You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Dystopias. Dark, scary, but oddly entertaining. Think of Farhenheit 451 and The Time Machine. Dire warnings that keep us satisfyingly glued to our seats. The film and publishing industry have done well out of dystopias.
Another field that is doing incredibly well out of its portrayal of dismal futures is the world of cults and alternative beliefs.
Millenarian cults have traditionally thrived in societies and groups affected by poverty and wars. The cults play on the people’s despair and attract them by promising a better life after the new world has come about. Nowadays, they are gaining a foothold by convincingly playing on the flaws of Western societies. These societies are starting to suffer from increasing inequalities but more importantly, they have at their core the convincing potential to explode at any moment.
It is not just the recent near-collapse of the financial markets and the looming gulf between rich and poor. The darkest predictions of many a dystopian novel seem closer than ever. Take George Orwell’s 1984: its totalitarian, all-knowing regime doesn’t seem that far-fetched, seen in the context of today’s surveillance scandals. The believed effects of global warming, with extreme weather and water shortages, add to the mix. Landscapes of countries devastated by hurricanes bring to mind the dead world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
In our war-ravaged world, Christians in America have started pointing to the Syrian conflict as a proof that the end of the world is near. They quote verses from the Bible, telling us that “Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins,” and believe that the present destruction taking place in Damascus is a sign of the End Times.
Those are ideal conditions for prophets of doom. They used to have to stand with loudspeakers in the middle of busy streets but are now using the internet to its full potential to attract gullible followers. A few clicks of the mouse and I am on a shaman’s portal. This particular shaman has a whole blog devoted to the fact that our world is in danger. He updates it according to the news. The recent cyclone in the Philippines is gold to him; just another proof that the Earth is soon to be extinct, and that the best people can do is flock to him for salvation. Other pages gleefully remind us of catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Gurus from Wales with names like ‘pensive eagle’ have Facebook pages filled with angels (little blonde girls with white wings), stone statues and lots and lots of rays of sunshine alongside warnings of imminent wars.
Strangely, quite a few people are attracted to these ideas. In fact, during my years in London, I have become conscious of a little sub-world in which apparently sane people hold strange and costly beliefs.
Of course, it is not rare to come across religious nuts, especially in a large city. It’s just that you expect them to look a little….strange. To be friendless, isolated, unattractive. A little like the Jehova’s Witness with the glassy stare who’s waiting on your doorstep. But it’s not the case. The people who distribute leaflets for a renowned foreign sect in Hyde Park are young and good looking. I’ve often started a conversation with a perfectly charming person, only for them to reveal an allegiance to some unusual religion. I’ve been introduced to a handsome Hare Krishna follower at a party in Kilburn – he wasn’t dressed in orange and didn’t have a shaven head. I have been lured to the headquarters of a supposedly Buddhist organisation by a French colleague who promised me an interesting talk about Hiroshima. Further investigation revealed that the organisation is classified as a cult in many countries. The posters scattered about the Hiroshima exhibition were a giveaway: rays of brilliant sunshine have nothing much to do with a murderous nuclear attack. Yet another group lures unsuspecting people into its meditation centres; these centres are run by a millenarian cult that believes and hopes that the world will end following a nuclear catastrophe.
I spoke to Manuel, a Spanish office manager, about his beliefs. He does not give a name to the religion he follows, but holds a wide range of ideas that most people would deem unorthodox. His weekends and holidays are peppered with retreats, visits to healers and a variety of workshops on past lives and ghosts. He sometimes feels he spends too much on these courses, which typically cost over two hundred pounds for a few lessons. Shamans, or healers also charge a high price for their time.
”I spent seventy-five pounds three weeks ago to see a healer,” he says. “I felt that I lacked confidence and that he could help me with these types of problems.”
Asked whether the visit worked, he is non-committal. He will not confirm precisely what it was that this healer did in exchange for his payment. Manuel is quite secretive too about other groups he attends, but gives me a few examples. One workshop was meant to put him in touch with his ‘guardian angel.’
“The teacher told us how everyone has a guardian angel,” he says. “They watch over us. She helped me to identify mine and how to get in touch with it, to ask for things and for help in my life.”
He frequently stops talking and a guilty expression flashes across his face. He is aware that his beliefs seem strange to most people and tells me that his friends and family don’t know the extent of his involvement.
“I don’t want them to think I’m a freak,” he says.
When I ask him again about the courses he’s been to, he perks up, remembering a particularly enjoyable one. It was an automatic writing course. Automatic writing is linked to spiritualism and was particularly fashionable in the 19th Century, with Conan Doyle an enthusiastic advocate. Under the supervision of a medium, participants try and channel a spirit who then writes through them, so that what appears on the paper in front of them is a message from beyond.
“It was amazing,” he tells me. “I was writing on this piece of paper and it wasn’t my writing at all. I wrote for ages, really quickly, like in a trance. Also someone in the group got a message for me. And when they read it out it matched what was going on in my life at the time. It was definitely meant for me.”
I lean forward. “What was the message?”
Manuel glances at me, his eyes full of meaning. “It was: ‘Do not listen to others. Believe in yourself.’”
Taken in isolation, this would seem anecdotal. But there are a lot of similar people who attend these courses and flock to mediums and shamans. It is difficult to get an idea of the numbers, as Ian Haworth from the CIC (Cult Information Centre, an educational charity providing advice and information) tells me.
“I would say that there are five hundred to a thousand cults in operation in the UK,” he says.
This is probably a conservative estimate. Caution is required in a field in which cults tend to sue whoever tries to expose their activities. Ian Haworth expresses frustration at the way in which Britain does not take legislative action against cults, unlike France, Spain and Germany.
People like Manuel start going to one meditation class and end up meeting similar-minded people who recommend other events and cults to them. A lot of money is changing hands in this little world. Manuel came across a believer who tried to sell him bottles of a water called ‘Asea’. Each bottle costs thirty pounds and the water is meant to cure most diseases and help people stay younger. This has not been scientifically proven but the woman who tried to sell him the water was insistent and he had trouble getting away from her. People go on ‘retreats’ all over the world (India especially), providing a good income to shamans who double up as holiday reps, offering basic food and accommodation in exchange for large sums of money. A wide array of ‘courses’ also lure believers who part with hundreds just to learn vague beliefs and hear ‘empowering’ mantras.
Manuel mentions a talk he attended on the theme of the end of the world. It predicted an impending ecological disaster, followed by wars for water and other resources. He looks genuinely convinced by these arguments. I ask him if he has thought of joining an ecological movement to try and do something about it, but he shrugs. His attitude is more fatalistic, and I get a sense that he believes in some new world in which he, as a believer, will be included.
Manuel is clearly not used to thinking analytically. He says he’s not ‘an academic person,’ and did a business course before moving to London. He is happy in his job; he has no further ambitions and just wants a ‘comfortable life’. He would like to do something more ‘creative’ but doesn’t know what, and is sometimes frustrated by the lack of a good quality of life in London. He was single for years and has just started seeing someone he met at a meditation class.
It is interesting to see how people drift so unquestioningly towards alternative religious movements in our era of knowledge and scientific progress. In a way, it makes sense. Those cults point out the negative aspects of our culture to people who have previously accepted our capitalist society as the norm. They are observant enough, however, to spot the cracks in our system. They may feel helpless, faced with images of horror on the news and conflicting ecological warnings. Some people do not know where to turn to when mainstream society loses its gloss – where some would join Greenpeace or a protest movement, others are isolated and drift towards convincing speakers. Also, lazy thinkers may be dazzled with words like ‘Meditation,’ and ‘Buddhism,’ which they may have heard from Hollywood stars. They think such activities are fashionable and do not realise that anyone can offer meditation classes and that Buddhism has different strands, some very recent and banned in their home countries.
There’s something disquieting in that emptiness I grasp in Manuel when he’s trying to tell me about his ideas, but then finds that there’s just nothing to tell. All he can say is “I know it’s true,” and throw me a pitying look. It’s like there’s a void where his critical faculties should be. But then, that may well be true of all believers: religion acts in a strange way on the brain. Who knows what these unregulated preachers and shamans are doing to their customers? At least established religions have a serious background – tolerably well written religious books and studies by scholars, providing them with points for discussion. The shamans and cults offer nothing of substance other than jumbled-up mantras sounding vaguely Indian or South American. They are designed to take money from followers by playing on their fears and insecurities and do not concern themselves with their wellbeing. It is hard to tell whether the people I’ve come across are just having an enjoyable flirt with dystopia or whether they are about to be brainwashed and pulled further into nothingness.