by Meredith Berger –
I was recently having a conversation about the merits of human-led religion, and if man is willful and powerful enough to lead one successfully. As a Christian, I don’t know how one could have a religion without a God, but those I spoke with seemed to think it was not only possible, but also appealing. This topic came about from watching the fascinating Netflix docuseries Wild Wild Country, focused on a cult in the 1980s that was led by an Indian guru known as Rajneesh (aka Bhagwan). I was intrigued by the premise of the show, as it follows the story of how the cult grew to tens of thousands of members, moved from India to a small town in Oregon, was poorly received by the local townspeople, and eventually disbanded for illegal activity.
The idea that man can create and lead a religion is attractive in theory, but Wild Wild Country demonstrates, in a very tangible way, why it can’t work. There are countless times people have tried, but so many have failed as a result of innate greed, immorality, and human error. A religion without God, as well intentioned as it may be, is susceptible to the fickle nature of man. This includes religions created and run by man that are Godless, or have a misleading perception of God. (If you disagree with my assertion or any of the following, please respond in the comment section and share your thoughts!)
Rajneesh, the electric leader of the group, preached the power of meditation and sexual liberation. He once laid out an informal “10 Commandments” that represented his teachings:
- Never obey anyone’s command unless it is coming from within you also.
- There is no God other than life itself.
- Truth is within you, do not search for it elsewhere.
- Love is prayer.
- To become a nothingness is the door to truth. Nothingness itself is the means, the goal and attainment.
- Life is now and here.
- Live wakefully.
- Do not swim—float.
- Die each moment so that you can be new each moment.
- Do not search. That which is, is. Stop and see.
Over the years his movement attracted thousands from both the East and West. The community of “Rajneeshees” as they were known, came together to find peace, spirituality, freedom, and meditation. They all dressed the same and lived together, while Rajneesh lived in a much larger home and had numerous expensive cars and jewelry. They paid large sums of money to Rajneesh and he and his secretary began to create funds and corporations for the religion. From spiritual leader to idol, and from minimalist to consumerist, the community and leadership began to shift. The most impactful shift occurred when the cult moved from India to Oregon. The Rajneeshees were unwelcomed and attacked by the Oregon people whose community they had disrupted by building a giant commune in a local space. They then grew hateful, and peace turned to war, meditation turned to rage, and evil infected their once well intentioned cult.
Whether or not it was the nature of the group itself or their reactiveness to the discriminatory people of Oregon, this example still demonstrates that people are too unpredictable to control a religion. They abandoned their commandments almost immediately at the sign of adversity, and recreated their shared identity – a decision supported by the cult’s leadership.
The Bible tells us in 2 Timothy 4: 3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
I am wary of any religion rooted in human desire, and any who use spirituality or religion as a way to steal wealth or gain power. And yes, as a Catholic I am not blind to the similarities with corrupt popes and priests throughout history. Matthew 24:24 tells us that even believers in Christ can be misled, “For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones.” Those who use any Christian faith as a means for personal monetary gain or sexual exploitation are not truly Christians in their hearts, are unfit for their positions, and have presented a misleading picture of faith and God. So do not be deceived by the fraudulent leaders of the Church you have heard or read about. They do not represent the faith and are betraying the trust of the faith community.
In conclusion, no organized religion or group is infallible as long as humans are involved, but having God and scripture as a foundation are essential, without them, values are subject to the whim of man, and as the Rajneeshees discovered, human emotion is powerful enough to obscure even the purest of intentions. Charles Spurgeon once said, “Study the Word, that your faith may not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”