Questioning Jonestown, Questioning Faith

I was 12 when the tragedy in Guyana happened. I had just started in a new, “big” school and was feeling the pinch. My first school had fewer than 200 kids in it. The education was Catholic: school church on Wednesday and Friday morning, the more dedicated among us going on Sundays too. There was no shortage of doctrine, advice and guilt, but it was cosy and I loved it. My new school had more than 2000 pupils, and while there was no compulsory church, the message was the same: Catholic. I am not religious, but from very early on in my life I was aware of the power of religion, especially when well packaged and express delivered by sober robed Catholic priests and nuns.

In November 1978 I was lonely and alone. In my new school in Swansea, Wales – a small place in the middle of an expanse way beyond my usual boundaries – I was desperate for identity. I would have done anything to fit in. Of course, I got by, like most kids do.

This past February, whilst lazing on my chair one Sunday evening, watching TV – a 39-year-old man, with two kids asleep in bed, with 17 of the intervening years living in London where despite all sorts of spiritual and material persuasion, I had managed to avoid conversion – I watched a documentary tastelessly-entitled Killer Cults which reported amongst other events the Jonestown tragedy.

I guess my initial draw to the subject was nothing more than titillation, the lowest common denominator. After all, almost a thousand people died in one day. How so?! Perhaps that was, and is, the basis of my interest in the subject: how could something like this happen?

Peoples Temple had to compete with various other “cults” for screentime within the documentary, but it managed to tease me with an answer to my “how so?” question, with footage of Jim Jones doing what he did best, preaching. I was impressed by this man’s magnetism and obvious connection with his followers. It seemed he was their voice and they were his conscience. How could something apparently so positive and harmonic end in so much tragedy?

I promptly hit the Internet to see what information I could find on the tragedy in an attempt to unlock the mystery of what happened on that day in 1978. I was staggered to find the amount of documented evidence of life within Peoples Temple, especially in this website’s archive of audiotapes and articles. It was initially a daunting task: out of the many hundreds of available tapes, which ones were for me, how many would I have to hear to find some understanding?

Ironically, the more I heard, the deeper the mystery became. The answers I was searching for seemed to be drifting further away. Six months later, having consumed many thousands of words on the subject, the mystery remains unsolved. My initial expectations of uncovering sinister and clandestine wrongdoings in the middle of the jungle were not realised. Perhaps in that respect maybe there never was a mystery, at least not the one I had expected.

In its place, I have found a rich and diverse culture of people and faith that seemed to have so very nearly got it right. There was a socialist message that I could relate to as well as the incredible physical achievement of building Jonestown itself. The real mystery to me is what drove Jim Jones, knowing he wielded so much power over so many extremely vulnerable people to self-destruct and wreak so much devastation? Was he mad or bad? Why did so many people apparently follow him in to the abyss? What kind of faith did he instill in people to make the Jonestown tragedy not just thinkable but evidently necessary?

For me, growing up within a strict religious education, the answer is becoming clearer as I get older. I realise that the very nature of faith is blind and therefore impervious to logical intervention. However I find it troubling that we live in a world where suicide bombers are virtually being bred in the name of religion. Perhaps if people occasionally question their faith, then surely that’s a good thing.

So Jonestown and Peoples Temple has turned out to be an extremely positive interest in my life and not the hideous cult I was initially expecting, which I guess is quite absurd given its macabre place in history.

I have enjoyed learning about the various individuals throughout Peoples Temple’s history and have been humbled by the commitment and sheer positive energy of Jim Jones’ followers. It is a testament to the spirit of the people of Jonestown that survivors and relatives still maintain contact and exist in some way as a community to this day.

The ultimate sadness of course is the loss of so many of these people and especially the blighting of so many young lives at Jonestown.

But for me, now 40 years old, still lazing in my chair, pondering the future as a parent of two children due to start new schools this year, there is one question that will never be fully answered: How so?

(Dean Coughlan may be reached at