"We use more discriminating intelligence when we buy a used car than when we buy a religion,” says philosophy professor and cult-buster David Christopher Lane. “Buying a used car you at least look underneath the hood, hit the tires, maybe take it to a mechanic to check it out. But in buying a religion, you’re supposed to wear these narrow blinders, so that if anybody disagrees you can block it out. It’s basically, check your brains at the door when you join a religion."
For the past 20 years, Lane’s books and articles accusing several new religious movements of plagiarisms, lies, inconsistencies, and scandals have raised a fury among true believers. According to Lane, members of various cults have threatened lawsuits, written him letters with skeletons on them, broken into his apartment, made death threats, and generally harassed him.
Lane’s no longer an easy man to find. He lives in the San Diego area, but the location is a closely guarded secret. He has no phone. “I actually kept my phone for years,” explains Lane, “until...one night when you’re asleep and you’ve got to get up at four in the morning and go to school, you get a phone call saying, ‘We’re going to fucking kill you.’ You know what I mean? It gets tiresome.”
For ten years I was a member of Eckankar,one of the groups Lane has written about most extensively. His critique was instrumental in my dropping out of Eckankar in the early ’80s. I anticipate our talk with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Apparently Lane has equally conflicted feelings about me. Initially he refuses to come to the Hillcrest home where I’m staying, preferring to meet in a nearby restaurant. Since I don’t want to play the awkward game of trying to figure out who one another is in public, I haggle. “I’m worried about getting lost,” he says, exasperated. “But it’s just a few blocks off University.”
Finally, he agrees to come to the house, but I’m doubtful that he will really appear. With only a post office box and an answering service to connect me to him, Lane seems as slippery as Houdini. With the blink of an eye, he could vanish forever.
Lane does arrive, at one o’clock Thursday afternoon, on time to the minute. I open the door to a boyish 38-year-old with a full head of healthy brown hair. He’s told me he surfs, and in his knee-length khaki shorts, plum-colored T-shirt, and sandals, he looks like a surfer. His clothes seem to be tossed onto his rather stocky body.
He extends his hand and smiles broadly. “Hi, I’m Dave." Sizing up his clean, homogenized attractiveness, I think, “Tuck in his shirt and he could be on one of those infomercials, beside a pool selling motivational tapes — how to lose weight, gain friends, make it rich in real estate with no money down.” We spend roughly nine hours together, spread over two days.
Sitting at a table outside Monsoon at Village Hillcrest, surrounded by potted plants and curving walls of mango orange, gold, deep purple, and rusty red, Lane sips a Coke and tells me the history of his involvement with alternative religious movements.
At 17, Lane, who was raised Catholic in the San Fernando Valley, became interested in Radhasoami, a branch of surat shabd yoga founded in India in the 19th Century. In 1978, after five years of study, he was initiated into Radhasoami in India by the late Maharaj Charan Singh.
In 1977, noting the similarities between Radhasoami and Eckankar, a religious movement founded in San Diego in 1965 by the late Paul Twitchell, Lane wrote a term paper comparing the two for an undergraduate religious studies class at California State University-Northridge. In the course of his research, Lane discovered information that led him to believe that Twitchell copied “whole chapters from Radhasoami texts, lied about biographical details,” and misled people concerning the origin of Eckankar’s doctrines.
Lane leans across the cafe table, excitedly tapping his straw. “I found all this fun, interesting stuff. I talked to Twitchell’s first wife. Nobody knew he’d been married before. I was excited — 20 years old, in the moment of discovering something new. I had huge phone bills, because I had called this professor or this person. So I sent my term paper to Eckankar, and then they turned around two months later and said they were going to sue me if I published it. So, I’m not scared of attorneys. My family is full of attorneys. Naturally the threat made me want to do more research. If they’re going to sue you about a 120-page term paper when you’re 20 years old, you know something’s up."
The following year Lane wrote a second paper, “The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar.” “I was obsessed,” Lane admits. “I was on the Holy Grail of research."
Through a process that Lane himself does not completely understand, someone photocopied this manuscript and circulated it around the country. As the great Houdini wrote, “The yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy.” Houdini, like Lane, was a man whose obsessions drove him to expose religious frauds.
James Peebles, an Eckist and fellow classmate of Lane’s, also wrote a paper on Eckankar. The two students shared notes. “Peebles,” says Lane, “got so disgruntled when he realized there was some kind of fraud being perpetuated that he wrote Eckankar himself about these findings.” Peebles returned to his Baptist roots and sent his paper to Professor Ed Gruss of the Los Angeles Baptist College. An Eckankar representative, claiming to be a member of the Berkeley-based anti-cult group Spiritual Counterfeits Project, asked Gruss for a copy of Peebles’s report. The report made claims of tax irregularities and personal misconduct by an Eckankar leader. Eckankar then threatened Gruss with a $2.5 million lawsuit for “publishing” Peebles’s paper, for making a photocopy of it.