Mystical Cults vs. Pseudo-Rational Cults: Are they in essence any different?

Mehran Banaei

Atheism is not a modern concept emerging with the progression of scientific knowledge. Despite what atheists repeatedly claim, atheism is an ancient belief, if not older; it is just as old as theism. Ancient but always marginal, it was never able to enjoy taking over the hearts and minds of people. Atheism will never succeed to replace theism of any kind. Throughout history, there were many powerful regimes that dictated and enforced this ideology to the masses, but failed miserably to propagate and preserve it. Citizens were obligated to participate in the government-orchestrated ceremonies, but in private many of them believed in God. And, as soon as they had the first opportunity, like a stretched rubber band when applied force is removed, they openly abandoned the imposed belief at once and returned to their natural state of belief in God. One explanation for the historical abysmal failure of atheism is because of its core stand, which is contrary to human nature. From the moment we are born we are curious sense-making and sense-demanding machines. As we grow older, we ponder deep on larger existential questions on life and death. We are psychologically hardwired to look for the ultimate meaning and purpose for our existence, to seek our Creator and worship Him. Humankind is a worshiping species. If we fail to achieve this task successfully, we will end up moving towards worshiping a wrong object of devotion, be that fame, wealth, glory, Manchester United FC, Elvis Presley, idols, various founding gurus, or scientism.

Considering human nature, it should not come as a surprise, out of the blue yonder, that cults still emerge in the so-called age of reason. Some cults visibly have all cultish characteristics of a closed-minded religious group, yet they still successfully manage to attract many followers from all walks of life: from weak and vulnerable individuals to literate and financially established citizens. A notorious case in point is the cult founded by Rajneesh Bhagwan, a creepy messianic pimp from the 70s and 80s era. Osho Rajneesh Bhagwan was a popular controversial “spiritual leader”, very skillful in psychological manipulation, master of mind control and sexual exploitation. He is dead now and with his death the movement died out as well.

Rajneesh may have been a genius in his illicit field, but his employed techniques to recruit people were outmost elementary. With a simple message of there is no God, let’s have tantric sex; this charismatic con artist managed to attract a huge number of simple-minded followers mainly from North America, Europe and Australia, promising them a guaranteed shortcut to the Utopia. By promoting the “pleasure principle” i.e. ecstatic dancing (he called it meditation), wild orgies and recreational drug use, Rajneesh gained so much popularity and wealth beyond imagination. The man became internationally famous for having 198 Rolls-Royces. His followers were all dressed in red or reddish hues and resided with him in a large isolated ranch in the eastern part of Oregon, U.S.A.

Life on the Rancho Rajneesh in Oregon




Ironically, it seemed that no one learned a lesson from the horrific Jonestown massacre back in November 1978. Rajneesh’s naïve disciples did not know that their beloved guru had extensive criminal records. In 1985 when he was deported from the U.S. for multiple felonies, no country but India, his country of birth, allowed him entry. All his fanatical disciples still refused to accept the truth and followed Rajneesh like a herd of sheep to India. The group re-settled in Poona Ashram. Later on after his death in 1990, many of his devotees gradually left the cult and spoke against their former outlawed idol; some of them openly said that they could not believe how “stupid” they were to fall for this charlatan’s phony charm.

Not surprisingly, the movement with some makeover under a new leadership is now resurfacing once again in the U.S.A, Germany, India, Mexico and among all places in Iran. Why humanity never learns from its own mistakes is beyond anybody and boggles the mind. Sadly, there will never be a shortage of crooks and airheads in this world. There are so many of them around and come from all walks of life, constantly seeking one another to form a symbiotic relationship. Mindlessness and emptiness are the usual factors to drive people to mystical cults. Greed and financial exploitation are the driving factors for the gurus to target the potential followers. It is puzzling how people easily give up their precious functioning mind and confuse endarkenment with enlightenment. I suppose, if one enters the state of total mindlessness via drug use or self-hypnoses, there will be no demarcation between illusion and reality; one can then easily believe in anything. It further helps when a self-appointed authority puts the seal of approval that says that: “You are OK to hold on to your adhered belief and lifestyle.” “Happiness” can then be instantly achieved. The particularized harmful behavior then finds a justification in a quasi-belief structure, and is maintained at all costs, whereas a sound justifiable belief should be the result of continuous confirmation through evidence.

Although not to the victims, but to many it was so clear at the outset that Rajneesh was a greedy opportunist preying on the vulnerability of his victims. His cult had all the classic textbook features of a notorious cult heavily into Eastern Mysticism. The question which comes to the mind is: Is it not possible to be engulfed in a less conspicuous cult which keeps on pumping its followers with an illusion that they are critical thinkers, that they are rationally using their mind and reason, but in reality it is quite the opposite? There are many societies in the world that their citizens are under a similar illusion, for instance, the illusion that their country is founded on democratic principles and being run by the will of the people. They erroneously believe that all citizens are free and equal. However, the reality is to the contrary. This misconception is deliberately manufactured and injected into the psyche of the masses in a most subtle way. If they are made to think that they are governing, they will then be easily governed. Likewise, isn’t there a cult which from the outside, appears to be a circle of progressive freethinkers with a prestigious and exclusive academic image geared more towards the upper white-collar and green-collar segments of the society. However, from inside it is nothing but an odorous circle of fanatical zealots, i.e. a cult of “scientism”, equally irrational as the mystical cults. Are all people immune to fall for the Wolf-in-Sheep-Clothing syndrome or ploy?

I believe it is possible, but such a cult may be much harder to detect, since it appears to have the opposite image, to the extend that no one would dare to classify the group as a cult. On the surface, it clearly portrays itself as distinct from religions and mystical cults. In fact, no one even considers them as a group, but a new universal scientific and philosophical movement on the rise as saviours of humankind for the 21st century, engulfed in the darkness and superstitious hogwash of religions, small or large. They are portrayed as knights in shining armour, slaying the dragon of irrationality with the glistening excaliber or atheism. The followers mostly seem to be well-educated elite, supposedly following empirical reasoning no matter where it leads them. How could this essential mandate lead rational researchers to an error of any kind? It very well can, if the mandate is just a decorative motto framed on the wall.

There are many pretentious individuals, who like to look open-minded and intelligent, cultured and tolerant, attracted to arts, literature, classical music, etc. They arrogantly consider themselves as the intellectually superior to others. Nevertheless, their attitude and belief show loud and clear that they are not what they appear to be. When one examines their belief closely, one does not really find much difference with that of Rajneeshi blue-collar cult. The common element is, both group fail to think on their own and personally examine all the relevant evidence. They wrongfully put their trust in a leader who is taken to be the ultimate authority. Appeal to popular scientific authorities could be as improper as appeal to religious authorities. How many times have we seen atheists erroneously dismissing William Paley’s notion of natural theology, an assertion which is made not based on empirical evidence, but based on a FATWA given by the Grand Ayatollah Richard Dawkins? The common criterion used for being selected as the authority in a pseudo-rational cult is based on the number of publications of the contenders and the number of copies sold worldwide. Is this a rational criterion?

The cult of scientism appear to promote science and reason, yet they seem to be totally out-reasoned by their supposed fascination of reason. They follow the group founder(s) as their prophet(s) no matter what he said or says. The founder or leader, knows all useful PR schemes, would never look as creepy as Rajneesh, but debonair and sophisticated, lucid and coherent, cool and full of confidence in what he delivers. He always looks smart and presentable, has many academic titles attached to his name. That gives him the license to preach, that he knows it all. Even within this school of thought, both leaders and followers are closed-minded and intolerant of their opponents, and what is more, equally believe in irrational unsupported dogmas based on blind faith, without any shred of empirical evidence that they always demand from all others. For instance, they believe in the multiverse (infinite meta-universes), or the belief that despite the incredible complexity of life and its astounding variety, life is the product of a chance mutation and all organisms, despite looking they are intelligently designed, they are not. They believe in the notion that nothing is something, and that something creates itself out of nothing, then that nothing created everything. They then justify this belief by absurd speculations and analogies posing as facts, which in itself is extremely bizarre! What can be more dogmatic than the belief, which stipulates that everything in nature has mere appearance of design formed spontaneously by mindless atoms unguidedly coming together? What is more mindless than the belief that chance mutation would give rise to incredible complexities in an “accidental life-supporting universe”? The zenith of this dogmatic outlook is when it is packaged as a scientific conclusion. Far from being a scientific conclusion, it is a departure from sanity into realm of irrationality. Further, their lack of honestly is well displayed when data opposing to their position are dismissed and buried. Their campaign strategies are based on propaganda: leave the bronze-age belief on a Single Creator introduced by uneducated shepherds, come and join us, we are the sophisticated intelligentsia. They promote belief in a modern fairytale god, i.e. “Mother Nature”,  “Natural Selection”, etc. The modern fairytales are no different than old ones like Zeus and Hera. Lack of critical thinking, peer pressure and blind following of an elevated leader are not exclusive traits of fundamentalist religious circles. Secular humanists too can be influenced by similar social factors, become mesmerized by their prophets and accept unconfirmed ideas because they are consoling to their psyche.

By first creating a need and then extensively marketing it, the secular gurus make millions of dollars in book and documentary sales, speaking fees and research grants on top of already gained fame and popularity. Although these gurus are often successful in their personal business endeavors, the irrationality and fakeness of their belief and the applied campaign strategy are the underlying reason for the overall failure of the proposed ideology, which is vigorously being promoted. But who cares about the distant future? The bottom line is mainly dollars and cents gained today. Their effort to make their adhered ideas look modern and fashionable will not really help them. It is a recipe for future backlash and failure. They always tend to create a simplistic polarization, and no third way to perceive the world. They create this illusion of polarization. It is either atheism or your mystical religions. But what if the whole truth is neither? By special pleading this third way is kept hidden. Through self-brainwashing many of these gurus may themselves come to believe in this false polarization and then are bent on its universal projection.

The pretentious atheism, sugarcoated with science is incompatible with human nature. It is a doomed idea destined to be cast into oblivion, hoisted by its own petard of arrogance. Rationality is an ongoing process in thoughts, not an emphasis on a particular favoured conclusion forced upon masses. Rationality is a consistent harmonious, continuous process of thought that is based on physical, biological, psychological, social and ecological foundations.

My final point is poetically illustrated in this clip titled: “Be Happy: It’s an Order” or be scientific, it’s an order, or be rational, it’s an order. Similar to the message in this clip, a group which arrogantly thinks that its view of reality is superior, rational and scientific and ought to be adopted by all those who are perceived as irrational and backwards would most likely miss the very obvious. The obvious is a lack of realization that the “backward” people are already using rationality and have a belief very much compatible with established scientific facts.


1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy of Science and Religion

One response to “Mystical Cults vs. Pseudo-Rational Cults: Are they in essence any different?

  1. fati

    A bit hard to read, but an interesting article.

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