Time Essay: The Lure of Doomsday

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The Jonestown story, like some Joseph Conrad drama of fanaticism and moral emptiness, has gone directly into popular myth. It will be remembered as an emblematic, identifying moment of the decade: a demented American psychopomp in a tropical cult house, doling out cyanide with Kool-Aid. Jonestown is the Altamont of the '70s cult movement. Just as Altamont began the destruction of the sweet, vacuous aspirations of Woodstock, Jonestown has decisively contaminated the various vagabond zealotries that have grown up, nourished and sometimes turned sinister.

All new religious enterprises, of course, are liable to be damned and dismissed as "cults." The term is pejorative: cult suggests a band of fierce believers who have surrendered themselves to obscure doctrine and a dangerous prophet. Yet some religions that are institutions now, more permanent and stable than most governments, began as cults.

Although Jonestown has prompted a widespread revulsion against cults, both fairness and the First Amendment suggest that one standard of judgment can still be applied: "By their fruits ye shall know them." Visionaries, even when they operate from a cult, can bring dimensions of aspiration and change to religion, which otherwise might be merely a moral policeman. But the historical record of cults is ominous and often lurid. Jonestown, for all its gruesome power to shock, has its religious (or quasireligious) precedents.

Jonestown has even been rivaled as a mass suicide. The Jewish Zealots defending the fortress of Masada against besieging Roman legions in A.D. 73 chose self-slaughter rather than submission; 960 men, women and children died. The event occupies a place of some reverence in Jewish memory and is not really comparable to Jonestown; the Zealots faced the prospect of slaughter or slavery, and their choice therefore possessed a certain passionate rationality. In the 17th century, Russian Orthodox dissenters called the Old Believers refused to accept liturgical reforms. Over a period of years some 20,000 peasants in protest abandoned their fields and burned themselves. In East Africa before World War I, when Tanganyika was a German colony, witch doctors of the Maji-Maji movement convinced tribesmen that German bullets would turn to water; they launched an uprising, and the credulous were slaughtered.

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