Gods, gurus and scholars Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 1-1998

The “Suicide Trip to Tenerife”:

Gods, gurus and scholars

On January 7, 1998, 32 members of a German cult were arrested on the Canary Island of Tenerife. According to Spanish authorities who had been alerted by concerned family members, the group was supposedly planning a mass suicide to celebrate the end of the world scheduled for the next day – along with a subsequent UFO trip to Sirius; apparently, any self-respecting Armageddon is a bust these days without one. The cult leader, a psychologist from Hamburg, was arrested for incitement to suicide and – since there were also five children among her disciples – attempted murder.

The barely foiled collective suicide is once again giving the German public reason to debate the phenomenon of “cult madness.” Cult investigators ranging from Spiegel to Süddeutsche Zeitung to Bild are embarrassed to discover that until three years ago the “psycho-maniac” (Munich evening newspaper) Heide Fittkau-Garthe was still conducting expensive management training courses for “prominent companies” and, even worse, not bothering anyone or arousing any suspicions. Even a grief-stricken father of a “cult victim” told the SZ that until recently he had no suspicions, but rather felt confirmed in his opinion that “somebody was running a marketable psychology and philosophy business.” (SZ, January 13, 1998) No wonder!

Superstition and faith: distinct!

Whenever a hitherto unnoticed cult makes a name for itself by seeking to escape the “sinful body” through suicide, or its “earthly vale of tears” by means of a UFO; when such people want to reach a “higher sphere,” a “state of perfect harmony” (popularly known as “paradise”) and take matters into their own hands instead of waiting a long time to be summoned by the “Lord of Lords,” then the bourgeois mind immediately knows these must be “dangerous delusions.” On the other hand, it is always understood that

“there is an extreme denial of the body in these sects, they are merely concerned with their immortal soul. ... And if you take that into account, then their actions even make a certain amount of sense.” (Psychologist Michael Utsch in SZ, January 13, 1998)

As is well known, the “appealing goal of immortality” (ibid.) is not an original invention of “pseudo-religions,” nor is self-denial and overcoming the flesh as a path to salvation. What earns these “false brethren” their “pseudo-” in front of the otherwise highly esteemed religion lies in small but subtle distinctions: “extreme,” “merely” – by which the critic admits that the difference from the congenial teachings of the official churches is not a question of spiritual content, but solely of its function: The condemnation of sectarian and other “superstitions” beliefs is based on the implicit comparison with “genuine” faith – a comparison which leaves one side out of consideration as much as possible; otherwise, one would run the risk of having to condemn them equally:

– the belief in a subject that creates and maintains the “natural order,” the idea of a supreme judge over heaven and earth and the interpretation of all the mediocre experiences of earthly existence as his work and will;
– the condemnation of oneself for being “merely a human,” unlike the Almighty; the confession of one’s own powerlessness and inadequacy and of having a right to exist only as a creature and instrument of God;
– the resulting self-righteousness of doing little that is right as a sinful person, but of doing everything right as a believing sinner, as long as one does not have the impudence to want to change anything about the course of the world for the sake of personal and human concerns; consequently,
– the virtues of humility, docility and willingness to sacrifice, which – as the devil would have it – fit in so well with the worldly services for which a true Christian is intended and so pleasing in the eyes of his masters.

The various “cults” have mastered all these spiritual exercises – and take them seriously in a way not seen in this country since the days of the Holy Inquisition. The belief system, together with its imperatives and techniques for a highly decent lifestyle, is not just meant to be an accessory interpretation, but a valid principle. Followers of “Heaven’s Gate” were so consistent in their abhorrence of “sensual desires” that they allowed themselves to be castrated; Jehovah’s Witnesses were so insistent on the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” that they preferred to be sent to a concentration camp rather than the Wehrmacht; “Sun Templars” regard ordinary life so consistently as a mere “transitional stage” that they transported themselves en masse to a “better world.” Cult followers refuse to relativize their creed; they criticize as opportunism the techniques of normal believers who, despite their pious worldview, do not to lose sight of what they have to do outside of church services; they themselves subordinate their lives to the demands of the afterlife: This turns their faith into delusion and earns the cult disciples the suspicion of cultivating false loyalties, of not giving either the Lord Zebaoth or Mr. Kohl [German Chancellor 1982-98 – trans.] their rightful place in the world, i.e. of being fanatics. With this kind of sectarian condemnation, the proponents of the “true” faith make commendably clear the role they have nested for themselves in the modern world: as guardians of public morality, which not only does not hinder but miraculously complements all the services of government, which is therefore handled in a correspondingly calculating manner. “Your kingdom is not of this world” in your heart, in this world, according to its rules “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and at the same time lament the sinfulness of human nature – that’s how the good believer thinks.

Pseudo-religion and religion: an enlightened need for distinction

Because the criticism of those who have taken sides with the “surrogate” false faith is not intended as a call to look at the world with sober eyes and to abandon religious irrationalism, but rather stems solely from a suspicion of non-conformity, the question inexorably arises as to where exactly the boundary lies between “deeply felt religiosity” and “pseudo-religious delusion.” In this context, the assembled cult detectives of the German newspaper world sadly confess to an increasing lack of clarity and “analytical difficulties with the concept of cult”:

“With the emergence of new esoteric groups and cults, the classic concept of cults has become blurred to the point of fraying.” (Die Welt, January 12, 1998)

On the one hand, it is quite easy to distinguish between acceptable activities and unauthorized aberrations in the area of moral self-discovery and support for others: one only needs to listen to the proven, authorized, and state-commissioned moral authorities. Unfortunately, however, there are now more than just the “classic sects,” which were “unrecognized spin-offs from parent religions” and for this reason alone could easily be identified as degenerate fanaticism. “Anything goes” when it comes to irrationalism, and there are also plenty of people who seek solace by believing in astrology and reincarnation or who seek salvation in modern psychological methods of coping and succeeding. The bourgeois mind can’t simply deny any justification to this way of giving misery its own highly personal, lowly meaning – even if it involves all kinds of outlandish things “from the scrapheap of the history of ideas” (Der Spiegel, 3/98) – even if it’s aware that this kind of preoccupation is not too far off from a leap into the loony bin. The need to make distinctions and the difficulty in making distinctions arise precisely from the fact that for someone who does not reject the need for faith, but rather supports it, there is a good and useful side to free-floating seekers of meaning. At the latest, however, when one of these communities once again proves its ultimate dysfunctionality through group suicide, the need to “draw a line” becomes irrefutable. Although they never succeed in anything else, the “cult analysts” are then by no means satisfied with “recognizing the esoterically and/or psychologically educated fruits by their fruits.” Not only ex post, but preferably even before people beam themselves to Sirius, in their faith system itself, they want to be able to pin down the deviance. The functional difference should nevertheless be located in the matter itself – and that is admittedly quite difficult.

All attempts at impartially distinguishing between right and wrong beliefs, precisely where no difference can be made out, immediately fail. For example, when a major German news magazine pretends to be enlightened and reports the following about its research, shaking its head:

“200 years of enlightenment could not prevent it: one in three Germans now believes the future is predictable, one in seven believes in magic and witchcraft, and 50 percent of Germans admit to believing in extraterrestrial beings. Around 20 percent are convinced that it is possible to contact the afterlife. Germans are really keen on astrology. Every second person believes in the power of the stars.” (Der Spiegel, 3/98)

Maybe it’s because the Enlightenment only resulted in the functionalization of madness and not its abolition. That’s why it’s also considered somehow warranted and no longer worrying that consecrated St. Christopher coins help against traffic accidents, candles lit at the right time to the right saint bring back lost keys, and miraculous Madonnas – if you believe in their “magical power” hard enough – heal the sick and the lame. And is the barely half-century-old Catholic dogma of “Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven” – completely without a space shuttle – more or less “delusional” than hoping for a classy, shiny UFO with lots of precocious ETs on board? Sure, in the official Christian doctrine of faith, which has been promoted to an academic rank, enlightened children of God maintain the view that the former is somehow more “symbolic,” i.e. not meant “in that sense” – but in which sense then? Every religion still wants to claim at least a few miracles for its faith, as they prove that the omnipotence of God is able to override the few laws of nature that the “merely human” mind has presumed to understand. And if a scholarly theology takes it upon itself to support the same “conclusion” about the “finiteness of the human mind” without the help of scientifically proven miracles: What does that change about the message? At most one thing: that it also appeals to an “enlightened” minority – so that even in the age of genetic engineering, nobody has anything against people making mass pilgrimages to Lourdes and Altötting, as long as they otherwise don’t take it too seriously.

The cult investigators of the better news magazines do not feel challenged to continue the work of the Enlightenment more thoroughly; they are content with admitting its failure in view of the “gentle madness of esotericism that is sweeping the country.” They are neither willing nor able, with their rather intrinsic need for discernment, to criticize the general obsession with meaning in any other way than with its undesirable results – such as the “near disaster in Tenerife.” The insistent pointing at the “quagmire” of “para-science” as a “substitute for religion,” which always carries the danger of entering the real world at any time, does not produce any arguments against religion or its substitute, but rather confuses everything. Quite rightly, the Hamburg news magazine therefore attracts a flood of letters to the editor from agitated followers of various religious communities who feel unfairly treated by its “all-around attack,” as if to prove that their particular delusion only fulfills their need for contentment, but never for suicide. These people certainly share the opinion of the Schleswig-Holstein sect commissioner Bartels, according to whom “the example of Tenerife shows: One must not dismiss this esoteric nonsense and its growing spread as completely harmless.” (Der Spiegel 3/98) They only insist that their “Tenerife” is quite different – more like the “heavenly Jerusalem” that the Pope wants to populate with non-aborted children of God.

And the experts of official-legitimate religious conventions have nothing else to offer but their own “enlightened” karma, which always whispers to them which craze is acceptable and where the derailment begins. But that suffices for them – just like the taste judgment of every believer’s conscience – to turn many a formerly “harmless weirdo” into a “time bomb” and, certain they have grasped the all-important difference between substitute religion and religion, to go from diagnosis to root cause analysis.

From meaninglessness to baring the soul

So the vexing question arises:

“What makes intelligent, educated men and women subordinate themselves and small children to the will of a pseudo-religious fanatic to the point of self-extinction and to unconditionally accept her delusions?” (Die Welt, January 12, 1998)

Despite all the astonishment that even the “educated,” of all people, who one would have expected, God knows, to take a more viable approach to the diverse range of meanings available, make such a mistake in their search for meaning, the answer to this question once again exudes empathy:

“The cause of the manic search is a growing collective unease in an ego and dog-eat-dog society that produces coldness and cynicism – prosperity too, but no meaning and nothing warm for the soul. In a world that appears increasingly incomprehensible and threatening despite (and because of) exploding knowledge, the fascination with simple answers is growing.” (Der Spiegel, 3/98)

What is supposed to be “simple” about these “answers”? The will and mind of a believer, no matter how devout, always has more to do than a pagan, namely dealing with the additional task of interpreting all earthly affairs into a sensibly organized cosmos and believing that this is true. However, the benefits of faith – “comfort, orientation, meaning” – are indeed so desirable and considered so indispensable, and the view that knowledge can only cause confusion is so common, that even turning to UFOs and the like seems somehow logical and in any case quite straightforward to cult experts. They are simply in favor of the fact that, if the earth is already a “vale of tears” and the yield of the services for which one is intended in it is notoriously inadequate, then instead of criticism and rebellion, the search for a meaningful verse that rhymes with it takes place – the stupider, the more effective. Misery simply forces something “warm” in the soul – they have become so accustomed to this inexpensive luxury for the disappointed that the opposite conclusion also comes quickly from the PC keyboard: even earning more leads first to meaningless melancholy and then – because people need something warm – to a self-fulfilling search for meaning.

This vulgar materialistic deduction that a belief in nonsense comes from a combination of social coldness, meaningless prosperity, exploding knowledge, and fear of threats does not give the impression that it is due to an explosion of knowledge in the editorial offices of the worried nation. For its representatives, it is more likely to be a fascinatingly simple response to a cult scene that is perceived as quite threatening. But it gets even more complex. Scientifically inferring the seducibility of the seduced from seduction leads to interesting implications if one remembers that the seductress is not only pseudo-religious and fanatical, but also a professional psychologist. For some suspicious observers of the nation’s mental health, this provides a good opportunity to accuse “cult victims” of something that had to be said to a nation of psychos a long time ago: they should suck it up!

“And there's another fashion that inspires the guru craze – psychotherapy, which has been declared a panacea. Anyone who feels bad wants to have their problem treated. ... the mistaken assumption is that every problem today can be solved through psychotherapy. Leadership is delegated – even to the wrong people. Today, everything is recognized as a mental illness. A phenomenon from which perverters of psychology like Fittkau-Garthe profit.” (AZ, January 13, 1998)

The expert from the Münchner Volksblatt has nothing to say against psychology in general – he sees through Ms. Fittkau-Garthe as a perverter of psychology, so by no means a typical representative of her profession – and certainly nothing against the usual way that the reasons for “problems” in life and “bad feelings” are sought not in the material conditions of existence with which a person has problems and in which one feels bad, but rather by seeing oneself as the problem in need of solution. He certainly has no objections to the point of view that all the difficulties a person suffers from can be solved by changing his attitude toward them. He has nothing against the psychological techniques of self-accusation and self-control; on the contrary, he wants people to revise their attitude towards themselves as a problematic case. But only in such a way that they do not first make excuses for a “pathological” inability to carry out a drastic self-correction in order to then make themselves comfortable with a psychotherapist. Experts on other people’s psycho-moral souls know how to distinguish between the right dose and unhealthy excesses in the wide area of moral self-control and self-generated inner feelings, as in the case of the higher nonsense between superstition and belief, as in the swamp from which higher nonsense reliably blossoms. For decades, humankind has been led to waste a lot of free will constructing a self-image and a belief in it, whereupon the worthy ego reveals through its moods and resentments that it is a fragile instrument for personal success in a life which depends on unconscious determinants, but, thank God, these can be manipulated for good; now, at last, it’s time for a different tone: people should not make so much of their sensitivities all the time. Because anyone who overdoes this and wants to use psychology as a “panacea” for every self-inflicted failure, instead of as a proven remedy for coping with exceptional situations, will end up like the cult members, “delegating” the “leadership” of their personality to the “wrong” people instead of the right ones! They can always be found – see Ms. Fittkau-Garthe.

Again, the problem here is: who is who?

How to tell the difference between good therapists and bad gurus

The difference between one and the other can only be told when it’s too late. Because, again, no one trusts their neighbor. If it wasn’t for esoteric confessions and clear suicide missions, it would be extremely difficult for enlightened contemporaries “to draw the line between crackpots and those who really want something dangerous.” (Utsch in SZ, 1.13.98)

It’s difficult to find out from psychological theory and practice where the approved help for self-discovery offered by real psychologists ends and the manipulative tricks of the “perverters of psychology” begins – obviously not just for those who seek advice from others on how to deal with themselves correctly. Because what seems relatively simple in the case of “gurus” – “the cult leaders are all alike. They smile, seem gentle, as well as somehow holy and superior, they have charisma, at least in the eyes of their followers” (Der Spiegel, 3/98) – immediately faces an inherent basic problem with representatives of the psychological discipline:

“The dominating influence of psychotherapists on patients and other people in their personal environment is a well-known phenomenon.” (Die Welt, January 12, 1998)

That is actually true: individuals who commit themselves to the ideal of coping and who blame their problems with coping on themselves as defective personalities less fit for the task of a rewarding righteousness are only acting consistently when they take the step to individual psychological care – after all, it would be an almost impossible to overlook contradiction to declare themselves a crisis case and at the same time want to play the crisis manager. Since it is already better to put yourself in the hands of a professional for the problems of failing individuality. These lawyers of the moral subject interpret the mistakes and failures that are brought to their ears as defects and help the patient in identifying the true inner nature of the weaknesses that the latter puts on himself.

In fact, it’s like this: Individuals who have dedicated themselves to the ideal of getting along and who blame their problems coping with this on themselves as defective personalities and as being less than fit for the role of a rewarding righteousness, are only acting consistently when they seek individual psychological help – after all, it would be hard to ignore the contradiction of declaring oneself a crisis case and at the same time wanting to play crisis manager. It’s better to put yourself in the hands of an expert to deal with the problems of a failing individuality. These advocates of the moral subject interpret the mistakes and failures that are brought to their attention as defects and help the patient identify the true inner nature of the weaknesses they blame on themselves. For every real or supposed failure in competition – at work, in sports, with the opposite sex, or wherever – they seek and find the real causes, which do not lie in the misery of a lifelong “free competition” for anything and everything, but rather in inner conflicts with themselves which their client are suffering from and which he cannot recognize and resolve without the help of a psychoanalyst. The mysterious world behind the damaged ego can only be revealed to him. This is why guidance is so terribly important. In this way, the therapist becomes an “important reference person”; and warnings about the dangers of “dependency relationships,” of “transference and countertransference” is as old as psychoanalysis itself. Although this kind of dependency also always includes someone who makes it their intention to be “guided” by their analyst through the fictitious abysses of their own personality and out of them – nevertheless, anyone who insists on this objection doesn’t enter the realm of psychology in the first place and is therefore not only completely behind the times, but is certainly a messed-up subject himself who needs psychological intervention. At any rate, the dogma of psychology that the determinant processes, the driving force of all human works, are hidden in the psyche, which it understands human beings as, is so recognized among enlightened modern people that the experts in this hidden human nature are always believed to have the ability to manipulate it – as their professional skill, so to speak. And this makes the cult problem a veritable question of power:

“There is no doubt that there are some cult leaders who can use their specialist knowledge in a targeted manner – like Ms. Fittkau-Garthe. As a psychologist, she knows techniques and procedures for exercising power and can use them successfully.” (Utsch, in SZ, January 13, 1998)

The psychologist Utsch undoubtedly believes that he also has these techniques at his disposal. He and his ilk believe themselves to be in possession of a knowledge with which they can persuade the meaning- and self-seeking fools to do anything, even something detrimental to their functional civic nature. It is, of course, very important to establish who uses this power for the benefit of their wards, i.e. who is rightfully allowed to use it – and who is not, because identifying with the professional mentor comes at the price of being definitely useless for the world. But how?

“None of Fittkau-Garthe’s colleagues had any idea what absurd forms her scientific expertise would one day take.” (AZ, 1.13.98)

How could they, when they had always considered the good woman’s management training courses based on the motto “Success can be learned!” with their impressive instructions on self-manipulation and uncovering the secret powers of the psyche, which are of even more secret origin, to be scientifically completely sound?!

So once again, what has failed here is the discernment techniques of the morally committed, psychologically informed public early warning system for moral aberrations in the area of belief in meaning and the relevant authority relationships.

That may be stupid, but it is no reason to despair.

What is to be done? Ask law enforcement!

Problems making distinctions when looking out for con artists only speaks for the increased urgency of the need for control; and this can be helped. Precisely where the expert gets stuck, he knows the authority who makes a binding decision on the question of who should be respected and who should be ostracized, and puts the answer in its hands with a clear conscience:

“Such half-witted psychologists form the core of a new, hitherto little researched cult movement that has its roots in misused psychotherapy. A highly intimate area – easy to exploit and difficult to influence. It is high time that this is regulated by laws.” (cult expert Heide-Marie Cammans in AZ, January 13, 1998)

The fact that Manfred Kanther [German conservative politician and Minister of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1993 to 1998 – trans.] has to decree what they can’t distinguish is only logical from the point of view of psychological disciplinary supervision over the ideological, intimate life of the nation. Where delusion stands against delusion, force decides – that is, about the required functionality of the offers. This is where true meaning and the right leadership will then be at home.