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I am not a Rajneesh
April 18, 2011 10:38 AM   Subscribe

"The tale is stranger than fiction." begins the opening line of The Oregonians retrospective "Rajneeshees in Oregon The Untold Story." The cult, began by sex guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh came to a self-rule a rural part of Oregon that battled with the native residents of the area. The conflict lead to a bio-terror attack on the residents of The Dalles to sway the outcome of a local election, global manhunts, and jail.

The Oregonian also made available the hour long documentary "Rajneeshpuram - An Experiment to Provoke God"
posted by wcfields (97 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm looking forward to reading that series and watching the documentary. I'm surprised the story has never been made into a film.
posted by perhapses at 10:54 AM on April 18, 2011


I remember seeing something about that on 60 Minutes when I was a kid,* very curious to read the article. Even more interested now that I live in the Pacific NW.

* My mother has watched 60 Minutes almost every single Sunday for as long as I can remember, so if we wanted to watch TV on Sunday after dinner, 60 Minutes it was.
posted by epersonae at 11:10 AM on April 18, 2011


The tale is stranger than some fiction.

A state health official famously concluded that restaurant workers in different restaurants had all ignored proper hygiene at the same time.

And in some ways as common as workplace incompetence.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:18 AM on April 18, 2011


There were also "We bagged the Bagwan" t-shirts.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:20 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I vaguely recall a lot of Bhagwan jokes visiting my aunt in Oregon when I was a kid. They mentioned that they occasionally saw his Rolls tooling around town.
posted by electroboy at 11:22 AM on April 18, 2011


Can't we just let Bhagwans be Bhagwans?
posted by spasm at 11:27 AM on April 18, 2011 [30 favorites]


The Rajneeshees are a religious movement (now the Oshoites) - Rancho Rajneesh was an intentional community made up of members of that movement and the founder of the movement.

The use of the phrase "cult" doesn't provide us with any information about the group, so much as it serves to stereotype them. Generally it's deployed as an ideological resource used by those wishing to de-legitimate a religious movement.

In other words, "cult" is often used instead of "religion" when the author doesn't agree with the actions of the religion or wants to cast them as a pseudo-religion in contrast to the legitimate religions assumed to be dominate practices like Christianity, Buddhism, etc.

Not defending any of their actions, I'm from Oregon and know full well what members of the movement did, and I know people who did anthropological field work with them, I just thought it was worth bringing up.
posted by jardinier at 11:29 AM on April 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Yes, I think 'cult' is also an inaccurate depiction of this religious intentional community. They clearly did not learn from their mistakes, that is Sheela and her gang's fault. Clearly the guru was involved at some high criminal level. Most religious intentional communities simply cannot last, for they do stupid things. Look at the Shakers, they were celibate. Are they a cult?
posted by parmanparman at 11:32 AM on April 18, 2011


Hey, VTX. You linked to a browser hijack.

I think I pulled the wrong URL from the google image search. Is this any better?
posted by VTX at 11:37 AM on April 18, 2011


Those bastards brainwashed Bill the Cat.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:43 AM on April 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


I just love this little anecdote. One of my English lit professors habitually traveled the world on a shoestring during her off-months. Years before he came to the US, she had visited his compound in India out of curiosity, as he already had a following in the West. While there, she had occasion to use the facilities. Inside the ladies' restroom, she entered a stall and closed the door. The entire back of the door was an enormous photograph of Rajneesh, staring at her as she sat on the toilet.

For that, or other reasons, she didn't stay.
posted by dhartung at 11:46 AM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Re: is it a cult? I don't remember the exact details of this group, and I'm at work so I can't dig through the articles in the post, but I always like using Robert Jay Lifton's eight methods of thought reform when trying to decide what is or isn't a cult. How many methods does the group use, and whether a group has to use all eight in order to be a cult, are questions I'll leave for the rest of you, at least until after work.

For expediency sake, I'll quote from his wikipedia entry:
1. Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
2. Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
3. Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
4. Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
5. Sacred Science – The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
6. Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
7. Doctrine over person – The member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
8. Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.


I generally recommend Lifton's Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism for those who want more.
posted by postel's law at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2011 [15 favorites]


jardinier: "The use of the phrase "cult" doesn't provide us with any information about the group"

True, but it does give a frame of reference to most people of a self-isolating religious group that has had nefarious intentions. Compounding factors that would, in my mind, define a cult would be militarization, central figure-head, and conformity. The community has been written about by many using the word cult to describe their activities as well. I know that the term has a pejorative connotation, but after reading about the group I came to the conclusion that they indeed display at the very least cultish behavior.

Side note: this is the best looking security force uniform I've ever seen.
posted by wcfields at 11:48 AM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I am particularly angry at Rajneesh because he gave Aum Shinrikyo the idea for widespread, intense bioterrorism. The Aum people admitted they tried to copy the Rajneesh bacteriological attack, but failed. Then they upgraded to a more serious attack vector with sarin gas.

And then there is the posthumous attempt to separate Rajneesh from his evil reputation, by renaming him Osho, and proclaiming him some zen genius. I have met many people who have said good things about Osho, or use the Osho Tarot, and I tell them that it's Rajneesh and they had no idea, and are repelled by him (with good reason). And then there are the people deluded by his confused doctrines. Rajneesh stole from about any religious heritage he could scavenge from, and spit out a pastiche of a religion, chock full of pseudoreligiousity.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:49 AM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'd say the Rajneeshees were both a religious movement and a cult, according to the criteria established by Lifton; you've got the worship of the charismatic leader (Rajneesh himself), the thought reform ("brainwashing," in other words) and the exploitation of its members (to cite the most obvious example, residents of Rancho Rajneesh were expected to turn over all of their earthly belongings).

On preview: props to Wolfdog for the Bhagwan Bill reference.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:51 AM on April 18, 2011


After preview: props to postel's law for beating me to the punch with the Lifton references.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:52 AM on April 18, 2011


The Rajneeshies were in their heyday when I was at Reed (1982-86) and my lasting impressions of them were the colours of their clothes and the fact that the men were, almost to a person, insanely hot. Unfortunately the Bhagwan was insanely homophobic. I'd have joined up otherwise.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 11:55 AM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Apparently the author of this retrospective wrote a 20 part story on the Rajneeshees in 1985. I haven't found a link to those articles, unfortunately, just this:

Zaitz and his investigative reporting team produced a twenty-part series on the Rajneeshees for The Oregonian starting in June 1985. After the commune collapsed they went back and produced a follow-up series. Among other things, they learned that the Rajneeshees had secretly put together a top-ten hit list on which Zaitz's name appeared as number three.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:15 PM on April 18, 2011


On Lifton, if you want to use those criteria then you could make a claim that they engaged in "brainwashing," but I don't think you'll find many social scientists who would accept that such a thing even exists. The whole notion that novel religious movements deceptively recruit and "brainwash" members ignores just about all of the work in social sciences on the topic since the 1970s and comes more from the anti-cult movement in popular culture and in mainstream religions that really got going in the 70s. The anti-cult movement itself and the "deprogrammers" are a fascinating topic worth looking into for more information about where this modern idea of the "cult" came from.
posted by jardinier at 12:15 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It can be hard to say if something is a "cult" or not, indeed. I'll try to help:

If your religious group is bussing in thousands of mentally-ill homeless people from the east coast so they can vote for your undercover Manchurian county commissioner so that he can turn your illegally built commune-ranch into a city in rural Oregon and keep the old man whose photo you keep displayed on your chest with a special necklace from being deported, and then you have to go take a field trip off the compound under disguise, secretly wiping smelly concentrated Salmonella juice on elderly people because they're likely to vote against him you maybe might be in a cult.
posted by floam at 12:19 PM on April 18, 2011 [47 favorites]


Floam, while that's one of the funniest things I've read all day, and thanks for that... do you want to make a list of the thousands of years of strange stuff and violence committed by say, religions like Christianity? If you want to talk about property, elections, involvement in politics... look at the Vatican, what's that?
posted by jardinier at 12:20 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


This reminded me of this wonderful video: How to start a cult.

It's quite campy and very amusing in several ways, but also quite scary, since it plays upon well established methods used by cults and "intentional religious orders" to induct members and create loyalty.

Though, seriously, the rush having that kind of power over other people must be. It's no wonder many cult leaders tend to turn into megalomaniacal psychopaths. The question though, is it the power that leads to the psychosis, or are these people already damaged before they become the cult leaders?
posted by daq at 12:20 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


No worries. I think plenty of Christianity sects historical and contemporary could count as cults.
posted by floam at 12:21 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Actually, Lifton is pretty much a different kettle of fish from the mainstream religious anti-cult movement; he preferred the term "thought reform," for one thing, and argued that it in no way could permanently change beliefs or personality, only alter short-term behavior cause trauma. He originally studied thought reform, breaking it down into eight different methods, as listed above by postel's law, as it pertained to prisoners of war, although he did do some later writing on religious groups. It was people who followed him that sort of took the idea and ran with it, but Lifton himself was never involved in the anti-cult movement.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:21 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


jardinier:
The Vatican? You mean the most winningest cult in Western history?

Yeah, I'm an athiest, wanna make something of it?
posted by daq at 12:22 PM on April 18, 2011


Right, so daq and floam, your replies make my point precisely, cult isn't a useful term. They're all religious movements, they have particular characteristics: some are militant, some have property, some engage in coercive practices with their members, some are peaceful, some get involved in elections, some gas the subways, some practice Ahimsa (non-harm), some worship spaghetti, and some worship Richard Dawkins.
posted by jardinier at 12:25 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, on the "how do you know you are in a cult" subject, I think the key to it is the information control and group isolation that leads to the most damaging aspects of it. Creating a situation where all social interaction is with other cult members and using the emotional controls of giving and denying social acceptance has a lot to do with whether something is really a cult versus a religious order. Humans have a built in NEED for social acceptance among their peer group, and isolating someone so that they cannot form an independent social group is a key to "controlling" or forcing conformity with the group.

And on preview:
jardinier, I forgot to put the /joke tag on the back of the athiest line. I know there is a difference between a 'cult' and a religion, at least as far as acceptable involvement in a large society. However, on a larger point, I am much more interested in what makes people feel the need or compulsion to join in a group, especially for religious purposes. Self selection of group membership is a fascinating subject in sociology which I think is a key characteristic of a cult versus a religion. It's also one of the key dynamics to in-groups and out-groups, and there appears to be evidence that manipulation of these factors determines the groups interactions with other groups in a traceable way and is something that can be used by group leaders to grow or diminish the groups member count. It's also a major factor in other realms, be it politics, religion, sports, or any other group behavior that humans engage in. But I'm weird and like to look at people in macro-level interactions while trying to understand the internal mechanisms that induce the behavior. I'm also bored a lot.
posted by daq at 12:32 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


jardinier: Well, I'm not big on religion and I guess I'm find with lumping all of them together, but to me I think it's the case that not all religions do an inordinate amount of these unacceptable, crazy, worrying things. I don't dig your list of attributes (and I didn't even get close to listing all the stuff this group did), I think you're getting a little too general with things. I think it's useful to have a some word for that end of the spectrum so we can talk about things.
posted by floam at 12:34 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Floam, I get the impulse - but when it comes down to it, in usage if you want to say "cult" on one "end" and "religion" on the other in that way - you might as well just say "good religion" and "bad religion."
posted by jardinier at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2011


(I will say, that "cult" isn't a boolean deal. I think of it as a spectrum with varying levels of cultiness. But when you're up in as high a percentile as these guys are, I'm calling you a cult.)
posted by floam at 12:37 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The "cult/religion" thing comes up EVERY fucking time the word is used on Metafilter. There are various sociological guidelines, largely in agreement with each other, that define what a "cult" is. poestel pasted a well-recognized set of guidelines that suggest that the term is correctly applied here.

Your adherence to Cultural Relativism isn't an acceptable excuse to ignore it and turn this into a discussion about semiotics instead of religious crazies. Bah!
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:39 PM on April 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


Words are just words, they can mean anything man. You can't, like, define nature, dude. It just is, ya know? It's just there, and that's cool. So, like, whatever.
posted by aramaic at 12:39 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cult has the popular and widely understood meaning of religious group that is exploitative and authoritarian. The Bagwan and his gang qualify. These were a bunch of new age thugs and their dupes. They had quite a rep on the street in the Northwest for not being people to mess with.

The word cult as applied to the Rajnesh is both informative and accurate. I've heard the same fluffy arguments from "religious studies" types that gravitated to the Unification Church.

The word cult is useful and informative.
posted by warbaby at 12:39 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


as i see it, "cult" and "religion" are essentially interchangeable words.
posted by rude.boy at 12:41 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Floam, I get the impulse - but when it comes down to it, in usage if you want to say "cult" on one "end" and "religion" on the other in that way - you might as well just say "good religion" and "bad religion."

Meh. Why? Those are more ambiguous. A concise well-understood word already exists. Orwell says I should use it.
posted by floam at 12:41 PM on April 18, 2011


Among other things, they learned that the Rajneeshees had secretly put together a top-ten hit list on which Zaitz's name appeared as number three.

Something something badge of honor something.
posted by Billiken at 12:43 PM on April 18, 2011


Honestly looks like a bunch of rednecks who didn't like these weirdo hippies who came into their town. They annoyed the cult/religion/whatever to such an extent that its leadership fought back dirtily.
posted by haroon at 12:44 PM on April 18, 2011


Haroon: no, not quite.

Working in a new age bookstore in Vancouver (Banyen Books in Kits) I knew quite a few Rajneeshis -- nice, generous and kindly people, most of whom became good friends. They weren't evil by any means, but were rather odd in the way that passionate, devoted converts to a faith often are. They were devout converts to Hinduism, and I think many have continued in that path after the collapse of the guru.

That said, the actions of the Bagwan and his immediate power structure were surely and decidedly foul, and 'cult' is the very best term I can think of to label him. Social and emotional manipulation, physical and sexual abuse, attempted political assassination and embezzlement on an epic scale don't get a pass because their practitioners are a faith group.
posted by jrochest at 12:55 PM on April 18, 2011


haroon: You came to that conclusion after reading the five part piece (first link) on the Oregonian written this week based on all the new information and documents they received? I got the impression they were actually kindly received for a little while before they got too creepy.

They were fighting back as soon as they found out they couldn't just start building houses and towns and crap in a rural area in the state with the most stringent land-use laws in the country at the time. They had 1000 Friends Of Oregon suing them! (Basically, sorta environmental lefties.) They were going to help them at first, thinking a few hippies out on a ranch would be an environmental plus until they realized what they were up to.

And they were up to criminal stuff before they even came here.
posted by floam at 12:55 PM on April 18, 2011


Honestly looks like a bunch of rednecks who didn't like these weirdo hippies who came into their town. They annoyed the cult/religion/whatever to such an extent that its leadership fought back dirtily.

Well, duh. I think most of us can agree that if a zoning board is too strict because they don't like you, you're justified in poisoning the populace and resorting to political assassination.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The term "cult" is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow. It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life. The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word "cult," particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content. The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear.
- http://www.religioustolerance.org/cultintro.htm
posted by ServSci at 1:00 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Murder is love. Don't detest, avoid or fear the reaper.
posted by aramaic at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2011


The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America.

Actually, I believe it's the cults that are doing that, not the term for them.
posted by Aquaman at 1:04 PM on April 18, 2011


If your leader uses his position to sleep with the ladies, as I believe Rajneesh did, I think you qualify as a cult.
posted by wittgenstein at 1:04 PM on April 18, 2011


Honestly looks like a bunch of rednecks who didn't like these weirdo hippies who came into their town. They annoyed the cult/religion/whatever to such an extent that its leadership fought back dirtily.

Honestly looks like you didn't read any of the links.
posted by rtha at 1:12 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Words are just words, they can mean anything man. You can't, like, define nature, dude. It just is, ya know? It's just there, and that's cool. So, like, whatever.



Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:16 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to say I really don't understand how religion can do this to people. I look at the extravagance of these cults, and then at the Vatican and the vast holdings of the Catholic church, and then to the televangelists collecting money from the have-nots to support extravagant lifestyles, and the profound hypocrisy of the right-wing fundies and in general the way the behavior of the leaders is so diametrically opposed to the purported teachings of the religions and I think, "How can the followers not see this and wish to expel their jaded, decadent leaders? How is it they rationalize the naked greed and ambition and lust of these arrogant martinets?" And I'm at a loss.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:18 PM on April 18, 2011


For expediency sake, I'll quote from his wikipedia entry:
1. Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
2. Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
3. Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
4. Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.
5. Sacred Science – The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
6. Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
7. Doctrine over person – The member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
8. Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.


OMG, the Repubican party is a cult!!!!!!!!!
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:23 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


The term "cult" is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow....
-http://www.religioustolerance.org/cultintro.htm


An organization called "Consultants on Religious Tolerance" is putting forth a position that all religious views should be equally considered? I'm shocked. Next you'll me that the International Steel Trade Organization's website is really positive on iron alloys and the North American Man-Boy Love Association's site has a quote in praise of pederasty.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:24 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


For expediency sake, I'll quote from his wikipedia entry:
1. Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
...
8. Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.


Line by line, that sums up my experience at a evangelical college.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:25 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


*an
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 1:34 PM on April 18, 2011


> The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America.

Actually, I believe it's the cults that are doing that, not the term for them.


That's kind of related to the point.

Groups like the Hale-Bopp group , the Branch Davidians, and Jonestown -- everyone can pretty much agree they're a cult, no question. They required members to turn over all of their money to the group, they restricted members from contacting family, they gave members little to no personal autonomy within the group -- that's pretty much a cult, and everyone agrees that. And what's more -- everyone agrees that cults are bad, because the groups like those listed above did some bad crazyness.

But then there are other sects that aren't like that -- conservative, yeah, but not like the Branch Davidians. You may be heavily encouraged to turn over a good chunk of your money to the leaders, but you will not have all of your goods siezed by the leaders. Scientology is one oft-quoted example -- sure, you get nagged to pay more and more money to "get into clear," but that's still different from you walking in the door and them taking your checkbook and ATM card out of your hands and keeping it. So there's a category that's "freaky, but not like that."

The problem is -- sometimes people who are freaked out by the "freaky, but not like that" groups call them "cults", simply because they're just freaked out by them. And, sometimes people who are just freaked out by difference in general call other religions "cults" because they're just freaked out by them. And because when we hear "cult" we think "something like the Branch Davidians," it sets us up to see this other group as a similar sort of thing -- and that's not fair if it's the Jains, say, that have been described as a "cult," because they are definitely un-cult-like.

The quote that ServSci posted above was part of an essay about how it would be helpful to confine the word "cult" to the most obvious, taking-away-personal-autonomy, controlling-all-the-money, the-doomsday-is-coming-on-the-next-comet groups, and working to avoid using it simply because "I don't get why that person says blood transfusions are against his religion" or whatever.

In the case of the Bhagwan, though, it sounds like "cult" is an accurate term.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Honestly looks like a bunch of rednecks who didn't like these weirdo hippies who came into their town. They annoyed the cult/religion/whatever to such an extent that its leadership fought back dirtily.
posted by haroon at 12:44 PM on April 18 [+] [!]


Ok guys. I've located him. The threadshitter's right here!
posted by basicchannel at 2:52 PM on April 18, 2011


I don't care if the Rajneeshees were a cult, so I won't comment on that aspect.

My dad was a lawyer in The Dalles (the town they poisoned, where I grew up) and represented the Rajneeshees on several occasions. I only remember them for wearing red (I was a kid), but dad said they were mostly educated, well-meaning people. With the notable exception of Sheela, who was a viper. He and my mom supported, in principle, the rights of the Rajneeshees and generally regarded them as an interesting addition to the area.

Then the group went bad. If the Rajneeshees couldn't recognize such blatant fraud and criminal activity done in their name, then they are lucky to have the term "cult" as a scapegoat.

Rumors go, and I don't have proof one way or another, that the Rajneeshees were preparing much more dangerous poisons for use in attacks. My dad was an area judge by the time of the poisoning, and got to see the medical equipment they were using for production of bio material.

Later, while traveling in India, I met some Osho followers who were convinced that the Bagwan was set up by a bunch of rednecks who hated his message. I can state unequivocally that there were supporters of the Rajneeshees in the area, and that he burned that bridge. Or poisoned that well. I even went to the Osho restaurant in Agra - oh the irony! I read some of his writings while there and thought they were typical new age inanities, nothing more.

Anyway, if you're in the area, it's beautiful and rarely traveled, and you can drive right to the old ranch (now a Christian camp, I believe).
posted by blueberry sushi at 3:11 PM on April 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


jardinier, I forgot to put the /joke tag on the back of the athiest line

Too bad, too- it could have been the athiest line ever!
posted by dersins at 3:17 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyway, if you're in the area, it's beautiful and rarely traveled, and you can drive right to the old ranch (now a Christian camp, I believe).

A Young Life camp, eh?

From one form of indoctrination to another...
posted by jrochest at 3:31 PM on April 18, 2011


Those bastards brainwashed Bill the Cat.

Well, you have to admit, it was a frighteningly seductive philosophy!
posted by entropicamericana at 3:38 PM on April 18, 2011


It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life.

So which major religious groups have not caused loss of life?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:25 PM on April 18, 2011


The Rise And Fall of Rajneeshpuram, Sven Davisson (2:2) and my
Cults page.
posted by psyche7 at 5:08 PM on April 18, 2011


The "cult/religion" thing comes up EVERY fucking time the word is used on Metafilter.

It's not unique to metafilter. I remember the same discussion recurring on a BBS in the 1980's. Strange, because it seems pretty easy to me: A cult is just a little religion that hasn't grown up yet.
posted by sfenders at 5:48 PM on April 18, 2011


This is a really well written, and well researched piece of longform journalism. I enjoyed reading this quite a bit. I'm sure it's just coincidence, but in addition to this article about the Rajneesehee's, I also saw a bunch of links to articles about the anniversary of the Waco incident, and Charles Manson gave his first real interview in close to 20 years. The interwebz have cults in the brain today. Must mean the end is near!
posted by EvilPRGuy at 6:12 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was at the Oregon Historical Society about 15 years ago and saw in their catalog that they had an archive of materials related to Rancho Rajneesh but they weren't to be made public for something like 50 or 99 years. I'm kinda bummed I won't be around to see what's in those files.

Four years ago my husband and I were in Puna and outside our hotel window (the Blue Diamond, stay there if you've got the dough!) was this huge pyramid. Pyramid in India, WTF? Then we realized, all the red-clad westerners we'd seen earlier meant that we were right next door to the Osho compound. (and that definitely weirded us out!)
posted by vespabelle at 6:22 PM on April 18, 2011


For me the essential question that arises out of Lifton's framework is one of agency. I don't particularly care what somebody believes so long as they freely choose it, can freely change their mind, and don't negatively affect others (such as children or salad bar patrons).
posted by postel's law at 6:25 PM on April 18, 2011


The quote that ServSci posted above was part of an essay about how it would be helpful to confine the word "cult" to the most obvious, taking-away-personal-autonomy, controlling-all-the-money, the-doomsday-is-coming-on-the-next-comet groups, and working to avoid using it simply because "I don't get why that person says blood transfusions are against his religion" or whatever.

In the case of the Bhagwan, though, it sounds like "cult" is an accurate term.


Cult has a nice "comic-book"-y, "Shadow over Innsmouth"-y sound to it but...

I don't think it accurate in this case, or the case of Jonestown or any other example people cite as cases of "Dangerous Cult Activity" because we already have a term for the types of groups these people belong to: religions. Maybe you have some vested interest in making it clear that your religion is different from that "cult", but from the outside, I'm not seeing the huge difference.

The stereotype of the crazed, brainwashed cultist allows lazy, crappy thinking (lumping together completely dissimilar groups according to their relationship to broader western society) and justifies a bunch of awful, horrible garbage (think "satanic panic"). The anti-cult movement is a horrible embarrassment to any country that pretends to have even a modicum of religious freedom. Every list of cult characteristics I have ever seen is a self-serving pile of vague fuzzy categories (in the style of the most old-fashioned ignorant essentialist hack scholarship) that could be applied to anything from the boy scouts of america to the IMF.

When people break the law, or when they do reprehensible things they should be punished as criminals and responsible citizens regardless of their religion. They aren't bad people because of their religious beliefs, or their community structure. They are bad because they did bad things. Calling it a "cult" doesn't help.

There should be no mind-crimes and no "deprogramming" of "helpless, brainwashed victims". If people want to have "crazy" beliefs that don't violate the law, they should be allowed to. I believe this because I think it is important that I am free to not be religious even though many religious people I know think that my worldview and some of my values are nuts (and maybe dangerous, at least in some ethical sense).

I wouldn't have bought what Rajneesh was selling, but I don't have a hard time believing a lot of people did, or that it attracted some manipulative evil people.

I think the only way the term "cult" is helpful is that it's a signal about the biases of the person who needs it to describe religious difference. Like other kinds of diversity in our societies, the slurs usually say more about the people who need to hold onto them than they do about the people who are the targets. Obviously, people who are concerned about defending their right to "call a cultist a cultist" are not really people I'd bother getting into this too deeply with.
posted by ServSci at 6:29 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


This article is written oddly, but it's a fascinating story.

Seems the same story occurs with every small, insular group that coalesces around a powerful authority. 'Cult' is a useful word for them. Give someone that much power and it usually turns into sexual abuse and violence. What's bizarre is how SIMILAR all the stories are. There's a religious affairs program in Aus called Compass and all the cult stories tend to blend together.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:40 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think it accurate in this case, or the case of Jonestown or any other example people cite as cases of "Dangerous Cult Activity" because we already have a term for the types of groups these people belong to: religions. Maybe you have some vested interest in making it clear that your religion is different from that "cult", but from the outside, I'm not seeing the huge difference.


...That's very strange, because the site you quoted from has quite a good rule of thumb as to what the difference is. ....Since you quoted it, I'm assuming you have a link.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:44 PM on April 18, 2011


ServSci, I disagree strongly. There is a bright shining line between cults and religions. That line is clearly discernable: cults have criminal esoteric leadership. It is the criminal conduct by the leadership that distinguishes cults from religious minorities or new religions. The morals or motives of the followers are not pertinent to the distinction I'm drawing. The relationship between cult leaders and followers is an abusive one that pivots on a betrayal of trust. The betrayal of followers is not a characteristic of the religious experience.

Cults that engage in violence are historically significant in a way that new religions are not.

New religions and revitalization movements are a much broader category than cults, but many cults are new religions and/or revitalization movements.

I could go on, but let me just say COTC and leave it at that.
posted by warbaby at 7:51 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


yeah my position is a bit stronger than religioustolerance.org's, I don't think they go far enough. I suspect they are accommodating popular usage in a way I don't have to.
posted by ServSci at 7:55 PM on April 18, 2011


Actually, if you read the religioustolerance.org website, you'll find this statement:
Many information sources use the term "cult" to refer to the few destructive, doomsday religious groups whose members have been murdered or committed suicide. Examples are The Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate. We do refer to such groups as "cults"
The reason I pointed to COTC is that if you have ever had to deal with them or their equivalent, you would not take such a relativist position, it is easily exploited.
posted by warbaby at 8:05 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The betrayal of followers is not a characteristic of the religious experience.

Can you explain why this is? You're saying it like it's definitive.

Say you had a religious group, and people joined in good faith, and it turned out, after the fact, that there was strategic betrayal of trust and criminal conduct going on in some inner circle... Would the group then stop being religious and start being cultic?
posted by ServSci at 8:07 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ma Anand Sheela was interviewed here in Australia too - "Good luck to you and your PIMPS"
posted by unliteral at 8:16 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not trying to be flippant with this because it seems like a couple people really believe "cult" is useful, but surely you can see that "destructive, doomsday religious groups whose members have been murdered or committed suicide" is not a useful distinction from religion as a whole. How easy would it be to find an example of this in any of the world religions? This is the stuff saints are made of in religions we approve of.
posted by ServSci at 8:17 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think I see where you're coming from....

urely you can see that "destructive, doomsday religious groups whose members have been murdered or committed suicide" is not a useful distinction from religion as a whole. How easy would it be to find an example of this in any of the world religions? This is the stuff saints are made of in religions we approve of.

The thing is, "saints" or other venerated figures didn't forcibly compell all their followers to do those things with them. In fact, most such figures tried like hell not to have "followers" in the first place. On the other hand, Jim Jones and David Koresh DID gather as many followers as they could and forcibly compelled them all to kill themselves or others. There's a difference between "I'm doing this for my religion...you don't have to, but if you really wanna, hey, I'm not gonna stop you" and "You all must do this for our religion".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:35 PM on April 18, 2011


Sheela and friends were planning (crap link but all I can find) to set up outside a town called Pemberton in the south west of Western Australia. They bought property - a resort in the Karri forest, next to a beautiful deep lake full of trout. As in Oregon, relations with the town deteriorated pretty quick. Then the locals started shooting at them. And they left.

These days you can stay in their former headquarters. It's really very nice.
posted by Ahab at 8:42 PM on April 18, 2011


Me: "Hey, I was just reading about this at lunch."
Wife: "Oh yeah, XX [our haircut artist] told me about that because that's where she's from."

[our haircut artist will give you a haircut while she's topless for $100. just saying if you're in portland and need some boobs on your head.]
posted by sleepy pete at 9:00 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The betrayal of followers is definitive because cults are essentially frauds. People don't know what they are in for when entering a cult. It's a critical distinction that limits the immunity granted by the first amendment. The mind control and coercion come later, that's how they get the suckers to stay in the game.

The distinction is important because there are lots of instances of people joining a religious order, going to seminary school, joining the military, etc. and not having a good experience and wanting out. In these circumstances, it was possible for someone to know what they were getting into. In a cult recruitment, you have no way of finding out and can be actively deceived and misled. There's a distinction between being deluded and being defrauded.

See Molko v. Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity and the article on Ford Greene.

What it comes down to is no one can know anyone's inner beliefs. That makes fraud possible and when fraud is draped in religion; religion is not a get out of jail free card.
posted by warbaby at 9:14 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


A "sect" is generally considered a splinter group that branched off an already established mainstream religion. Cults tend to revolve around a single charismatic leader. He (they're mostly men) use religion and their personal powers of persuasion to get people to do bad things. The most devoted followers tend to get promoted withing the organization. And they're willing to do bad things on behalf of the all-important leader.

This reminded me of a book I read back in the 80s, Monkey on a Stick: Murder, Madness, and the Hare Krishnas. The title came from a purportedly old Indian saying about how if a troop of monkeys is raiding your farm, you kill the lead monkey, put it up on a stick at the border of your farm, and the other monkeys get the message. It was after Prabhupada the founder died that things went really & truly off the rails and people started seeing other members of the moment as monkeys at odds with the greater good.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:23 PM on April 18, 2011


Thanks warbaby. What's really interesting to me is your use of the secret or esoteric at the core of your definition. Deception, fraud and trickery on the part of leaders is an interesting post facto metric to rely upon. As you say, it's impossible to know people's inner beliefs, except that this secret or esoteric corruption is revealed in the story we construct about the "cult".
posted by ServSci at 10:03 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


What timing... Sociologist James Richardson posts on CNN's religion blog about the word cult: My Take: Rethinking the word 'cult'
posted by jardinier at 5:29 AM on April 19, 2011


A check forger knows they are passing bad paper. Just because you only find out about the fraud after the check bounces doesn't "construct" the crime ex post facto.

Playing games with language to avoid dealing with underlying realities is a very old avoidance technique. Calling a horse's tail a leg doesn't give you a five-legged horse. Banning the use of the word cult doesn't cause criminals hiding behind a religious facade to vanish.

If a false reality is being constructed, it's by the religious fraudsters and their apologists.

This is nothing new, nor is it confined to religion. Ideology is often used as a cover for fraud and deception. The Tea Party is a good example of a publicly constructed story providing deceptive cover for an ideology that few would buy into if it was out in the open.

The underlying reality is that a lot of Ron Paulism, so-called libertarians and much of the Tea Party is just 1990's neo-Confederacy dressed up slightly differently. Here's a look inside the Tea Party Patriots in Idaho: pretty much exactly the same as Wise Use and the militias in the 1990s.

Most ideologies have esoteric/exoteric aspects. What distinguishes cults from religions is the esoteric part is at odds with the exoteric.
posted by warbaby at 7:11 AM on April 19, 2011


Playing games with language to avoid dealing with underlying realities is a very old avoidance technique.

I agree.

Your definition is useless until after the fact when the secret plot is revealed that's why I called it a post facto metric. Before you reveal the truth, according to you, people can't tell what they are getting into.

In these circumstances, it was possible for someone to know what they were getting into. In a cult recruitment, you have no way of finding out and can be actively deceived and misled. There's a distinction between being deluded and being defrauded.

So the thing is indistinguishable from a normal religion except for your imagined "secret untrustworthiness of the leaders". Now imagine a group hasn't killed anyone or done anything ... yet according to you. Say someone wanted to join this religious group, how would they figure out if it was a cult or not? by the time you are a brainwashed cultist it is too late, remember... Well everything sounds ok and looks okay, but that's just what they would do, right? its very indistinguishability from religion is the sign we need to look for... secrecy! and tricks!

I'm not the one playing games with language. I know where the word cult comes from and why it's a bad category. Your esoteric/exoteric distinction is just a way to protect the suspicions you hold. It doesn't distinguish your "cults" from other groups that are called "religions". it just doesn't... some religious leaders are genuine, and some are cynical manipulaters, and some are both... at all sorts of levels. There's politics and maneuvering... Religion is made of people, after all. If you want to use your definition just call all of them cults. It's useless.

Your political example is not making things better for your argument. The tea party is bad, but is it a cult? Do you really think that helps?
posted by ServSci at 8:45 AM on April 19, 2011


Analytically, there isn't much difference between a religious and a political ideology. In the example I gave with the Tea Party, the antecedents of Wise Use and militias are rooted in two cults: Unification Church and Christian Identity. This is what I meant about cults having a historical significance that can be distinguished from religions.
posted by warbaby at 9:15 AM on April 19, 2011


On the other hand, Jim Jones and David Koresh DID gather as many followers as they could and forcibly compelled them all to kill themselves or others.

So Roman Catholicism IS a cult, eh? (cf. auto-da-fé)
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:16 AM on April 19, 2011


(cf. auto-da-fé)

Wait, suddenly it's 1562 now? Goddammit, I oversleep once, and suddenly I'm five hundred years ago.

Grar.
posted by aramaic at 9:31 AM on April 19, 2011


Mental Wimp: get back to me when there's an auto-da-fe in THIS century, mmkay?

I mean, I don't accuse people of being incontinent today, and then put forth their own infancy as my "proof".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on April 19, 2011


My family's from The Dalles and I heard about this through my grandfather when it happened. He didn't like the Rajneeshee and thought that they were up to no good. My mom wrote that off to small-town fear of outsiders. Then, of course, it turned out that they were actually up to no good, and my grandfather's suspicions were accurate.

My favorite part, and the thing that I will drag people through The Dalles to see, is the statue of the antelope in front of the Wasco county court house. The town the Rajneeshees took over and re-named Rajneeshpuram was originally named Antelope, and is named that again now. The antelope statue is dedicated to those who resisted the Rajneeshees.

Now back to the cult discussion.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:11 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I mean, I don't accuse people of being incontinent today, and then put forth their own infancy as my "proof".

Will you accept the IRA for $400?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:34 PM on April 19, 2011


Will you accept the IRA for $400?

"Accept them" as what? It's not a Catholic organization, last I heard.

(You're being obtuse. Stop.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:40 PM on April 19, 2011


Okay, now a non-snarky answer.

The Roman Catholic Church was not a cult when it basically had a death grip on Europe in the Middle Ages. It was a fully formed institution that casually and routinely killed, incited killing, and condoned killing. I doubt that as an institution it is doing so today, but certainly its adherents continue to incite and commit violence. Sanctimoniously pointing to smaller religious sects and saying, "well, they do this and that, so they are cults" is really asking for trouble if you are in a mainstream religion and wish to distance your belief system from those others.

Inherently, any religion that attains a certain size has done so at the expense of suspension of disbelief. Being headed by human beings no more moral than anyone else, these religions present a temptation for power that is pretty universally irresistible. It's not some magical quality of the belief system that determines whether bad things are done in the name of the religion, but rather the extent to which it requires belief in unprovable hypotheses that condition adherents to forgo rational skepticism.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:41 PM on April 19, 2011


I think what people are getting at, Mental Wimp, is that there is a difference between whether some individuals in the group -- perhaps several -- have their own atrocity-laden practices, and whether the entire structure wholly is doing so. There's a difference between a subset of a group and the group entire. Saying that "some adherants of the church incite and commit violence, therefore the entirety of the church is a cult" is kind of like saying "some dogs bite, therefore all dogs are universally dangerous".

Secondly, based on your mention of the IRA, I am suspecting you are muddling the difference between "religous people who commit violence" with "religions that ADVOCATE violence."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I mean, I don't accuse people of being incontinent today, and then put forth their own infancy as my "proof".

Well, not to get picky, but it's a little bit more like accusing someone of being sociopath today because of those kids they killed as a teenager, but okay. You do have to admit the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was in no way an infant religion, but rather an established, even dominant institution that wielded its power violently and ruthlessly. Was it a cult then? In addition, although it doesn't necessarily involve death (unless you count the attendant suicides), the systematic condoning and covering up of the sexual abuse of children, which apparently continues to this day, not by mere adherents but leaders of the Church is an atrocity certainly on the scale of any Jonestown.

...there is a difference between whether some individuals in the group -- perhaps several -- have their own atrocity-laden practices, and whether the entire structure wholly is doing so.

My serious objection is the lengths to which adherents of larger, more established religions go in order to make it seem like smaller, newer religions that commit bizarre and brutal acts are somehow qualitatively different from their own religions, when religion itself is such a handy tool for motivating and justifying inhumane acts. "God", acting through the leaders, becomes an absolute that can sweep aside petty concerns about things like death and torture. The cruelty that religious communities are willing to commit to "save someone's soul" or to "fight for God" historically runs the gamut from new to old and from large to small.

I am suspecting you are muddling the difference between "religous people who commit violence" with "religions that ADVOCATE violence."

I suspect you are dismissing the role religious leaders played in the troubles. However, your larger point, that violence can be committed by adherents in the name of the religion without it being religiously advocated violence, is certainly true, but how often it is the case is subject to debate. Religions are responsible for the violence that comes from their absolutist stances, i.e., creating a religious rationale for urgency where violence is a logical endpoint makes the religion itself directly responsible for that violence. And, to be clear, no religion advocates violence as a precept; it is always framed as a just and holy war to accomplish some higher good. In this sense, all major western religions have advocated violence, and I see little evidence that they will refrain in the future.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:26 AM on April 20, 2011


Well, not to get picky, but it's a little bit more like accusing someone of being sociopath today because of those kids they killed as a teenager, but okay.

So I should judge you today by the things you did when you were a kid?

You do have to admit the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was in no way an infant religion, but rather an established, even dominant institution that wielded its power violently and ruthlessly. Was it a cult then?

No. If you will look at this page that someone else linked, there is a very, very specific definition for "cult" -- I admit I may have made whumping generalizations in rephrasing it. But they have a very specific definition for "cult", and I agree with it.

My serious objection is the lengths to which adherents of larger, more established religions go in order to make it seem like smaller, newer religions that commit bizarre and brutal acts are somehow qualitatively different from their own religions, when religion itself is such a handy tool for motivating and justifying inhumane acts. "God", acting through the leaders, becomes an absolute that can sweep aside petty concerns about things like death and torture. The cruelty that religious communities are willing to commit to "save someone's soul" or to "fight for God" historically runs the gamut from new to old and from large to small.

This is actually precisely what the OCRT link says as well. And I agree that some of the faithful try to use the term "cult" to cast dispersions on other groups, while turning a blind eye to the ills of their own faith.

However, that does not mean that there are not any groups that fit the definition of "cult" espoused by that site, to my mind. What the site is saying, and I agree, is that while the word "cult" does get used way more than it should, there are a handful of groups for whom the word "cult" is an accurate one.

In other words: what I'm saying is that some dogs are dachshunds. These aren't dachshunds, nor are these, or these. But just because those other dogs aren't dachshunds, that doesn't mean that these also aren't dachshunds. There are a lot more non-dachshund dogs than there are dachshunds, but that doesn't mean dachshund's don't exist. It's wrong to call a German shepard a "dachshund," but that doesn't make it wrong to call a dachshund for what it is.

I suspect you are dismissing the role religious leaders played in the troubles.

Firstly, The Troubles were about politics, not religion. Full stop. Religious leaders may have weighed in with their opinons, but The Troubles were about politics.

Secondly, if priests in Africa were also weighing in on The Troubles and advocating their flocks all troop up to Derry and wage war in the name of Mother Church, then you may have had an argument; but that didn't happen. This still falls under the aegis of "religious people who happened to be dickish" rather than "a dickish faith group in toto".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:51 AM on April 20, 2011


Interesting that the IRA wound up in this conversation - since that's another case of a sort of catch-all phrase that we use, just like we use the words religion and cult (necessarily) but that doesn't really help to point to what we're talking about. I mean, are we talking about the first IRA of the 1910s or the 500 times they've split and renamed and regrouped since then with all the different organizations that resulted, including the IRA today which arguably is a completely different thing than the IRA of 1912 even if they share similar ideas.
posted by jardinier at 1:30 PM on April 20, 2011


What would be weird would be if you had a new breed name for the rabid dachshunds.
posted by ServSci at 2:26 PM on April 20, 2011


I kind of also just wanted an excuse to look at pictures of dachshunds.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:53 PM on April 20, 2011


The Osho asram in Puna, India has turned into mostly a tourist-fleecing operation, charging upwards of $35/day for hanging around the compound and morning Kundalini exercises.
posted by LanTao at 1:00 PM on April 22, 2011


35 bucks won't buy ten minutes and a massaged chakra in my town.
posted by ServSci at 8:00 PM on April 22, 2011


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