Many religions and religious cults are flourishing through the Internet, with their critics and ex-members lagging considerably behind.
The Internet is a beautiful means of communicating with the World on all manner of subject matter. Live chat between Manchester, England and Auckland New Zealand is one of my own personal great pleasures in life. However, the Internet can also be very dangerous. All forms of communication can. The pen is mightier than the sword, for it can sign a death warrant with a thousand names on it – e-mail can make the warrant travel even more quickly.
The Internet provides Knowledge, and as Francis Bacon wrote in 1605, ‘Knowledge is power’. So is misinformation. Of course, a lot of Internet knowledge is false; many a student sending in essays researched exclusively through Wikipedia will soon discover that at great cost. The Internet is also a place for information to be plagiarised, distorted and corrupted. It gives freedom of speech to holocaust survivors, but also to Holocaust apologists who falsely deny that Auschwitz ever happened.
There are support groups for people facing the struggle to admit to male or female homosexuality, or who risk facing homophobia. However, the Homophobics also know how to use the WWW and the Internet is heavily criticised as a hotbed of paedophilia, and pornography, which gay people often get wrongly blamed for. Most erotica is entirely innocent and there for the amusement, arousal and education of consenting adults, but some of the adult only material on the internet is at risk of being read by miners too, mostly where parents leave children surfing the internet unsupervised.
The Net is places where you can watch live filmed executions such as that of Saddam Hussein, which though banned from TV airing, went out on Youtube and similar public access websites.
Some of our more unpleasant teenagers have developed a whole game called Happy Slapping in which a victim is robbed and brutally beaten while being filmed on mobile phones with the footage then going out on Myspace and Youtube video-streams.
Many charities get funds through Internet sites – so sadly do many charlatans pretending to be charitable. Many protest groups gain support for causes from Save The Whale to stopping Greenhouse Gas emissions. Many less pleasant groups also have websites showing practical ways to build bombs and other weaponry.
Such extreme negative use of the net is rare compared to the amount of law abiding, perfectly moral usage it gets. The outrages nevertheless fuel emotive calls for tighter Internet control and even Internet censorship. That runs into problems for champions of free speech like myself. I’d sooner see for myself what the bad guys are saying than drive them underground. Out of sight is not out of mind.
A primary interest of mine online is how I can use the Internet to find out about religious cults. The sects, their ex-members, and critics, all have a strong presence online, but the cults far more so than their opponents. The battleground is right at the heart of the debate on the pros and cons of Internet usage and potential Internet censorship.
RELIGIOUS PROPOGATION - THE PRE-INTERNET YEARS
Even before the new technology was developed, religion could spread with the speed of a forest fire. A modest sect following a man standing on a soapbox in a village square ranting about his latest divine vision can, if unchecked, conquer an empire within a very short time. The facts speak for themselves. By 380 AD, (that date marking the number of years since it’s founder’s death) Christianity had officially taken over the Roman Empire. Mohammed, founder of Islam, died in 632. By 1095, less than 500 years later, the Muslims had conquered most of Asia. Christianity launched the first of many crusades that year to help keep the new beliefs from similarly conquering Western Europe.
Of course, political creeds can grow quickly too, if fuelled by sufficient passion, and an ability to tap into the emotional needs of its potential followers, whether or not the movement has anything to genuinely quench such a thirst with. This could clearly seen in the lightning rise of Communist-socialism and Fascism in the 20th Century. Such movements are far from inactive even now, and we must be vigilant and careful not to find them sweeping through the World again.
A new idea, creed, religion, or political manifesto is often a call to nothing short of revolution. Marx and Engels knew what publication of The Communist Manifesto would do. So, centuries earlier did Martin Luther, when he nailed his thesis to the church door in 1517. They set out to change the World. They undoubtedly thought it would be a better place in their wake. They were sadly mistaken. The sheer range of political, social, religious and economic visions of how the World should best be governed means that none of them will ever predominate totally. There are simply too many alternatives, and genuine criticisms can be levelled at any movement, giving very good reasons for why they cannot satisfy everyone.
Any revolutionary movement will soon find that its progress to winning hearts and minds is not going to be easy. For all of its successes in taking down Rome, Christianity encountered many years of bloodshed, and persecution.
A religious leader soon divides the people of the world into two camps – Sympathisers (not always necessarily converts) and enemies. Gaining support from important and influential people is vital to the survival of any religious or political movement. Early Christian Evangelists were quick to ingratiate themselves with the ruling monarchs and aristocrats, offering funds collected by their followers, and showing how men dedicated to a religion could quickly prove to be a loyal armed force if a King had need of it. Many kings and emperors were happy to make religions entering their territories into the official state religion. Those not wishing to believe in the new creed often faced exile or worse. Major local celebrities, and respected citizens were also primary targets for conversion, and many, once converted, found new fame, and possibly even sainthood as reward for services rendered.
A revolutionary soon learns that to win over a country by force, he need the army on his side, or the State he tries to overthrow will soon turn its police and army against him. A military conqueror marching over the frontiers of a rival State needs to quickly immobilise or take over the enemy army, or cut it off from communication with its people. Getting the people of a land readily sympathetic to the religion, or political ideology of the approaching potential new leaders is vital to the success of the invasion. Resistance will soon undermine conquest, and victory if the people do not accept the creeds of the new leaders quickly.
Hitler tried to take power by force at the Munich Putsch, in 1923 but the army was against him. His march was routed and he was arrested. His rise to power by careful use of anti-Semitist (anti-Jewish propaganda) and his promise to give the Germanic peoples Lebensraum gained him the support of the army.
Fortunately, his direct assault on many countries to impose the same beliefs again by force, failed. Even in conquered countries like Poland and France, resistance was considerable. People will not tolerate a religious or political doctrine they do not want. The trick is to make them want it.
THE PRINTING PRESS – PROTO-INTERNET
Sadly, the early Holy Roman Christian emperors used bloodshed to eliminate the alternative revolutionary sects they denounced as Heresies The early Lutheran Protestants fought back, fighting fire with fire, and this was now the age of the printing press. The book and pamphlet were the first clue as to what the later Internet could achieve.
Inevitably, the earliest books to be printed were Bibles and Bible commentaries. Many in the church objected to the scripture being translated out of church Latin, and made available to the masses. It meant people were going to make up their own minds what the Bible said and meant. The concern was not voiced without reason. Many people did read the scripture and start their own creeds based on their interpretations of the text. The sectarian violence of The Thirty Years War (1618-48) in mainland Europe, and the English Civil Wars (1639-1660) were also times of many new millennial cults and sects, some of which, like The Quakers, remain active to this day.
In the post WW2 years, it seems that there are few if any new ideas under the sun. The Socialist Communist states are in decline. Capitalists are finding the Earth’s resources are drying up, and environmentalism is a new creed that many take notice of. Secular Humanistic atheism is strong, but not an organised socio-political movement. There is no nation of Humanism eager to establish an atheistic State. (That I am grateful for). Atheists are largely content to criticise religion, and help to push it aside for a more secular, utilitarian morality to enter the political arena. With lack of faith in politicians of the Left, Right and Centre, many people revert to religion for hope and meaning. With mainstream religion in decline, the dynamic, exotic colourful new instant enlightenment cults steal many potential converts from them. Many people cling to the religious beliefs and ideologies, even if they rarely go to Church.
THE RISE OF THE NEW CULTS
Some churches and some religious groups from lesser-known non-western cultures have tried to present religion in new and exciting ways. Again, the media is largely responsible. The experimental liberation movements of the swinging sixties saw an explosion of interest in all aspects of Eastern culture. The tantric sexuality of the Kama sutra suited the promiscuous anything goes hedonists of the period. Birth control meant sex for pleasure was in vogue. The teachings of the East, as well as the main drug supply routes being in India, led to May hippies hitting the road there. This was exploited in the literature and music of the period, through the works of Aldous Huxley, and Jack Kerouak, and the new Sitar music of Ravi Shanker as introduced to the West through The Beatles.
It was the Beatles taking an interest in the Transcendental Meditation of the Maharishi Maheshi Yogi that first gave Eastern mysticism its green light signal to conquer the West again. There had been movements of interest in previous centuries, but the novelty had worn down each time. The teachings of Krishnamurti, and Yogananda were now largely forgotten, but subjects of new age revivalism.
The Maharishi offered a simple ascetic meditational way of recharging the batteries, though this came at a price. Few noticed that the Beatles (apart from George Harrison) quickly disassociated from the movement founder amidst allegations of sexual abuse of the women at his centres, among other things).
Other once minor Hindu groups jumped on the bandwagon and also approached the West. Divine Light Mission sent a teenage child as a living incarnation of God to Britain in 1971. (He’s now in his fifties). The Rajneesh Movement promoted tantric free love. The Hare Krishna Movement (International Society Of Kryshna Consciousness or ISKCON) came promoting a more severe and strict level of monastic Hinduism.
From Korea came Reverent Sung Myung Moon, and the Unification Church (known as the Moonies). Moon had developed a highly Presbyterian doctrine and had suffered in prisoner of war camps where brainwashing techniques had been used to convert captured soldiers to the ideologies of the opposing sides. Moon’s new religious movement took many of the more physical torture elements out of the method of persuasion, but kept otter aspects, such as sleep deprivation and relentless bombardment of information and emotional appeal to the senses to create a hypnotic effect on the subject.
In The States, a cod-psychology movement called Dianetics was declared to be a religion and the Church Of Scientology was born. The Church was Dianetics with an add on belief in past life remembrance.
Not all of the new cults survived. Despite cynical popular notions that starting one might be easy, some leaders find their organizations soon get out of control. A messianic figure is going to find himself extremely busy as a globally expanding following wants him to be in charge and giving all of his followers instructions at all times. Some leaders end up taking drugs to help stay awake through the long gruelling tour schedules to visit their followers. Such a gruelling drug fuelled regime drove Jim Jones to try to draw his followers together in one convenient place, where he could address them all simultaneously. Many other cult leaders still dream of having their own utopian communities, where they live in isolation by the cult’s beliefs and laws. Unfortunately, pressures within and without Jonestown led to the followers committing murder and mass suicide. 912 perished.
It would not be the last such event. It was however the point at which many cults found the media taking an extremely negative looks at cult life. A few sects had embarrassed themselves in the past. His own mother in particular had publicly denounced Maharaji as a charlatan as early as 1973. Post Jonestown, sects were faced by many damaging questions and accusations – brainwashing, sexual abuse, misuse of donations, slave labour, lying, and the lavish playboy lifestyles of many cult leaders came under intense scrutiny.
Most cults went into media-blackout. Few now dared let known reporters near their communities for fear of a tabloid pres expose. Some cults, like Scientology, went on the offensive – finding ways to ruin the political and social reputations of anyone who ever dared criticise them. Some cults went out of business. Others changed their names and phone numbers in order to pretend to have gone out of business.
The backlash led many followers to voluntarily leave the cults, and speak out against them. Evangelical Christians were quick to try to convert ex-cultists into the mainstream Church and the born again Christian ministries still dominate the anti-cult movement to this day. Atheistic ex-cultists like myself have a more challenging time getting noticed.
While many voluntarily left the cults, ex-cultists who obliged them to listen to a catalogue of the cult’s controversies forcibly deprogrammed others
(Something rarely heard within the cult itself, which rarely let followers in on darker aspects of its history). Deprogrammings often had to involve first kidnapping a cult recruit, sometimes with the cultist’s parents in collaboration. When it worked, all was well as the cultist simply agreed to renounce the cult. When it failed however, the cultist would return to the cult fold as a hero, denounce (and sometimes take legal proceedings against) parents, deprogrammers and the outside world in general. The cult would close ranks and make it harder still for outsiders to penetrate its defences.
The situation remains complicated. There are mainstream religions, cults, ex-cult members, anti-cult driven ex-cult members, and now even anti-anti-cult activists. The latter are cultists who dare to take the fight back to their critics. All such groups make use of the Internet today. Sadly, the cults are winning this battle. What follows explains how and why.
Many cults have a strong interest in circulating propaganda. Official-Scientology books run into hundreds of titles. They even have their own publishing house, New Era. They have an advantage in being founded by the late L. Ron Hubbard, who was an established, if mediocre science fiction author when he started the religion. ISKCON produce many books ranging from their own translations of the Bagavad Gita to vegetarian cooking guides. Converts and potential interested parties will be given or more likely sold, copies of such work to study.
Many cults produce less, or even no literature at all. Some forbid or advise followers not to even read. Such groups operate on a low key word of mouth approach, avoiding media attention.
Ex-cultist literature is available, but not so readily as you might expect. Bookshops will often stock one or two books like Moonwebs by Josh Freed, (about the Moonies) or A Piece Of Blue Sky, by Jon Atack, about his escape from Scientology.
Many ex-cultists however, do not produce written testimonies. Many choose to move on in life and try to forget their experiences and keep them private. Some may fear reprisals from the cults. Some doubt their own literary abilities. Some who write their life stories after escaping from a cult will find getting into print rather difficult. A rushed, emotive book may not impress publishers if written soon after escaping a sect. Allegations of brainwashing or abuse, embezzlement, etc, which the writer believes in, will be impossible to corroborate without witnesses or documented proof, and few ex-cultists, manage to bring hard evidence away with them. Accusations made without hard evidence would read like wild ranting. Testimonies will often be simply disbelieved. Many ex-followers of Jim Jones were warning of threats of mass suicide to an unbelieving media right up to the event occurring.
Ex-members of big name cults like the Moonies will find that publishers know of the already published ex-member testimonies and don’t think there is a market for more. Ex-followers of a less well-known cult will find their concerns and testimonies dismissed because the cult is a minority interest.
Many ex-cultists stay quiet when they escape (voluntarily or through deprogramming) for many years, assessing and analysing for themselves what happened to them and why. When they eventually release testimony, it can be five years on from their escape and their story is no longer seen as remotely contemporary – again, they frequently get their heartfelt books rejected.
As many ex-cultist testimonies are produced through church publishing groups, atheistic point of view like my own becomes harder to promote. I would recommend self-publishing through Lulu Books. You can see my experiences are available to purchase there at http://www.lulu.com/content/757452
A cult’s books are often professionally written (often by hired ghost writers) produced and marketed. An ex-cultist, unless already having literary skill, may not be a writer of sufficient talent to really tell the story well. As sincere and well meaning as it is. A similar fate befell many testimonies concentration camp survivors. Their books would be weighed against the charm and childhood hopes of Ann Frank, and the powerful poetic reasoning of Primo Levi, and found wanting.
Modern cults have always been quick off the mark in exploiting any new technology. Maharaj Ji now known as Prem Rawat) has always been fond of Western gadgetry, cars and planes, etc. On days away from microphones where he declared himself Lord Of The Universe in the early 1970’s, he would sit tinkering with transistor radios, and tape recorders. He soon realized that recording his wisdom onto audiocassettes meant that they could be circulated widely among his followers. He could suddenly speak to them even outside the stadiums and concert halls he hired. Other cults quickly followed his lead. Original, and bootleg recordings of such a kind are now highly collectible on e-bay for many followers and ex-followers alike. Some early declarations now seen as an embarrassment to the cult are also widely sought, (in the cult’s case in order to pull them out of circulation).
The development of Video recording, and videotape added a visual aspect to use of new media, possibly with use of subliminal advertising to assist cult propaganda. DVD was another development quickly exploited, again with under-resourced ex-cultist and anti-cultist groups lacking the resources to keep up. Then came a new medium for exploitation – the Internet.
RELIGION AND THE INTERNET
Internet technology was in development as early as 1958, and became commercial in 1989 and effectively took over many aspects of our lives and made Microsoft owner Bill Gates obscenely rich.
Religious organizations were quick to capitalise on the electronic miracle. Many a church had published parish newsletters for their congregations on computers, even when only having a hundred or less readers. Now the average country village vicar could add a modem, and FTP, and with very basic HTML coding, he could comment on World affairs and be read by the world too.
From there, the sharing of e-mail prayers, and hymns soon followed. Religious people could easily communicate with like-minded souls around the Globe, and theological questions could be quickly answered. It was also easy for many self-appointed moralists to speak out on homosexuality, atheists, etc. Creationists could proselytise to hundreds without having to laboriously knock on people’s doors to tell them about God.
From 1982 I-churches were operating in the Anglican Church, allowing people to receive church services at home. The advantage to the sick and disabled is obvious.
One problem for the church is that officially ordained and trained ministers and priests reassigned, suspended or even stripped of clerical duties on some ecclesiastical or even legal grounds often set up a virtual ministry and carried on regardless. Roman Catholic Bishop Jaques Gaillot, assigned to the Saharan wilderness of Paternia, a city wiped out by the desert in the 5th century AD, after upsetting Pope John Paul 2 now has a thriving Internet church.
Most scriptures are entirely available in free downloads, including all of the Bible books, the Rig Vedas and The Koran. On the whole however, most mainstream churches have been slow to capitalize on the Internet. With new religious movements, the new technology is, to use a very apt pun, a Godsend.
Cults and New Religions have been among the most tenacious of all in exploitation of the Internet. Most of the major sects have official websites, which rarely address the more controversial aspects of the sect’s ministry. Critics attempting to raise such issues as brainwashing ion a cult’s official pages often find their messages deleted or heavily bombarded with inflammatory spam. If the critic leaves a contact e-mail or snail mail address he or she may wel be bombarded by heavy quantities of hate mail and more mostly hostile replies than he could ever answer. Some critics may also be treated as trying to create religious hatred, and have their ISP deleted or find themselves banned from using many website forums and discussion groups. This often happens where cults have a tendency to generate strong amounts of traffic on groups like Facebook, Youtube and Myspace, or in discussing pro-cult books on notice boards such as Amazon. A bookseller like Amazon quickly recognises that a book about a cult is more likely to sell to the followers than the minority of detractors, critics and ex-members. When the cultists shout foul, the ex-cultist’s sincere, and perfectly polite observations maybe deleted by the powers that run the forums, even when the forum administrators and watchdogs are not even in the cults.
Many ex-cultists have their own websites, giving testimonies of their experiences in blogs and web pages. My own experiences are listed at BRAINWASHED - A CULT SURVIVOR'S TALE I can also get in touch with other ex-followers of the cult I was in (Divine Light Mission, aka Elan Vital aka The Prem Rawat Foundation) have their own excellent forum at http://www.prem-rawat-talk.org/forum/ Pre-internet, contacting fellow ex-Premies (Premies being the name of followers of that specific cult) was a slow process. With forums like the Ex-Premies site http://www.prem-rawat-talk.org/forum/ contact with the others affected by the sect can be instantaneous and regular. Queries and issues raised can be addressed very promptly, and many people can see at the click of a mouse that the level of dissent from the people who used to love the founder, Maharaji aka Prem Rawat) as a God, runs extremely high.
And yet, the cult still has considerably higher web presense than its unsatisfied customers. The saturation of search engines with pro-cult propaganda pushes the critics into a secondary division. Cults will read the enemy websites Just as ex-cultists read the pro-cult pages (at least those not charging subscription fees and exclusive to active, trusted members). Cults will often attack their critics on a personal level, exposing any who have a history of having committed a criminal offence, an adulterous affair, a homosexual history etc (if such allegations are not simply slanderously manufactured anyway). Many ex-cultists find their litter bins rifled through, and that they are being followed everywhere by strangers.
An easy mistake an ex-cultist can make is to find some controversial statement on an official cult website and then make use of it by copying and pasting the information to their own blog for even fully acknowledged commentary. Cults will often insist that their every statement, even online, is copyrighted. This prevents anyone being able to quote something without their expressed permission, and that permission is only likely to be granted to uses favourable to the cult, as part of its own propaganda. Scientologists are particularly hostile to critics who dare to expose their absurd beliefs in the entities known as Xenu, who allegedly tried to massacre many of his own kind with hydrogen bombs here on Earth, but found that many now reincarnate in human form and through Scientology, rediscover their true nature as god-like entities.
Active online ex-cultists have been accused of operating as hate groups, opposed to religious freedoms. Such a claim is ludicrous, but effective. As stated, most ex-cultists retain some kind of religious belief, and there is a difference between questioning a ‘belief’ in transubstantiation, and pointing out that cults break up families in ‘practice’.
Hate cult claims run rife against ex-cultist groups, especially those with active web sites and who have potential to become media friendly. Ex Divine Light Mission followers, ex members of ISKCON, and ex-Scientologists are particularly vulnerable to counter-attacks of the most extreme kind.
The Xenu doctrine makes the Scientologists a laughing stock to many outsiders, so they understandably try to dumb down the extent of belief and teaching about Xenu. Critics peddling the information for the cult are generally made ‘Fair Game’ (Scientology slang for open to any and all reprisal and retribution, up to and including possible execution - allegedly).
Cults often use the Internet in highly unexpected ways. An ISKCON internet group largely operating in Poland discovered that an episode of mythology themed and rooted American TV fantasy series Xena Warrior Princess was due to feature a meeting between Xena and Kryshna when she moved from her usual stomping ground in Greece to visit India. Outraged that a lesbian-icon heroine was to meet their God, the ISKCON group campaigned and successfully got the episode, The Way, banned from airing. It was eventually shown after fans of the show counter-campaigned. During the ban, fans were happily exchanging bootleg video copies of the show, and found that the very Krishna group behind the ban were similarly buying copies to show at their own temples. See more on this story at UNBAN XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS
Some cults have members working for major internet groups and service providers. http://www.prem-rawat-critique.org/news.htm shows how leading Wikipedia editor, Jessi Fresco has been systematically keeping criticisms of his religious leader Maharaji to a minimum, despite criticisms of his conflict of interests in doing so, as Wikipedia is supposed to be objective and impartial. Ex-cultists fear similar censorship of their counter-cult claims are practiced throughout cyberspace.
SUICIDE CULTS ONLINE
A local village ministry in the Church Of England may use a website to point out that the church has a lovely steeple and took hostile fire in The English Civil War, and that services on Sundays commence at 8. AM (not to forget the garden party and tombola on Saturday 9th August). Such Internet usage is largely quaint and harmless.
Cults, however, use the Internet to police their members, and critics alike. Some cults will even promote suicide via the Internet.
The Jonestown and Waco tragedies largely occurred because all of the cultists were living together, like fragile eggs all being stored in one basket. As the outside World got big and frightening, the sects imploded and members in Jonestown took their own lives in there hundreds. At Waco, a similar tragedy was believed to have occurred, though many suspect that heavy-handed policing and attacks on the cult compound may have started the fires and caused the cultists a death they were not directly responsible for themselves.
What seemed less likely was that cults could cause suicides in followers hundreds or even thousands of miles from the main leadership headquarters. The majority of Scientologists never met L. Ron Hubbard, or Tom Cruise. Prem Rawat is more likely to be seen on TV or at a stadium than to meet members of his cult personally.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s Prem Rawat followers met in each other’s houses and had regular festivals to talk about Maharaji all day every day. Such unauthorised gatherings were eventually banned in favour of their leader’s centralized control. Now the Internet is the nearest they have to an ashram community. It seems unlikely that Maharaji can tell people in Scotland what to do via the WWW from his substantial mansion in Malibu. A casual call to mass suicide would most likely be largely ignored by all but his most fanatical followers.
In some cults, alas, suicide orders at a distance can be more easily obeyed. The Heaven’s Gate sect (a UFO Cult) was largely created by and for Internet web page users. They believed that suicide by poisoning was a way to leave this plane of existence for a better one as a comet passed the earth in 1997. While the call to the final deaths came via the Internet, most of the followers, including their self-appointed leader, Marshall Applewhite, united in the non-cyber world at a secluded rented mansion in California. Three other members committed suicide once they had discovered that their friends had perished.
In Japan, there is a growing craze for suicide debate themed chat room Internet activity. This has led to a staggering 240 deaths, (in groups and clusters of up to seven victims at a time). The fad, or cult movement spread via Korea and Australia, and now such events take place at infrequent intervals throughout the rest of the World. The most common method of self-execution in the practice has been carbon monoxide poisoning, usually in cars parked in sealed garages with the engines running. A few victims have however favoured hanging.
In an age where science largely accounts for every mystery, superstition would seem to have no place in our lives, but the cults still tap into our most primal emotions, often with tragic consequences. It is time for the skeptics and ex-cultists to catch up, online and beyond.
ESSAY CONCERNING MAINSTREAM RELIGIONS ONLINE http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article6.html
HEAVEN’S GATE http://www.fmew.com/archive/cults/
SCIENTOLOGY / DIANETICS http://www.scientology.org/
JAPANESE SUICIDE GROUPS http://www.newprophecy.net/japansuicide.htm
LINK TO THIS PAGE http://arthurchappell.me.uk/cults.and.the.internet.htm
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