How bad is this “mildly dangerous” cult? And what’s their connection to near-death experience science? |307| by Alex Tsakiris | Mar 4 | Near-Death Experience Please Share Share on Twitter 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, 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 signing 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 of 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 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. Whats 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 from 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 influence by theosophy. So when I did my term paper I found out a lot of things that people didnt know. I am 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 [regardless] 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.