The quest for meaning Religion shopping, cults and the price of faith:[B Main Edition]
The Gold Coast Bulletin. Southport, Qld.:Sep 30, 2006. p. 31
WALK into any new-age book shop and you might as well be entering a shop called
`Religions R Us'.
Hundreds of different beliefs are available in books and even board games, so
spiritual enlightenment can be chosen from a relative smorgasbord of options.
For some people, a spiritual shopping trip will cost only a few dollars and
some time, and it might be worthwhile, enlightening or educational for many.
But in a society where people are turning their backs on traditional religions,
there are increasing numbers of lost or vulnerable people searching for
something to believe in and it leaves them ripe for the picking by smooth-
talking charlatans promising answers.
Census figures show all main Christian denominations are in continued decline,
with significant desertion from Anglican and Uniting Church denominations.
A 2004 National Church Life Survey found Catholic Mass attendance had dropped
13 per cent, and overall weekly church attendance was down 7 per cent.
But it's not that people are losing their religion altogether, because
statistics also show there have been significant increases in the numbers of
people going elsewhere for spiritual gratification and guidance.
There has been the Whoopie Goldberg Sister Act phenomenon - people flocking to
the high-energy and contemporary pentecostal and evangelical churches, where
the `happy-clappers', as they are known, not only say their prayers but put on
a show and entertain the congregation at the same time.
The shift demonstrates the move away from and the loss of interest in
traditional religions that have been unable to fully transfer their values and
systems into the new world in an engaging and relevant way.
The figures also show eastern religions, especially Islam and Hinduism, have
grown rapidly, thanks mainly to immigration.
Buddhism remains the fastest-growing religion in Australia, from 200,000
Buddhists in 1996, to more than 360,000 in 2001, now significantly outnumbering
"We've become an increasingly secularist society, where once we used to accept
this notion of a God that Christianity offered us, now we live in a time where
we want proof. Seeing is believing," said Dr Karen Brooks, whose specialty is
"But the principle of faith is you don't need proof. You just believe.
"People do want that - to believe - but the church, it's collapsing under the
weight of its own moral high ground.
"Pedophilia, sexual abuses, these types of things, have eroded people's trust
in the church.
"Those figures who were once held up as moral stewards of society have been
shown to be flawed human beings. It's made people suspicious.
"But people want so much to believe in the idea of faith and spirituality.
"We want some spiritual core; we want to give meaning to our lives.
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"It's what makes us human, this drive to understand the meaning of life and why
we're here and give a sense of purpose to being here.
"People crave connectivity and community. So through things like `happy-
clapper' churches and even some of the cults, they are given a sense of
belonging and connectedness."
The search to find nourishment for the soul and to find guidance is leading
more people to alternative sources including clairvoyants, tarot phone lines
and even life coaches, who are mostly neither qualified in counselling nor
accountable but who happily direct people's lives for a fee.
American TV evangelists have emerged as some of the most successful religious
group leaders and they draw thousands of Australians to their shows when they
Despite the fall from grace of controversial preacher Jim Bakker, who was
jailed for tax evasion and fraud after an investigation sparked by a sex
scandal, people remain enamoured with the likes of Billy Graham, Benny Hinn and
Kenneth Copeland, who continue to earn millions of dollars worldwide.
There are also an estimated 700 fringe religious groups in Australia with
something like 500,000 members, although the exact number is hard to quantify.
Religious sects and cults have been in Australia for decades, and many of the
700 are obscure, many are harmless and many operate on a system very close to
the `real thing' - belief in a divine spirit or being, prayer sessions,
guidelines for a way of life and, of course, cash donations to the
There are among them the secretive, and the controlling, like the Exclusive
Brethren, who keep to themselves but have been in the media spotlight lately
with former members exposing the inner workings of a group that advocates,
among other things, separating someone from their spouse and children if they
leave the fellowship.
There are also the bizarre, like the Raelians, a religious sect that believes
aliens created the human race and has told the world its members are cloning
And then there are those who rip off people, take over their lives or abuse
devotees physically, sexually and emotionally.
The common denominator of all `successful' cults or sects, the experts say, is
a Svengali-like leader able to lead seemingly intelligent people astray.
Some are found out to be the frauds they always were, like the Magnificat Meal
Movement's Debra Geileskey whose own husband outed her as a fake, but only
after years of taking money from those who truly believed in her `visions' of
the Virgin Mary.
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Sexual abuse of children is frequently revealed when finally the truth catches
up with some of these cult leaders.
William Kamm, a so-called prophet known as The Little Pebble, last year was
jailed for the sexual assault of a teenage girl at his religious community, The
Order of St Charbel, in NSW.
Kamm, a self-styled religious leader who claimed to be receiving messages from
the Virgin Mary, told the girl and her parents she would be one of 12 queens
and 72 princesses with whom he would conceive the `divine tribe' after `the end
The great fear with such religious movements is that they could turn into a
doomsday or suicide cult, similar to those in Jonestown, Guyana, South America
where 700 people died after instructions from their leader Jim Jones, or to the
Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in the United States, where 80 died with their
leader, David Koresh, or like the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate group who
killed themselves in a Californian mansion in 1997 because they believed they
were going to be taken away by UFOs.
It sounds crazy, that seemingly intelligent people can fall into these groups,
believe what they are told, hand over everything they own and allow someone
else to dictate their lives and even death.
These groups are extremely clever in telling people what they want to hear, and
once they have found a target they can see is vulnerable, they begin a process
of `love-bombing' or showering the target with affection and praise.
It's not until they have reeled in their victims, taken control of their
assets, their emotions and their lives, that the truth begins to emerge, and
even when it does, many devotees refuse to believe it, continuing on with the
fellowship even after the leader has left.
"We live in a community where we are isolated and there is a culture of fear,"
said Dr Brooks, in trying to explain that the environment in which we live
allows these groups to flourish.
"People, because they so want to belong and to believe, tend to put their
"They can't be objective and say what are these people really after.
"Often it's money (but) since when does faith cost?
"People can be persuaded to believe in anything if they're weak enough.
"If you look at history, of people who enter these problematic groups, they're
usually vulnerable, like adolescents or newly separated or divorced single
mothers, or men with relationship or business collapses.
"They are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable.
"And people fall for it because they are just so desperate for answers and for
for a listing of alternate locations.