We know the rules for polite conversation-- not supposed to discuss religion or politics.
What about writing a book about religions?
Risky business—never know who you might offend.
What a pity, as religions are where an attempt is made to offer reason and rules for life.
Except, religions don’t teach the same things for what those would be.
This issue of religions and cults came to my mind because of watching Scientology-- Going Clear on HBO. The program did a good job on getting into not only for what members are looking but also who begins such groups. Scientology used coercive methods to get themselves declared a religion-- a benefit for tax and profit purposes. The documentary is well worth the time not just for understanding it but the appeal such 'religions' offer.
It was the 1980s when Oregon had a cult experience. I guess you can call it an experience although for most of us, it was just through the newspapers. The Rajneesh, who was respected by many as a spiritual leader, arrived in Eastern Oregon after his 'group' purchased the Big Muddy Ranch. This was an area with which I was familiar due to camping and fishing trips. Rugged hills, interesting rock formations, juniper, sage and cattle country pretty well explains the appeal of high desert. For this commune, Rajneeshpuram, there was probably one more appeal-- fairly isolated from large populations but not too far for followers to fly into Portland and easily drive out.
Rajneeshpuram built buildings to house large meetings, held retreats with some moving to be there all the time. The information we were told was that followers were mostly professional people. Most did not live there although some did and began a commune.
The nearby ranching community of Antelope was purchased enough to be renamed Rajneesh. Businesses were turned to new purposes to suit the population at the commune. Some locals sold their property due to fear, some to make money, but the remaining residents became fearful as to what was going on. The publicity for the cult made it to newspapers the other side of the Cascades. The Rajneesh was different for his beliefs as it included buying a lot of limos and being driven around in them.
photo of the faithful and his limo attributed "Osho Drive By" by Samvado Gunnar Kossatz. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons
The whole thing grew more fraught with enemies and friends until the ones in charge of the cult went too far. Ma Anand Sheela used criminal methods to change the political atmosphere. She faced criminal charges and the days of that cult, in Oregon, were over.
Shortly after the Rajneesh left, the ranch was purchased by a Montana rancher for a youth retreat but that didn't work out. From what I know, the buildings are still a problem as to what to do with them.
Chandra Mohan Jain, also known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh went back to India and formed another group, which is still functioning there after his death. After Sheela was freed from prison, she went to Switzerland, remarried and and established new work.
This month, what interested me, about the cult world enough to watch the program on Scientology, was that I had written a romance based on a fictional cult. I wanted to explore two questions-- what leads people to become fervent followers of such groups-- and who are those who lead them? Why are some, like the followers of Jim Jones, willing to die for those reasons?
S.T. Taggert receives a call from his Navajo mother asking him to find his missing sister. S.T. has been estranged from his family, but he can’t refuse the request even from a mother, who had left her white husband and two children to return to the land that was so critical to who she was-- her beloved redrock country of Arizona.
Besides the trail to his missing sister leading to this cult, S.T.'s mixed heritage gave me a chance to explore something else of interest to me-- how important, to who we are, might be our ancestors and our ethnic history? This is something S.T. has to work out for his own peace of mind.
My heroine, who becomes entwined in this, is a photojournalist whose assignment had been to photograph up and coming young leaders, which included the cult leader as well as S.T. (a successful architect builder in Portland). Her taking of photographs, her friendships in the Portland area added to my enjoyment in writing the story. My own love of photography helped me understand this woman.
Some ask what separates a cult from a religion? Religions can take on cult like qualities if they use ostracism, threats, imprisonment, and violence to maintain their power. In a religion, members can question or even leave. Cults attempt to limit such freedoms. Cults are willing to poison others to maintain their power. Religions might believe someone else is wrong, but they don't resort to murder to enforce it-- when they do, they crossed a line.
For the writer, the cult is where a story can get interesting—but where there is also the risk of offending those who have a religion they value and may think the story is a threat against it. But can a writer please everyone and still tell their story? My experience is I have not found that I can-- but it's why writing is so rewarding where I can explore the human need for answers and security-- while I also tell the story of two people falling in love-- with its own perils.