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Archive for the 'Cults' Category
Tuesday, June 10th, 2008
I just learned about a website put together by ex-followers of Ramtha, the supposedly channeled entity of “What the Bleep” fame. There’s some good resources there including an active forum and recovery information that would likely be of interest not just to ex-members but anyone who has questioned the channeling phenomenon.
Enlighten Me Free
Friday, May 9th, 2008
Matt Taibbi is an atheist who went undercover to participate in a religious boot camp for new converts of controversial pastor John Hagee. In this excerpt from his new book, posted on alternet.org, Taibbi describes a strange mixture of self-help and religious indoctrination that is chillingly reminiscent of classic cult techniques. As he comments, participants were brought to a place where they “left behind the mental processes that a person would need to form an independent opinion…”
Great Derangement Excerpt
Thursday, April 24th, 2008
Diana Mukpo was a rebellious teenager when she first began studying with Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist Rinpoche who had escaped Tibet in 1959 and began teaching in England several years later. She was just sixteen when they defied both her family and his community to marry.
Dragon Thunder is Diana’s memoir about her 17 years as the wife of one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in America. The book is written in straight narrative that lacks the literary flourishes common to modern memoirs, but the events of her life are interesting enough that I did find her story engaging.
Though Diana does discuss Trungpa’s teachings in the sense of describing how he worked to integrate Tibetan wisdom in to American culture, there is no detailed outline of the finer points of Tibetan Buddhism. The story is told from her perspective and as such spends a fair amount of time relating tales of things like the time their two year old son bit the head off of a scared Buddha and her attempts to live a life independent of the sangha by developing her own career in dressage.
As Trungpa’s wife, lover, friend and student, Diana offers a fascinating perspective on him that no one else can provide. But I found myself disturbed by her extremely detached discussion of some of his more controversial behaviors. Although she acknowledges that Trungpa slept many of his female students and talks about how upsetting that was for her at first, her justification of his actions seemed forced to me. I found it worrisome that she never addressed the problems inherent in a teacher encouraging his students to practice guru devotion while having sex with those same students.
Many people consider Trungpa to be a prime example of a “crazy wisdom” teacher, a being so enlightened and compassionate that this sort of unconventional behavior is acceptable because it is solely for the benefits of his students. Despite Diana’s perspective on the matter, I remained unconvinced that the heavy drinking that killed him at 48 was anything more than alcoholism, and his physical mistreatment of some students was anything more than abuse.
The book did make it very clear, however, that Trungpa was an enormously powerful teacher who left an enduring stamp on Buddhist culture in America. Though I never studied Trungpa’s teachings in depth, I am a graduate of the university he founded in an attempt to integrate the best of Eastern wisdom with Western scholarship. My Naropa education was enormously valuable to me, and though the school has grown well beyond its controversial founder, it remains guided by his vision. So I suppose this makes it a classic example of the fact that spiritual teachers, no matter how controversial, rarely leave a legacy that can be judged in black and white.
Wednesday, January 9th, 2008
This book traces the origins of the modern New Age movement through examining the lives and philosophies of its charismatic founders. Theosophy founder Madame Blavatsky was just the first of many who garnered spiritual street cred by claiming to be in contact with a secret brotherhood of ascended masters. Though there is ample evidence that Blavatsky was nothing more than a highly creative fakir, her attempt to build a new spirituality based on the common thread within all religions struck such a chord with the world-weary sophisticates of her day that she succeeded in founding an enormous spiritual legacy.
Washington spends a great deal of time in this book detailing the various infights, outfights, scandals and shenanigans that plagued this movement from its beginnings, and there is plenty of comedy to had in this history. My enjoyment of the book was tempered, however, by the fact that this spiritual soap opera has a cast of characters that is so vast, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all. What Washington’s extensive coverage of the various players and their very human failings makes clear, however, is that the history of charismatic individuals abusing their self-proclaimed spiritual power is a long one. Those interested in cults will find his portrayal of the dynamics between these early teachers and their students particularly insightful.
Though Washington does discuss in broad terms the spiritual philosophies behind Theosophy, Anthroposophy, the Work of Gurdjieff and the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, those who are looking for an in-depth analysis of these systems will likely be disappointed. Those who are interested in reviewing a fascinating portrait of human nature as it relates to spirituality and the development of new religions, however, will be amply rewarded by the expansive, clear-eyed perspective Washington brings to a subject that is usually shrouded in hazy myth.
Saturday, December 29th, 2007
This is the most comprehensive book I have read about the current conflict between religion and science. Dawkins provides an excellent overview of the major flash points in one of our most important debates, and he writes with enough lucidity that the complex scientific and ethical questions at the heart of this debate are easily understandable.
In addition to discussing the arguments both for and against the existence of God, Dawkins tackles numerous other topics including evolutionary theories about the origins of religion, the question of where humans actually get their sense of morality from, the extreme dangers of absolutist thinking, whether the benefits religion provides outweigh the suffering it has caused, and the fact that it is actually possible to have a meaningful, moral, and joyful life without religion.
Many devout people have taken Dawkins to task for what they perceive as his hostility towards religion. There is no question that Dawkins is breaking the taboo against questioning religious beliefs in this book. At a time when there are many, many people in the world who seek to force their own morality onto others through violent or political means, however, I have to agree with Dawkins that breaking this taboo and applying scientific and critical thinking to matters of faith is absolutely necessary. For those with cultic experience, the book will provide a particularly valuable education in reawakening dormant critical thinking skills.
The one criticism I have of Dawkins’ book is that he has absolutely zero patience for the kind of poorly reasoned arguments that are so often used by the religious to defend their beliefs. This gives parts of the book a condescending tone that I suspect will be more likely to inspire offense than open anyone’s mind. But for those who are interested in seriously questioning their own faith, or who want to know more about the current battles between science and religion, I know of no better book.