exploring New Religions. London: Cassell.
Dawson, Lorne L. (2003). Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
Kerns, Phil with Doug Wead (1979). People’s Temple – People’s Tomb. Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International.
Moore, Rebecca (2009). Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Rose, Stephen C. (1979). Jesus and Jim Jones. New York: The Pilgrim Press.
White, Mel (1979). Deceived. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Spire Books.
U.S. Government Printing Office (1976). Foreign and Military Intelligence, Book I: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operation with Respect to Intelligence Activities. United States Senate together with Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views.