The World of cults
They crouch in dark basements in New York and San Francisco, worshiping the Devil. They wait patiently for the Second Coming or scan the skies for the spaceship that will bring the New Age. A few practice polygamy in isolated mountain communes. Tens of thousands have abandoned their families, friends, educations and careers to follow the teachings of a leader they will never meet.
By one estimate, 3 million Americans espouse the teachings of 3,000 religious and nonreligious cults. The groups run the gamut from the Bible-toting pacifists of The Way in Ohio to the marijuana-smoking Rastafarians from the Caribbean, who revere the late, deposed Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as the Messiah. Some cults condemn all forms of violence and serve as unquestioned forces for good in the world: The Farm, for example, a 1,200-member commune in Tennessee, has donated more than $1 million to build homes and hospitals for earthquake victims in Guatemala. The Bible of the Church of Satan, on the other hand, declares: "If a man smite you on the cheek, smash him on the other."
Cults have ebbed and flowed through American history almost from its beginning, and there are signs that the latest wave may have peaked in the mid-1970s. But after the horror of Jonestown, warns sociology Prof. Jim Richardson of the University of Nevada, "there's a possibility of a backlash. There is already an anti-cult movement that has tried to get investigations and tax rules against cults." In reaction, some cults are exploring defensive alliances; last April, the Church of Scientology, the Unification Church and the Children of God formed APRL, the Alliance for the Preservation of Religious Liberty. Synanon donated at least some supplies and equipment to the Peoples Temple, and links have been reported between Synanon and the Hare Krishnas.
Among the more conspicuous - and controversial - cults now active:
SYNANON: When Charles Dederich, a former alcoholic, founded Synanon in 1958, it was considered a revolutionary therapeutic community. Hundreds of alcoholics, drug addicts and down-at-the-mouth toughs moved into the California drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation center and, through a rigorous self-help program, emerged healthy and happy. Aided by its skillful PR and contributions from wealthy liberals, Synanon became a $20 million business.
But as the community grew and prospered, it changed. Dederich, a powerful, hypnotic leader, came to see Synanon as an alternative to the outside world. He ordered his followers to shave their heads and swap spouses. When he decided there were too many children at Synanon, he mandated vasectomies for men (himself excluded) and abortions for women. Dederich, 65, began a campaign of intimidation against the media and anyone else who criticized the community. One lawyer who won a $300,000 judgment against Synanon was bitten by a rattlesnake left in his mailbox - allegedly by two members of Synanon. Today, the 900-member community resembles a cult far more than it does a drug center, and Dederich is trying to have it formally incorporated as a religion.
HARE KRISHNA: "We don't consider ourselves something that's sprung up in the '60s, founded by some man, but followers of an ancient tradition stemming from Krishna himself," says Laxmi Nath, president of the Berkeley, Calif., temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hare Krishnas began in. the sixteenth century in India, where they were just one of many sects worshipping a reincarnation of the Hindu god of creation. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought one version of Krishna worship that was never very popular in India to the U.S. in 1965 and it turned into an easily identifiable cult. Young Hare Krishnas shaved their heads, put on saffron robes and took to the streets with their Hindu chants. They studied the ancient Vedic texts and promised their followers inner peace as an alternative to political chaos.
The Krishnas can be aggressive in their repeated requests for money, and some members have had serious run-ins with the law. But for the most part, they live quietly on several large farms they own, or in the houses they rent in metropolitan areas. Since Prabhupada died earlier this year, the group has not had a charismatic leader and may now be becoming more sect than cult. Most members now dress conventionally in public, and have stopped their street-corner chanting. Stillson Judah, who has studied the Krishnas at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, believes the group wants to find a "way of accommodating itself with society."
UNIFICATION CHURCH: South Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon, 58, controls the lives of 37,000 U.S. followers. When they join the Unification Church, young Moonies (their average age is 24) are encouraged to break all ties with their families and work as long as eighteen hours a day soliciting donations. As ?? typical of many cult leaders, Moon lives in comfort on a $625,000 New York state while his followers reside in communal centers and are encouraged to give all their possessions to the church. Moon preaches a contorted blend of Christianity, Puritan morality and Oriental philosophy. His followers hardly seem to notice that his spiritual message-that all the world's religions should be merged into a single movement headed by Moon himself-sounds secondary to his financial and political motives. He controls an empire of at least 75 million that ranges from a Wyoming delicatessen to a Tokyo trading company, and the U.S. Congress has investigated his ties to the authoritarian government of South Korea. Moon, who came to the U.S. in 1972, does not seem worried. "God has been very good to me," he says.
CHILDREN OF GOD: They began standing on street corners in the late 1960s, Exhorting passers-by to give up their worldly ways and follow God. At first it as hard to tell them from the other Jesus freaks of the time. But the Children of God were clearly different. Their leader, David (Moses) Berg, now 58, taught that Doomsday was just around the corner - and that he was God's messenger for the final days. He communicated with his followers through rambling "Mo letters."
Many of these epistles show a preoccupation with sex. In recruiting, Berg urged his female disciples to use their charms: "You roll those big eyes at them and peck them with that pretty little mouth and you flirt all around them," advised one Mo letter. By at least one report, things didn't stop there: on the island of Tenerife, COG women were accused of taking prospective recruits to bed. When local prostitutes complained of the competition, Berg reportedly put a curse on the island-and shortly after that, the worst accident in airline history took 583 lives on the runway at Tenerife. Life with Berg isn't easy. Former COG members tell how they had to memorize bible verses before they could sleep or eat, and pick through garbage for food and clothes. Berg fled the country in 1974, just before the New York attorney general published a highly critical report on the COG. But the cult still claims ??,000 members in 120 communes around the world, and Berg still keeps in touch with periodic Mo letters.
Some organizations can come to resemble cults even though their members do not live communally or share religious beliefs. Werner Erhard, for example, has impressive power over thousands of Americans who have taken his Est courses. He promises them spiritual and emotional fulfillment in 60-hour seminars in which the chief techniques are attacking the ego, restricting food and drink and inducing mental strain.
Growing numbers of parents of cult members are worried enough about losing their children to take the extreme, and costly, step of kidnapping and "deprograming" [sic] them. Ever since deprogrammer Ted Patrick was sentenced to a year in prison in 1976 for such a kidnapping, many have first sought legal sanction through "conservatorships" to temporarily gain court-ordered custody of their adult children. The process is clearly working. Hundreds of devotees of various cults have been deprogramed [sic] in the last few years. But some cults are fighting back with lawsuits to bar deprograming [sic] as an infringement on religious freedom, and sometimes the faith of the young believer is not shaken. Several have successfully sued their deprogrammers for invasion of privacy.
In desperation, some parents have asked the Federal government for help. But government spokesmen say their hands are tied by the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, lack of hard evidence that specific cults are committing crimes, and by agency guidelines. The Justice Department must have information that a "kidnap" victim is being held against his will, for ransom and has been taken across state lines before it can prosecute a case. (Before last week's tragedy in Guyana, the FBI had only one complaint against the Peoples Temple: a letter from the worried mother of a cult member alleging kidnapping, but there was no evidence that he was being held against his will.)
The Federal Bureau of Investigation can monitor a group only when there is evidence that it has broken Federal law or poses a security risk. Many government officials say they would not change the present laws, even if they could. "We can't have it both ways," said Homer Boynton, bureau spokesman. "In a democracy, in order to have freedom and liberty, there has to be a certain amount of risk-taking."
'ATTRITION IS VERY HIGH'
But cults - even the most religious - are not above the law. The government can prosecute a group when it appears to have committed a crime. Last summer, for example, eleven Scientologists - members of the quasi-scientific, self-help cult founded by former science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard - were accused of breaking into a government office and were indicted on 28 counts of conspiracy, stealing government property, obstruction of justice and perjury. Six states outlaw use of marijuana and other drugs in cult religious ceremonies.
In the end, the best hope for those concerned about the power of cults may be that many members are dropping out of their own accord. "A lot more people leave these groups voluntarily than they or the deprogrammers would like to admit," says sociologist Richardson. "Attrition is very high." Even within the mindbending anthills of the cults, Americans seem to retain at least some of their native wit - and their stubborn independence.
- MELINDA BECK and SUSAN FRAKER with ELAINE SHANNON in Washington, JEFF K. COPELAND in San Francisco and bureau reports