Monday, December 05, 2011

“A Civilization Without Insanity”: Religious Experimentation In The 1960s

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the flirtation with Eastern religions pursued by many young people turned off by Western violence and materialism in the 1960s and the 1970s, the rise of encounter groups and new religious sects like Scientology, and the spread of the "new narcissism."

Drug use, particularly consuming LSD, had been widely seen as a spiritual exercise that allowed one to escaped doomed Western civilization. Now young people in the Sixties and Seventies sought more natural means to expand their minds and looked to ancient wisdom available in India, China and Japan. In America, young people turned to Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Others experimented with the mysticism of Sufi Islam. The Hare Krishna sect, in which devotees surrendered personal property, shaved their heads, wore orange or yellow robes, took a Sanskrit name, and danced and chanted the name of the Hindu deity Krishna, as they begged for donations became a common sight at American airports by the 1970s. Other young people, including feminists offended by the exclusion of women from the clergy in many mainstream churches, embraced nature-worshiping “Wiccan” beliefs.

New religions also arose, such as the Church of Scientology founded by one-time science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where man is free to rise to greater heights, are the aims of Scientology,” Hubbard once wrote to his followers.

Hubbard served in the United States Navy during World War II, and later claimed that he received serious injuries that left him “[b]linded with injured optic nerves and lame with physical injuries to hip and back . . . a supposedly hopeless cripple.” Hubbard would tell his followers that he miraculously healed himself while lying in a military hospital bed, using the methods that later became Church of Scientology practice. Hubbard said he discovered that the mental exercises he used to repair his body could cure depression, alcoholism and other mental maladies.

He codified these techniques in a 1950 book "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," which charted 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “Written in a bluff, quirky style and overrun with footnotes that do little to substantiate its findings,” journalist Lawrence Wright noted, “’Dianetics’ purports to identify the source of self-destructive behavior—the ‘reactive mind,’ a kind of data bank that is filled with traumatic memories called ‘engrams,’ and that is the source of nightmares, insecurities, irrational fears, and psychosomatic illnesses. The object of Dianetics is to drain the engrams of their painful, damaging qualities and eliminate the reactive mind, leaving a person ‘Clear.’”

Scientologists had their personalities tested, received treatments that were supposed to address past pains and current anxieties, and paid for ever more expensive courses that progressively revealed the cosmic truth as understood by Hubbard, that humans are occupied by the souls of aliens tormented in a disastrous war that unfolded millions of years ago and that these alien presences cause the mental illnesses Scientology claims to cure.

Many young people in the Sixties and the Seventies moved quickly from one belief system to the next, sometimes blending wildly divergent beliefs like a theological smoothie. Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist, came across one upper-class Jewish woman, “Mollie” from New York who told him she tried out “holistic health, macrobiotics, Zen Buddhism, [and] . . . Native American rituals.” She told Roof she joined a “commune,” read about reincarnation and started attending Quaker meetings. Mollie was not typical. “Of course, such spiritual alternatives never attracted more than a small fraction of Americans who adhered to one variety or another of Judaism and Christianity,” wrote Isserman and Kazin. “Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, mecca for unorthodox faiths, fewer than 10 percent of the population seems to have taken part in any manifestation of the new religions.”

"Revolutionary Suicide"

Nevertheless, the search for truth and happiness for some young people turned desperate, leaving them vulnerable to ruthless con artists. Jim Jones, a preacher and faith healer, founded the Peoples Temple Christian Church Full Gospel in Indianapolis. A crusader against racism who embraced Marxism, Jones launched programs to aid the poor and the hungry. He presided over an integrated congregation that often met hostility from white residents in a city that had been dominated by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Appointed to the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission, Jones used his position and the support of local civil rights groups like the NAACP to advance desegregation of the city police department, local businesses and other institutions. Jones received numerous threats as he began adopting Korean, Native American and African American children.

Jones’s inner demons soon overwhelmed his idealism. He staged fake miracle cures to bring in more congregants and to fill church coffers. Dependent on drugs and alcohol, and sexually exploiting members of his church, Jones became obsessed with what he saw as the pending end of the world and paranoid about an establishment he believed was plotting his demise. Jones relocated his church and his congregation to Northern California, which he believed would be spared a coming nuclear war. He eventually established a headquarters in San Francisco where his charitable work and anti-racism activism earned him enough credibility that Mayor George Mascone appointed him to lead the city’s Housing Authority Commission. By this point, still telling his followers that a nuclea war would soon happen and now insisting that the United States government wanted to kill him and destroy the People’s Temple, Jones in 1973 rented a remote plot of land surrounded by jungle in Northern Guyana for a communal farm that he dubbed “Jonestown.”

More than 900 members emigrated there where they found a life of relentless labor, clearing the jungle, building housing, cultivating crops and listening to Jones increasingly doomsday-oriented sermons. Preaching that U.S. government forces would soon come to destroy the Temple, Jones led his followers in suicide drills in which members drank what they were told was Flavor-Aid filled with the poison cyanide. Reports from relatives of Temple members that their loved ones had become disaffected with Jones but were being held against their will in South America led the San Francisco-area Congressmen Leo Ryan to travel to Jonestown on November 14, 1978. With him were 17 concerned relatives of People’s Temple members and a NBC News crew.

After difficult wrangling, the group was allowed to inspect Jonestown on November 17. When Ryan left the next day, 14 Temple defectors joined him. Jones ordered the assassination of Ryan and his group. Temple hitmen murdered the Congressmen and four others at a nearby airstrip. Jones’ long awaited apocalypse had arrived and the heavily sweating and stern minister called on members to engaged in an act of “revolutionary suicide.” Eventually 909 in Jonestown, including more than 300 children, were found dead. Most drank cups of poisoned Flavor-Aid under the watchful gaze of Jones’ private army. Jones shot himself in the head.

"A God IN Your Universe"

California served as home base not just for Scientology, the Manson Family and The People's Temple, but also a number of so-called consciousness-raising groups like Erhard Sensitivity Training or EST. Born Jack Rosenberg, Erhard had already experimented with Scientology and Zen Buddhism and had failed at selling cars and encyclopedias before launching est, according to Schulman.

Erhard vaguely claimed to have had some profound spiritual insight while driving on a California freeway. He told perspective students that est would make them “throw away” their belief systems, break down their old personalities and let them recreate a healthier version of themselves. Students who attended the group training seminars, which cost $250 a pop, were given infrequent food, little sleep and and few bathroom breaks and were sometimes stuck in a conference room for eight hours with trainers who shouted verbal abuse in order to break down their defense mechanisms.

Trainers taught students that failure, illness, romantic frustration, etc., were always a product of the individual’s unhealthy thinking and not of random chance or normal human frailty. Once beaten down, the students took “responsibility” for their failures and were told they could now achieve virtually anything they wanted as long as they didn’t defeat themselves. “You are omnipotent,” Erhard would tell his devotees. “You are a god in your universe.” As historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote, “ . . . Not all customers emerged satisfied, and psychiatric journals reported that several people, some already vulnerable, had been driven to near madness.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, transactional analysis, primal scream therapy, Esalen, Rolfing and other pop psychology therapies, as well as the endless list of bestselling self-help books like "I’m O.k., You’re O.k." and "Looking Out For Number One" shared what journalist Peter Marin labeled “the new narcissism.” Perhaps Sixties youth grew tired of battling intractable problems like poverty and racism, but these fads all reflected a withdrawal from the wider world and what Marin called “selfishness and moral blindness.”

Marin described how he heard two speakers at the Esalen Institute claim that “the Jews must have wanted to be burned by the Germans.” Marin asked the women what they would say to a child trapped in a famine and one said, “What can I do if a child is determined to starve?” Tom Wolfe called the Seventies the “Me Decade,” a time Marin said, of “a retreat from the worlds of morality and history, an unembarrassed denial of human reciprocity and community.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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