Inside Britain's Cults
Fourth Estate, London, 1995.
Shaw spent a year being a member of various cults such as the Emin, the Jesus Army and Krishna Consciousness, in an attempt to find out what they are like from the inside, and what they mean to devotees. His purpose in writing the book was not to ridicule the people involved, but some of the reportage is unavoidably funny.
Here is an account of his studies with the Emin:
"One night we are studying graphology, but even before examining what our handwriting means we spend half an hour 'researching' the hidden meaning of the word 'graphology'. 'Graph', someone reads from their Oxford dictionary: 'A symbolic diagram expressing a system of connections.' 'A system of connections! Wow!' Someone else suggests, 'Logy. That's like 'Logos', the word of God. So it's like a system of connections to the word of God.' Everyone breathes, 'Wow!'"
One chapter discusses that peculiar institution, The School of Economic Science, which sounds as though it was named to be confused with the London School of Economics. The founder had intended it to be an informal forum for discussion about economics and social policy, but his son, a follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, gained control of it in order to proselytise their teachings. Students now pay for courses in philosophy that never mention Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger or Wittgenstein.
"Sir" George King is the founder of the Aetherius Society, named after a Venusian who began to communicate with King at the ripe old age of 3456.
A further informant (about 40 million km further), a Martian known as Mars Sector 6, has also kept George in touch with developments. These include, reports Shaw,
"a great space battle which had taken place in 1954, unnoticed on Earth, but of great importance to our survival. The Evil Fiends of Garouche, an intelligent species of fish, came to the solar system 'to annihilate all humanoid life on Earth by drawing away the atmosphere'."
It might be surmised that this was some kind of galactic revenge for our fondness for fish and chips, but of course this gigantic vacuuming would ultimately upset fish as well. Luckily for humanoids and earthly fish, Sir George helped to save the day in skirmishes with an Evil Fiends' satellite.
Since then, George has kept busy, storing spiritual energy in mountains and so forth. Lurking behind this somewhere is the shadowy figure of Madame Blavatsky, whose Great White Brotherhood includes another communicant, Saint Goo-Ling.
The book concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the media treatment of cults, especially in the case of the Waco siege, and Shaw meets one of the English survivors of that disaster.
Spying in Guru Land is well worth reading for its rare glimpses of life at the feet of these various sages. It is a shame that the publishers couldn't be bothered to provide an index.
PSYCHOLOGY OF BELIEF AND SUPERSTITION
© Paul Taylor 2001