Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Studying Cults

A Forty-Year Reflection

David Lane

The cults of the future will be virtual and therein lays the uncharted territory.

Several months ago I was asked to complete a questionnaire about my decades-long research into cults, or what is more properly known today as new religious movements. I have decided to slightly edit it for publication by minimizing the questions that were asked, since the responses to varying queries tended to flow into one another. The following is my edited version of the same.


Exposing Cults, David Lane

For the first twenty or so years of my career I concentrated on the study of relatively new religions in India and their impact on cults in North America and elsewhere. My first book was actually completed when I was 20 and over the next couple of years after that I added significantly to it. It started out as a term paper on Eckankar but quickly evolved into a much longer study entitled The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar. This caused a major stir in the movement and it has been widely cited for the past four decades, primarily because the book claimed that the founder of Eckankar had plagiarized many of his sacred writings and had lied about his past. After this I co-founded a journal with Brian Walsh called Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements, which was published over the span of four years. We did critical studies on John-Roger Hinkins and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA), Adi Da, and Sathya Sai Baba, among others. It generated a lot of controversy and at one point my life and others associated with me were threatened by John-Roger Hinkins, who eventually robbed my home in Del Mar, California. Peter McWilliams famous book, LIFE 102: What To Do When Your Guru Sues You has an entire chapter devoted to how John-Roger orchestrated a smear campaign against me and other researchers.

I did my M.A. and Ph.D. on the history of the Radhasoami, which eventually led to my book The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992). Several of my critical articles on cults were published in a library volume entitled Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994).

After securing my Ph.D., my focus changed and I became interested in studying quantum theory, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. I was particularly interested in understanding the material basis behind consciousness. I have written a large number of articles and essays on this subject for Integral World. Several books have also been published including, Is the Universe an App?, Adventures in Science and The Feynman Imperative (Mt. San Antonio College, various dates), among others.

I also became interested in making films when I first started teaching upper division courses on science and religion at California State University, Long Beach. This has resulted in over 100 short films on such subjects as the Einstein-Bohr debate over the implications of quantum theory, the future of artificial intelligence in the classroom, and a neurological explanation behind near-death experiences. Currently, I am in the process of finishing up a large book entitled The Library of Consciousness.

The Definition of a Cult

The standard definition for cult is, “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.” In this context, almost anything can be taken as a cult, particularly if we define religion as Paul Tillich has as “anything for which we have ultimate concern.”

However, the more popular usage of cult is what we see in the mainstream press for any group that is not traditional and displays aberrant behaviors from the norm.

Today in religious studies scholars tend not to use the term cult but instead use the all purpose term, “new religious movements.”

My own view is that every religion or ism can be regarded as potentially cultic, if we use the pejorative usage of that term. Even a sport like surfing can have a cult-like following or a charismatic leader in politics can be seen as cultic. It all depends on how we are using the term. Today in the mass media it has become a buzzword for anything bizarre.

Why so many cults in California?

Yes, I think it is not surprising that California—given its population of nearly 40 million inhabitants and its wide ethnic diversity—does indeed have a disproportionate number of cults or new religious movements. Several factors contribute to this, not the least of which is its location on the Pacific Rim and the influx of new arrivals from various countries around the world. For instance, the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act set into law by then President Lyndon Johnson had a dramatic impact on allowing many more Indians to migrate into this country. These Indians (from north and south) brought with them their culture, their cuisine, their clothes, and perhaps most importantly, their religion. San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco being sea ports and key entry points into the United States became a haven for a large influx of highly educated Indians, Chinese, Africans, Indonesians, and others. Los Angeles, in particular, has often been regarded as the “Benares” of America, since there are so many different faiths that have established centers there. Thus it isn’t an exaggeration to say that California has more than the lion share of alternative religions as well as alternative lifestyles.

Besides the obvious economic and political incentives that draw so many to California, there is also a greater tolerance for different faiths and different viewpoints. Some scholars argue that any large seaport (such as San Francisco and New York) are by their very existence more open to an influx of new ideas, including religious ones since it must cater to accepting any and all nationalities—even if some of them may at first seem strange or unusual. One can think of any host of examples, including the influence that Paramahansa Yogananda and his organization Self-Realization Fellowship has had throughout southern California. Eckankar started in California and others groups have blossomed here, including L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology and Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabupada’s Krsna Consciousness.

The Attraction of Cults

It is wrong to think that only a certain set of individuals are attracted to cults. The truth is more complex. Potentially anyone can be susceptible to new religious movements and/or certain cult leaders. What we have discovered is that there isn’t just one type of person who joins these groups. Rather, it all depends on the time, the place, and precisely what a person is looking for or what they feel they lack.

Cults vary in how they recruit new members. I have long noticed that Christian evangelicals are very fond of trying to gather new followers by preaching on college campuses. They do this by handing out literature (usually the New Testament in paperback) or inviting undergraduates to an informal dinner or Bible study. The Hare Krsnas’ were famous for preaching at airports until they were banned. Others like the Church of God tried to bait would-be disciples by having women flirt or seduce males. Some just advertise on the Internet or lure followers by offering I.Q. tests or personality assessments. Still others gather new followers by promising more money or more power or a better job.

The best way to see how these relationships evolve is through a series of hierarchies or concentric circles. Usually, those on the outer perimeters don’t witness the humanness and manipulation that goes on “behind the curtain.” Thus in their innocence, they tend to think everything is honest and upfront. However, the closer you get to the cult leader, the more dangerous it becomes. Now, this isn’t true for all cults or religions, but it is true for many of them.

The best example I know of is the late guru Sathya Sai Baba. If you stayed on the outer circle or the lower rung of the hierarchy you wouldn’t have known that he faked his magic tricks and that he was sexually manipulating a large number of school boys.

The same holds true for those in MSIA. The closer you got to John-Roger Hinkins, the founder, the more one witnessed his numerous unethical actions.

Very few disciples of Gary Olsen, founder of MasterPath, know that he plagiarized some of his books in order to make money and that he was for a long time a chain smoker of marijuana. This kind of stuff is not in their brochures; so only those on the inner circle get access to the very humanness of these various gurus.

Additionally, there is no doubt that these multi-level marketing companies act very cultic in how they push their membership to secure more members and more money. We have seen this in EST (later Landmark), Insight Transformational Seminars, and Arbonne where the real motive is to enrich the founders. Prosperity consciousness is also rampant in many Christian groups in California and elsewhere, particularly when they try to get naïve individuals to tithe and send prayer money seeds. Quite frankly, many religions and cults are really fronts for a sophisticated pyramid or Ponzi schemes.

The Deeper Lesson about Cults

I have noticed that by doing intensive research on a few cults, particularly Eckankar, it has provided me with a window to better understand other religious groups and the various dynamics that go on under the surface. One of the things I have better understood is the need for individuals to find meaning in their lives, regardless of whether or not their particular faith is factually honest or not. In 2014 I gave a presentation to the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India, focusing on the theory of Meaning Equivalence (M.E.) in religion. Here is a brief excerpt explaining it:

“I think the simplest reason that there are thousands of religions around the world is due to Meaning Equivalence which is that any meaning is better than no meaning provided such meaning makes one want to live an extra day. It is not really an issue of whether one religion is truer than another or even that a particular religious system is simply made up, but rather that the believer finds something of value or solace in it. The fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Scientologist each have differing ideologies, but what they share in common is that they are each believers and it is the act of believing (and not necessarily what is believed) that is the motivating force. This is a very obvious but nevertheless telling point that is too often obscured by a relentless focus on doctrinal differences and not on what is the same with all devotees, without exception . . . the brain.”

Also, one of the most peculiar traits I have noticed is that the sense of “belonging” to a tight religious community is very important and serves as an important bonding mechanism keeping individuals within the fold, even if he or she knows that the cult or the cult leader are corrupt. In MSIA, several of the most powerful people in the organization had no such status outside of the group and thus it was difficult for them to dissociate from the cult since they would lose respect and status that they had within the group’s hierarchy.

 Ching Hai
Supreme Master Ching Hai

Eckankar’s founder Paul Twitchell was infamous for attempting to lie about his past and invent a new mythology about his life and work. We have used the term “genealogical dissociation” to describe how some new religions become autonomous by denying or hiding their past associations since they want to be seen as something distinct or new or innovative. This tendency for genealogical dissociation is much more common in religion than one might at first suspect. John-Roger Hinkins, founder of MSIA, has tried to downplay his association with Eckankar and their theology (even though he was clearly connected to them for a spell and highly influenced by their teachings). Ching Hai, the well known woman guru, tried to deny for many years her close association with the notorious shabd yoga guru, Thakar Singh, since she didn’t want to be tainted by her former guru’s sexual exploits. Adi Da, otherwise known as Franklin Jones, has tried to redact any and all references (even in his own autobiography) that clearly showed that he was a member of Scientology for over a year. And the list goes on.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I discovered was how “charisma” is more or less a social construction and has little to do (ironically) with the leader or guru in question, even if disciples tend to believe otherwise. Simply put, any person given the right social setting can be perceived as a charismatic leader, provided that the setting and staging is done in a certain context. This would explain why outsiders to cults tend not to see what the insiders perceive.

Cults and their Damaging Impact

The damage can be extensive, ranging from mass suicides (as we saw with Jim Jones and Jonestown in the late 1970s) to murder to death threats to physical abuse to deep psychological traumas. It all depends, of course, on the religious group in question. Three years ago, the well-known spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen, was forced to resign because his closest followers eventually revolted and pushed back against years of abuse and tyranny. Here is a short list of the abuses they suffered (excerpted from Hal Blacker’s “The ‘A’ List of Andrew Cohen.”):

  • “Hitting, slapping, punching of students by Andrew Cohen and other students at Cohen's command. At times a group of men was ordered by Andrew Cohen to corner and attack fellow students and at times men were ordered to restrain a man while Cohen hit him.
  • Having students pour buckets of paint over the head of a former student who was helping to work on the Foxhollow EnlightenNext premises, as a form of punishment and humiliation.
  • Using repeated group and individual pressure tactics on a student who Andrew Cohen knew to be psychologically vulnerable, in order to induce her to contribute approximately $2,000,000 for the purchase of the Foxhollow compound in Lenox, Massachusetts, the headquarters and residence of Cohen and the EnlightenNext community. Soon after meeting this student, Cohen had elicited from her that she had a trust fund and was in intensive psychotherapy four times per week and persuaded her to cease her psychotherapeutic treatment.
  • Requiring a student to visit prostitutes repeatedly over a several week period and to provide detailed faxed reports on these visits to Cohen, despite the student strongly expressing his strong disgust and emotional trauma over having to do this and daily begging Cohen to be allowed to stop. Witnesses saw Cohen reading and listening to the reports of the prostitute visits with great interest, enjoying and laughing at them.”

Blacker’s list catalogs 30 more abuses—from financial to private.

What is the most common damage, however, is that the student gives up his or her critical thinking faculties and succumbs to all sorts of mind-numbing and magical ways of justifying their respective cult leader’s actions, even when they go against his or her moral antennae.

Now to be fair, I have no doubt that some members have benefitted from their association with certain cults. There can be many reasons for this, but I think the primary one is due to the individual’s own sincerity for improvement. The catch, though, is that the would-be disciple tends to attribute whatever benefit they derive from the group or the leader and not where it is really coming from—their own self.

This reminds me of the late “unknowing” sage, Baba Faqir Chand, who was a very respected master of Shabd yoga. Unlike other gurus, Faqir was disarmingly frank and forthcoming about his own limitations. Faqir personally gave me worldwide permission to publish his autobiography shortly before he died. Recently a philosophy student of mine, who went through the work we published, provided a nice summary of what Faqir Chand had realized. I think it is highly instructive and worthy of a full citation:

Baba Faqir Chand
Baba Faqir Chand
“Chand revealed that all gurus are ignorant about the real cause of the visions and miracles attributed to them and that because of this ignorance, the gurus gained power and devotion from followers that accredited omnipresence and omniscience to them even though these gurus were neither. This realization came to Chand in 1919, when he was posted in Iraq with the military. After a fierce battle, the forces were low on ammunition and feared the end. Chand received a vision himself, in which a sacred figure implored him not to fear, that the enemy had come not to attack, but to collect their dead. He was told to allow the enemy to collect their dead and not waste ammunition on engaging them. He sent for the major, informed him of his vision and the directions he received in it. The major followed these directions, and the enemy did come. They collected their dead and did not attack like Chand's vision had said. After three months, the fighting subsided and Chand returned to Baghdad. When he arrived, he was made to sit on a raised platform, offered flowers, and worshiped. Chand was surprised, and inquired as to why he was being worshiped, that he was not their guru. He was informed that during the battles, these worshipers had visions of him, stating that he appeared to them during the battle and gave them direction for their safety. Chand was astonished, having given no thought to their plight because of the danger he faced himself. Questions arose within himself due to this incident, but he found his faith strengthened. He concluded: "Whosoever remembers God in whatever form, in that very form He helped his devotee." What Chand came to understand is that these manifestations were created by the mind. Is it possible that such manifestations are due to our subconscious minds taking evidence collected by the conscious mind, analyzing the information and deciding on the course of action that would best lead to self-preservation? That the transpersonal encounters are merely whatever sacred form we find most comforting, most guiding? Could we be attributing survival to deities when it is truly our own minds responding to danger and acting in the interest of self-preservation?”

The Cultic Influence

Cults are not behind us by any means, but they are changing forms and adapting to new needs and new desires.

Cults have influences in some remarkable ways, including the very way we eat. I have noticed that many of these alternative religions, particularly those concerned with vegetarianism, have established some very successful food-related enterprises. Such companies include Nature’s Path, founded by Arran Stephens who was a follower of the late Kirpal Singh, founder of Ruhani Satsang and a one-time guru to Paul Twitchell of Eckankar among many others. Amy’s Foods, founded by Andy and Rachel Berliner who are both initiates of the late Charan Singh of Radhasoami Satsang Beas, which has attracted millions worldwide, including the famous singer Shania Twain. And the list goes on.

Paramahansa Yogananda’s influence can be seen throughout southern California, particularly in his beautiful landscaped centers, ranging from the Lake Shrine in Santa Monica to the SRF temple grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Encinitas.

Scientology, of course, has had a major impact with its glamorous Hollywood center. And there are alternative ashrams, centers, and meeting places dotted throughout California.

If we include charismatic marketing gurus like Tony Robbins and others, then it is readily apparent that cult leaders and their messages have had an impact on both television and movies.

Yet, there has been a shift from the archetypal, authoritarian cult leader of the 1960s and 1970s to a more open and technically progressive teacher or guru, although there are indeed quite a few exceptions. This may be partly due to a series of cult exposes that transpired during the 1980s onwards, where guru figures such as Swami Muktananda, Adi Da, John-Roger Hinkins, Paul Twitchell, L. Ron Hubbard, and a whole slew of Buddhist and Hindu gurus (particularly Sathya Sai Baba) were shown to have clay feet or worse.

Today, as far I can ascertain, technology (from iPhones to iPads to Oculus Rift, and so on) have become so popular and ubiquitous that it is not an exaggeration to say that the Internet has become the real guru of 2017 and this is where a vast majority of young people are turning. Whether it is to follow a particularly gifted YouTuber or a new and upcoming visual artist, young people today have many more options available to them than before.

Cults are not behind us by any means, but they are changing forms and adapting to new needs and new desires.

The cult of technology may be the most powerful one yet, and it is for this very reason that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and others, are very fearful of where Artificial Intelligence may lead.

The cult leader of the future may indeed be an A.I. animatronic. We are cult members of the future who are more addicted to our smartphones than anything else. One report says we look at our smartphones more than 150 times a day on average.

So, the deeper question is why the human mind tends to be obsessed or wrapped up with a certain ideal or icon or path. Given our evolutionary history, cults just change form, but do not disappear.

In the 1960s many sociologists felt that “God was Dead” (to echo that famous line from Nietzsche and the famous cover of Time Magazine of that period) and that secularization would eventually replace religion. That didn’t happen. As Professor Andrea Diem-Lane wrote in her book, The Rise of New Religions, “gods don’t die, they just resurrect in new forms.”

The Suicide Cults and Heaven’s Gate

Time Magazine, Is God Dead?

I was living in Del Mar at the time, which wasn’t very far from where the members committed suicide. I even knew about Marshall Applewhite years prior due to another cult researcher who had done some pioneering work on his small, but growing group. Prior to Heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians, the mass suicide in Jonestown was the ground zero for a more critical appraisement of new religions. Because of Heaven Gate’s involvement with the Internet (they were known for doing website development) and its unusual theology and the subsequent suicides, it attracted massive media attention. In the United States, these three tragic events (from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate) have clearly impacted how the general population sees minority religions with deep suspicion. Of course, the child pedophile scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has probably added to a growing suspicion and skepticism of religion in general. This may partly explain why agnosticism and atheism is much more acceptable to the younger generations than it was in decades past.

If the distinguished historian of religion, the late Mircea Eliade, is correct that religion is an element of consciousness (and not merely a stage within it that we grow out of), then we should expect cults to persist, even if the mass media presents them in the most negative light possible. With the rise of the World Wide Web, it has allowed almost anyone to start his or her own new religion. I know of a number of individuals who have started their own cults, although on average they have a minimal number of followers.

Nevertheless, the dominant cults today in California are invariably Christian related, with all sorts of denominational offshoots sprouting up in various counties, usually over leadership or doctrinal disputes. I would have put Scientology at the top of my list of cults that are dangerous, but there has been so much criticism of them now in books, films, and television that I think the public is dutifully aware of how bad an organization it can be. The most dangerous of cults are those with leaders who claim absolute authority and there may well be small groups that have yet to come to our attention that will end up being similar to Heaven’s Gate. Ironically, it seems that our more established religions are even more dangerous than cults, particularly in carrying out violence or sexual abuse. In this regard, Islamic fundamentalism stands out, as do some apocalyptic Christian groups.

The Future of Cults

We may be witnessing the “Uberization” of cults, since it is now possible for anyone, anywhere, and at anytime to create their own mini-movement. I saw this first happen back in the early 1990s where certain individuals (such as Michael Martin, now deceased; and Michael Turner, still living) started posting on various newsgroups that they were enlightened masters and had the ability to lead souls to higher regions of consciousness. Neither of these individuals had an organization to speak of, except that they were prolific posters on the web. I am not even sure if Michael Martin had any followers, except that he became well known for his megalomaniacal posts. Michael Turner, on the other hand, has only had a handful of students even though he has tried to reach out for new recruits with new e-books and newsletters.

The most alarming on-going danger is for naïve neophytes to falsely believe that another individual has supernatural power and knowledge, when, in point of fact, they have neither. The more we understand the modus operandi behind the Chandian Effect (how we mistakenly project onto others what we ourselves are doing neurologically) the less likely we are to be hoodwinked by charlatans. The problem now is that we have a flood of “fake news” items circulating around the Internet and unless one is a seasoned skeptic, it is far too easy now to be duped and manipulated by information that at first glance appears to be factual but which isn’t.

We have seen a tremendous amount of lying in our political arenas, and the same holds true in the religious realm.

Thus the ongoing danger is in the virtual world, where it is far too easy to confuse the image with reality and derive a benefit from those who cannot distinguish the difference.

I am convinced that technology and artificial intelligence will bring a whole new way to present religion. We can already see how much video gaming has changed the culture. The same will hold true with various religions since they will try to provide a deeper and richer experience to its new recruits.

Virtual reality headsets are now all the rage among technophiles. I can foresee that in the future we will have “designer” religions which will provide users with remarkable and “converting” experiences--convincing him or her of the supposed “truth” of that particular religion.

This may seem far-fetched, but it isn’t. To give one crude, but telling example, think of the impact that Mel Gibson’s The Passion had on audiences worldwide. And that was just a 2-D film. Imagine what will happen when VR and Religion intertwine.

The cults of the future will be virtual and therein lays the uncharted territory.

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