Recently (through Guruphiliac on Facebook) I found this article (in five parts) about the Rajneeshee commune that used to be in Oregon in the 80's. TLDR: swami moves to Oregon, buys 100 square mile ranch, tries to establish a commune/town and butts up against the local constabulary/zoning officials, which results in poisoning of the local public, poisoning of officials, arson, attempted murder, a pitiful attempt at voter fraud, and just general meanness. Swami deported (to rise again with a different name), scheming minions arrested, ranch sold to someone who turned it into a xian youth camp (of course).*

I've also recently sponged up Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jack Krakauer, and am contemplating the new biography of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn (although I remember how squeamish I got when I read Helter Skelter when I was younger, and keep putting it down when I glance through it at the bookstore). Just to name a few off the top of my head. (Oh and The Man in the Rockefeller Suit which is more evil con man story than anything, but still gets clumped in my head with the others.)

It just makes me wonder: why am I drawn to this stuff? Is it the lure of the mesmerizing leader? Is it the many acts of grotesque evil that are committed in the name of religion? Is it the blind followers who do what they're told without question? or the followers who stand up to make a difference? Given my past involvement in Landmark Education, which while not a religion still has cult-like tendencies, my guess is all of that and more. I think I still bare a bit of shame at being drawn into Landmark so easily, so perhaps by reading through these books I can more readily spot those wretched individuals who take advantage of others. Perhaps that is my altruistic reason. And another reason would just be that I want to sit and smoke my schadenfreude pipe. Also I've often thought that if I ever had the means to go back to school, this is what I would study-the cult of personality, the religious being irreligious, the followers who need someone to tell them what to do. I just find it fascinating.

So I guess the question is: what's your "traffic accident" (should look away, can't look away) guilty pleasure in the realm of religiosity? Also any other books that you've read along this line that you would recommend?

Thanks for reading! Reg

*I kept thinking as I read the article that they went about this the wrong way and instead should have taken as an example of a successful overtaking of a town from our own Iowa city of Fairfield, which hosts (albeit reluctantly in the beginning) the Maharishi "university" to which people from all over the world flock to in a deluded attempt to learn flying meditation. But that's beside the point, I suppose.

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I don't think I have any guilty pleasures in religiosity or any kind of evil.  It just makes me too angry with and too depressed about the human race.

However, I did read "Under the Banner of Heaven" because it gave me some good things to use to help me point-out the evil that is mormonism to my mormon family members.

I also read a lot of the posts on Atheist Nexus about those kinds of things, just so I know what's going-on and don't remain too ignorant.

I think it's because of the unbelievability of the stories. They are so unrealistic as to fall into the category of fiction. The fact that they actually happened is the real curiosity here.

At this point I have to declare a love of gospel music!!! Unbelievable but true. I love the passion and the harmonies.

I think you're right Vangelis. There is definitely a certain amount of my feeling that people really can't be that horrid, and then there it is on the written page.

I highly enjoy gospel music as well! It reminds me of my grandmother who used to sing in the kitchen with my aunts. And blue grass in there as well.

I had the same curiosity regarding Hitler, the Nazis, Stalin and other leaders. I think what you're plugged into is a fascination with the concept of charisma. While I had an interest in the what, where and why of WWII battles and such, I was more drawn to the question of why would an entire country follow what, in retrospect, we can agree was a sociopathic murdererer.

Our lives would all be much easier if there were someone we could look to with all the answers. Someone that knew what was right, what was wrong, and who knew at which point it was the right time to switch the two around. It's an easy excuse to say we're just busy and want someone else to deal with making the sausage. Unfortunately, in the end, we become the sausage.

What is it, do you suppose, that ordinary people can get caught up in Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Ken Ham or Frank Turek? 

Frank Turek asked:

How universe arose from nothing?

Did god perform extreme fine tuning that arose from chaos? 

How did life arise from non-life?

How did morality arise from material?

How did reason and logic arise from mater?

How did mind arise from mud?

How did mathematics arise from molecules?

How did human freedom arise from blind repetitive forces?

How did consciousness arise from chemicals?

Until the Age of Enlightenment, there were few concrete answers to these questions, merely speculation of philosophers. 

With modern science, more of these questions have reliable, replicable, repeatable answers. Being stuck in the Dark Ages, a mind that cannot open to the Newtonian Laws of Physics cannot understand or even imagine the answers to these questions. We are at the same place now with quantum physics. Natural laws and Newtonian laws have to be set aside in order to let room for the new reality of the microscopic world. 

Christopher Hitchens vs Frank Turek, What Best Explains Reality, Theism or Atheism


Like Greg, I too have an interest in why an entire nation could so easily be deluded and willingly drawn into their own Götterdämmerung.  I am currently reading the two volume biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw. A sense of belonging to the group, having to be protected from enemies - real or imagined, and mostly imagined. A willing abrogation of the right to critically and independently think, coupled with the hero worship of a charismatic figure. A recipe for disaster.


I could read a hundred books on the subject and I'd still not be any kind of authority on the subject. It's very complex.

One thing I think people miss is just how vulnerable we all are to oppression. A free society is a fragile thing, easily corrupted by those with terrible motives. Those of us who recognize this fact have a responsibility to point this out to others who think it impossible we could be the next Russia, Syria, Iran, North Korea...

A free society is worth fighting for but It is also worth compromising for as well. I don't think it's an easy thing to keep on the rails if everyone will accept nothing short of 100% of their demands being met.

Wow to the comparison! I know it does have something to do with the charismatic leader who is able to convince people to do things that the might not do under other circumstances. Hitler is a great example of someone who managed to convince perfectly ordinary people to do horrible things in the name of being 'right'.

Try The Family or C Street, both by Jeff Sharlet.

Reg MM, Very interesting article on the Oregon Rajneeshee commune. I remember when all that was going on and had not heard of all the crimes they committed. I just wasn't interested in them. 

Reading further in your article I came across you description of Landmark. I am very surprised at your reaction to the group. Our family have taken courses and watching them develop better communication skills, and mastering their problem solving, conflict resolution skills has just astounded me. Three generations of my family have had some training in it. It is quite remarkable to see the adults communicating and opening up to each other in remarkable ways. 

There are a lot of things they do, like stopping "rackets". That seems to be a very healthy thing as they stop complaining or whining about someone or something and either take action to improve the problem or by reframing their attitudes. These are excellent skills to have. They make "I" statements instead you "You made me ...." They also identify their feelings and express them without blaming or accusing. They clearly state their needs in a non-judgmental way. All three generations ... no ... all four generations of us use the skills that I learned in my college training as an applied behavioral scientist, and they learned at Landmark.  

They also clear up conflicts before they get out of hand. Just last week my two granddaughters took time to go into a bedroom and talk out a conflict and get it resolved.

My four year old great-grandson broke his older brother's radio and went to him, as he has been taught, and told what happened. He didn't hide, or lie, or deny his breaking it. He faced it head on, and they discussed and found options of how he could make up the loss. That was a four year old.  

I don't know any other family that has as much skill in interpersonal relationships as my family. I know I taught them a lot when my children were younger, and I feel reinforced by Landmark's training with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  

What is it you experience that causes you to see "cult-like tendencies"? What is it that you were "drawn into Landmark so easily? I really do appreciate hearing your experience with Landmark and hope to find what troubles you. 

Joan, I read your response this morning at breakfast and have spent the rest of the morning trying to organize my thoughts about Landmark. First off let me say that I know people get a great deal of benefit from Landmark. Most of the people who participate are in some way able to use what they learn and to apply it to everyday life. I know I did while I was participating in classes (more on this later). Your family sounds like they have benefited greatly from their experiences and I wouldn't begrudge them that at all. I will freely admit that I gained some benefits from my experiences there. I did the Forum, which is the first long weekend session, and I did several once a week classes, and I did the Advanced Forum, and I volunteered in the office when I couldn't afford to do classes just so I could be around the place. Oh, and I also volunteered for a weekend Forum. And at this point (15 plus years later) I think I can boil what I learned down to "your life has meaning and the meaning it has is what you want it to mean." I used to spend vast amounts of mental energy anguishing over the meaning of life-why am I here? what's it all about? And after the Forum, that mental noise was noticeably gone. So again, not saying it's all bad. But.

So now the hard part-what's wrong with Landmark? There's no one thing in particular that you can point to and say "Ah ha!". But there are some aspects that are cause for concern. When you look at the characteristics of a cult (and even cult experts don't really agree on all the bullet points), the causes for concern in my mind are the following: a) preoccupation with bringing in new members-current members are coached and coached and coached again on getting their family and friends in for an introductory session, to the point at which you feel guilty and a failure if you do not comply; b) questioning doubt and decent are punished-you will be called out in public for having a "racket" with authority if you do not accept what they are telling you and follow it to the letter; c) mind-dumbing techniques are used to suppress doubts in the group/leader-during the Forum, you sit for hours and hours (3, 4, 5 hours or longer) in hard seats, not allowed to get up and go to the bathroom or get a drink while one person is grilled by the leader, sometimes humiliated or called names when they become uncooperative or question the leader, and if you do try to leave you are pulled aside and coerced to return; d) the group has an exalted status, seeing themselves as special with all the answers-we were often told that our friends would not understand what we had been through, that we wouldn't even be able to describe properly what had happened to us, and that we might "lose friends" over our involvement but it was worth it because we now had the truth; e) group has a polarized us vs them mentality-most definitely my life became divided between people who had done the forum (and were therefore in on the secrets) and those who had not (who deserved some pity and a whole lot of berating about how they should do the forum), and the leadership encourages this sort of view point; f) the group leader is not accountable to anyone-ok here's where it gets tricky, since there is no A#1 leader in Landmark (not since Werner Erhard was ousted anyway-although he was definitely venerated as the originator of Est, which transformed into Landmark, and we were encouraged to read his book if we could get our hands on it), but each Forum has a leader and that leader during that class is The King/Queen. I saw this not only from the perspective of a participant but also as a volunteer. There is a pyramid power structure and what the leader wants, the leader gets. Each office also has a manager, who is basically the leader over all at all other times. In my personal opinion, Landmark has gone out of its way to not have a one-shall-rule-them-all leader to avoid the pitfalls that other LGAT (large group awareness training) organizations have gone through like Scientology, and therefore avoid being called an outright cult. Leaders are perceived to have all the answers and are held up as shining examples of what we could all become one day; g) leadership induces guilt feelings in order to control them-we were told that if we did not complete the Forum, it would be as if we had left the operating room with our guts hanging out, that if we did not fully participate and give ourselves up to the process that we would never achieve our full possibilities, that if we didn't bring in new members our loved ones would live their sad, sad lives unaware of what they too could achieve; h) subservience to the group causes members to cut ties with family and friends-I didn't do this myself, but I knew people within the group who did (I personally thought they were idiots) and have read stories (see the link below) about other people doing this; i) attacking independent thought-if you question anything you are told you have a 'racket', if you try to think critically you are told you have a 'racket', if you do not conform you are told you have a 'racket', if you try to analyze the situation from any other aspect that does not use forum techniques, you are told you have a 'racket'; j) jargon-new words would be introduced and hours going over what they mean in terms of the forum (a person might think they know what these words mean before, but no)-words like "get it" "racket" "coaching" "accountability" "breakthroughs" and others I can't think of/have banished from my brain. We were told that if we used these words around the uninitiated they would become confused and call us cultists.

There is also the cult withdrawal symptoms that I'm pretty sure I went through when I stopped attending (by no means do I believe that I experienced what someone who has truly been in a cult would experience when they leave, but reading through the research about this, my life at the time has some striking similarities). A 9-month bout of depression, inability to do anything because my support system had been removed, I had a hard time relating to ordinary people that hadn't been through the forum. No one was actively trying to draw me back in, which is fortunate. Also fortunate is that I had the safe place of my parent's home to land in and provide the love and nurturing that I needed at the time. It was during this time that I found a great book called "How to think about weird things" which explained some of the things that happen in LGATs like Landmark and the Sterling Institue. And reading that book is what sent me down the road towards critical thinking and eventually atheism, so it wasn't all bad. The result of finding my own voice has been immeasurably powerful.

There's more, but my brain has gone all scrambled. I know I'm leaving out more than I'm writing, and I probably am repeating something. Let me say this: if you are invited to an introduction session don't give them your real last name or your phone number or any way for them to contact you. If they have your number they will call you and call you and call you until you have to threaten them with harassment in order to make them stop. Read up on LGATs in general and Landmark in particular. I'd advise going to Rick Ross's cult awareness website on Landmark. He has extensive articles that are worth it to read, including the ones on their litigious nature and the Visitor Comments link at the top of the page. (I hadn't been on that site for a while, and had hoped that maybe their techniques had changed somewhat, but the very first comment was from someone just a year or so ago, so it sounds like it's pretty similar to what I went through about 17 years ago.)

Joan, I hope this has been useful. Please let me state again I'm in no way trying to belittle your family for what they've experienced. This is just my story told from my perspective. I'm glad to answer any more questions I can for you (hopefully not at such length!). Thanks for reading my blabbering! Reg

edited to add: I didn't go into the lengthy form you are forced to sign (if you don't sign, you don't participate) which states that you don't have any mental health issues. This should have been the warning sign, but I totally missed it. Anyone with mental health issues should steer clear of Landmark. They are not trained in psychotherapy.

Thank you so much, Reg, for answering so promptly, I just returned from errands and will respond to your very thoughtful response. 


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