Racist Ramtha Tirade: The Questions We Aren’t Asking

This week a news item has been making the rounds concerning a video of New Age channeler JZ Knight making offensive remarks about Jews, Catholics, Mexicans, and gays. An article by Susy Buchanan of the Southern Poverty Law Center described how Knight’s movement, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment (RSE), is suing former members who uploaded the videos of Knight’s racist statements to the Internet in 2012.

In the state of Washington, the leaked videos also embarrassed democratic candidates who have accepted $70,000 in campaign donations from Knight (much to the delight of The Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank). Knight claims the statements were satirical and taken out of context, though it’s difficult to imagine a context in which statements such as, “Fuck God’s chosen people! I think they have earned enough cash to have paid their way out of the goddamned gas chambers by now,” would not be tasteless and offensive.

However, none of the reporting on this story has thought to ask why Knight was making these statements or why her minority followers—including Latinos, Jews, and gays—have rallied to her defense. Instead of taking on the difficult task of interpreting the religious other, media coverage has folded the situation into a familiar and comfortable narrative of a demented cult leader.

“Ramtha-gate” is a classic study in how popular ideas about cults operate in public discourse. Beginning in the 1960s, an idea of a generic religious cult began to form in the American imagination: in contrast to “good” religion, the “cult” is led by a mentally disturbed charismatic leader; to the extent the leader is capable of rational thought, he or she is a greedy con artist; meanwhile, cult followers are stupid and credulous, have no agency due to brainwashing, and are at risk for committing mass suicide.

Even if readers know virtually nothing about a particular movement, a few choice words is all it takes to invoke the master narrative of the cult and all of the tacit claims the label implies.

The first paragraph of Buchanan’s piece contains a reference to “Kool-Aid.” Since the Jonestown massacre in 1978, “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become shorthand for claiming that a particular group has no agency and that its views are therefore unworthy of consideration or debate. The area where RSE holds its retreats is described as a “compound,” which has become a popular term for any facility that “cults” own since the Branch Davidian siege in 1993. Terms like “cult compound” invoke a military register, presenting the group as a foreign and potentially dangerous force rather than fellow community members.

As with other cult controversies, coverage of Ramtha-gate quotes apostates but not active members. It also cherry-picks the bizarre-sounding beliefs and practices of a group and presents them independently of a larger worldview that might render them sensible. Lastly, it focuses heavily on efforts to raise money, applying scrutiny that more established religious organizations are often exempt from. Curiously, Buchanan’s piece concludes by quoting a former RSE-member:

In America, there are many First Amendment rights I agree with, even if I disagree with what is being said. Where I get concerned is when you have a large group of people that believe they are hearing from a powerful enlightened entity, creating an “us versus them” situation.

This warning about an “us versus them situation” is an ironic ending to an article that presents RSE as a greedy and potentially dangerous organization run by a hate-mongering madwoman.

This is not meant to defend Knight or to apologize for her offensive remarks. They are disturbing and Buchanan is right to call attention to the situation. I would, for example, very much like to know why Knight apparently made a joke about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, almost nothing that has been said so far has provided any context that might render these remarks understandable.

Instead of asking hard questions about RSE, we have smugly dismissed Knight as another manifestation of the cookie-cutter cult leader. This narrative appeals to readers because it allows us to congratulate ourselves on being smarter than the avaricious, mad, and racist cult leader and his/her duped followers.

But while this may feel good, it is intellectually lazy. To actively promote social justice in a religiously plural society, it is not enough to simply sort other people’s worldviews into the categories of good and evil religions. We have to ask why. The prospect of taking this question seriously makes some people deeply uncomfortable. If we attempt to analyze cult leaders as fellow human beings, we risk destroying the facile categories we have imposed onto the religious landscape.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

  • Jim Reed

    I think this is a major reason why we are here on RD. The various cults can explain their beliefs here, and we can ask the tough questions, and see if we can find logical inconsistencies in their religion or cult.

  • DKeane123

    Based upon this quote from their website “Using ancient wisdom and the latest discoveries in neuroscience and quantum physics, RSE teaches students how to access the extraordinary abilities of the brain to “Become a Remarkable Life®.” RSE facilitates live events and streaming over the Internet in many languages.”

    Sounds like Deepak Chopra had a love child with David Miscavige. I’m not sure a “larger worldview” would make the above statement sound reasonable.

    Although I do agree that mainstream religions get a pass on claims and money, while for some reason these “cults” are ridiculed.

  • Toto

    Is there any “larger worldview” that might render Knight’s beliefs “sensible”? Laycock has presented a dismissive version of the popular view of cults, but if he used even a small part of the nuance and sympathy he.wants to waste on Knight, the popular view has a lot of truth to it – especially if you realize that all religious are cults.

  • Jim Reed

    We have been trying to figure out what that truth is.

  • CitizenWhy

    Thanks, from the article I had no idea of what she preaches. You put the gist nicely.

    My thoughts: whenever you combine helpful self-improvement practices (even when based on erroneous theory) with zealous motivation you can get positive results, even from people with stupid ideas. Scientology and Mormonism are good at this. Catholicism has lost this ability, obsessing instead on abstract doctrine.

  • roelfe

    I agree that it is intellectually lazy to lump those with unconventional religious views into undesirable categorization. Nevertheless, aren’t those who suspend their ability to wisely discern between unverifiable claims, such as those made by groups like RSE, and those which are upheld by scientific and historical fact also being intellectually lazy? I would argue that they are and that at a time when we are inundated with sound information upon which to make good judgments about how to conduct our lives, we can and should expect better of ourselves and one another.

  • Sara Robinson

    The line between “good religion” and toxic religion is clear, bright, and easy — and it’s been known for a long while. (I spent several years writing about it myself.) It’s this: toxic religion is authoritarian. It deprives its members of independent thought and agency, and does its best to isolate them from outside influences like family, friends, and secular media and entertainment. And always, the road to bad religion is marked by a gate inscribed, “Here is the One, True, Right, and Only Way.” That one belief provides all the justification would-be authoritarian leaders need to subjugate their followers and impose their beliefs on the rest of the world. It’s the one trait that’s core to everything else that happens.

    The fact that these people have gone up country isn’t benign, either. Terrorism experts have long known that when a group physically retreats from the world into a remote compound, it’s a clear that we should be watching for potential trouble ahead. (I’m not talking about a week or two at church camp; I’m talking about going off to live in the woods full-time.) Groups retreat because the leader is trying to consolidate control over his or her followers, eliminate outside influences, suspend legal and social protections, and become their sole arbiter of reality. It also portends a hostile stance toward larger society that only tends to grow over time, marked by increasing paranoia that in too many cases leads to acquisition of arms and plans for violent action.

    This would have been a better article if the author had been more familiar with the academic work in the field. The questions he asks do have known answers.

  • Don

    Not so fast. Hermits may retire from the world and at the same time practice the most intense forms of loving interest in their fellow creatures. Isolation from society does *not* equal hostility as you far too quickly and easily state. Renunciation of the worldly life is at the core of some very UN-toxic religious movements.

  • Jim Reed

    Is that the dividing line between good religion and toxic religion, or is that the dividing line between toxic religion and less toxic religion?

  • John W. Morehead

    In my view this just replaces one alleged “cult” for another, and makes exclusivist or authoritarian religions the new “cults” and problem with religion in society. Curious, especially since this sounds like an exclusivist claim from a pluralist position stated authoritatively.

    In the interests of fairness and balance, not every religion, let alone every authoritative or exclusivist religious tradition is toxic or bad, even if pluralists are disposed to viewing them this way.

  • John W. Morehead

    I think you’ve confused consideration of a “larger worldview” in which the new religions are situated with what you would accept as “reasonable” claims. I read Laycock as saying that a broader context would make such things more understandable, not necessarily that from some perspectives their claims would be interpreted as reasonable, whatever that means and how it is defined.

  • http://wonderwheels.blogspot.com/ Gregory Wonderwheel

    The point was that Knight’s “beliefs” have not been described, only his racist remarks.

  • maryf

    So what is said by someone from this so-called “cult” gets criticism but vile comments by members of mainstream religions toward minorities they don’t like are quoted with equianimity. That doesn’t work very well, does it?

  • THS_Warrior

    The fundemental problem explaining all of humanity’s problems is that humans do not come equipped to discern the difference between Truth and non-truth. The adjective “gullible” fits many humans to a T, but it does not accurately convey what I mean about humans not being able to tell when they are being lied too by other humans. That sad fact is the reason attorneys invented the adversary system. Liars are exposed daily in this nation’s courts.