The International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS) claims their association with Eckankar is not different from other religious groups.
photo by: Michael Swan
I live in San Diego, California. As much as I love it here, the move to Southern California was a bit of a culture shock. Like the first time I ran into a group of Hare Krishna followers on the beach. It was a beautiful day and plenty of families, kids, dogs, and I guess you’d say “normal people” were out enjoying the positive ions rolling in off the surf. Among the crowd, a small group of shaved-headed Hare Krishna people were bouncing around in robes singing, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna! Of course, this being San Diego, everyone went about their business, but to me, it all seemed very weird.
Fast forward a bunch of years. As I’ve continued to practice yoga and develop my spiritual practice I’ve become interested in Kirtan. A devotional singing practice very similar to what I saw those Hare Krishnas doing on the beach all those years ago. And I’m sure, if anyone were to see me on my yoga mat, dripping in sweat, singing, Ram, Ram, Hare Ram, they’d probably think I’m pretty weird.
I might have learned a lesson that day about judging someone’s spiritual practice. On the other hand, and this gets to the point of today’s show, when it comes to spiritual and religious practices, there’s a fine line between judgement and discernment.
I have a lot of respect for the International Association for Near Death Studies (IANDS). They do important work researching and communicating to the public about near-death experience science. But when couple of Skeptiko listeners alerted me that IANDS was getting cozy with a New Age cult called “Eckankar,” I took interest. Firstly, because I think near-death science is important and I don’t want to see any group try to co-opt it for their own purposes. And secondly, because this particular group had popped up on my radar screen before. You might remember episode #240 and my interview with Dr. David C. Lane. Dr. Lane came on to talk about consciousness but as part of his bio and introduction he mentioned his experience with cults and his extensively researched dissertation on the Eckankar cult. What he told me was on the one hand stunning, and on the other hand, if you’re familiar with New Age cults, not different from stories you’ve heard in the past. Here’s an excerpt that interview:
Alex Tsakiris: …I directed you away from this other interesting topic that I want you to talk about a little bit your book, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical. And it is quite a story, right?
Dr. David Lane: Yeah, because what happens is that at the age of 20 I do a term paper on Eckankar and it is supposed to be 10 pages but it balloons up to about 120 to 150 pages because I find out that Paul Twitchell had plagiarized his sacred writings.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, can you back up and tell people who he is, and how prominent he still is today?
Dr. David Lane: Right, Paul Twitchell was kind of a religious seeker. He is from Paducah, Kentucky. In the early 1960s he starts this group called Eckankar. Now Eckankar is a Punjabi word which really means one God but he will change that later. He starts his group in the 60s, where a lot of groups were started. And he starts it actually in San Diego and then he eventually moves it to Las Vegas. What’s the goal of the group? To have conscious out-of-body experiences. He was influenced, or we think he was influenced, by four major factors. He used to be a press agent for L. Ron Hubbard in scientology. He was associated with self-realization fellowship Yogananda. He was also a member of Kirpal Singhs group Ruhani Satsang, and he was also connected to theosophy or at least influenced by theosophy. So when I did my term paper I found out a lot of things that people didnt know. I was kind of really naïve at the time, so I do the term paper and I send it to Eckankars headquarters, which used to be Menlo Park. Twitchell is now dead, he died in 1971. So they write me back a couple months later and my mom is kind of teary because she gets this registered letter from the San Francisco attorney saying they are going to sue me.
Alex Tsakiris: Because you have exposed just blatant plagiarism here that is kind of undeniable at this point, right?
Dr. David Lane: You would think so. And also he had lied about his life. He claimed he was born in 1922. He had a young wife and as far as we could tell he was born in 1909. He also claims to have traveled to India and there is no evidence that he actually did. He claims that he meets [inaudible 00:08:31], a 500-year old Tibetan monk. There is no evidence that exists. So he kind of creates a religious mythology, if you get my drift, to kind of hide his real theopneusty or his real past. And so I tried to uncover that to show what his historical life was really like versus his mythology that he has created. And because I did that Eckankar was really irritated. And what happened is some guy got hold of my term paper and then bicycled it or copied it throughout the United States and Europe. And it caused a huge stir and I got death threats and people wanted to kill me and sue me and blah, blah, blah. So that is what stated it and then of course there are all these other groups that happen later on.
With this as my background I decided to dive in and see what was going on with IANDS and the Eckankar cult. I tried contacting Eckankar directly. No one would come on. Next, I contacted IANDS and explained the situation via email. I told them I was concerned, and was going to do a show on New Age cults and NDE science. I encouraged them to bring Eckankar on the show. Again, the folks from Eckankar declined, but Robert Mays who is a board member of IANDS (and someone I have a lot of respect for) agreed to come on Skeptiko and explain IANDS position vis-à-vis Eckankar. Here are selected excerpts from that interview.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me start with just the facts because what really opened up my eyes to the Eckankar group which, by the way, you just defended. I mean, you didn’t take a neutral position there. You said their spiritual path is valid; their experience is valid…you said all these things are valid. That’s okay [but] I’m just saying that’s not exactly a neutral position.
Robert Mays: Hold on a second, what I said is that the elements that [Anne Archer Butcher] experienced in [or] has experienced through a number of different experiences suggests that her path is valid.
Alex Tsakiris: Yada-yada. Anyone can say that. Here are the facts I go on — by the way — you challenged me a minute ago and asked, “have I looked into Eckankar?” I don’t know Robert, I would turn that around–have you looked into Eckankar? I sent you the information. I interviewed Dr. David C. Lane on my show and it wasn’t even about Eckankar. But in going over his background — here’s a PhD who did a dissertation on Eckankar; a scholarly work reviewed by scholars that found the whole thing looks like a fraud and that the original guy, Paul Twitchell, plagiarized, word-for-word, all of his work. He also found that [Twitchell] was a press agent for L. Ron Hubbard [the guy who started] Scientology…the whole thing looks very scammy. Now, people can do scammy religions if they want. I don’t go out and picket against the Scientologists [though] I might if I had a family member involved because I think it’s a very scammy deal. I don’t choose to do that. But if you want to challenge whether or not Eckankar is number one, a cult. Well, they’ve been identified as a cult. You corrected me and said, “mildly dangerous cult.” Okay. They’re a mildly dangerous cult. They’re still a cult. I don’t know why anyone would want to have an association with a mildly dangerous cult, but in this case we have a scholar who’s helped us point out just how fraudulent their history is. Have you reviewed any of that information? I did send it to you.
Robert Mays: Yes I have. I haven’t read Dr. Lane’s book. This point about mildy dangerous or minimally dangerous cult is an estimation by another researcher, Elliot Benjamin, which I happened to look through and he rates a number of different religious beliefs and so on regarding of how cultish they are. And Eckankar comes out relatively low in that. So, okay. We’re not making a judgment about Enckankar but we are trying to validate NDE-ers experiences.
Read Excerpts From Interview:
(continued from above)
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know what that means especially in the context of what you just said. How can you validate anyone’s experience? Shouldn’t you be about the science and reporting the science? The important NDE science suggests that anyone who’s interested in co-opting this science in saying that it’s special or it’s primarily connected with their religious belief, be it Christianity, which is being done right now. People are co-opting the NDE science for their Christian beliefs. Or whether it’s for this mildly dangerous cult, Eckankar, I think you have a real responsibility to be more than neutral. But to take a stand and say that the evidence we have; the science does not lead us to believe that these kind of experiences can be channeled into one particular group or another because that’s what the science says.
Robert Mays: In fact you’re exactly correct. There is no scientific indication from looking at a number of different NDEs that there is one true religion, or that any particular spiritual path is preferable over another. In fact, the evidence is quite the opposite. Actually Howard Storm who’s been converted from an atheist to a Christian asked in his NDE, what’s the best religion? And he was told the best religion is the religion that brings you closest to God. And the implication is there are plenty of spiritual paths and religions that can do that. And that is what the evidence [shows]. And that may also include Eckankar. So one has to look at the individual’s experience. In looking at Anne Archer Butcher’s experience, and also Linda Anderson’s which she presented at the Afterlife Conference–I haven’t read her book–I have read Anne’s book and she had two NDEs. Both of them are quite amazing and are supportive of her path. So what are we going to do? Are we going to say, sorry Anne, you’re part of a spiritual “tradition” here [and] we don’t believe it so therefore your experience is not valid. I’m sorry we can’t that and we shouldn’t. But we shouldn’t be judging them we should just be respecting them. All of the experiences.
[easy-tweet tweet=”when it comes to spiritual and religious practices, there’s a fine line between judgement and discernment.”]
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s too easy. I think you’re taking the easy way out, and I think the practical facts of the matter are that we do make these kinds of decisions. We do have this kind of discernment all of the time. Whether it’s Creationists; whether it’s Holocaust deniers; whether it’s any group that has ideas we don’t think fit within the values that we have, we do have a responsibility. And we do have a responsibility to provide some discernment. Like I just said, I don’t know how we can have this discussion about the facts of the matter. In this case, that Paul Twitchell clearly plagiarized this work; clearly borrowed this methodology from L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology scam and is now implementing that. How we can’t look at that–and then you want to say your one source of mildly dangerous cult. Go online and read the personal stories of the people who’ve been linked up with this group and tried to extricate themselves from it, and all of the flak that they’ve received. I do think you have an obligation to go further and say, this is not a group that we want to associate ourselves with. Anne Archer Butcher? You’re going to let her on the board of IANDS? I just don’t know why you would do that.
Robert Mays: Because we don’t judge people on the basis of their religion.
Alex Tsakiris: We judge people all the time on a lot of different factors.
Robert Mays: I’m speaking for IANDS because you have to realize IANDS from the very beginning when Raymond Moody wrote his book Life After Life, and started IANDS with Ken Ring, Dr. Michael Sabom, Bruce Greyson, and John Audette. When they formed IANDS there was already this push for religious interpretations. And it turns out that over the years it has caused numerous difficulties with respect to the NDE stories being co-opted for Mormon orientation or for a fundamentalist Christian orientation. That came to a head in 1998 when Michael Sabom, one of our founders, wrote a book called Light and Death. In it [he] called another founder Ken Ring to task for his take on what the meaning of near-death experiences were; and saying that the proper interpretation of NDEs is strictly fundamentalist interpretation and therefore, if you did not see Jesus, or the Jesus that you saw wasn’t biblical or didn’t act biblically; or some aspects of your NDE were not biblical, then therefore that must’ve been an NDE under the influence of Satan, and you were being deceived. These kinds of stances, either taking a New Age stance or a fundamentalist Christian stance is just not acceptable. So therefore it’s quite appropriate that IANDS take the stance of total neutrality in terms of the interpretation of NDEs and to discourage proselytizing; and promoting a particular spiritual or religious interpretation; and to strongly discourage denigrating other people’s NDEs and denigrating other people’s religious paths. That’s where we have to be.
Alex Tsakiris: Well it’s not where you have to be. It’s where you choose to be and I understand that. I’m just a little sensitive when people say “denigrate” someone’s NDE experience or denigrate someone’s spiritual path. I don’t know. There’s a whole flipside to that where it’s the court of public of opinion and I think it’s very good to air these things and put them out–in the same way that you’re talking about how a fundamentalist Christian perspective on NDEs is not supported by the data. Someone could say, and they have said to me, you’re denigrating my experience. You’re denigrating my religion. You’re engaging in hate speech. I see it as nothing of the sort. I’m just sharing all the information out there and people can make their own decision. That’s what we’re doing on here.
Robert Mays: Okay. But you have called Eckankar a cult.
Alex Tsakiris: It is a cult. Is it not a cult?
Robert Mays: I’m just saying it’s a denigration of a spiritual belief and practice that’s done by twenty thousand people around the world.
Alex Tsakiris: No. See, that’s exactly the point. There are cults with a lot bigger enrollment. I don’t think they win any prizes by how many they have. They have to amp it up and get on the higher list of cults. But we have to able to discern here Robert, that’s my point. We can’t say that there aren’t cults. There are. It’s a fine line. I admit the fact if someone wanted to bring in a Christian tradition and lay it down under the criteria of cults, some of those would fall under the cult category. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. But we do have this issue of cults. We have identified them socially with having some dangerous behaviors so it’s important that we’re able to make those kind of judgments. That’s what has been done and clearly in the case of Eckankar it is a cult. So I don’t know why calling it what it is, is necessarily denigrating it.
Robert Mays: Well, you would like IANDS to take a stance. I’m saying that IANDS will not do that. It’s up to the individuals. And if we can objectively present all of the data and we’re not going to present whether this religion is valid, and that one is not valid; whether this one is a cult and these are just fine, and this is a true one, we can’t do that. But what we are going to do is objectively present the data from the near-death experiences of people–and they happen to be from Mormons or fundamentalist Christian, or atheist, or Eckankar…whatever…we will present those and let people make up their own minds. And if they are interested in a particular spiritual path then it’s up to them to have their eyes open as they enter that path.