Once prophets roamed the world recruiting the
lost and lonely to spread their tales of redemption. Today, the spiritual
world is working its way onto the web.
|A knock and the website will be opened to you at Heavens Gate|
It is Judea the year zero, and you're a prophet
unknown in your own land. You have a message of earth-shattering importance,
but no phones, faxes TV or web - you have to rely on 12 loyal friends to
spread your teachings by word of mouth.
The Romans, who occupy your country, aren't too big on free speech - especially when it attacks their own religion, and most of the rabbis aren't too keen on competition from an upstart evangelist. Let's face it the chances of you becoming the figurehead of a globally successful religious cult are slim. It's anywhere on planet Earth, the late 1990s. You too are convinced that you have the word for which the spiritually-bereft people of the world have been waiting. Your friends and family may dismiss you as a fruitcake, but Jesus Christ had a hard time of it in the early days, too.
You may only have a small band of acolytes, but
never mind - you have a PC, a modem, a phoneline and access to the world
wide web. You have, in other words, access to the potential computer-owning
constituency of 5.7bn people worldwide - from England to Iceland to Ethiopia,
believers, non-believers and those still searching. You have access to their
attention, their minds and - possibly - their wallets, and no government,
however religiously oppressive, can stop you selling your brand to those
people. Now which these scenarios sounds the better bet for success?
Stay slim and live for ever
When the Sunday Mirror broke the news this spring of The Church of Diana, a new cult based on the premise that England's Rose had been dictating her thoughts from behind the grave to an American called Richard 'Chairman' Yao, there was predictable condemnation and revulsion in the media.
Just another dodgy evangelist preying on the weak and credulous to turn a dishonest buck. Her supposed promise that she would dictate the secrets of "how we will stay young, slim and healthy, live forever" plus "how the Asian market turmoil will affect Wall Street .Of course you may wonder whether it's the job of a church to offer health, slimming and share tips but every new church has to have an appealing selling point.
|A Presbyterian site will meet all your daily devotional needs|
What's more significant about Chairman Yao's venture
is that it represents a step beyond the cults - and the established churches
- who have recognised the internet as a surefire way to spread an existing
message worldwide. What's happening now is that churches are being born who
have no chapels or temples, who only live on the web. It's quick, it's low
maintenance and there's no need to ever meet the recruits.
All the Church of Diana asks from you is "your help" - and your skills, your money, your contacts, your phone number, email and address. In return, it offers "the happiness, fulfilment and peace of mind you have always sought". A fair swap? We'll let you choose.
Bright lights, big city
But if internet cults are burgeoning business, so are the anti-cult groups. The Cult Awareness Network has a long history of extricating people from the grips of cults and offering support to their families. A generation ago, the biggest risk was wide-eyed students and runaways being recruited at big city train and bus stations.
IDENTIFYING CUNNING CULTS
|Cults tend to have common
properties, these include:
|If in doubt contact one of the cult awareness groups on the following web addresses: www.infoman.demon.co.uk, www.shassan.com, http://student.uq.edu.au|
These days, you are more likely to meet cult 'trolls and harkers' while you are surfing the web.
For Janja Lalich, a former cult member and author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, that is what makes the internet such a potential danger. "They are looking for potential recruits, and they're reaching millions of people this way," Lalich argues. Ray Kubiniak, a member of the Cult Awareness Network, agrees with her concerns. "It [the internet] is the cutting edge of where mind-control groups are active," he warns.
Lalich adds that the trolls will lurk "anywhere
people who are curious may be looking for new things". And she believes that
the cults have adapted their traditional recruiting techniques to the internet
world. They might respond to a posting on a Usenet group or chatline by someone
who appears open or demanding of new ideas, and their response could include
a compliment. "We call it love-bombing," says Lalich.
|A The Vatican site offers a hotline to the Holy See|
"It feels good to have a new friend who is praising
you, then slowly they reveal their path to the one solution. Eventually they'll
hook you up with something more tangible - invite you to their local centre,
try to get you to spend money, hook up for something." See the box titled
"Identifying Cunning Cults" for warning signs of cult recruiters. John Knapp
tells how he has been the target of attempted recruitment during the decade
he has used the internet. Being an ex-cult member himself, he knows what
to look out for. "Once it started with a friendly message,Knapp recalls.
"Within seven days it was about how I should fly to Southern California for
some workshops and to buy some tantric scriptures."
Some sites are less serious than others
Of course, not all the net cults are quite so
frightening. Among the sites listed on the Religion and Cults on the Net
site, www.austin.cc.tx.us, are the
Church of Duck Studies (for finding one's inner duck), the Church
of the Gerbil, Church of the Overhead Projector and the Church
of Shatnerology - you're unlikely to find too many potential family breakups
and bankruptcies among that lot. And just because a church establishes itself
via the net doesn't always mean it's dodgy.
Say a little prayer in cyberspace
The First Church of Cyberspace, www.execpc.com - (it had to happen sometime - proudly boasts of being "the first church fully organised on the web". Refreshingly, it doesn't ask for help, it doesn't demand your hard-earned cash and it doesn't promise you riches in heaven or here on earth.
It's starting point is that the way people use
the internet and the Bible isn't so different - dipping in at random, making
connections to other parts of the scripture/world wide web. The church argues
that people use the Bible 'hypertextually' in fact, hypertext being the links
you see embedded on web pages that at a mouse-click whizz you to connected
There's an imaginative attempt to extend this
metaphor, with a hypertext version of the Lord's Prayer. Imaginative but
dubious. Click on 'shepherd' and we switch to a page about sheep, which informs
us that "without them we wouldn't get sheep or wool". Hmm, we're not entirely
convinced this would lead to our depth of understanding of scripture.
May your god or your gerbil go with you
Of course not every church welcomes the spread
of the net. Since 1994, Scientology, the religion established by the late
L Ron Hubbard and numbering among its converts John Travolta, Tom
Cruise and Nicole Kidman, has been battling to defend its copyright on a
range of confidential Church documents. Its adversaries? A range of individuals
dedicated to preserving total freedom of speech on the internet, Netcom,
the Washington Post, 14 Dutch internet service providers and a Finnish remailer,
The concern for internet service providers is
that the Church is not just targeting the people who post the original documents,
but the companies who automatically and passively make those documents available
to internet users worldwide.
But back to that bloke in Judea 2000 years ago. He may have relied on word of mouth then, but his church is going strong 20 centuries later and, yes, spreading the word via the web. Click on www.vatican.va and you will be taken to the website of the Holy See, where you can find news, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and biogs of the last four Popes rather unfortunately "Highlights of the life of Pope John Paul I" include 28 September 1978 - Died. But perhaps something is lost in the translation.
Our only other complaint is that logging on is painfully slow - but having waited a couple of millennia what's a few seconds more.
Computer Active 13 Aug 1998 File Info: Created 14/7/2000 Updated 17/7/2002 Page Address: http://www.geocities.com/Omegaman_UK/ca1.html