Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Losing Your Religion

If you were wondering what incident have killed almost a thousand Americans in one day, only second to 9/11 in its number of causalities among US citizens, then you're talking about the mass suicide committed by a religious cult in the country of Guyana in South America in 1978.

This religious group formed a few years before this incident. What was remarkable is that its leader, a white guy with an outstanding charisma named Jim Jones, invited people from all races to join this church. It wasn't more than a large church where people prayed and sang together, joining with a sense of brotherhood.

That guy, Jim Jones, had an outstanding influence on his followers. It was gradual but very effective. With time it became more difficult for the followers to leave his church. As the US government started questioning this cult, Jones went with his followers to an isolated town in Guyana called Jonestown. When the families of the 1000 followers became very concerned about their family members, a Congressman flew there with a big team of journalists. He visited the Temple where the followers used to pray, and some of the followers wanted to leave the church and return with him to the US. Long story short, things turned very tense and one of the guards of the Temple shot the Congressman and a few members of the team and killed him with 2 journalists. Minutes later, Jim Jones made a speech that was taped (click here to listen, boy it's scary) asking all the followers to drink cyanide. The followers gave toxic cyanide to their children (300 children) then swallowed it themselves. A few of them refused to do so, so the guards forcibly injected them with cyanide. Jim Jones was then shot by one of the guards.

What may come to your mind, is that a bunch of hippies joined some weird cult formed by a weird guy, and they deserved what happened to them.

What you need to keep in mind, is that this religious group formed on good intentions. People from all around joined together, for a common cause, prayed together and sang together. It was fun. It felt right to them. Jones took it to the very extreme and that's why he and most of his followers perished. Very few of his followers survived, and they described in a few interviews how influential Jones was. Even those who drank the poison to kill themselves felt it the right thing to do, they were following the commands from upstairs.

I think every religion has its Jim Jones. Those Jim Jones' are a bit smarter, more qualified, more friendly-looking, less dramatic, but after all they are Jim Jones. Never underestimate the love of power many religious leaders have. Don't be afraid to question what they say, and don't hesitate to challenge them if you think they're leading you on the wrong track. You've got five senses, use them. Don't be blind. Maybe Jones killed his followers by making them drink cyanide, but a whole lot of poisons can kill faster and quicker than cyanide.

In this picture taken from the day after the incident , you can see the sign : "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it".... well-said Mr. Jones!!

To watch a clip of a report of the incident, click here.


Hani Obaid said...

I always think of it this way, what reliable information about religion does X (or Mr Jones) have that I don't. Then I realize neither of us has any reliable source because there aren't any, and so dies summarily any attempt to influence me to act through religion

Anonymous said...

Hani, I am still thinking of ways :D.

regarding JJ, I was a senior in high school then, and being from California (and a Jones!), we followed this very closely in our agnostic household (I was not a person of faith then, although it was the time I was reading the Quran)

There were MANY warning signs, but the SF community were also so enamored with JJ, they were missed or swept under the rug for various reasons. I found this link that you may find interesting:

Hatem Abunimeh said...

I remember this mass suicide because It taught me the meaning of the word "Cult".

Hareega said...

Hani.. religion is about faith, either you have it or you don't and that would make you agnostic/athiest (or religiouless, good movie watch it)

kinzi, that was an interesting read. I watched the docuemntaries on NBC and CNN, 2 hours each, the CNN one was really really good, that Solidad O'Brien is pheonomeonal, but as the blogger said there was no reference to how that ragedy could have been prevented.

Hatem... there's always something to learn from a tragedy!

Anonymous said...

I always believed in the saying with great power comes great responsibility. This incident is a vanilla example of the exact opposite of that, where abuse of power rather than responsibility was the mainstream.
Speech is probably one of the most effective forms of power, and of course like other forms, it can be used for both, the good as well as the bad.
At the beginning, Jim Jones’ actions might have been protected under democracy and freedom of speech umbrella. However, this is why I think that absolute freedom of speech is never a good idea; because you can never tell who is your next Jim Jones or what kind of crazy ideas might be on its way to the already so-crazy world. Approving of absolute freedom of speech would be like handing a gun to a child and expecting them to act responsibly.
This tragic ending would’ve never took place if the government was keeping a close eye on how rapidly this cult was growing and put an end to it before it was too late. Some people are just not capable of making their own decisions, and until they are, someone else will.

Hareega said...

London.. as kinzi pointed it might have been possible to prevent this tragedy, however at what point do you draw the line between the government interferring with religious groups and their practises. Now in every religion you'll find some practises that an agnostic or athiest will consider irrational however these practises are essential in that religion. I totally agree with you that absolute freedom has a lot of problems coming with it.

Anonymous said...

H, I'll try to watch it someday, I like what I read from Soledad (most of the time).

BUT, without providing at least few topics to think about, remains a terrible story instead of an instructive lesson on how to keep history form repeating itself.

I think the internet generation would have helped, as other churches could have sounded the alarm when orthodox tenants of faith were tossed and JJ started believing himself a type of MEssiah.

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