Everyone is familiar with the word “cult”, yet none really understands anything about it, in spite of the plethora of cult experts. Usually, when we think of cults, we have a tendency to imagine something that takes place at the fringes of society, something quasi-otherworldly which no sane man would ever fall for. In short, our belief seems to be, that cults never seem to affect the human, but rather those who struggle being human.
Self-certainty affects us all, to such a degree that our consciousness always feels normal to us, and hence we always have within us this delusion that we cannot be fooled. Yet precisely therein lies the danger of it all, because how could we ever know when someone is trying to lure us into a cult, when our thoughts naturally always appear as our own? The convenient assumption is that there has to be something inherent within a potential cultist – usually something damaged – which allows one to become a victim. Nothing is further from the truth than this, since whatever draws us to cults is always part of our humanity.
When it comes to cults, Peoples Temple is probably the most known, as it almost acts as a stereotype against which other cults are compared. The great pity is, however, that we mainly think of Peoples Temple for the wrong reasons. What most will think of when they hear Jonestown is the idea of “drinking the Kool-Aid”, and hence we trap ourselves in the mistaken notion that these people who died were more like zombies than humans. The great pity here is that we cannot ever expect to learn from such tragedies, unless we first of all learn to see past our own prejudices.
Regardless of any victimhood, the people of Peoples Temple – whether they were among the 900 who died in Jonestown, whether they were among another hundred or so were in Guyana but survived that day, even whether they were among the thousands who had been members of the church during its heyday – were first and foremost human beings just as you and I. As such, when we think of these events, we must not think of them in terms of something isolated, but rather as something affecting all of man. In other words, we must learn to get past the notion whereby victims are merely seen as such, and instead learn to recognize their humanity and, hence, their sameness with our own selves.
It is easy to imagine Peoples Temple as the archetypical cult, and that the people attracted to it were people attracted to something so different, so far from the norm. Nothing is further from the truth, since a lot of the people attracted to the Temple were not people hooked on some fringe idea, but rather people who were driven by a sense of goodwill towards the whole of humanity. These people did not give up on society, but to the contrary, they refused to do so. Even the move towards Jonestown was not so much an escape, but rather an exclamation of sorts whereby society was to be renewed. For many of the people who moved to Jonestown, their new home was meant as the example of how society should be, a model of contrast to the society left behind filled with apathy, greed and corruption.
The historicity of Peoples Temple is of great importance, not just because it shows us the situations that gave rise to it, but it also comes to show as to why it remains such an important topic. Jim Jones grew up in an era in which racial segregation was still very much the norm and the Cold War was in full swing. The social climate in which Peoples Temple took root, was one in which many people cared more about fighting Communism and being overtly patriotic than they did about their fellow human beings. Anything that resembled socialism was branded as un-American. At first one may argue that our contemporary society is not like that anymore, especially since one will not get in trouble for openly espousing socialist ideas. This however does not mean that our society has become more aware of social issues. Looking under the surface, one quickly comes to see that much of the same social unrest still remains.
Much too often, research into cults such as Peoples Temple is seen as something delving into a fringe idea, because we do not imagine such cults as having anything to do with our mainstream society. Therein lies the error however, for cults such as Peoples Temple cannot be seen as something separate from society, but rather, the factors that lead to the creation of cults are problems that concern society as a whole. The great problem of anti-cult research then is, that too often it presents issues in too simplistic a manner, reducing them to an us-versus-them understanding. In reality it is never that simple, especially since there have been instances of religious groups, and even cults themselves, using monikers of cult awareness in order to manipulate people towards their own ideas. It is never a simple black-and-white matter, and what is forgotten by most is the humanity of it all. It may very well be true that there are some people who are more likely to fall victim to a cult than others, but this likelihood is a part not just of their humanity, but a part of humankind in general.
There is no essential difference between the people who became involved with Peoples Temple and any other person, and if anything, the only thing many of them are guilty of is just that they cared. These people did not just wake up one day and decided to join a cult. No, many of them instead looked beyond the window of their own self-interest and saw a world blowing itself to pieces. Generally speaking, this probably is the most overlooked factor in cult research, namely the failure to understand these human processes going on. Cults are not necessarily born in the twisted mind of some cult leader, but grow out of deficiencies within our regular society.
The other important factor when looking at cults, is that it is very easy to understand things in retrospect. This is especially the case when you look at cult leaders such as Jim Jones, because as obvious as things look now, we are looking at the story of Jonestown through the prism of the tragedy. We can hear Jim Jones remaining calm and soothing as he exhorts people to “die with dignity” on the so-called Death Tape. By far the creepiest aspect of the Death Tape is the calmness and seeming naturalness of it all. This is important, because herein lies the danger of such things, namely in it feeling like a normal reaction to the perceived threat which the community faced, being executed in a slow, deliberate and logical manner. A common mistake would be to equate a cult leader’s charisma with a hypnotic quality, but this is not how it works, especially with someone like Jim Jones. As he understood, as it is much easier to reel people in through reason than it is through anything else. This is exactly what we find in the Death Tape: this calmness moving people to kill themselves through the use of reason, even the use of the term “revolutionary suicide” was an attempt to show there was a reason to it all. It is this use of reason that makes someone like Jim Jones so dangerous, because it is very easy to become lost in such a sense of false reason.
Another statement Jones makes in the Death Tape is that he has always been there for his people and never lied to them. In general, it seems this was his overall modus operandi, to instill a sense of reason and earn trust through being proactive. Especially early on, Jones was not some distant leader, but had a tendency to be very approachable. Neither was he a man who simply made promises, but rather, for many of his followers, he lifted them up through his accomplishments. His vision for changing the world, and his actions to effect those changes, were why so many people were attracted to him.
Of course we cannot ever know what took place inside the mind of Jim Jones and hence we cannot ever truly know as to how everything moved from a mission of goodwill to the Jonestown tragedy. It is known Jones became increasingly erratic and led somewhat of a double life. Many histories of the Temple suggest it was more innocent in the beginning, and we must understand that, if we wish to protect ourselves from cultish influences in general, we must always be aware as to how even something innocent can become a source of great terror. It is known that Jones developed a serious dependency on amphetamines, and a lot of his behavior seems to be in line with this. It also is likely that he was always obsessed with power and it is known he had Messianic tendencies and would do fake faith healings in order to show off his greatness. In spite of him being an ordained minister, however, it does seem that Jones drifted towards – and then embraced – atheism and saw in religion a tool to bring people towards his Apostolic Socialism. In other words it is quite possible that every part of his life was carefully arranged so as to accumulate as much power as possible. Just as likely – just as human – is that he started taking shortcuts to reach his goals, made compromises with his own integrity, encouraged – and then demanded – that others do the same, and so slowly evolved into the parody of his former self that he turned out to be.
It is always easy to judge a situation after the facts; in the moment of it all, however, things are never that clear. If people willingly obeyed Jim Jones when he called for revolutionary suicide, this is not because these people were mindless zombies but because they were people who cared, and were manipulated through their caring nature. What led to the Jonestown events was not a single manipulation, but a long series of manipulations whereby people got robbed of their individuality. A common error in our thinking of such events, is that we are so focused on the outcome, that we forget about all the prior events. There always are many subtleties which remain forgotten – if in fact they were known and appreciated at the time – because we tend to be too self-sure something like this cannot ever happen to us. What led to the mass suicides was not the proverbial Kool-Aid, but rather our very own human nature. What happened at Jonestown is not an event at the fringes of society, but rather it is a tragedy in the midst of humanity. As such, it is dangerous to imagine this is an event of the past and that now we know better. Jonestown remains an actuality, and to dismiss it means we merely bring ourselves one step closer to a repeat, since such a dismissal merely means we turn a blind eye and it is in such blindness cultish influences take root.
The great sadness of Jonestown is that what led people to their deaths was neither gullibility nor the proverbial Kool-Aid but rather betrayal. This is why it is so important that we balance our goodwill with vigilance, because nothing is easier manipulated than a person’s caring heart. Cultish influences are everywhere, and nowhere are they more prevalent than where socio-political change is involved, as corruption becomes rampant where a sense of moral perfection becomes the norm. This does not mean that we simply should not care, or that the people who died in Jonestown were fools for caring. No, if anything, the Jonestown tragedy should make us care all the more. We should not allow for everything to have been in vain, and even if a perfect society is not possible, we should always strife towards a cultivation of our own individual morality and make life as good as possible for us and those around us, even as we struggle to avoid the crooked morality of those who only seek to conquer society for their own power and benefit.
(Steven Van Neste was born in Izegem, Belgium and now resides in Orlando, Florida with his wife and daughters. He is a writer (poetry/literary fiction) and philosopher, and his main interest is the strangeness of the human mind and the ways whereby we turn our habits into laws and absolutes, and the intersection of ethics and epistemology. He is also the founder of “Ethics and the Modern Guru” (www.guruethics.com), a ‘magazine’ which deals not just with cultish influence, but more importantly which seeks to inquire into the mind, as it becomes trapped in odd spiritual needs. His main philosophical influences are Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and the whole of ancient Greek philosophy. When it comes to cults and cultish influence, his point of view, is that the field should not be dominated by a more or less typical anti-cult mentality, but rather that we should inquire into the entirety of psycho-social issues where cults etc. finds their birth.)