By Gina Liggett
Suspend the mind and you get... death
In October of this year, New Age Guru, James Arthur Ray, led about 60 participants on a "Spiritual Warrior Retreat" at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona. The retreat resulted in the deaths of three participants and hospitalizations of several others with severe dehydration and organ damage.
The main purposes of the retreat were to:
- Accelerate the releasing of your limitations and push yourself past your self-imposed and conditioned borders (no more coloring inside the lines)...
- Carve out your own destiny
- Experience a new technologically-enhanced form of meditation that creates new neurological pathways, allowing you to experience powerful whole-brain thinking (this one's gonna knock your socks off)...
- Experience, at the spiritual level, the ancient methodologies of Samurai Warriors.
Despite being called "New Age," there is essentially nothing "new" about this example of religiosity: it was led by a guru who claimed special spiritual knowledge that others don't have, it emphasized the suspension of rational faculty, and it was ritualistic.
It was led by James Arthur Ray, someone who claims to have superior spiritual knowledge, just like the Pope, Jim Jones of the People's Temple
or Mohammad. For example, on his website, James Arthur Ray claims to have "the unique and powerful ability to blend the practical and mystical into a usable and easy-to-access formula for achieving true wealth across all aspects of life."
Ayn Rand calls these people "mystics of spirit", who "declare that they possess an extra sense you lack: this special sixth sense consists of contradicting the whole of the knowledge of your five [senses]... and as proof of their superior ability to deal with existence, the fact that they lead you to misery, self-sacrifice, starvation, destruction."
And in fact: the participants willingly underwent deprivation of nutrition, hydration, sleep, and maintenance of body temperature in order to induce a supernatural-like spiritual awakening. But these activities deprive the most critical organ of our body -- the brain and mind -- with the life-essential elements of its survival. The health of the body was quick to deteriorate from hyperthermia and hypovolemic shock, which causes multi-organ failure. This wasn't a life-enhancing journey, but a death trap.
Up the ante: American Indians sue for tribal infringement
Not unexpectedly, the case is being investigated as negligent homicide by the local sheriff's department, and several civil lawsuits are underway against James Arthur Ray and the retreat center.
But the most compelling lawsuit is the one being filed by the Lakota Indian Tribe against the United States Government, the State of Arizona, James Arthur Ray, and the retreat center.
They claim that the incident violates the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, and that the sweat lodge ceremony (one of several sacred rights) represents a "desecration" by causing the three deaths. The lawsuit also alleges that the retreat leader and center committed fraud by impersonating Indians.
Sam Longblackcat, Lakota spokesman, said:
We Lakota people continue to fight for our way of life. The sweat lodge -- we call it Oinikaga or Inipi -- is a purification ceremony, to make life. Our sacred way of life was desecrated by a non-native man. This is our property, and there are laws in the United States and in the United Nations that state that these customs are ours and that they are to be protected.This is a twist on the violation of the separation of church and state
I couldn't even begin to unravel the complex historical legal treaty and welfare-state system in place between the U.S. Government and Native American Tribes. But it raises in my mind concerns about separation of church and state.
The establishment clause of the First Amendment of our Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This has been the basis for fighting the Religious Right's actions to pass laws enforcing a biblical morality on society.
But why should the American Government be obligated to protect exclusivity in the practice of religious rituals of a particular religious tribal group? Mr. Ray may have been "borrowing" from Native American traditions as part of his eclectic spiritual retreat, but for the U.S. Government to protect tribal domain of those practices would be tantamount to a government-enforced monopoly of religion.
Freedom of religion means that a person should be free to choose a religion, regardless of its historical background. If Mr. Ray wants to practice his religion, which he says is inspired by many traditions, than he is free to do so by Constitutional protection.
The Pope and his Vatican authorities in American don't like the way many Catholics practice their Catholicism (for example, Catholics who are pro-choice). But the Church is not suing the U.S. Government to enforce "pure" Catholic practice on American Catholics or to prevent non-Catholics from practicing elements of Catholicism (like many Haitians living in the U.S. who practice a religious mix of Catholicism and Voodoo).
It is my view that finding for the Lakota Indians in the lawsuit would be an unconstitutional violation of the freedom of religion and the establishment of religion.
I have no idea how this lawsuit will play out, but the case is fascinating and brings up yet a new challenge in the ongoing battle to not only protect religious freedom but, more importantly, to protect our secular society from religious domination.