Tag Archives: Scientology

Book: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Lungs, subway lines and sarin.

Cult mentality at its worst. An appendix to Cults.
366 pages, ★★★

In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.

Underground is divided into two parts. The first, larger part focusses on the victims of the attack and their families. Author Murakami does this because he feels the media focussed too much on the perpetrators, and neglected coverage of the victims.

The second part consists of interviews with cult leaders. His conversations make the fictional cult/gang in 1Q84 very believable.

Translator’s footnotes describe the fate of the attackers throughout Underground. Some of the attackers were sentenced to hard labour, some received the death penalty, and a small number were still awaiting trial.

The line between ‘cults’ and ‘charismatic groups’ is a fine one. Arguably, ‘cults’ are just the products of ‘charismatic groups’ gone awry. They exist in every country and need to be kept in check. This book made me wonder: what if Scientology, with all its resources and influence, were to turn violent?

I recommend Underground for anyone interested in cults, and for all die-hard fans of Haruki Murakami. ★★★

Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★