Jim Jones, Critical Thinking, and the Mass Suicide of the Mind

The problem. 2018 will mark the 40th anniversary of the collective suicide of the Jim Jones cult. In 1978, over 900 people left California, set up a commune in Guyana in South America, and ultimately died there together, notoriously drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

How does one make sense of this? How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?

Critical thinking and rhetoric. Perhaps what happened at Jonestown can be demystified—at least a bit—by thinking about the nature of critical thinking and rhetoric. We live, after all, in a culture saturated with messages—everybody’s trying to sell something—from consumer products, to services, to political candidates, to religions. Like the followers of Jim Jones, we’re all susceptible to being conned, in large and small ways, and being taken-in by messages.

From Josephus to market bubbles. So when I think about Jonestown, my first thoughts go to Josephus—the Jewish historian of the first century CE—who gave us the famous tale of Masada, in which a group of Jews, high on a mountain fortress, held off the Romans, until finally, when their resistance could no longer be sustained, and so as not to be taken into slavery—committed a collective act of suicide. I also think of the collective delusions that have gripped people throughout history, from millennial madnesses to witch crazes; from tulip manias to housing market bubbles. People have long jumped on bandwagons and suspended their critical thinking in fundamental ways in the service of beliefs, greed, and collective projects.

The question is why.

Self-destruction. Think of collective and individual self-destructiveness, and the psychology that underlies self-destructive behavior. In the 40 years since Jonestown, suicide has become an ever-more shocking feature of global culture. Examples range from Japan to England, and include the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego. Most virulently, suicide takes the form of suicide terrorism. And even democracies can commit collective suicide, handing their collective wills and the rule-of-law over to the whims of authoritarian, alpha-males. In some sense, Jonestown weirdly marked itself, 40 years ago, as being a canary in the coal mine of our collective unconscious—foreshadowing an era of new and murderous religious and political manias.

But how might we demistify such human self-destructiveness? Why, for example, did so many Americans give Donald Trump the keys to America’s nuclear codes? Do we chalk-up such behavior to imprecisely defined causes, such as collective hypnosis, spell, or magic–or can we get some genuinely rational grasp on this matter? I think we can find rational ground here.

Pleasure and pain, harmony and confusion. To get our heads around human self-destructiveness, it might be best to start with evolutionary psychology. First, we can safely say that human beings have a highly evolved mechanism for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—and one way this manifests itself is in anxiety reduction. When our environment seems to us in harmony, whole, and safe–and when we seem to understand what’s going on around us–we tend to enjoy a feeling of calm. This is deeply rewarding; it signals to us that we are okay. But when things around us seem out of harmony, confusing, and potentially dangerous, our anxiety-system is aroused, and we seek some way of feeling harmonious, whole, and safe again. Few human beings can live free of anxiety without this feeling that the world around them makes sense—that there is, at some level, meaning and harmony and purpose underlying the world.

Liquid times. Though we long for anxiety reduction, we live in a world that is highly fluid and alienating. It’s full of big cities, technologies, forces, and complexities that we can scarcely comprehend. The internet, for example, is larded with contradictory currents of information that resist harmonization or full sense. And the cosmos itself is packed with mysteries that resist our sense-making—as when our loved ones die or we try to contemplate the vast emptiness between the stars.

The world, in short, is, to echo Wordsworth, “too much with us.” The more we think about it, the more confusing and scary it can become. It’s a place where change is constant; where stability is not the norm.

Daddy, daddy. For a time, in our infancy and childhood, we may have had a strong father who guarded our innocence, protected us, and gave us simple and calming answers when we had questions about the world. But the invariable movement from innocence to experience, from childhood to adulthood, leaves all of us in a state of Mel Brooks-like, high anxiety. And because we are social animals, and there is strength in numbers. It makes sense for us to join a group where the individuals in it will look after one another as brothers and sisters. And so it hardly seems surprising that people might flock to religious, political, and social movements that promise to reduce anxiety, to make sense of the world, and to bring us into a place of safety, wholeness, and harmony.

And these movements are not likely to be terribly rational because reason takes a great deal of effort, both intellectual and in terms of discipline. To remain in the realm of the rational, you have to research things, and think about things, and read books, and live with your anxiety. To be reflective necessarily means you don’t know all the answer yet. And oftentimes reason does not bring you to a harmonious, satisfying, or conclusive answer to your concerns. Indeed, it often raises as many questions as it solves. And so it is extraordinarily difficult for people to live genuinely rational lives; lives that do not run primarily on oversimplifying cognitive maps and heuristics (rules of thumb). The temptation is to gamble on the easiest, nearest-to-hand, and most emotionally satisfying answers to anxiety-inducing questions.

Advertisers recognize this—and so rarely appeal to reason as such—but offer all sorts of shortcuts to persuasion: flashy colors, attractive images, sing-song slogans, etc. And likewise, religious, political, and social movements engage in similar appeals. Thus, what might at first seem mysterious—how could people follow Jim Jones—actually makes a good deal of sense. Jim Jones came across as someone supremely confident, and with a utopian vision of a better life. He had an authoritarian, father-figure ethos that can be extremely appealing to frightened people. He represented a short-cut to anxiety reduction.

A father for your thoughts. So the reasoning runs as follows: If I follow the father figure, I don’t have to think. My anxiety will be reduced, and he will lead me to the Promised Land (however that gets defined). If I join Jim Jones in his vision, I will have a community of brothers and sisters to look after me, and for me to love and look after in return. I’ll sing with them; I’ll dance and work with them. I’ll never be alone or lonely. The world will make sense, and life will have a purpose.

Family dynamics. But of course, once you enter into a relationship with a father and a family, all of the psychological dynamics of childhood come into play: desire to please the father, guilt at disappointing the father, and peer pressure to conform to the norms of the family. And once you are in such a dynamic, it’s tricky to get back out, for there are all sorts of ways that the group has for suppressing your legitimate questions and doubts. You sing each day harmoniously together, enforcing your connection to the group; you listen to the same sermons of the father-figure; you go out together and tell others about your way of life. And by telling others how great your life is, sharing your testimony, you reinforce the story for yourself.

And when you are in a group where miracle claims are being made, it becomes a bonding mechanism to solder you to the group. Miracles seem to be heaven’s warrant for the very existence of the group. How can you leave a group that heaven is showering with such powers? And how can the group be wrong if miracles are happening in the midst of it in the first place?

Ganfalloons and the stages of commitment. Another thing binding one to such a group is what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls ‘granfalloons.’ These are cultural markers that seems to make people imagine they have more in common than they do (as in all wearing similar clothes). Still another thing binding you to the group are the stages of commitment. The more you give to a group or family, the less you want to admit to yourself that you are wrong and over-committed. So each step of commitment may be small compared to the last step, but each step brings you, in an ever more extreme fashion, into the group. It’s like a frog in hot water. You might end up reaching a point where collective suicide is a relatively small step, given how far you’ve already come with the group.

The sacrifice of minds before bodies. So as we reflect in 2017 and 2018 on what might seem to be incomprehensible and rare–a mass suicide of over 900 people 40 years ago–it is in fact actually an all too human occurrence. The bodies of large groups of people may not be sacrificed en mass, but their minds might be. There are groups all around us in which the price for belonging amounts to the suicide of the critical faculties. Jonestown is an extreme example of the human ability to be swept-up in movements that are hyped, utopian, father authoritarian, and function as a kind of extended family. Jonestown is remarkable for the sacrifice of bodies, but all around us are groups that daily lift up on altars of sacrifice, and in vastly larger numbers, human minds.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, philosophy, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Jim Jones, Critical Thinking, and the Mass Suicide of the Mind

  1. This is an excellent discursive essay. I love your style, expression and clarity. Your skilful ability to circumnavigate a conceptual criticism outlining the subservience of a large portion of the populations on the planet and using the Jonestown Massacre to spring-board your thesis to traverse the landscape of the intellectually subjugated classes, I believe paints a cogent picture of the contemporary equivalent of the master/slave dichotomy of past.eras. Your logic and sanity are impeccable. I love to visit your blog and will spend more time reading over your many posts.

  2. North Charlton says:

    “How do you get 900 individuals to do something so extreme—and obscene—as to collectively kill their children, their spouses, their other relatives, and themselves? “

    By first turning them into collectivists or communitarians. Or, by gaining access to and manipulating some predisposition which they may have however slight – genetic or otherwise – which emphasizes social identification as a primary moral good, rather than possible fallout from a “higher” allegiance.

    Haven’t you ever listened to the Jim Jones suicide tape?

    ” Don’t lay down with tears and agony. There’s nothing to death. It’s like Mac said, it’s just stepping over to another plane. Don’t be this way. Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are Socialists or Communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity. We must die with some dignity. We will have no choice. Now we have some choice.”

    The world is not “fair” they say. Their struggle for “equality”, for the esteem of, and the power to call upon others at their whim has come up short; their quanta of future pleasures seems likely to be small … so, time to check out. Bye, bye. One last orgasm, and an overdose or bullet to the head. That will teach that mean old God!

    “And why, in general, do so many people believe and do such weird things?”

    People in general don’t kill themselves. They think – or believing Christians at least do – it is objectively wrong. Atheist progressives, or non-Christian moral communitarians on the other hand, usually have a different opinion.

    Why are you even bothered by their suicide? Or, is it purely an intellectual curiosity? The challenge possibly, of making it the patriarchy’s fault?

  3. North Charlton says:

    ” This entry was posted in … edward feser ….”


  4. Staffan says:

    Interesting and well written. I agree that anxiety is likely a strong reason why people join cults or similar movements. Although I think to include Islamist terrorism is wrong. The family dynamics you speak of are completely different for terrorists and cult members. Terrorists have extended families, organized religion, and tradition. It’s just that their worldview is irreconcilable with that of their outgroups. The cult member on the other hand, is typically a WEIRD person. Both Jim Jones’ cult and Heaven’s Gate were from California, the until recently the WEIRDest region on Earth. These are people from predominantly individualist cultures with nuclear families and less social support.

    I’m not sure how to fix this problem, but I think anyone who is on the fence should consider the value of tradition. It’s evolved in accordance to human nature for as long as culture has existed. It may seem insane at times, but it provides stability, continuity, and meaning – even to WEIRD people. They wouldn’t join cults if it didn’t. It’s an attempt to re-connect to tradition, but relying on a schizotypal megalomaniac instead of the real deal.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Good points, Staffan, but I don’t know about that part of your argument that suggests that institutional religion can provide meaning for “weird people.” It seems to me that Judaism, Catholicism, and Anglicanism are traditional and calm institutional religions, and yet they seem insufficiently literalist surrounding the Bible for a lot of people. These religions are thus having difficulty holding the attention of large numbers, and therefore of moderating extremism. Most of the “weird” (if that’s the right term) don’t just gravitate from institutional religions to cults, but from institutional religions to fundamentalism. Cults and fundamentalist religions function with fewer checks and balances.

      The parallel I see is between authoritarian alpha-males and democratic republics. Democratic republics, like institutional religions, have checks and balances on absolute, alpha-male, power grabs. But desperate people look for direct routes to nirvana or utopia via the alpha male who is unchecked by anybody.

      As for California, Jones’s group started in Indiana and had bus revival tours that picked up members from all over the country and brought them to California. San Francisco in the 1970s was more akin (in terms of divorce rates, stable neighborhoods, etc.) to, say, middle class cities in Ohio today.

      Jones’s cult wasn’t that large, but the dynamic of father/family was particularly toxic because it was untethered from checks and balances. It was a visit to Guyana by a Congressman trying to provide such a check that culminated in the group’s collective suicide. Though the father/family dynamic is present in traditional religions as well, it is checked by institutional checks and balances–and media scrutiny. Jones fled from both.

      I guess what I’m saying is I see a lot of parallels between Jones, Trump, and the leader of North Korea. Alpha males with sociopathic and authoritarian tendencies need to be tethered to checks and balances. Neither Trump nor the leader of North Korea like scrutiny, and both want to do what they want to do, and whenever they want to do it. They hate media scrutiny, are paranoid, etc. They have fanatical, committed followers, and before it’s over they may destroy far, far more people between them than Jones ever did. Jones didn’t have nuclear weapons.

      Stanley Nelson’s documentary on Jones is the best of the bunch, if you can locate it. It provides insight, not just on Jones, but on authoritarian alphas detached from checks and balances.

      • Staffan says:

        I saw the documentary last night, good stuff. Not biased in any way, they didn’t even not shy away from Jones’ progressive ideas, and it wasn’t sensationalist either. I guess PBS is good for some things. (Next on my list of docus to watch is Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, which might be of interest to you too, in case you haven’t already seen it.)

        I agree WEIRD people (I’m using the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic acronym as a proxy for Northwest European or descendants of that region, like Canada, Australia etc) are not thrilled by traditional organized religion. But even here in Sweden, people tend to turn to them in times of crisis. And Christianity is more than religion; it comes with traditions, art, music, philosophy, and values, all of which are uniquely Western. That’s why I still believe it is of tremendous value – even to atheists, although they rarely admit it.

        As for the idea that WEIRD people would be equally attracted to fundamentalism, I have to say I can’t see that. Converts are rare and in my impression they are often of low education and of other ethnicities, in America mostly Black. Jones’ cult was Black too, but I think this is due to him targeting Black people rather than an argument against WEIRD people being especially attracted to cults. Other cults that haven’t explicitly looked for people of a particular race, like the scientologists, are almost entirely White middle class, a close proxy for WEIRD.

        I agree, though, that there is an alpha male power grab scenario, probably always has been. And Jones is a good example of this. But Trump is not. He is part of a reaction against globalism and immigration that has been going on throughout the West for some time now. This shift has become inevitable as the current power elite has become detached from the people. Their shock at both Brexit and Trump are clear indications of this. It’s how all revolutions work: elites decay over time and at some point there is a reaction. Keep in mind that Trump isn’t very popular among his voters, it’s not his charisma; it’s just that he is anti establishment.

        The fact that charismatic alpha males become cult leaders, rather than politicians, shows that their clout is rather limited. Kim Jong-un may seem to fit the profile of a cult leader or a charismatic alpha who gets away with all sorts of crazy stuff, but there is no good evidence that he is popular. (He executes three generations of relatives of anyone who tries to leave which suggests the opposite.) To most people these alpha males have no appeal, because most people want continuity and stability. If you don’t believe me, look at the research on most desirable traits in a long-term partner. WEIRD people on the other hand, are more airy-fairy. They don’t want continuity and stability, at least not until they get themselves in trouble. So in extreme cases they can become very easy prey to people like Jones. Just look at Hollywood…

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        I don’t know the documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, but I’ll look for it. I know her book, not of the movie about her.

        As for your points, I thought this one was the strongest: “[Trump] is part of a reaction against globalism and immigration that has been going on throughout the West for some time now. This shift has become inevitable as the current power elite has become detached from the people. Their shock at both Brexit and Trump are clear indications of this. It’s how all revolutions work: elites decay over time and at some point there is a reaction. Keep in mind that Trump isn’t very popular among his voters, it’s not his charisma; it’s just that he is anti establishment.”

        All of this is true, unfortunately, but I also think that Trump may well exasperate the conditions that made his own brand of reaction possible in the first place. In other words, he may leave office four or eight years from now either having failed to achieve most of what he promised (bringing back jobs, etc.) or engaging in policies that bring on fresh corruption among banking and Wall Street elites (through his deregulation policies and redistributing wealth even further away from the middle class and toward the wealthiest). This might inflame populism even more in the country, bringing on new politicians ready to play the authoritarian card ever more wildly (like Trump has). If Trump himself is not Putin, he may do (for authoritarian populists) until a real Putin gets here.

        The Founding Fathers had it right. The threat to a democratic republic stems from insufficient checks and balances on alpha-male, authoritarian power grabs, and they tried to remedy this by weakening the presidency via the Constitution. The problem is: what happens when elites lose credibility? The temptation for a strongman builds.

  5. pash2017 says:

    Conforming to the society norms are some of our basic guidelines. Sometimes if instructed by an higher authority to do something we usually obey without thinking if it’s right or wrong. Check out the Milgram experiment

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