Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Six - The Church of the Quacks

Black Magic

What all this means is that we have a continent, with a hundred million half-educated people, materially prosperous, but spiritually starving; so any man who possesses personality, who looks in any way strange and impressive, or has hunted up old books in a library, and can pronounce mysterious words in a thrilling voice - such a man can find followers. Anybody can do it with any doctrine, from anywhere, Persia or Patagonia. Peking Pompei. I would be willing to wager that if I cared to come out and announce that I had had a visit from God last night, and to devote such literary and emotional power as I possess to communicating a new revelation, I could have a temple, a university, and a million dollars within five years at the outside. And if at the end of five years I were to announce that I had played a joke on the world, some one of my followers would convince the faithful that I had been an agent of God without knowing it, and that the leadership had now been turned over to him.

I would not be understood as believing that all our cults are undiluted fakery, for that would be doing injustice to some earnest people. There are, in this country, many followers of the Persian reformer, Abbas Effendi, who call themselves Babists, and who have what I am inclined to think is the purest and most dignified religion in existence. There was a man named Jacob Beilhardt, who founded a cult in Illinois with the painful name of "Spirit Fruit Colony," who nevertheless was a man of spiritual insight, a true mystic; he was honest, and so he failed, and died of a broken heart. Also there are the Christian Scientists and the Theosophists, so exasperating that one would like to throw them into the rubbish-heap, who yet compel us to sift over their mountains of chaff for the grains of truth which will bear fruit in future.

While we western races have been exploring the natural world and perfecting the mechanical arts, the Hindoo students have been exploring the subconscious and its strange powers. What Myers and Lodge and Janet and Charcot and Freud and Jung are telling us today they had hints of a long time ago; and doubtless they have hints of other things, upon which our scientists have not yet come. I have friends, perfectly sane and competent people, who tell me that they can see auras, and use this ability as a means of judging character. Shall I say there are no auras, simply because I do not happen to have this gift of seeing them? In the same way, having read Gurney's "Phantasms of the Living," I am not ready to ridicule the claim of the Yogi adepts, that they are able to project some kind of astral body, and to communicate with one another from distant places. But granting such occult powers in a world of economic strife, what follows? Simply new floods of charlatanism, elaborate and complicated systems of ritual and metaphysics for the deluding and plundering of the credulous.

I have seen the thing working itself out in one case known to me. A young man had a gift of mental healing; I know, because I saw it work; but it did not always work, and that was annoying. He was penniless and had a taste for power, and to eke out his erratic endowment he got himself books of Eastern lore, and day by day as I watched him I could see him becoming more and more impressive, mysterious and forbidding. 'Today he is a full-sized wonder-worker, with the language of a dozen mystic cults at his tongue's end, and the reverent regard of many wealthy ladies. I have never tried to break through his guard, but I feel certain that he is a deliberate charlatan.

This is an economic process, automatic and irresistible. Just as the manufacturer of honest foods is driven out by the adulterator, so the worker of miracles drives out the sincere investigator. As a result we have here in America a plague of Eastern cults, with "swamis" using soft yellow robes and soft brown eyes to win the souls of idle society ladies. These teachers of ancient Hindoo lore despise us as a race of barbarians; but they stay - whether because of love of man or woman, I do not pretend to say.

There are the Theosophists of many brands, with schools and institutes and temples and colonies, and a doctrine as complex and detailed and fantastic as that of the Roman Catholics. I have already referred to the writings of Madame Blavatsky, a runaway Russian army officer's daughter, whose career reads like a tale out of the Arabian Nights. And there is Annie Besant, who was once an ardent worker in the Social-democratic Federation; H.M. Hyndman tells us his dismay when she went to India and walked in a procession between two white bulls! Here in California is Madame Tingley, with a colony and a host of followers in a miniature paradise. Men work at money-lending or manufacturing sporting-goods, and when they get old and tired they make the thrilling discovery that they have souls; the theosophists cultivate these souls and they leave their money to the soul- cause, and there are law-suits and exposes in the newspapers. For, you see, there is ferocious rivalry in the game of cultivating millionaire souls; there are slanders and feuds, just as in soulless affairs. "Don't have anything to do with Madame Tingley," whispers a Theosophist lady to my wife; and when my wife in all innocence inquires, "Why not?" the awe-stricken answer comes, "She practices Black magic!"

Let me add that I do not say that she practices black magic. I do not believe that she could practice it, even if she wanted to - I do not believe in black magic. My purpose is merely to show how theosophists quarrel: going back to the days of Anu and Baal and the bronze image of the Babylonia fire-god:

Let them die, but let me live!
Let them be put under a ban, but let me prosper!
Let them perish, but let me increase!
Let them become weak, but let me wax strong!

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