The Watchtower's Apocalyptic Pratfalls

Since we all had a hearty laugh at the antics of Harold Camping earlier this summer, I thought you might appreciate a little more light comedy. Presented here for your approval are some excerpts from Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a famous the-end-is-near book published in 1920. You can download the entire book in PDF form, or read some more background about it, from this link.

The emphatic announcement that millions now living on earth will never die must seem presumptuous to many people; but when the evidence is carefully considered I believe that almost every fair mind will concede that the conclusion is a reasonable one.

Millions was published by the Watchtower, also known as the Jehovah's Witnesses, which like Camping's cult has a record of publicly embarrassing itself with apocalyptic pratfalls. But even more significant is the identity of its author: J.F. Rutherford, the second president of the Watchtower Society and one of the founders of the Jehovah's Witness movement, which had its roots in the Bible Student movement begun by Charles Taze Russell after his split from the Millerites (whom I've written about here).

The conditions which have arisen in the world since 1914 are distressing and perplexing. All the rulers of earth are perplexed. The financiers are in perplexity; the business men are in perplexity; the people are in perplexity; and all are in distress. [p.57]

Like Camping, Rutherford bases his argument on numerology, stringing together various bible verses to "prove" that the end would come 2,520 years after Nebuchadnezzar's overthrow of the Israelites, which he says occurred in 606 BCE (most modern scholars think the date was 586 BCE). This brings us to 1914, the date of World War I, which he claims was the beginning of the end. Although the book was published after the war had ended, Rutherford didn't hesitate to treat it as a sign that the "old order of things" was passing away and God's kingdom on earth would soon arrive. And did you know that capitalism is a herald of the end of days?

Selfishness seems to pervade every line of business. The landlord, feeling that he may not get another such chance to reap a harvest, increases the rent upon his tenant. The groceryman, the dealer in other foodstuffs, clothing, etc., seem to fear that another opportunity will not come and that now advantage must be taken of this opportunity to get all the money possible... All of this is but in fulfillment of the words of Jesus. [p.58]

As with modern evangelicals, the emergence of the Zionist movement was a tremendous excitement to Rutherford's imagination. The first stirrings of intent to create a Jewish homeland, the first few settlers who moved back to Palestine, took on tremendous importance to him as fulfillment of the New Testament prophecy of the fig tree. And he explains clearly what the next sign will be:

...since other Scriptures definitely fix the fact that there will be a resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and other faithful ones of old, and that these will have the first favor, we may expect 1925 to witness the return of these faithful men of Israel from the condition of death, being resurrected and fully restored to perfect humanity and made the visible, legal representatives of the new order of things on earth. [p.88]

Rutherford makes good use of a standard trick of apocalypse-real-sooners: he switches freely between literal and metaphorical interpretations of different verses, or even different parts of the same verse, as needed to prove his point. For example, in Jesus' Olivet Discourse, he identifies the "wars and rumors of wars" as the literal World War I and the pestilence as the literal 1914 Spanish flu; but the "earthquakes", he says, were the communist revolutions in Russia and eastern Europe. (The fact that no major earthquake fitting the bill occurred in 1914 was probably the motivation for this creativity.) The verse about the sun and moon being darkened and the stars falling from heaven, meanwhile, magically becomes a reference to the ecumenical movement [p.42-44].

Every apocalypse-real-soon book contains a few bits of off-the-wall theology, and Rutherford's is no exception. He shows the paranoid hallmarks of the demonically obsessed, claiming that World War I was started by demons influencing world leaders [p.60], and maintains the belief, which the Jehovah's Witnesses hold to this day, that all world governments and institutions are controlled by Satan [p.81]. There's also this section about how God plans to make humankind immortal:

...had Adam remained in Eden, feeding upon the perfect food it afforded, he would have continued to live. The judgment was executed against him by causing him to feed upon imperfect food. Perfect food, therefore, seems a necessary element to sustain human life everlastingly. When the kingdom of Messiah is inaugurated, the great Messiah will make provision for right food conditions... a man of seventy years of age will gradually be restored to a condition of physical health and mental balance. [p.99-100]

Clearly, Pastor Rutherford missed his calling. He could have made a great deal of money if he'd published a diet book. ("The Divine Diet: Eat Well and Live Forever! It's how Jesus would have snacked!")

How do the Jehovah's Witnesses handle the embarrassment of a failed prophecy by one of their founders? For the most part, they ignore or downplay it as "overoptimism" or "merely an expressed opinion", even though Rutherford himself described his predictions for this date as "positive and indisputable" [p.97] and elsewhere called it "proven certainty" (source). Ironically, as recently as 1997, the Watchtower magazine recycled Rutherford's failed prediction and claimed "with full confidence" that it actually applies to people living today! These apocalyptic books must be a reliable source of income for publishers: once they've been written, they can be reissued every few decades with only minor corrections.

August 12, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

Some scattered thoughts to contemplate on a Saturday morning:

• Earlier this year, my post on urban agriculture drew some spirited disagreement. Now there's a study from Ohio State University which concludes that Cleveland could supply all its own produce, poultry and honey if the many vacant lots in the shrinking, post-industrial city were converted into gardens.

• A Missouri high school, in response to a complaint from a homeschooling parent who doesn't even have kids in the school, has banned Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer from its library. In response, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis is offering to send free copies of the book to any student in the school who wants one. They're asking for donations to cover their shipping costs, so please consider chipping in a few dollars if you can afford it.

Cosmos is being remade by Fox, with a production team including Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy (!). The fact that the creative team includes Ann Druyan, and the proposed host is Neil deGrasse Tyson (who knew Carl Sagan personally), gives me hope that the result will be good.

• Did you know that California permits its prison inmates to have vegetarian meals only for religious reasons, and not out of secular moral convictions? Another example of the unjust privilege that's often accorded to religion as more real or more sincere than other kinds of beliefs.

• New York's Woodlawn Cemetery is selling multimillion-dollar mausoleums for the deceased wealthy. I've tried without success to imagine the mindset that would lead someone to spend millions of dollars on a lavish container for their own corpse, rather than giving it away to living people who have genuine needs.

• Cult leader Warren Jeffs has been re-convicted of child sexual assault, this time in Texas, after an earlier conviction in Utah was overturned on a legal technicality. He probably didn't help his case by threatening the court with plagues for daring to put him on trial.

August 6, 2011, 11:28 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: David Koresh

In a 2008 post on the apocalyptic Millerite sect, I mentioned how several modern Christian denominations were formed from the Millerites' ruin, and how the infamous Branch Davidians originated as a splinter group from one of these. That story, I think, is already well-known: the way a charismatic preacher born as Vernon Wayne Howell changed his name to David Koresh and took control of the group; how he began to proclaim himself a prophet and the reincarnated Son of God; how he decreed that all female members of the group, including preteen girls, were to be his wives, and began stockpiling guns; how a gunfight broke out when the FBI heard these rumors and tried to execute a search warrant, leading to a botched 51-day siege which ended in the fiery destruction of the cult compound and the deaths of many Davidians, including Koresh.

All these tragic and ugly facts are part of the record of history. But the strangest thing about this very strange cult is that today, 18 years after David Koresh's death in the fiery end of the Waco compound, there are surviving Branch Davidians who continue to revere him as God incarnate!

Sheila Martin's children burned alive. God, she says, wanted it that way...

On Tuesday, Martin and a handful of other surviving Branch Davidians will gather at a hotel off a freeway in this dusty Central Texas town to remember the federal siege on their religious compound, an event that has become synonymous with the word Waco.

In my posts on strange and curious sects, we've seen over and over again that even massive disconfirmation usually fails to shake the beliefs of the faithful. When the failed messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam, his followers explained it away as a sacrificial act of apostasy that redeemed humanity from punishment. The Millerites' Great Disappointment gave rise to a profusion of sects, each with their own explanation for why Jesus had failed to return on schedule. Chabad Lubavitchers believe that their messianic rabbi isn't dead, merely biding his time. But the fact that there are still surviving Branch Davidians must be the most stunning example.

What's even stranger is that none of them even seem to regard David Koresh as a particularly virtuous man. The CNN article recounts stories from former Davidians like Kiri Jewel, who testified that Koresh was having sex with her before she started menstruating. And the other survivors are fully aware of this - some of them experienced it in their own families:

[Clive] Doyle says his daughter started having sex with Koresh when she was 14. Koresh fathered at least 13 children with sect followers and engaged in sexual acts with underage Davidian girls, according to the Justice Department, numerous affidavits of Davidians and interviews CNN conducted...

Doyle knows that trying to justify Koresh having sex with underage girls incites nothing but outrage from nonbelievers. And, initially, when David began preaching a message that his holy seed must be spread to any girl he preferred, married or in pigtails, Doyle admits he was bothered by it.

"I wondered, I asked, 'Is this God or is this horny old David?'"

But even this doubt was blocked by the ultimate conversation-stopper:

But Doyle's concern didn't last long.

"I couldn't argue because he'd show you where it was in the Bible."

Whatever the Bible says - and it's true that it says nothing about a minimum age of consent for marriage or sex - it's obvious that the real reason for the Davidians' continued devotion to their dead leader is the enormous personal cost they'd incur if they were to walk away this late in the game.

Having devoted their entire lives to Koresh's teaching, having been drawn in step by step to the point where they were even willing to give up their daughters' lives to his lust, if they were to admit now that he was a fraud, they'd have to confront the fact that all they lost was for nothing. And that would clearly be a blow too enormous for their ego, their very sense of identity, to countenance. It's no surprise that clinging to their beliefs, retreating behind a wall of denial, is the psychologically easier course.

In coldly economic terms, it's the religious version of the fallacy of the sunk cost, the stubborn and illogical urge to persevere rather than give up and accept a loss. For these poor, benighted souls trapped in it, there's no easy way out. But this ultimate example of the costs of irrationality can, at least, be an example to the rest of us of the perils of becoming entangled in cultish delusion.

Other posts in this series:

July 13, 2011, 5:37 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments
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The Evangelist's Funnel

Through some odd stroke of coincidence, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I encountered more than the usual amount of religious nuttiness. I've already written about the woman who gets divine communications in God's actual handwriting. There were also Scientologists handing out pamphlets on a street corner, advertising something called the "Purification Rundown":

One or two of these questions, like the one about drug flashbacks, would only apply to people with genuine psychological problems. But the rest of them are drawn so broadly, it's inconceivable that they wouldn't apply to any normal human being. If you've ever felt drowsy in the middle of the day or taken an afternoon nap, then you've "felt fatigued now and then for no apparent reason". If you've ever been bored at a class, a lecture, a job or a social event, you'd probably have to admit that you sometimes feel "wooden and lifeless". If you've ever been in a peevish mood, you may be "irritable without reason or cause". If you ever daydream or let your attention wander, you'll sometimes get a feeling of being "spaced out".

But even if you're some kind of emotionless android who never has any changing moods, the Scientologists still have a card to play: if you answered yes to 3 "or less" of these questions - which presumably includes answering zero - you still "could have" some level of unspecified "accumulated toxins". Which, of course, the Scientologists will be happy to help remove, along with the contents of your wallet.

This is a time-tested strategy of religious evangelists of all kinds: a seemingly open-ended script for conversation which is designed to ensure that you end up in the same place no matter where you begin. I call this tactic "the evangelist's funnel".

Evangelical Christianity has used this strategy to great effect by asking people if they've ever done anything wrong in their entire lives, and if they answer yes, are told that they're hellbound unless they convert. And even if you've never hurt anyone, lied or stolen, evangelicalism falls back on the old reliable standard of thoughtcrime. Have you ever been angry at a friend? Have you ever experienced even a fleeting moment of lust in your heart? Have you ever coveted something that wasn't yours? Then you deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, sinner! It's not clear how we're supposed to avoid doing these things, since they're entirely unconscious drives (it would be like getting blamed for yawning or blinking). Nor is it clear why God gave us those drives if he doesn't like them; nor why he cares what thoughts we have even if we never act on them. You're not supposed to ask those questions, you're just supposed to fall on your knees and praise Jesus.

The most effective response to the evangelist's funnel, rather than engaging with it directly, is to point out the implicit premises that it tries to conceal. Ask up front, "Is there any answer I could give that wouldn't result in you advising me to join your religion?" If they're honest, they'll have to say no, which gives you an opening to highlight the essential dishonesty of the whole exercise. They're not trying to engage you in a conversation, they're trying to maneuver you into a trap. Once that's established, you can ask what independent evidence exists for the effectiveness of their beliefs at curing the problem they claim to be able to solve.

June 20, 2011, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink11 comments
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Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments
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The Rapture of Charlie Sheen

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked. Adam is on vacation.

I'm sure this is just one blog post among many in your feed to reference the Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. His apocalyptic forecast for this weekend is all over the news cycle and even snagged front page coverage in The New York Times. And why is everyone telling this story? Because it's fun to laugh at stupid people.

No one outside this small group of zealots gives their claims the slightest bit of credence; they don't receive the "but who can ever know" kind of deferential treatment that more mainstream religions command. This laughable theology deserves no more attention than do the claims of the sedevacantist popes who've set up shop in Spain and Kansas. Camping and company get coverage because we all have a sickening urge to watch the rug pulled out from under this delusional sect.

The fascination of the media reminds me of the coverage surrounding Charlie Sheen at the height of his public flameout. Sheen was obviously unstable and addled, but we eagerly kept offering him more platforms to embarrass and endanger himself. For his family, it should have been a private tragedy, but we accepted it as entertainment that we were entitled to enjoy. Every time I hear one of my friends punctuate a conversation with "WINNING!" I flinch a little. The fact that Sheen's troubles were self-inflicted makes him more pitiable, not more deserving of our contempt.

If the May 21st rapturists were isolated individuals, we would grieve that they had lost themselves in madness, but now that they've gathered together and entered the public eye, everyone feels a kind of license to mock them. Gizmodo has suggested that pranksters set up piles of abandoned clothes to trick believers into thinking the rapture has occurred, but they were left behind. It's hard to find it funny once you listen to Elizabeth Esther's childhood Rapture panic or read Fred Clark's discussion of the toxic consequences of these beliefs.

Talk to anyone who grew up in a Rapture-believing church or family and they will tell you stories about panic-inducing moments when they found themselves suddenly alone and feared that everyone else had been raptured while they had been rejected by God. This guy thinks that's funny, but it's actually traumatic. That's why no one forgets the horror of such moments...

And that terror is what Harold Camping and his followers are feeling now. And it is what they will be feeling again Saturday evening, after that terror and despair first abates, then metastasizes in the realization that the world has not ended and that they are not the righteous remnant they staked their identities on being.

Look back at that NYT story, and you'll see that Camping's followers have been sundered from their families and friends by the fervor of their beliefs. Their children feel a mix of pity and despair, burdened by parents who don't plan for their futures on Earth. Although their premises are absurd, many of the rapturists are trying to be as kind and compassionate as possible within their twisted theological framework. Robert Fitzpatrick has spent his life savings blanketing New York with ads in the hope of saving even one person from perdition. Come Sunday, he'll be counting his losses, but the more tragic harm is the way that false beliefs have blighted the lives and relationships of all of Campings adherents, including Camping himself.

By focusing on the absurdity of their beliefs, we've given ourselves permission to ignore the human cost of their derangement. The post-Rapture parties and merchandise hawked by atheists are in the same poor taste as the Sheen memes. Our sanity and stability is not the result of individual merit; we have no standing to delight in the dissolution of others.

May 20, 2011, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.

• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:

"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."

• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)

• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.

• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.

• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.

• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.

January 8, 2011, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments
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A Brief and Amusing Encounter

Yesterday on my lunch hour, I was sitting outside the library, eating lunch and enjoying a rare day of warm weather, when I was approached by two young men in Orthodox Jewish garb.

"Hello, are you Jewish?" one of them greeted me.

"No," I said, as cheerfully as possible. "I'm an atheist."

Give them credit for one thing: they didn't flinch. "You can be Jewish and an atheist," he insisted, still smiling. "Judaism has nothing to do with what you believe."

Now, I acknowledge there's a certain sense in which this claim could be true. But it clearly wasn't the same sense being used by these two young men standing before me in Orthodox black garb, yarmulkes and peyot. If it was only the ethnic definition of Judaism they were interested in, it wouldn't be necessary to get people to do anything, and these two clearly had something more in mind. I could see the bait-and-switch coming a mile off, and I tried to forestall it. "I think Judaism has more to do with which ideas you accept," I demurred.

But the proselytizers clearly had a script they were determined to stick to. "What about your parents?" they asked. "Were they Jewish?" They asked a few questions about my family, until it emerged that my maternal grandmother was Jewish. (This is technically true, but only in the loosest sense: as I've written before, she was an entirely secular person. The extent of her Judaism was that she gave her grandchildren presents on Hanukkah.)

Naturally, the two proselytizers were very excited to discover this. "You're 100% Jewish!" they announced.

If this was supposed to produce a moment of epiphany in me (like in the Jack Chick comics where the protagonist announces, "But why didn't anyone ever tell me about Jesus?"), it didn't work. Actually, I found it presumptuous and arrogant: What gives you the right to just dismiss all the rest of my family's ancestry and culture? How dare you think you can define who and what I am without my participation?

I didn't have time to say that, though, because they were pressing on to the next part of their script. "We're trying to get all Jews to put on tefillin," he said. "Would you like to wear them?"

I gave them a very flat look. "No, I don't think so."

"Can I give you this pamphlet then?" he asked, pushing some literature into my hands. I glanced down at it, and as I expected, it was a newsletter published by the Chabad Lubavitch sect, extolling the limitless virtues of their deceased rabbi.

I probably didn't succeed at holding back a smirk. "Isn't this the guy you believe is the messiah?"

The two Lubavitchers suddenly looked very uncomfortable. For them, this was probably like a Scientologist being asked about Xenu. "Well, not exactly," the spokesman admitted. "There are some people who believe that, yes, but I'm not really... I don't know if..."

"I believe it!" the other one piped up, interrupting him. I guessed this was a matter of some awkwardness between them.

"And the fact that he's dead doesn't convince you otherwise?"

"No," the first one said, shaking his head. "It doesn't." Clearly, he had dropped any pretense that he wasn't also a messianic believer. They're probably told not to talk about this in public, but as I already knew, I assumed he saw no further point in trying to deceive me.

Since I wasn't going to convert to Orthodox Judaism on the spot, they sensed the conversation had run its course, and after shaking my hand, they walked away. In retrospect, I should have talked to them for longer. I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn't believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal's Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice? Or - more likely - did they believe that their deceased rabbi will only return once all the Jewish people in the world are obeying their commandments? If the latter, it would have been a treat to see how they'd have explained that to me.

But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy. They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were "Jewish" (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It's the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define "good person" as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner. The next time I run into some of these people (and I'm sure I will - they're all over Manhattan), they're not going to get off so lightly.

November 13, 2010, 10:30 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink26 comments
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Strange and Curious Sects: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

When a new sect with strange and unfamiliar beliefs bursts onto the scene, it almost invariably meets with hostility (most of it from the old sects with strange and familiar beliefs). And depending on the nature of the newcomer, there are two common responses. It may stress its own virtue and righteousness all the more strongly, wearing its persecution as a badge of pride. Or it may become bitter and apocalyptic, denouncing its enemies as God's enemies and warning of a day of reckoning. Those sects that travel farthest down the latter path often end up waging acts of terrorism or going out in a blaze of suicidal glory.

But oddly enough, the teachings of the sect before it's forced to make this choice don't predict what the decision will be. Such is the moral of today's post on a particularly strange and curious sect.

The guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, to a wealthy Jain family in the Madhya Pradesh state of central India. By his own account he was an intelligent and well-educated young man, but rootless and lacking a sense of purpose. Around the age of 21 he fell into a spiral of depression, which he later claimed was finally lifted when he suddenly had an experience of enlightenment:

The moment I entered the garden everything became luminous, it was all over the place – the benediction, the blessedness. I could see the trees for the first time – their green, their life, their very sap running. The whole garden was asleep, the trees were asleep. But I could see the whole garden alive, even the small grass leaves were so beautiful.... The whole universe became a benediction.

After a brief stint as a philosophy professor, he found his calling as a lecturer, traveling across India to give sermons critical of socialism and traditional Indian religion, which he viewed as empty and ritualistic. In their place, he preached his own unique blend of ecstatic mysticism, universal love, and "dynamic meditation" that alternated periods of silence with jumping, shouting and dancing. It was an unoriginal blend of ideas, albeit one which seemed harmless enough. But most controversial of all, he spoke openly about sex, which drew the wrath of conservative Indian authorities even as it made him more popular.

In the 1970s, he opened an ashram in Pune to promote his teachings. It was popular from the beginning, attracting wealthy patrons and devotees from around the world. But the more attention and followers Rajneesh attracted, the more hostile attention he got from India's conservative Hindu government, which harassed and impeded him. Land use permits were denied, tax violations were assessed, tourist visas to visit were refused; a Hindu fanatic even attempted to assassinate him.

In 1981, deciding enough was enough, and perhaps taking a cue from the increasing numbers of Western tourists at his ashram, Rajneesh packed up and moved to the United States. His secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, bought a large ranch in rural Oregon, and Rajneesh's followers flocked to the site, turning it into a bustling town of 7,000 almost overnight. Rajneesh himself was of course the focal point, although by this time he rarely lectured in public anymore and had acquired a taste for luxury, as evidenced by his diamond-encrusted Rolex watches and fleet of custom Rolls-Royces. Every day, hundreds of his disciples lined up alongside the road to get a glimpse of him as he drove past. (It also emerged later that he had developed a drug habit, becoming addicted to Valium and nitrous oxide.)

The Rajneeshis' relations with their neighbors, however, soured even more quickly than they had in India. Their land-use plans stated that they intended to use the ranch as a small farm, but as more and more followers arrived and more buildings were constructed, it soon became apparent that they were building a town. Rajneeshis also moved into the neighboring town of Antelope and began purchasing lots and registering to vote there. When the Antelope city council denied them a permit to run a mail-order business, the Rajneeshis voted en masse for their own candidates, packing the council and effectively taking over the town. The ranch was also incorporated as a separate town called Rajneeshpuram.

By this point, the Rajneeshis had become aggressive and litigious, filing libel suits against critics and busing in devotees to stage counterdemonstrations when they were picketed by local churches and community groups. Their private police, the "Peace Force", controlled security in Antelope and Rajneeshpuram and publicly displayed semiautomatic weapons. Sheela, Rajneesh's secretary, had become the public face of the movement and was caustic and abusive toward its critics in media interviews, calling them "bigoted pigs", "fascists", and "full of shit", as well as making thinly veiled threats.

The biggest remaining obstacle to the cult's expansion was the Wasco County land-use commission, and in November 1984, several county commissioners were up for reelection. Sheela and other senior Rajneeshis hatched a plan: by exploiting a social program called "Share-a-Home", they had several thousand homeless people bused in whom they hoped they could persuade to vote for their own candidates. But that was only half the plot. In a more horrifying step, they ordered samples of Salmonella typhimurium bacteria from a medical supply company. Rajneeshi doctors cultivated the bacteria, then went to The Dalles, the county seat, and deliberately spread the bacteria on salad bars at local restaurants. The intent was to sicken anti-Rajneeshi voters so that they would stay home on Election Day. (see also)

But this act of bioterrorism, however malevolent, failed to achieve its goal. 750 people fell ill with salmonella poisoning, and about 50 required hospitalization, but there were no deaths. Forewarned local officials enforced voter registration laws, and an angry electorate turned out in droves, overwhelmingly defeating the Rajneeshi candidates. At the time, however, no one realized the salmonella outbreak had been an intentional act.

In September of 1985, Rajneesh himself gave a press conference, one of his first public appearances in years. He stated publicly that the salmonella poisoning was intentional, that it had been masterminded by his followers, and that Sheela and other top cult officials, whom he denounced as a "gang of fascists", had fled the country. Stunned local officials swooped in to investigate, and found a fully-stocked bioterrorism lab in the Rajneeshi compound. Even more alarmingly, they found evidence that the group had been planning to assassinate numerous public figures who had been hostile to them, including U.S. District Attorney Charles Turner and Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer. The plan had progressed to the point of buying guns, choosing specific Rajneeshis to fire the fatal bullets, and renting an apartment to serve as the base of operations.

By this time, law enforcement had arrived en masse. Rajneesh himself was arrested on board a private plane in North Carolina in October, apparently attempting to flee the country. He was never charged in connection with the bioterrorism or assassination plots, though state officials believed he had known about them. Instead, he was charged with conspiracy to violate immigration laws by arranging sham marriages to get citizenship for his non-U.S. followers. He pleaded no contest and was deported to India. Sheela and other top Rajneeshis, meanwhile, were arrested the same month in West Germany, deported, and pled guilty to felony charges of conspiracy, assault and attempted murder. Without its leaders, the Rajneeshi cult rapidly dissolved, and Rajneeshpuram was abandoned and bankrupt by 1987. Rajneesh resumed his lectures in India, though he took pains to be less controversial than he once was. These appearances became less and less frequent as his health declined, and he died in 1990.

Until the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, the Rajneeshi plot was the only organized bioterror campaign waged against the United States. One would think that such a prominent association with that degree of evil would end one's career as a guru. But amazingly, despite being both disgraced and dead, Rajneesh himself has bounced back - this time under the name of "Osho", the posthumous head of a thriving publishing empire churning out self-help books, videos, and seminars based on his teachings. The whole awkward cult-compound/drug-addiction/bioterrorism thing is tactfully omitted from these materials, of course.

The Rajneesh cult's story, like other cults that collapsed in disaster, shows the peril of following gurus. Even when the initial teachings seem harmless, people who give their absolute obedience to a single leader are all too easily exploited for evil ends - and absolute power over one's followers is a dangerous temptation that even good people find hard to resist. It also shows how easy it is for true believers to ignore criticism and whitewash the reputation of their beloved leader, even after he's fallen prey to that temptation. This is a point that atheists would be well advised to remember the next time we hear an argument about how some other cult leader or self-proclaimed prophet proved the truth of his words by his supposedly unimpeachable morality.

Other posts in this series:

August 18, 2010, 5:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

• Despite the good sense shown by the British Medical Association in lambasting homeopathy at their annual conference last month, the UK National Health Service has announced that it will still pay for water and sugar pills passed off as medicine.

• A court in Utah has thrown out the rape conviction of Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, due to a legal technicality, and ordered that the case be retried. Texas is still seeking to have him extradited to face similar charges, so it seems likely that he'll ultimately face justice.

• I was shocked to read of some ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities that are so extreme, they demand that their women wear burqas so as not to arouse the passions of men.

A Liberty University graduate defends the separation of church and state.

• In more welcome news, the U.K. education secretary has said he's interested in proposals for atheist schools, after Richard Dawkins made such a proposal in response to a law allowing faith-based and community groups to open their own publicly funded schools. And why not? If every church in England has its own schools - the article mentions Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu - why shouldn't there be atheist schools that teach students rationality and critical thinking?

July 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments
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