Cultural Origins of New Age Cults

Daniel W Hollis III. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Volume 10, Issue 1/2. 1998.

Western culture abounds in New Age cults, which have grown dramatically in size and influence since the 1970s. New Age cults represent a crisis of cultural identity, a major dilemma of Western civilization at the end of the twentieth century. Such cults reflect and contribute to the disintegration of social institutions, ranging from turmoil in mainline religions, a weakening of business, legal and political ethics, the tenuous role of science, and the failure of public educational institutions to create informed and independent minds. The New Age, with its multiple historical roots, also gauges a widespread desire for the recovery of a virtuous society, certainty about the material universe, spiritual meaning and a nurturing social and familial unity. The New Age has emerged as one path in that quest Yet what is needed is the restoration of a culture of virtue.

The Crisis of Science, Religion and Society

Perhaps no other postmodern movement provides better insight into the current search for meaning in Western culture than New Age cults. The multicultural New Age movements originate in a syncretism of asymmetrical cultural-religious-philosophical elements drawn from both East and West. In essence, they are a form of escapism from reality, combining popular science and spiritualism. Curiously, New Age cults present a response to the twentieth-century crisis of arguably the two most crucial elements in the structure of Western civilization: Christianity and science. The decline of Christian dominance in Western culture since the Renaissance due to secularism and materialism has created a spiritual void for humanity which the New Age seeks to fill (Allen 1994: 49-52).

The New Age intermingling of cultures has produced some crosscultural religious tendencies, which share a common objective of a global, ecumenical spiritual unity. The profound crisis of liberalism caused by World War I raised doubts about science as the main underpinning of liberalism. Thus, the waning of Christianity, which provided universal answers to the meaning of life, and the loss of confidence in science, which assured certainty about knowledge of the physical world, led to a desperate search for alternatives.

Since culture tends to shape social institutions, the New Age quest for simple answers to complex issues also sheds light on the chaotic, uncertain future of social, political, religious, and educational institutions. At present, virtually every Western institution has experienced a moral or ethical dysfunction, which robs such institutions of credibility, integrity, and influence. Hence, it is increasingly difficult either to hold up institutions as examples for the youth or depend on them to produce expected results. An apt illustration concerns American public education, which is influenced by certain fallacies. Due to Sigmund Freud’s and Jean Piaget’s misconceptions concerning the alleged harm of raising spiritual issues with children, Western society has chosen to “protect” its youth by not introducing the subject to them. In contrast, William Damon presents evidence of the innate capacity of young children to deal with and profit from exposure to religious issues (1995: 8688).

By concentrating on esoteric, ill-defined subject matter designed to entertain rather than inform students, schools have sidestepped their responsibility to equip students with academic skills and a system of ethical values. Students from all social class backgrounds, many from broken families, are disillusioned by the lack of certainty and direction in their education, not to mention a pandemic of drugs and violence (Damon 1995: 7-13). It is slowly dawning even on liberal educators that a society bereft of values and belief in fundamental truths cannot provide its youth with meaning in their lives. Rather than following traditional methods of reforming existing institutions based on verifiable facts, the New Age offers an alternative approach of constructing an entirely new social framework through a syncretic method of blending different elements from anachronistic sources. The result has been not a solution to the cultural search for meaningful truths, but panaceas which either paper over the real issues or delude individuals and society by avoiding reality.

The New Age era emerged at the very time that cultural relativism— the absence of standards of truth—filtered down from intellectual ivory towers to popular culture, beginning in the 1960s (Norris 1996: 154-58). Yet the preparation for that conjunction went back several decades to the collapse of science as the centerpiece of the liberal paradigm following.

World War I. Classical liberalism had been elevated to a position of authority in the nineteenth century, in part due to the lay public’s acceptance of science as a belief system which provided certainty about the physical universe, made work easier, provided more leisure time, and enhanced longevity through medicine and nutrition. It is true that even in the nineteenth century there were critics of such a view. Friedrich Nietzsche predicted that reductionist scientific rationalism would end in a nihilistic society, but this view seemed far-fetched at the time (1967: 3). Yet science soon began a transition in its raison d’tre from functioning as an exact science in providing useful knowledge, to pursuing a chimera, the idea that science was the best and only instrument for social reform.

This trend became known as positivism, introduced by the French sociologist August Comte in the nineteenth century. Comte suggested that science could move beyond merely expanding knowledge to establishing a new framework for the reordering of society, that is, create a heaven on earth. Science and technology could solve all human problems, according to Comte, if only society would agree to surrender total authority to elite technocrats who would plan and implement the reconstruction of society. Postmodern man may wonder why nineteenth-century intellectuals would give credence to such notions. Yet, by Comte’s time, the Enlightenment’s idea of progress gripped firmly all Western societies to the point that many literally believed that anything was possible, and that utopias could become reality (Harp 1995:10-22).

World War I shattered the positivists’ ambitious dreams, thereby leading to a questioning of all science-based notions of progress. With few exceptions, one being Jose Ortega y Gasset (1923), intellectuals misconstrued Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, concluding that no fundamental truths existed. In the process of advancing the claims of science, Comte and his followers obliterated any role for Christianity. Thus, except perhaps for T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee, the intellectual pessimists following World War I did not conceive that spiritual objectives could help rehabilitate the crippled role of science. Faced with pervasive doubts about their discipline, concerned scientists embarked on a public relations campaign to restore faith in science. The success of that effort depended, they believed, on a concerted emphasis on the practical value of science and technology to humanity. Stanley Jaki depicts the revised approach best:

The new “scientific” picture of man stood in sharp contrast to the actually existing man, who was anything but a cold logic machine, free from emotional peculiarities, free from often tragic urges, free from whims and fancy, and last but not least, free from hardly definable creative impulses (1986:104).

Efforts to redefine humanity in the context of postwar scientism germinated with the Science and Society Movement in the 1920s, led by a British polymorph crystallographer, John Desmond Bernal. Believing that science always advanced far ahead of social institutions and mores, Bernal confronted in The Worl the Flesh and the Devil (1929) what he regarded as mankind’s three great scourges—physical nature, human passions, and superstition—and offered a scientific solution. Bernal argued that humans might see the benefits of science more clearly if two crucial “fallacies” were discarded: the Christian belief in a higher power than the self, and the conviction that in order to survive, the unity of society must be sacrificed to the primacy of the individual (1968: 60; 1949: 61-62). He rejected the notion that science must be divorced from the social context. Indeed, pure science must be replaced, he argued, by sociological science (Bernal 1949: 71-72). Thus, Bernal followed Comte in his insistence that decision-making authority in civilization should be wielded by scientists, an approach expected to be vigorously resisted by humanists.

Bernal continued to expand and elaborate his ideas for socialist applications of science to resolve society’s dilemmas in a lengthy corpus of writings during the 1930s40s. He also engaged in some practical reform efforts. After attending the London meeting of the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology in 1931, Bernal embraced the Marxist-Stalinist model of dialectical materialism as the appropriate modus operandi for the Science and Society Movement. He even persuaded the British Association of Scientific Workers—an offshoot of the National Union of Scientific Workers—to adopt Marxist techniques in 1932. Yet Bernal opposed science serving government military-industrial interests at the expense of service to mankind (Roberts 1997: 158-78).

In Bernal’s utopia, human physical limitations and frailties would be rectified by scientific enhancements of physiological evolution through bionic prosthetics, which would include organs as well as limbs (1968: 2947). Thus, Bernal took what some regarded as a naively positive view of what science could do to improve humanity, contrasted with Aldous Huxley’s dystopian sentiment in Brave New World that scientific manipulation of social objectives could have a negative impact on humanity (Ward 1989: 163). Science would also conquer the “devil,” that is, human passions, by devising a new psychology based strictly on scientific ethics (Bernal 1968: 51-54). Thus, Bernal’s utopian musings would apply scientific solutions to human as well as physical nature. Science would allow Bernal’s superhumans to become less reliant upon earth for sustenance. Indeed, the elite would be transported to space colonies, leaving the ordinary human flotsam and jetsam, the “human zoo,” to struggle with earth’s limitations (1968: 17-28). Apart from Marxists, few scientists endorsed Bernal’s views in the 1930s40s, but his ideas would find more fertile ground following World War II.

In the decade following World War II, science returned to a defensive posture due primarily to the ominous implications of the nuclear age. Thus, it was not until the late 1950s that science publicists of the Bernal type reemerged to champion science’s social role again. Certainly, Charles Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, represented a fresh attempt to reinvigorate the science and society campaign. The title of Snow’s lecture was misleading, since he not only failed to define or discuss “culture,” but also eschewed any accommodation of the two cultures of humanism and science, suggested later by Sorbonne’s Michel Serres (1982: xi-xii). By the 1950s, Snow concluded that the two cultures were in a state of veritable siege vis-a-vis each other. The only effective solution, according to Snow, was for scientists to direct the necessary reform agenda in order to rescue society from the reactionary forces of humanism which prevented problems from being solved. The new global dilemmas of pollution, disease, and the growing chasm between have and have-not nations demanded scientific solutions devised by scientists. Thereby, the humanists with their fanciful dedication to human freedom would have to be convinced to surrender to the authority of scientists or be eliminated (Snow 1959: 30-54).

Snow was soon joined by several American disciples, including Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute and Harvard’s Daniel Bell. Among various predictions about the future, Kahn’s trilogy—The Resourceful Earth (1960), Thinking About the Unthinkable (1%2), and The Coming Boom (1%5)—sketched an elaborate scientific plan to avoid global thermonuclear war, a solution which world political leaders seemed incapable of devising. Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) predicted that heavy industry would be replaced by a consumer-friendly welfare service economy run by technocrats motivated by merit rewards to produce realistic economic designs, a kinder and gentler centralized planning devoid of harsh ideologies. By the 1960s, the heirs of Bernal’s Science and Society Movement were dubbed “futurologists,” and their methodology became forecasting and planning, including leisure time as well as work (Kuman 1978: 185-92). Spurred by numerous long-range forecasting think tanks, futurology promised to eliminate ideology from interference with practical scientific applications. Ultimately, sociological science evolved into popular culture science represented by such writers as Alvin Toffler and his best-selling, Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980), and Powershift (1990).

Spiritualism Merges with the New Science

Soon after the Science and Society and futurology movements began to lay the foundations of a reordered society along scientific lines, a complementary mystical approach to spiritual cravings was unfolding. It was perhaps fitting that the chief architect of blending a spiritual and scientific method, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), was himself trained in both science and theology. Though trained as a paleontologist, many of Teilhard’s scientific propositions such as Lamarckism and orthogenesis were controversial. Likewise, despite Teilhard’s Jesuit education, his religious mysticism tended toward un-Biblical spiritual schemata foreign to the Catholic Church. Yet the combination of science and theology suited Teilhard’s pursuit of mysticism as a vehicle to explain biological-psychological evolution from impersonal random universal origins to a personal existential spiritual condition. Teilhard lamented the glaring dichotomy between this worldly reformers seeking to create a heaven on earth and other-worldly theists who exchanged pursuit of earthly perfectionism for transcendent spiritual hopes.

Like Bernal, Teilhard wanted to apply scientific knowledge in a practical form. Traveling around the world, Teilhard discovered a great variety of cultural responses to nature and humanity, which led him to conceive of a universal, utopian solution to the human predicament. Given Teilhard’s quest for global unity, Western civilization no longer loomed as the sole or even preferred model and guide for global transformation. Thus, Teilhard’s love of science and understanding of its potential was disciplined by his desire for a unified body of knowledge which could best be discovered through a spiritual quest (King 1989: 17-28; Lane 1996: 107-12).

Teilhard’s posthumously published collection of essays, L’Avenir de L’Homme (1959), suggested an apocalyptic scenario for the end of traditional human existence, which would usher in a New Age. Teilhard described this New Age as the “noosphere,” a third stage of human evolution, following the stages of inorganic and organic evolution. The noosphere implied a physiological as well as psychological transcendence of humanity into a mystical dimension. Human awareness and sensitivity would emerge at a very early age in the noosphere so that a merger of spirit and matter could occur (Teilhard 1959: 157-81). Thus, a noogenesis, “a world that is being born instead of a world that is,” would result, with the evolution of an autonomous and self-sufficient consciousness, which would supersede the inorganic and organic stages of evolution (Teilhard 1959: 88). In brief, the world as well as humans who inhabited it would effectively disappear with the advent of the noosphere. Though Teilhard rejected the suggestion that he was creating a system to replace Christianity, insisting that he was merely moving Christianity to “new foundations,” undoubtedly he had a major impact on New Age thought.

The blending of science and spirituality as a method of solving human dilemmas also benefitted from the introduction of non-Western mental structures. The chief promoter of integrating Eastern philosophy into Western thought patterns was the Theosophical movement. The term theosophy derived from the Greek words theos (God) and sophia (wisdom). It began as an esoteric version of Christianity, but it had from its beginnings links with the Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, and later the New Thought movement. The International New Thought Alliance stated its beliefs in a 1917 declaration, which included the idea that humans and the universe were essentially spiritual and that each individual must be free to choose one’s belief system (Alexander 1992: 35-36).

Perhaps the first evident formulation of the philosophy may be traced to the late Reformation mystic, Jakob Boehme (1575-1624), who emphasized the inner illumination of the soul. God was viewed as Creator more in the sense of a First Cause, and the Creation itself had its origins in the Urgrund or black hole. In order to comprehend God, humans must first experience a spiritual awakening. Boehme’s practical influence was felt first with the Society of Friends (Quakers) in mid-seventeeth-century England. It was much later, however, during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that theosophy incorporated several Oriental elements, chiefly due to the efforts of a freethinker, Richard Payne Knight (1751-1824). In the early nineteenth century, several Romantic writers, including Charles Dupuis, Constantin de Volney, and Sir William Drummond, selectively blended Oriental occult ideas with secular humanism. The transformation of the movement from esoteric Christianity to forms of Buddhism or modern spiritualism may be traced to the 1848 phenomenon of the three Fox sisters-Leah, Kate, and Margarettaof Hydesville, New York, engaging in channeling with the dead (Godwin 1994: &16).

The popularity of Emma Hardingg-Britten’s Modem American Spiritualism (1870) prepared the way for the founding of the Theosophical Society in America in 1875. The guiding figure behind the organization was an expatriate Ukrainian spiritualist, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91). She was assisted by a small group, including William W. Judge and Henry S. Olcott, in founding the Society in New York City. In her principal writings, Blavatsky described a supernatural race of “ascended masters,” the chief residing on Venus, who acted as the essential links between humanity and God. The Society’s three tenets were to promote a universal brotherhood of humanity, study the ancient wisdom literature, and investigate the laws of nature in relation to human potential (Cranston 1993: xviii). By the end of the 1870s, Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to India to establish a branch of the Society at Adyar, near Madras, which eventually attracted many Indian nationalist leaders, including Mohandas Gandhi. Branches also appeared in major European cities where Blavatsky’s most important disciple, Annie Wood Besant, became a member. Besant founded a Theosophic college at Benares, India, in 1898, and was elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1917.

Meanwhile, a theosophical splinter group, the Universal Brotherhood, founded a utopian community, “Equality,” at Point Loma, California. The founder of the colony in 1898 was Katherine Tingley, who claimed to be Blavatsky’s successor (Greenwalt 1955: 35-36). More than any other single source, the Theosophical Society popularized Oriental occultism in the West. Escapism was yet another strand of the elements, which became integrated into New Age ideas, while a primary influence came from the utopian “esoteric tradition” of a twentieth-century Latin American author, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Didier Jaen defines the esoteric tradition as:

a vague and even variable body of doctrines whose central theme refers to the direct and secret knowledge of the origin of everything created … A fundamental theme of these doctrines is the idea that human beings do not know their own essence; that their human nature deceives and imprisons them, and blocks access to the knowledge of their true being (1984: 26).

Borges’ 1940 essay, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” anticipated New Age myticism. Though born in Argentina, Borges encountered various European intellects in the maturing of his thought. His half-English father led Borges to an interest in English literature, while his schooling in Switzerland introduced him to Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which argued that humans should nurture illusions in order to escape from reality. Back in Argentina, Borges helped found the literary school of Ultraismo, which espoused a nationalistic effort to distinguish Latin American literature from European themes. Ultraismo also assumed an exitentialist view that science and philosophy possessed no objective reality, although they might be useful in certain practical applications to aid human survival. By utilizing literary deceits such as allusions and puzzles, Borges expressed his belief that writers merely described humanity, but were incapable of reforming or improving society (Jaen 1984: 25-28).

Flon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” contains three sections, which explain and analyze the esoteric tradition as a form of utopian thought. The first part describes “Uqbar,” or the mystery of life, by tracing life origins from ancient philosophies such as the Kabbalah and Oriental mysticism. Borges believed that the most important precursor of the early esoteric tradition was the Greek Gnostics, who maintained that the physical universe was but an illusion. That view was similar to, and influenced by, Persian Manicheanism, which conceived of the universe as spiritual rather than material. The Uqbar tradition reappeared in the early modern era in various guises, especially the pseudosciences of Paracelsus, Hermeticism, and the Rosicrucians (Pearcey & Thaxton 1994: 43-45). It continued to ignore reality in preference to an ideal informed by the imagination, hence the formulation of an imagined ideal society. Such organized manifestations began to appear by the eighteenth century in forms like the Freemason Society (Jaen 1984: 29-31).

Borges’ second story line introduces ‘Tlon,” or the ability to transform the theoretical ideal into reality. The vehicle for this part is a secret society founded in the seventeenth century to promote the expansion of the esoteric tradition across the world. The existence of the society was revealed through the 1944 discovery of the Tlon encyclopedia, which contains the society’s tenets. However, by finding the source of true knowledge, Borges contradicted his own dictum that reality is merely humanity’s invention. Tlon is a byproduct of Uqbar, since much of modern philosophy, from Giordano Bruno to Gottfried Leibniz, David Hume, German Idealism, and Bertrand Russell, owes its essence to the surreptitious influence of the esoteric tradition over the centuries since the Gnostic era The esoteric tradition also benefitted from Buddhism’s influence (Jaen 1984: 31-35).

The third section of Borges’ story concludes by predicting the merger of Uqbar and Tlon into the Orbis Tertius, or third realm, which involved embracing illusions as reality. Borges becomes in this part more than a mere chronicler of the esoteric tradition by predicting the evolution toward a utopian solution to human difficulties and limitations. The esoteric tradition in the future would change from being a peripheral, clandestine force, to become the established, accepted fashion of thinking. The Orbis Tertius would enable humanity as a whole to comprehend reality, though Borges did not know exactly whether reality would prove to be “banal” or even “horrible” (Jaen 1984: 35-39). Perhaps, like Thomas More, Borges invented the fiction of his utopia as a critical tool to urge reform rather than suggesting a surreal alternative to the real world. Yet the New Age movement interpreted Borges according to the latter view (Norris 1996: 169). Certainly, Borges anticipated the New Age fascination with mystical, esoteric thought. Indeed, a leading advocate for the New Age perspective, Marilyn Ferguson, admitted that the implementation of the esoteric tradition outlined by Borges meant that people were becoming more directed by their fantasies rather than coming to grips with the real world (1980: 23-26).

New Age Messianism

Given its sensitivity to mysticism, the New Age has shown a proclivity for messianic leadership, which parallels most modern utopian movements. An illustration of this typology is LaFayette Ron Hubbard (1911-86), the founder of Scientology. Hubbard began as early as 1950 to design a psychological self-help program with pseudoscientific trappings known as “Dianetics.” He described humans as possessing three natures: body, spirit, and a Theta consciousness, which was Hubbard’s expression for the soul. Humans were exiled to earth 75 million years ago by an alien space monarch. The task of humans thenceforward was to discover a transcendent method of liberating the soul from the artificial confinement of body and mind, that is, the Reactive Mind, which caused human misery and pain. Hubbard’s methodology for overcoming the Reactive Mind was known as “auditing,” supervised by a trained auditor helping the subject to perform self-evaluation with the use of an E-meter, two cans wired to an electronic gauge held by the subject to record responses. “Liberation” would dramatically enhance self-esteem and confidence, as well as allow the individual to become a “Clear and Operating Theta,” one who acts on pure knowledge rather than reacting to unkown stimulus-response forces.

With the transformation of Dianetics into a popular movement, Scientology (from the Latin scio, knowing, and the Greek logos, study), Hubbard soon resorted to elaborate fund-raising schemes to finance his organization. He sought out wealthy celebrities, easy prey for a seer who packaged an egocentric philosophy in seemingly authoritative garb. Ultimately, Hubbard constructed ten “Celebrity Centres” around the world as a focal point for recruiting entertainment and media celebrities and artists who could provide the needed cash to fund his operations. Hollywood motion picture stars proved a fertile medium for Hubbard’s solicitation tactics. Yet, with so much money flowing in, Hubbard needed protection from the tax man, so he quickly determined to frame Scientology as a “religion” in order to obtain tax-exempt status (Behar 1991: 50-52).

Hubbard hoped to learn from the mistakes of Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church’s tax troubles in the 1970s. While European governments saw through Hubbard’s fund-raising gimmicks, refusing to grant him standing as a “church,” the U.S. government under the Clinton administration granted Scientology its long-sought tax-exempt status as a religion in 1993 (Behar 1991: 53-57). Scientologists who became corporate officers often forced their employees to endure Scientology lectures flimsily disguised as business management seminars (Singer 1995: 199-202). By the early 1990s, Scientology operated some 500 “churches” in over fifty countries with millions of followers (Behar 1991: 50-57).

While messianically-oriented movements such as Scientology may seem largely innocuous to the general public, other New Age groups have attracted attention due to increasing numbers of violent episodes since the 1970s. Human desperation and gullibility have always attracted charlatans, but for the most part prior to the 1970s the delusions fed by various pied pipers seemed harmless to the follower’s physical security. That changed with the shocking events involving the Jim Jones People’s Temple movement. James Warren Jones (1931-78) was born into a large Depression-era rural Indiana family. His father’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan caused Jones to dismiss parental values and seek escape from his family. While attending college, Jones founded and became pastor of the Christian Assembly of God Church in Indianapolis in the mid-1950s. Jones was especially influenced by the social gospel, in particular the Great Depression ministry of a black evangelist, Father Divine. Jones quickly developed a ministry to the urban poor and promoted interracial peace. During a stint as a missionary to Brazil in 1962-63, Jones established a mission church and some orphanages. By 1964, Jones had changed the name of his Indiana church to the People’s Temple Full Gospel Church (Krause 1978: 27-29).

Suddenly in 1965, Jones began preaching an apocalyptic scenario of global nuclear holocaust, which he predicted would occur in 1967. Responding to his own analysis of danger, in 1966 Jones led seventy families in his congregation on a trek to Ukiah, California. When the date prophecied for the nuclear calamity passed without happening, Jones shifted gears again. He established a mission church in the Fillmore district of San Francisco in an abandoned Jewish synagogue, and began proselytizing among the city’s urban, mostly black, poor. While retaining certain millennial and faith-healing elements from Christianity, Jones’ theology by 1970 had been almost totally transformed into Marxist political propaganda. Yet the People’s Temple grew to 5,000 members by the end of the 1970s, financed mostly by his congregation’s Social Security checks (Wooden 1981: 81-88).

Politically active in local elections, Jones rubbed shoulders with political elites. He was appointed Chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1976 by Mayor George Moscone. Politicians, including Governor Jerry Brown and Vice President Walter Mondale, endorsed Jones’ social agenda. Jones even received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award for 1977 (Krause 1978: 26, 29-31). At the height of his popularity and influence in San Francisco, Jones leased 27,000 acres of remote jungle property in Guyana, which would provide a site for his utopian community. Jones’ paranoia caused him to speak of opposition in the United States, especially the federal government, which investigated his acquisition of Social Security monies (Wooden 1981: 86-88).

About 900 Temple members made the move with Jones to Guyana in 1977, where they built a settlement called “Jonestown.” Meanwhile, Jones adopted increasingly un-Biblical postulates, denouncing the Bible, and lauding Marxists such as Lenin. Continuing to preach the dangers of powerful opponents, Jones led the residents to practice mock suicide drills. When Concerned Relatives, an organization of family members of Jonestown residents, complained about Jones’ coercion and sexual abuse of their relations, California Congressman Leo Ryan made a visit to Guyana in 1978 to investigate the conditions at Jonestown. Ryan was accompanied by some journalists as well as members of Concerned Relatives. Despite hiring conspiracy-theorist attorney Mark Lane as a spokesman to deflect criticism, Jones did not feel that his denial of forcible detention was credible to the visitors. When Ryan’s group made their exit from the compound to the airfield, Jones’ guards murdered the Congressman and several in his party before they could board the airplane. Jones then directed Jonestown’s 972 residents, including some 300 children, to commit mass suicide by drinking poison-laced Kool Aid prepared for the occasion. A few who refused to drink were shot (Krause 1978: 81-117; Levi 1982: 75-87).

The public was shocked and frightened by the Jonestown massacre, since it was unprecedented, especially in a movement supposedly offering hope to the downtrodden. Yet the Jonestown tragedy was only the beginning for a variety of violent fanaticism among New Age messianic cults. Increasingly, members of cults, and especially their leaders, resorted to suicidal tactics seeking either to avoid external controls or simply escape to a more peaceful existence beyond the physical world. As the numbers of those, especially alienated teenagers who dropped out of society or families in despair and loneliness, increased, New Age cults became ever present, offering their movements as a refuge, a sort of surrogate family. Such participants were especially vulnerable to fears about punishment by outsiders, often willing to embrace martyrdom as a meaningful final gesture (Saliba 1996: 70-72).

Other messianic cults proved that the People’s Temple episode of violence was not unique. When the U.S. government sought in 1993 to arrest certain Branch Davidian cultists for firearms violations, a fire in their Texas compound killed the 75 residents, including their spiritual leader, David Koresh (ne Vernon Howell). The Branch Davidians were a splinter group from the Davidians, who themselves had separated from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the 1930s. These groups preached an apocalyptic message not unlike that of Jim Jones. Koresh became the leader of the Branch Davidians in 1987, assuming certain messianic traits. In 1994-95, followers of another small sect, the order of the Solar Temple, committed mass suicide at locations in Canada, France, and Switzerland The Order was founded in 1984 by a Belgian medical doctor, Luc Jouret, who became obsessed with homeopathic medicine and advocated extreme positions on environmentalism. Together with these interests, Jouret blended New Age themes of astrology and the apocalypse. When police in 1994 discovered 48 bodies draped in ceremonial robes in Switzerland, Jouret was among the dead. A more recent example of this troubling trend was the Heaven’s Gate cult, begun in the 1970s by Marshall Applewhite. Heaven’s Gate also mixed quasi-Christian beliefs about an afterlife and messianic deliverance with theories about space aliens and transmigration of the soul into a higher form of life after death (Balch in Lewis 1995: 141-58).

A popular aspect of many recent cult movements has been the proliferation of space alien propaganda, which has profited from media resources, particularly the Internet. It was just a short step from popular culture’s fascination with science fiction, and its manifestation in television and motion picture cult following, to interaction with aliens. UFO cults provided a more tangible framework than earlier spiritualism, since they gave material form to their objects of worship. An example of the increasingly popular UFO cults is the Raelians, begun by a French race car driver, Claude Vorilhon, who took the name “Rael” in 1973, when he founded the cult. Rael avers that during a hike in the French mountains he encountered green, humanoid aliens who brought a message from the Elohim, superior extraterrestrial beings. Rael was to become the liaison with humans to announce the option of either destroying the earth with nuclear weapons or participating in an evolutionary transcendence of the consciousness to join the Elohim and become space travelers, preparing for Elohim’s return to Jerusalem in 2025. The Raelians claim twenty thousand members, mostly in Japan, France, and Quebec, Canada. They became controversial not only due to their denial of God or the soul, but also their openly sexual “sensual meditation” exercises (Palmer in Lewis 1995: 106-10).

The Past as Prologue

Just as twentieth-century totalitarian dictatorships utilized psychological manipulation to establish and maintain control over their subjects, so cult leaders skillfully exploit human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Mel Faber catalogs the New Age mindset as reflecting “infantile omnipotence,” or an egocentric belief in powers of the self, an obsession to “fuse regressively” with the physical world to end the feeling of separation, and the trait of “narcissistic inflation,” which allows a naive simplemindedness about other people and the universe (1996: 7-8). Cults often begin with an emphasis on deprivation—economic, social, physical, ethical, psychological—followed by stress on the subject’s need for a total break with previous social links and conventions. Leaders insist that they alone possess the necessary and true visions to lead the group so that cult members are discouraged from seeking information or education beyond what is fed to them as propaganda. Exploitation of guilt feelings is often a primary vehicle for attracting the potential recruit to the cult.

When neophytes are brought into the fold, the leader emphasizes that they must isolate themselves from the outside world and break all bonds with their previous life. In order to demonstrate loyalty to the leader and the cult, members must devote all their energies, time, and material resources for the betterment of the movement. Taught that the end of time, the world, or life is close at hand, cult followers must be willing to obey the leader even if it causes violence to themselves or others (Rudin 1980: 20-26). By relying on a mixture of half-truths and myths, especially regarding religious teachings, cults can allay fears of leaving out certain deeply-held belief elements from the past, while diluting the new system of beliefs to permit flexible, if arbitrary, concepts propounded by their leader.

At first glance, the diverse New Age movements seem to lack unity or a common structure, yet there are in fact many common historical threads which may be linked to show strikingly similar elements in New Age thought. By embracing relativism, the New Age assumes that Truth is based on the perception, rather than on the reality, of the phenomena. The classical Greek philosophers beginning with Socrates were perhaps the first to reject relativism, that is sophistry, by arguing that reality does not conform to supposition, but supposition must conform to reality (Norris 1996: 173). The desire for unity and universalism may be considered a function of both Eastern and Western thought. Yet the New Age movement follows the Oriental method of seeking personal happiness by making the external spiritual world coincide with the individual’s inner psychological awareness. In contrast, the traditional Western, JudeoChristian, approach requires the individual to adhere to standards established by a higher spiritual authority beyond the self (Allen 1994: 46-49). The New Age also follows Eastern philosophy in concentrating on a spiritual and material oneness or unity in the universe. But it is an evolving discovery by the individual so that it is almost totally relative and thus likely to be at variance with material existence. In the end, however, the New Age pretension about finding meaning in a transcendent realm beyond the material existence is simply an amalgamation of historical elements woven haphazardly together as if it were an entirely new garment.

The origins and essence of the New Age derive from the confluence of several initially independent historical streams. First, such publicists of science as Bernal sought to recover public confidence in science by employing less technical, and more practical applications of science, albeit with science directing social organization. Next, Snow and his disciples sought to co-opt the authority of the humanities and ideology by claiming science as the only answer to new dangers for civilization such as nuclear weapons and pollution. Teilhard filled the need for a spiritual guru by blending an oversimplified science with mysticism. Theosophy added strains of Oriental spiritualism and the occult to the mix. Finally, from Borges’ esoteric tradition came the ultimate step of replacing reality with illusion, paving the way for the birth of the New Age.

In sum, Bernal, Teilhard, Borges, and others fashioned a “third dimension” as the basis for their utopian order, beyond and superior to the past and present material realities. Such movements are not only relativist in regard to formerly important traditions emphasizing truth and facts, but also escapist in their determination to pretend that the existential world is for true believers merely an exercise in living fantasy. Relying on a suggestive syncretism of half-truths to create a smorgasbord of elements such as spiritualism, pseudoscience, and mysticism, the New Age has become an easy way for individuals to cast aside their social and familial responsibilities to pursue a dream of release from the cares of the world.

If the New Age is an unsatisfactory solution to the dilemma of Western culture for the twenty-first century, what is the proper response to it? The key to recovering literacy in educational institutions, and restoring familial bonds and meaning to life, is to try and recover the fundamental elements of truth embodied in genuine science and the Christian ethic. In order for these two realms to resume their proper place and influence in Western civilization, institutions must again provide the answers to questions asked by those attracted to New Age groups. The first step is for institutions to reclaim their integrity, for without it there is no trust or confidence. New Agers, like many others in postmodern society, seek a degree of certainty about what science can provide, without egregious claims of solving all human problems or crass oversimplifications in the form of pseudoscience. They also seek meaning in religious expression, which truly is not of this materialistic world, yet shows compassion and charity without expectation of return. Regarding science, society needs to move beyond the antagonism between the exact and sociological sciences to focus on the certain, if limited, knowledge which science can provide to making life better and more productive for all.

As for religion, the watering down of Christian tenets with “feel-good” formulas from magic, science-fiction, or esoteric ingredients causes confusion rather than providing realistic answers. Individual Christians can demonstrate unselfish love, integrity, and ethical values, which society craves and yet seems unable to articulate due to widespread rootlessness. Western culture can return to reality-based and historically-grounded assumptions about scientific facts and spiritual beliefs. An essential starting point, like Socrates in classical Greece, is to uncover obscurantism and cant, such as twentieth-century relativism, and embrace the Western heritage of belief in fundamental truths. Once the truth is reclaimed, it will provide clarity concerning the New Age’s confusion and uncertainty about the meaning of life, and allow the restoration of a culture of virtue.