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Failed Utopias

A look at some failed utopias (okay, maybe more like cults…) from history in honor of National Start Your Own Country Day

In our quest to make the world a better place, we humans have attempted some pretty crazy alternative approaches to living in society. Everyone seems to have a different idea of what the “ideal world” might be. Some people are just more charismatic than others, and are able to convince lots of other people to follow along. Sometimes, these well-intentioned (and not so well-intentioned) folks end up starting cults, and things usually just go downhill from there. To celebrate National Start Your Own Country Day, let’s take a look at a few failed attempts from history.

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First, let’s take it pretty far back in history, all the way to the French Revolution. A bloody social and political upheaval from 1789-1799, the French Revolution ushered in many changes in an attempt to improve everyday life for the common person. This included an increased secularity and a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church. Maximilien Robespierre attempted to champion the Cult of the Supreme Being as the new official religion of the state, and even forced everyone to adopt a new calendar based on his new religion, as well as participate in massive celebrations every ten days. Despite all these attempts, the cult didn’t last, and was eventually outlawed by Napoleon Bonaparte.

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Okay, now let’s fast-forward a couple hundred years to 1977. Jim Jones’ cult, Peoples’ Temple gained as many as 20,000 followers at its peak, disguising itself as an organization for social equality and progress, but ending in a mass murder/suicide at the Jonestown agricultural commune in Guyana when the group faced the consequences of murdering a US congressman.  At least 900 people committed suicide (either at will or at gunpoint) that day, drinking Kool-Aid spiked with poison.

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Another 1970s cult with a similarly tragic outcome was Heaven’s Gate. The group’s ideology focused on breaking all ties with their worldly lives in order to ascend to what they called “The Evolutionary Level Above Human.” 39 members of the group committed mass suicide in 1997, convinced that Earth was destined for destruction, and that they would be saved by what amounts to a UFO rapture because of their “willful exit from the body in a dignified manner.”

One group that seems to have somehow maintained relevance since it was founded in 1952 is the Church of Scientology. Based on the writings of science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is based on a backstory that might as well be the plot of a sci-fi novel, involving a leader of “the Galactic Confederacy” named “Xenu” and a system of alternative psychology called “Dianetics.” There are stories abound of violence, coercion and abuse from Scientology defectors, however, the organization miraculously maintained its tax-exempt status in the United States until earlier this year.

So, if you want to join (or start) a utopia, maybe take a look at these cautionary tales before going any further.