First published in The Guardian 10/95
If the subject of religious Cults is aired in public the underlying assumption will invariably be that they're incomprehensible, dangerous, and strictly for wierdos or losers. The chances of any public candidate for public office admitting a cult background are as likely as a Presidential candidate who 'inhaled'.
Therefore whenever a Cult is uncovered -as, recently, in Sheffield- journalists perform a recognisable ritual when displaying it to the public, employing an appropriate blend of amazement, horror and fascination. As part of the ritual, simon-pure Tabloids are required to demonstrate that the meaningless hell of conventional society is superior in every way to any alternative reality of mutual energy and self-enlightenment such social deviants may have constructed. (Is it a collective act of revenge against the those who have dared to escape the gravity-system of pension plans and mortgages?)
The ritual also states that the spiritual insights of the group must be studiously ignored while the slightest evidence of sexual congress should be magnified beyond all recognition, no matter how unremarkable it would appear in any other setting.
But what does labeling something as a cult really tell us about the value it had for the individuals involved?
Cults might better be named 'intense quasi-religious movements'. They can easily be explained from two uncontroversial premises: one, that everyone needs to 'belong' somewhere: the other, that some people desire to experience intensity or transcendence in the service of an ideal, what Marghanita Laski called 'everyday ecstasy'. The fact that the psychological source of this energy is often a sublimation of the individual's sex drive is acknowledged by every wisdom tradition - but then journalists are not known for wisdom, let alone its traditions.
Moreover the impersonal structures of quasi-scientific Western society are seemingly acknowledge only commercial imitations of either 'belonging' or ecstatic experience. We refuse to recognise these aspirations as anything other than superstition.
The interesting question is whether a thought-form such as a Church can ever develop without schism. Because if it succeeds in mutating to any degree a polarity will always develop between reformers and those who claim that reforms vitiate the basic validity of the thought-form. We see this over the ordination of women.
Should a mainstream church actually succeed in constructing a functioning alternative reality (as in Sheffield's Nine Oclock Service) then it is profoundly threatening to the Establishment and must be shat on by the combined anal power of those in authority.
A reason for the Establishment's uneasiness with any succesful demonstration of alternative reality is that slumbering within each and every one of us is a dream that with only a small exertion we could organise society on lines of justice and compassion. (The dream is allowed out in a saccharine coating once a year at Christmas, and then hastily put away along with New Year's resolutions.)
As Chomsky demonstrates in The Manufacture of Consent Western Society has carefully structured itself so that noone gets near the controls until they've proved their fitness for membership of the power elite by super-serving its myths. For this reason anyone suggesting that the status quo is a distortion of human potential must be buried in as deep a hole as possible so that The Power That Be can continue to insist that There Is No Alternative to what, for commercial reasons, they choose to define as normality.
But whatever the blue-rinsed Witch of the West says, the dream will keep resurfacing.
As each of us emerges into adulthood we're struck by the appalling vision of what we're likely to have to become if we're to 'take our place in society'. And we're overwhelmed with an urge to fight the transparent falsehood of the social system which threatens to absorb and eviscerate us. Hence Greenpeace. Hence VSO. Hence, once upon a time, Socialism. But the more any of us succeeds in some philanthropic endeavour, the more we realise we're prevented from ever really changing anything by the interlocking vested interests of the status quo É even the natural power of religious awareness to act as a catalyst for social change has been cleverly depoliticised by right-wing born-again Christianity, whose nominally unofficial status allows it to absorb potential dissent within an authoritarian structure.
So at this time of our lives all of us are especially vulnerable to the appeal of intense quasi-religious movements - for they seem free of the manifest shortcomings of 'normal' religious structures.
But is 'vulnerable' the right word? I think not.
I spent about nine months in a cult at that age and I look back on it as a beautiful but brief relationship.
In 1971 I was 21. And if I was old enough to know better, I wasn't old enough to know better than to produce a film. It had collapsed leaving me penniless. My lover had gone to America with the subject of the film. I was completely on my own. It was then that I had an experience of the utmost sweetness.
Seeing an item on the television news about a group of American Jesus Freaks in a disused factory in Bromley I was struck by the interviewees' coherent purpose. They weren't nerds in Jesus Loves Me tee-shirts, they were real, achieved individuals. And, as someone seeking radical social change, I immediately recognised a genuine, functioning, alternative life-style with an ethical centre strong enough to resist the forces that had so far defeated me.
This was The Children of God, an 'intense quasi-religious movement' latterly known as The Family of Love. I went over to check them out, and was hooked by the power of what I can only call love, but it was a real tough 'functional compassion' totally different from maudlin statues with bleeding hearts.
There was a radical charisma to these old-young people which was intensely beautiful. They'd been thru hell and they'd found heaven. Whether you consider their determination to live absolutely by the Christian Gospel was an illusion or not, such total and unfiltered commitment created around them a coherent joy and a delight in spiritual community which remains for me a benchmark of what human beings are capable of.
Top priority was 'living in the spirit' - not high, giggly or stupid, but alert, joyful and fully-conscious. Artificial stimulants were simply not required. If anyone seemed down, there was always time to 'take a weather check'. Whatever was done was entered into for moral reasons not because of pragmatism. Living that way made sense of being human.
When we moved to squat in a large house next to Release in Westbourne Grove we were taking in people they couldn't handle nearly every day. There was no margin of error. It was life at street level, but somehow, tho we were always short of funds, whatever was necessary always arrived. We renovated the house without money. Literally. People would spontaneously give us goods and money. A cynic would say it was impossible, but I experienced it.
Each day a group went out witnessing, singing original songs with gutsy 12 string guitars and selling leaflets and tapes. People would be attracted /converted by the sheer charisma of the fact that we did visibly live life without a safety net. Those great masters Christ and Buddha told their true followers to live without possessions because they knew of that energy in the universe which responds to those who truly abandon themselves to it. The simple vegetarian meals were taken at the scrubbed table with someone reading from the Bible or the leader's 'Mo Letters'. It certainly wasn't a democracy, those who just wanted to goof off didn't last long. The atmosphere was pioneer Americana, a rigorous self-discipline close to the archetypal values of Puritanism yet operating through inner illumination not external constraints.
A rite of passage for a would-be 'shepherd' was to spend several days in the company of an established shepherd 'living by faith' (without money, without begging) in a city - a practice which does produce extraordinary synchronicities. Those great masters Christ and Gautama Buddha instructed their true followers to live without possessions because they knew the energy in the universe which responds to true faith.
The thought-form which became The Children of God had been created in 1968 by a Christian Minister, David Berg, among the detritus of San Francisco's Summer of Love. Seeing the hippies strung out on drugs, persecuted by the authorities, and despised by everyonelse, he started ministering to them in terms they could understand, rekindling within them that divine spark which is the true nature of each human being.
Did it become an 'intense quasi-religious movement' or cult? Without doubt. Did David Berg set himself up as the Moses of a new Exodus? Yes. It was an era of hope, a 'cultural renaissance', in which it seemed possible that we might overturn capitalism's vested interests and progress to a juster society.
Did The Children of God 'go off the rails'? What are the rails of dynamic experience - the dead bricks of suburban certainty or the wild St Elmo's fire of freely-associating souls?
why must we keep body and spirit in two separate compartments when the whole Tantric tradition teaches that each is a pathway to ecstasy? So why then did I leave after 8 months? Perhaps for the same reason we choose to enter life in the first place? I needed to resolve my own ambition before such selflessness could feel true for me. The four-beats-in-a-bar culture was idyllic but it didn't answer my own more complex body-rhythms.
How the movement evolved after 1973 I know nothing beyond what I read in the papers. (Of all the journalists who covered the group, only The Guardian's Walter Schwarz(1) ever bothered to probe the positive value it had for its members.) Allegations of child abuse were made against the Family of Love by the Daily Mail when the Ritual Satanic Abuse mania was at its height. (A genuine witch hunt organised by Born-Again extremists far more sinister and damaging than the activities of most cults.) But no court cases have ever brought.
Thinking back on this experience I'm willing to bet Sheffield's Nine Oclock Service was brought down not because of any sexual peccadillos (Christ knows the church has never lacked those) but because it was in danger of actually changing something, changing attitudes. From what I hear there's more 'abuse' in Heaven every night of the week than occurred at Sheffield in the whole period of its existence.
No. For a moment the status quo's façade tottered, the 'control system' failed, and all those who earn their living from it rushed to its aid with the oldest trick in the book - sexual innuendo.
It's Authority's favourite weapon against dissidents, and the beauty is it works every time! This technique works for exactly the same reason journalists write about members of cults as if they weren't quite human. Once Authority puts out an official line on a subject there is rarely anyone with the perception, courage or position to defend what has publicly been labeled undesirable. 800 years ago, when Philip IV of France wanted to suppress The Templars he had only to denounce them as a homosexual cult. Ecce homo.
Cults may well be an irruption from a pre-Enlightenment level of human consciousness, but so long as Western culture refuses to come to terms with the power of the non-rational they will go on occurring. And we shall go on being amazed, horrified and fascinated by them.
(1) CHILDREN of a lusty GOD The Guardian 19/3/93