Book Review - Destorying the World to Save It

Cultic Studies Journal, 18, 222-224

Destroying the World to Save It. 

Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. 

Metropolitan Books, New York, 374 pp. $26.00

The title of this, Robert Jay Lifton’s latest book, will seem somewhat familiar since it recalls the upside down logic that was used to bomb some villages during the war in Vietnam. Here the title aptly captures the motivation of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that spread poisonous sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995.

Lifton who at the time of writing was a psychiatrist on the faculty of John Jay College in New York (he has since moved to Harvard), has authored sixteen other books in his field and is frequently called upon by the media as an expert capable of offering insights whenever some new cultic tragedy makes the news. One of his early works, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, became in the 1960’s a basic book for comprehending the techniques for the manipulation of minds, whether on the level of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung or on the level of the local guru who is exploiting people susceptible to religious or psychological persuasion.

Another of Lifton’s best sellers is The Nazi Doctors, in which he investigated the methodology that successfully gained the collaboration of so many German doctors, who served Hitler’s purposes in the internment camps during World War II.

Lifton long ago disciplined himself to be a good listener. With his objective approach to both victims and perpetrators in cults like Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) he is able to gather many facts which can throw light on what appears simply absurd. All of his works manifest a remarkable consistency along with a progressive deepening of understanding. In Thought Reform he made clear that the emotional scope and power of “brainwashing” is achieved by a combination of external force or psychological coercion with an appeal to inner enthusiasm through evangelistic exhortation. This results in a penetration of the inner emotions of the individual person so that one’s identity is undermined. In the Nazi doctors he used the word “doubling” to account for the fact that so many in the medical profession who at home were good husbands and fathers could at work assign some prisoners to work details and others to gas chambers. “In doubling one part of the self disavows another part… The requirements of conscience were transferred to the Auschwitz self which placed it within its own criteria for good.”

In March of 1995, there was shocking news from Tokyo. The nerve gas, sarin, had been released in the subway system at five different points simultaneously during the morning rush hour. The perpetrators, it was quickly established, were members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and “they understood themselves to be acting on behalf of their guru, Shoko Asahara, and his vast plan for human salvation.

Lifton reports:

Aum is about death in the nuclear age, about a distorted passion for survival, and about an ever more desperate quest for immortality. It is also about despising the world so much that one feels impelled to destroy it. In these ways, Aum encompassed the most destructive forces of the century just passing.

Asahara developed a hierarchical, totalistic community with the members’ being clones of himself. Therefore they were preoccupied with the End time and with the weapons which could bring about that end. The founder had an abiding interest in Nostradamus and in the Book of Revelation with its warnings of Armageddon. Lifton describes him as “profligate with his borrowings.” Added to his intellectual stew there was Buddhism with its expectation of reincarnation. At some point his anticipation of Armageddon developed into a determination to bring it about.

As in all cults demanding blind obedience the result is the surrender of one’s own freedom and the subjection to the mind of the master. “Aum violence was made possible by the extreme of its guruism,” Lifton concludes.

In the disturbing chapter, “Killing to Heal,” Lifton reports the strange attraction that Aum Shrinrikyo had for doctors: “The more I studied Aum’s medical behavior the more I was reminded of the experience of the Nazi doctors and of the more general potential of doctors to replace healing with killing in the service of a movement or cause.”

Reading this book one comes to feel that this nation of seventy million people is still suffering from something of a “fall out” from the atomic explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A gigantic effort in World War II ended in a sudden cataclysmic defeat. But for the Japanese, an even more radical shock must have occurred when the Emperor proclaimed that he was not divine. Until then, all of the nation’s existence had been organized around the conviction that he was a descendant of the gods. What followed has been called “the rush hour of the gods” with a proliferation of new religions.

To label a book as "important” is a reviewer’s cliché. Perhaps we can be excused if we say it even more forcefully: this is a very important book with many implications for the religious community.

The tragedies at Jonestown, Waco, San Diego, Tokyo and the apparently suicidal Solar Temple are clear signals that there are many people willing to become the disciples of a guru who hates the world and is enamored with death. Daily the news verifies Lifton’s conclusion that there is a worldwide subculture of violence, a realm of destruction.

Death is the heart of the matter. At issue are the connections between individual death and the death of everything, between death and killing, between death and eternal survival. The proliferation of “new religious movements” heralding an approaching Armageddon must be seen as a challenge to authentic religion. The anxieties of contemporary mankind are certainly heightened by the atmosphere of change.

Psychologists and sociologists are in agreement that change characterizes the modern world and that the pace of change will only accelerate. In the face of this situation we find that there are many who will surrender their critical faculities to the nearest guru. Sincere and often well-educated men and women submit to a master who discourages independent thinking with the axiom, “your brain is your enemy!” If the group has a Christian bent, the leader will invariably use the Bible for leverage in controlling the group and the Scriptures will be interpreted in a narrow, fundamentalistic way.

The flight to fundamentalism is an escape from personal responsibility in the direction of a childhood more easily managed by the cult leader. As Jurgen Moltmann once said, “The escape form freedom makes possible dictatorships of religious welfare and disseminates the fundamentalist “certainties” of a religious kindergarten mentality.” In a lust for certitude the fundamentalist surrenders the precious gift of imagination which will be ever more needed in the world ahead.

In an afterword Lifton says, “We desperately need to explore ways in which to alter the psychological and historical conditions so conducive to the kinds destructiveness and evil in which Aum engaged.”

Rev. Walter Debold

Department of Religious Studies

Seton Hall University

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, page