The line that separates faith from delusion or authority from tyranny can be a precarious border. Men have often identified the root of all evil as one of a number of ideas: pesky contagions that might stir one’s heart to unspeakable acts. Some have suggested that religion in general is the ultimate and inevitable harbinger of human cruelty, but this is imprudent. In the era of social enlightenment and scientific progress, some contend that no one could be radicalized into indecency by the factual and logical, but the truth is no defense against fanaticism. Most any thought crossing from the minds to the hands of men may be subject to cultish obsession and consequent atrocity. However, the point at which a simple community or congregation becomes a cult is difficult to gauge. Also, the question is raised whether particular ideas or cultural contexts can be especially fervent breeding materials for cults.
In examining cults, one must characterize the cult leader in all of his places, faces, and eras. Jim Jones was the charming minister of a congregation based on Christian and socialist principles known as Peoples Temple. He was highly respected in California for his commitment to civil rights and left-wing politics, but privately Jones used fiery religious rhetoric, political appeals, and physical abuse to persuade his hundreds of followers into complete spiritual, fiscal, and sexual submission. For fear that his methods would attract suspicion, Jones established a commune in Guyana where he and nearly a thousand followers relocated. After a modest congressional investigation and a handful of consequent defections in 1978, Jones became paranoid and demanded the mass suicide or otherwise homicide of his entire congregation.
In his essay “Thirty Years Later,” surviving member Tim Carter examines how Peoples Temple became the infamous Jonestown in a matter of years. He does not blame the ideas that inspired many to join the organization. Indeed, he hardly mentions Marxism or Christianity, but rather he indicts Jim Jones almost exclusively for the crimes of Jonestown, while he partially blames even himself among anyone “left alive who was directly connected with that tragedy.” Carter makes references to his continuing spirituality and progressive politics, while he makes no concessions for Jones. The essay focuses on Carter’s rejection that “the ends justify the means” and promotion of “the Teacher within,” but throughout the piece is plagued by his uncertainty.
The conclusion of the essay has a sense of accomplishment and spiritual completion, as Carter notes “the dark of Jonestown’s legacy has given over to the dawn of a new day.” However, Carter admits in the very beginning that his views on Jonestown are ever wavering and the time at which he writes may be an arbitrary place on his spiritual journey. He even suggests that his essay “may be nothing more than a snapshot of [his] understanding,” being certainly premature of a final religious revelation. He also notes the significance of potential new evidence on his views to the point of suggesting “the more I have learned, the more I realize how little I truly know.” Additionally, Carter explains he has “no taste nor desire to expend any more energy on the heartbreak, contradictions, and frustrations that accompany this story.” These revelations beg the question: is Carter’s farewell a victory or a retreat? To answer this, Jonestown must be analyzed on an expanded timeline.
Despite the lack of sociological study until the 20th century, cults have been prevalent in human history for millennia. Only a few years after Luther nailed the 95 Theses, radical theocracies cropped up all over Protestant Europe, often practicing polygamy and communal property based on questionable scriptural interpretation. In antiquity, cults formed around gods, mythological heroes, and the Roman Emperor, but the most peculiar ones centered on the academics of the classical era. Philosophers, astronomers, inventors, and other figures of logic were held in such esteem in those days that they could attract mobs of young men clamoring to learn and emulate. Among such cult leaders was the mathematician Pythagoras. He is a figure still well known today for his eponymous geometric theorem, but in his own time he was worshipped for it. Many of Pythagoras’ escapades were chronicled by the third century historian Diogenes Laërtius in a passage from his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. The account has been accused of inaccuracy, and indeed even the ancient author admits to some uncertainty in the text, but alas history often requires a little faith.
Laërtius tells of how the young Pythagoras fled a politically-oppressive city-state to the Italian city of Croton accompanied by droves of fellow Greek expatriates. He first gained notoriety for having “brought geometry to perfection.” Along with his famous theorem, Pythagoras discovered many musical concepts and espoused the philosophy that numbers could be used to understand the order of the natural world. His oration eventually attracted some 300 loyal followers and he used his influence to become truly revolutionary. He claimed to be the son of the god Hermes and accordingly blessed with omniscience and a golden thigh bone. His organization became more secretive under the maxim “not all [Pythagoras’] doctrines were for all men to hear.” The divine philosopher mandated that the rejection of private property along with abstinence from sexual intercourse, alcohol, meat, legumes, and laughter were necessary for the spiritual health of good Pythagoreans. Described as “a man of tyrannical leanings,” Pythagoras was murdered in old age by vigilante citizens fearful of the potential political coup that his presence threatened.
The case of Pythagoras does not only indicate the ever-present nature of cults in the annals of history, but also the diversity of the ideas upon which cults may be based. Pythagoras’ means for gaining power was not the promise of religious absolution or political utopia, but rather simple mathematical truths. The scholar’s mastery of geometry was enough of a spectacle to convince hundreds of disciples of his divinity and authority on lifestyle choices. In this fashion, a cult leader might use almost any idea to gain respect, popularity, and authority. How the cult leader achieves this supremacy is irrelevant, but once he has it, the same patterns of megalomania tend to set in.
Perhaps Carter’s trepidation in making an absolute conclusion is the result of his understanding that Jonestown massacre was not an isolated incident. Carter knows that while ideas may be redeemed, men like Jones may be born every day, as they always have been. Also, since the cult leader can have so many different forms and paths, it is doubtful Carter could deliver an axiom that warns against all such incarnations.
The phenomenon that makes populations vulnerable to cult leaders is neither the relatively modern result of widespread spiritual disillusionment nor a relic of the superstitious past slowly being buried by increased education and cultural development. Obedience is a trait common across all time periods and all civilizations, because it is inherit in the human spirit by virtue of the inevitable effects of community. In his sociological experiment and corresponding written report “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” psychologist Stanley Milgram attempted to decipher the nature and prevalence of such a phenomenon among ordinary Americans. The experiment consisted of a naïve “teacher” applying electric shocks to an unseen actor, or “learner,” based on his performance in a questionnaire. A steely “experimenter” prompted the teacher into compliance when the actor protested. The vast majority of the teachers obeyed throughout the feigned distress of the actor including the final and most intense shock, but some of the most interesting details are overlooked in Milgram’s final analysis.
The unstated reason the volunteers complied with the experimenter’s orders may very well have been their faith in the scientific process and academia. After all, the events took place “on the grounds of Yale University in the elegant interaction laboratory” and the volunteers were briefed extensively on behavioral conditioning theory prior to the experiment (161). The experimenter wore a simple technician’s coat, while his second prompting phrase was “the experiment requires that you continue” (164). Milgram notes that “to disobey would bring no material loss to the subject” and the volunteers were “acting against their own values,” but he supplies weak rationale for their obedience to the rather uncharismatic experimenter (169). The experimenter is described as young and aloof, while psychology is a study of significant public interest and respect. In this example, the authority of the idea may likely have been more influential than the authority of the man. The experimenters abused the context of scientific experimentation for their purposes, but they were nonetheless reliant on science for their authority, not themselves. Thus ideas alone may indeed be as dangerous as those who follow them and the cult leader may be overshadowed by his philosophy.
The universality of the cult cannot be denied; it is an entity as borderless as it timeless. Cults may form around radical irrational beliefs or commonplace academic subjects. They may be spawned and supported by the will of a strong persona or the resonance of a powerful idea. In this light, Carter’s ambiguous conclusion is somewhat disappointing but also appropriate. Furthermore, if Carter provides nothing else, he provides an example. Carter is not certain he has stumbled upon a great metaphysical truth about religion and society by the end of the essay; he is continually perplexed and admits he is a flawed teacher. Carter’s confession of ignorance actually sets him apart from the alleged infallibility that Jim Jones abused. Carter admits that he is only human and is subject to ideological inaccuracy, while the massacre at Jonestown was the result of an unquestioned individual’s prophetic delusions.
Carter’s conclusion is about doubt, doubt in his own conclusions. Cults result in the loss of self to an authoritarian and collective, but they begin with individuals being a little too certain in themselves. People are first led astray by having too much faith in their own instincts and convictions. The epidemic of the cult cannot be eliminated by identifying the bogeymen that organize them; one must appeal to the sensibilities of potential victims. The solution to cults is not a witch hunt, but rather a mutual inward and outward distrust. One must find his doubt in himself to develop a healthy skepticism towards the dangerous milieu of starry-eyed charlatans and exciting notions the world has to offer.
Carter, Tim. Thirty Years Later. 27 Mar. 2017.
Laertius, Diogenes. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Boston: Harvard U Press, 1972. Tufts University. Web. 27 Mar. 2017.
(Deakon McCurdy studies history at New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences with a focus on modern European geopolitics. He can be reached at email@example.com.)