Be a deviant, but don't lose your head

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SWISS investigators face the task of establishing whether the deaths of religious cultists at Cheiry in western Switzerland count as group suicide or mass murder or some kind of mixture of the two - and the law will be ransacked for its own definitions of what happened.

Already the Vatican has drawn its moral. Christians, says a leader written by Gino Concetti in L'Osservatore Romano, should not yield to the temptations of 'deviant' religious sects. 'The bloodbath in Switzerland is one more reason to verify the firmness of one's personal faith, but also to reflect on the deadly consequences to which religious deviance leads.'

And so Mr Concetti, whose views are 'close to those of the Pope', speaks a language that the adherents of Solar Tradition, the sect- within-a-sect, the offshoot of the Renewed Order of the Temple, would have understood only too well. The accusation of deviance, decoded as an indictment of heresy, would have struck them, no doubt, as a repeat of the Knights Templar tale of yore: a tiny group becomes possessed of an occult truth and the powers-that-be feel obliged to persecute this group and stamp it out.

Some years ago the Knights Templar - a religious military order founded in the 11th century and eventually persecuted and destroyed - took their place alongside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Lost City of Atlantis, the undeciphered language of the Etruscans and the wit and wisdom of Nostradamus as blank screens on which we could project our fantasies of the occult. Most of this fantasising is entirely recreational. Our bookshops are stuffed with it, and it is normally marketed as fiction.

It is indeed fiction and it is, for the most part, harmless. There is nothing wrong with, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark. One might be forgiven, though, for thinking there was something wrong with an adult who came away from Raiders of the Lost Ark believing the whole thing to be true.

A good film requires a good location scout. The paranoid mind has its own location scouts, of an unparalleled resourcefulness. These location scouts start with the given, the nugget of fact - in this case the suppression of the Knights Templar and the burning at the stake of their Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, in 1314.

Then the location scouts go out and browse among the evidence. They find, say, certain carvings and occult signs. They check out the Templar sites of France and the Mediterranean. Then - a stroke of luck] - they stumble upon an arrow pointing in the direction of Glastonbury. After that, there's no stopping them. The Templar myth may be transported, at will, from Europe to the jungles of Central America, and from the jungles to the mountains of the moon.

The unfortunates who subscribed to the Solar Tradition were apparently served with an intoxicating mixture of Templar myth, neo-Nazism and - a novelty, this - homoeopathic medicine. To say that they subscribed to a paranoid myth does not at all imply that they were themselves a bunch of paranoiacs. It is quite enough to suppose that what the disciples of the cult had in common was a desire to delegate an important part of their existence as thinking beings to somebody else.

We all delegate vital human activities. We depend on bread, but we delegate the growing and milling of corn, and a great deal of the baking, to someone else. In former times, breast-feeding was delegated by the rich. Many people delegate the upbringing and daily care of their beloved children - husbands typically delegate responsibility in this matter to their wives, but that does not mean that the fate of their children is a matter of indifference to them. We must each work out our own ways of managing our physical, mental and spiritual economies.

Cult members are people who, whether temporarily or permanently, have a somewhat debilitated internal economy. They know that it is important to think, to explore the spiritual dimension, but they also find it distressing, and so they delegate all that side of things, and all decision-making, to a leader. They may be happy to work at simple tasks. They may grind the corn or bake the bread. They may surrender their sexual services; but the bargain struck is that the leader will do all the thinking and all the deciding on their behalf.

The apocalyptic leader is dangerous because he is a master of a certain form of projection. He feeds his disciples the paranoia myth, but he does so with a purpose that becomes increasingly enticing to him as his power grows.

The paranoid leader is a master of projection. This means that he transforms what is raging around in his own psyche into something external to himself, and thereby he conceals his own purposes both from himself and from his flock. His concealed intention is to kill his disciples. The paranoia myth is a brilliant diversion from this truth.

The disciples are told of a group which, long ago, had access to an occult truth. But because of this its members were persecuted and their leader was burnt at the stake. The leader persuades his disciples that they are the heirs of this occult group. They, too, must learn to expect to be persecuted. They must expect their leader to be burnt at the stake. But it is the paranoid leader himself who is engineering the conflagration.

This is the small print of the contract which the disciples have failed to read - the bit that was concealed by the paranoid leader's thumb.

The members of Solar Tradition apparently knew that they were going to die, and had become convinced that they were going to pass to another existence. The inspectors are discussing whether they could be said to have been murdered, and whether talk of mass suicide is, as one of them put it, 'pure cinema'. That is a very striking phrase. One would expect that the cult members had a little difficulty distinguishing between real life and the plot of some outrageous film.

But the argument between the Vatican and the cults is also striking, for they are both in the market for the same kind of sucker. The notion of dying to the world is at the centre of the monastic tradition - the anchorites such as the Lady Julian of Norwich even went through a funeral ceremony to symbolise this death.

The Vatican's moral is: don't toy with deviant religion. My moral is: be a deviant by all means, but don't delegate your intellectual and spiritual life. Don't sign your soul away, either to the paranoid leader or to His Holiness the Pope.