Washington Correspondent for the Frederick News-Post
Can the cults be curbed?
WASHINGTON - If nearly 1,400 disciples of the People's Temple can be massacred at the whim of its leader, what about the potential dangers in other cults and can their excesses be curbed?
The answer to that question is far from clear, but the one beneficial effect of the Guyana tragedy is that considerable thought is being directed to this question that may produce a better understanding of the nontraditional fringe religious movements and what can be done about them.
There are, it seems, no reliable statistics as to how many followers such cults possess. University of Chicago Anthropologist Irving L. Zaretsky estimates that this decade has seen more than 10 million Americans involved in what he calls modern "fringe religious cults."
Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, who wrote a book on the cults after four years of research, are somewhat more conservative. They estimate that the United States has some 3,004 to 5,000 religious cults with between 1 to 3 million young followers.
But all students of the cults number the groups in the thousands and the devotees in the millions, indicating a magnitude of considerable proportions.
Just why these cults have mushroomed in the 1960's and '70s has been the subject of considerable research, even before the Guyana massacre.
In a thoughtful article in the May-June (1978) issue of Society Magazine Irvin Doress and Jack Nusan Porter, a Boston educational specialist and sociologist, listed 15 major reasons why there are so many "kids in cults."
Same of the reasons involved inadequate family life and search for greater personal security elsewhere. Others involved what some young people thought were inadequate answers provided to their spiritual needs by the traditional organized religious sects. Idealism, the desire for adventure, the need to be "loved," unemployment and under-employment and a hunger for a "finer, purer physical and moral environment" were also cited by the Boston pair.
In a 1976 book, The New Religious Consciousness, Prof. Robert N. Bellah, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, suggests that the cults sprung up because in the last two decades "the irrationalities and horrors of modern history were borne in upon Americans so seriously that for the first time mass disaffection from the common understandings of American culture and society began to occur."
A major factor, says the Californian, was in the 1960s with the "massive erosion of the legitimacy of American institutions - business, government, education, the churches, the family - that set in particularly among young people and that continues, if public opinion polls are to be believed, in the 1970s even when overt protest has become less frequent."
Bellah and other researchers pinpoint the 1960s as largely the era of political protest against the Vietnam War, desecration of the environment and the fact that grave problems of roe sn and poverty had not been solved in America.
With a settlement of the Vietnam War and some progress on civil rights and racial discrimination, this decade has seen an evolution from political to religious fringe groups. The young particularly, most of them from middle to upper class families, have become fascinated by the cults, many of them imported from abroad.
The largest and best known of these culls have been imported from Asia.
Nearly 40,000 Americans have enrolled in the Unification Church of the 58year-old South Korean evangelist, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who exhorts the faithful to break all ties with their families and spend 18 hours a day soliciting donations that have enabled him to acquire several luxurious estates.
The Hare Krishnas follow the gospel of a 16th Century cult started in India and brought here by a Swami Indian businessman. Although the swami recently died, his followers can still be seen in urban centers conspicuously parading the streets in saffron colored robes, their heads shaved and their voices emitting a rhythmic chant.
Another cult from India, the Divine Light Mission of the Guru Maharaj Ji, operates under the theory that the teenaged Guru is a "perfect master" ordained by God to propagate the faith as earlier perfect masters, such as Jesus Christ, Buddha and Mohammed, did before him. Devotees are called "premies" and largely live in Ashrams where no alcohol, drugs or meat are allowed and where the faithful get "high" and "bliss out" through the "knowledge" given them by the Guru.
Other cults include Synanon, started as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center; the Church of Scientology, dedicated to "personality development," and Children of God, whose leader, David Moses Berg teaches that doomsday is just around the corner and that he is God's messenger for the end of life on earth.
There are even, believe it or not, cults which practice and indoctrinate their followers in a modern version of witchcraft.
Most of these cults preach nonviolence, but ugly incidents do occur like a devotee of the Maharaj Ji using brass knuckles on someone who hurled a pie in the Guru's face.
The Guyana massacre has given impetus to a body of opinion that believes cults should be curbed. It will not be easy. American laws give considerable protection to religious movements. It is pointed out that Christianity, Mohammedism and Buddhism all started as cults, regarded as dangerous in their day. Religious practices are protected by the First Amendment, the guarantor of freedom of speech and thought.
Proponents of curbing the cults suggest that the psychological techniques practiced by some cults amount to coercive mind control, or a denial of freedom of thought, and that a legal redress for damages rstained by such operations might become available.
But the complexities of formulating and enforcing such laws are many and may not be overcome. An aroused public opinion may be the best answer toward whittling down the influence of the cults and preventing another Guyana massacre.