For all the horror, at least cults display passion

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The Independent Online

As new evidence emerges this weekend that the death toll in Uganda may be even higher than the estimated 336 who were burned alive in their church, it is easy to condemn this sad episode as another example of the danger of religious cults.

As new evidence emerges this weekend that the death toll in Uganda may be even higher than the estimated 336 who were burned alive in their church, it is easy to condemn this sad episode as another example of the danger of religious cults.

It seems that the leaders, sensing a revolt of disenchanted devotees, murdered 153 others by strangulation or slashing with knives. Members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God had believed (since its formation in 1989) that the world would end with the start of the new millennium. When this didn't happen, the cult's leaders decided to take radical action to fulfil their prophecies and stop dissatisfied devotees from demanding the return of their donations, the police believe.

I write this from California, which during the 20th century probably attracted more cults than any other place on earth. You can worship anything from a golf ball to a pet here, in the name of religion. Celebrities are constantly signing up for classes with new spiritual mentors who offer mix-and- match blends of self-help combining Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. A photograph of Jerry Hall wearing a bead bracelet was recently declared vital proof that she'd turned to a particular set of beliefs to cope with her divorce.

We should not be surprised if during the year, more Doomsday cults emerge and more deaths result. The fact that the world did not end on 31 December, as predicted, could be causing problems for religious leaders. But it is too simple to condemn these cults as dangerous sects led by power-crazed prophets. I once made a series of documentaries about cults which attracted young people from the Children of God to the Moonies to various forms of transcendental meditation. Some of the filming involved visiting strange communes where people were woken up at all hours to pray and sing hymns. In many cases people had given all their belongings to the churches and cut off all contact with families. The distinguishing feature of all cults, from Scientology to Meher Baba, is that if you're not involved then its creed seems ridiculous. Can we really understand why intelligent people such as Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta would spend their leisure time espousing the beliefs of anyone as flaky as L Ron Hubbard? Of course not. Which is why we gaze in astonishment at the shaven-headed Hare Krishna followers as they chant their way round London's Oxford Street clad in orange robes.

The films took a faintly censorious tone, siding with anguished parents who yearned to see their children again, and berating the religious leaders for being too arrogant and evasive. The other week 100 or so Moonies got married to people they hardly knew. Such an event is outside our comprehension.

But two decades after making those films, I have changed my views. It is simplistic to dismiss all cults as dangerous and their prophets as smart businessmen or charlatans. Cults have been with us since people started to formulate their beliefs. They play an important and misunderstood part in our society. They soak up the people who need them. Mainstream religion has failed many of us. It has become too pedestrian, its language unsubtle, its ceremonies lacking in fire, mysticism or excitement. What could be more compelling than the prophecy that this tawdry world will end, and another more exciting one replace it?

The deaths in Uganda bring home the reality that most people expect more from Christianity than a lot of its leaders know how to give; people will look elsewhere for spiritual nourishment. There is never any point in trying to ban cults: they provide a useful home for a certain kind of needy person. It is tragic when the result is death, but inevitable.

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