Belzebuub as a controversial astral power and Gnosis
10 April 2011
Article by Joe Szimhart (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Some time ago, perhaps a year or more, I heard from former devotees of Mark Pritchard and his controversial Belzebuub cult [I am using cult in its academic designation to mean devotional activity and ritual directed to or surrounding a person, idea or object]. At the time I was developing a lecture about the influence of Gnosticism on New Age movements and gurus and how that was interpreted by my colleague, Kevin James Garvey, who sadly passed away prior to the lecture. Mr Garvey and I met at a conference about cults in 1986 and we collaborated at times as exit counselors to help with cult-related cases. So, the history and function of Pritchard’s self-described “Gnostic” movement fit quite readily into my lecture [see link to lecture slides]. The essay below is a follow-up with remarks regarding the current tension between the group and former members.
The Belzebuub cult has many similarities to the Ascended Master and Great White Brotherhood cults I followed with some participation from 1975 through 1981. A short list of my pursuit includes Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, Agni Yoga founded by Helena and Nicolas Roerich, the New Group of World Servers of Alice A Bailey, the “I AM” Activity of Guy and Edna Ballard, the Summit Lighthouse led by Elizabeth and Mark Prophet, the Aquarian Education Group of T Saraydarian, and Fourth Way sects founded or inspired by G I Gurdjieff. I could add the literary works of William Blake and Jacob Boehme as well as the art of W Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian who immersed artistic inspiration in a kind of gnosis through Theosophy. The range of my experiences—enriching, confusing, good and bad—with these groups and gurus culminated in my near total immersion from 1979-80 in the Prophet cult, then called Church Universal and Triumphant or CUT. When I broke with the CUT group after much spiritual and intellectual struggle (as well as suffering a divorce because of my naïve ‘devotion’) late in 1980, I found I could easily relate my experience to that of a host of former members of harmful groups that ranged from New Age to Bible-based to secular “self-help” or transformational mass therapies. The belief systems varied widely but the harmful behaviors and effects were thematically and strikingly the same. I will address these themes later, after I discuss my reaction to Belzebuub/Pritchard and its Gnostic variant.
With roots in Theosophism and Gurdjieff’s teachings, the neo-Gnostic movement as defined by Victor Manuel Gomez Rodriguez (1917-77) aka: “Samael Aun Woer” and his follower Joaquin Amortegui (1926-2000)aka: “Rabolu” was readily familiar to me. A wide range of new religious movements and fringe therapies tap the teachings of Theosophy and Gurdjieff—the latter was himself partially influenced by Blavatsky’s Theosophy as well as an odd interpretation of Sufism. The prejudice in all these movements is in the claim that some preternatural force, entity, adept, god or ascended master is guiding mankind’s evolution through the group’s leader. Gurdjieff claimed to have been guided by teachings from an historically unidentifiable sect he called the “Sarmoun Brotherhood”, suspiciously like Blavatsky’s fictitious White Brotherhood and the earlier Rosicrucian sect inspired by the mysterious Christian Rozencrantz. More so, any number of ancient Gnostic sects in the 2nd century CE claimed to gain knowledge or “gnosis’ from non other than the “serpent” that tempted Adam and Eve in the Genesis story. In other words, Gnostic lore states that the God of the Old Testament is a “false” or corrupt creator [Demiurge in the Greek] who trapped spirit in a physical creation as Adam and Eve, something that should never have occurred.
Most Gnostic sects are radically dualistic, devaluing participation in this world and its ways while remaining enthusiastic about spiritual states and devotion to the supernatural. Second century Christians reacted vehemently to the Gnostic interpretation of Jesus Christ by neo-Platonists like Valentinus and revisionists like Marcion who rejected the Old Testament entirely as well as most of what came to be the traditional New Testament. Marcion especially (along with the Sethian branch of Gnostics) created an anti-Jewish climate by radically dismissing the God of the Jews [Yahweh] as the evil God of creation. The Gnostic challenge caused Christians to affirm the Jewish Septuagint as the Old Testament and to assert the goodness of the creation and the human body. At the time, 2nd to 4rth centuries, Gnostics were not distinguished from Christians by Roman persecution. As the persecutions faded, especially after Constantine became emperor, Gnostic movements declined and settled into a few known sects, the Manicheans being the most significant at the time with later manifestations as Cathars and Theosophists.
Another feature that sets Gnostics apart from traditional Christians is the Gnostic tendency to divide humanity into “levels” of enlightenment. A common, three-tiered typology placed the Gnostics or the pneumatic as among the enlightened few. The pneumatic“saw himself as escaping the doom of the material world via the secret knowledge.” Secondarily in the Gnostic scheme were so-called psychics who could be saved or enlightened with some work if they joined a Gnostic sect. Gnostics viewed the vast majority of mankind as hylics or literally “mud people” who are merely part of the creation with no spark of the divine in them. There was no point in trying to “save” a hylic. In practice, the pneumatic was someone who joined the Gnostic sect, was excited by the revealed “secrets,” and followed the rituals.
Traditional Christianity in the early centuries held no “secret knowledge” that needed unveiling or mysterious initiation ritual. All were invited no matter what their station in life. Baptism was a public, simple, one-time event. In other words, all “mud people” could be saved. This highly self-selective, elitist feature with an emphasis on occult or hidden knowledge is a major characteristic of neo-Gnostic movements or sects like Theosophy and the Fourth Way schools. Many modern Gnostic groups have adopted a more psychological approach, stating that this secret is hidden somewhere “within” and can be “realized” through adherence to an enlightened leader and by using certain therapies with rituals and transformational workshops.
Another feature of a neo-Gnostic group is a leader who identifies with the mythic “serpent knowledge” forbidden to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Gurdjieff, for example (in his fanciful, quasi-historic autobiography, Meetings with Remarkable Men), said he was able to learn much of what he knew by meeting with a devil. Blavatsky, through her made up “Mahatma” contacts (Koot Hoomi and Morya primarily) clearly claimed to represent the gnosis revealed by the serpent in the garden as well as other secrets from Eastern religion (The Secret Doctrine).
It should be no surprise then that the neo-Gnostic Mark Pritchard, a maverick within the Gnostic Movement, identifies Beelzebub/belzebuub as his “secret,” mysterious and now revealed, inner god-self.
At this stage I have said nothing about the goodness or badness of Gnosticism verses Christianity. In any case, there are forms of gnosis in every major religion; I am not dismissing gnosis proper in this article. Both Gnostics and traditional Christians have abundant evidence in history of bad behavior among their adherents, so I am not pitting one view against the other here as far as conduct. However, conduct continues to matter in any group. Leaving conduct aside for now, I have indicated that we can argue about the knowledge claims of any group as to historicity, consistency, and applicability to social and psychological welfare. Gnosticism and movements associated with it have tended to devalue scientific knowledge as well as established learning in universities “of this world.” This is why so many occultists and new agers within the loosely defined Gnostic orbit lean toward esoteric diets, alternative medicines, and spiritual healing modalities that “resonate” with what they feel is the “god self” or whatever they choose to call that world within. It is also why some of the more “fundamentalist” New Age groups tend to believe in psychic powers like astral travel, remote viewing, mental healing, and psychic attack by “dark forces” or demons as literally true.
My concern is about the behavior and possible harm that strong belief in such hidden knowledge encourages in any grouping or movement, religious or not. This is not to say that occult knowledge, alternative healing and esoteric diets are bad or good as pursuits. Indeed, when prudently applied or pursued many people find lasting value in personal experience with something as unscientific and unreliable as acupuncture. It is to say that the less testable and more experiential a healing or knowledge mode becomes, the more a seeker must rely on the enlightened leader or some “authoritative” inner instinct to guide them. This easily leads to deception or self-deception and even into participating in a shared delusion. A powerful spiritual experience remains one of the mainstays of entry into a harmful cult as well as a viable religion.
The caution here is that one must be well-grounded in religious learning and have a mature, stable self before entering into the enigmatic mysteries of the cosmos and the self—mysticism proper. The elders in Jewish tradition insist on this caution for anyone who deigns to study Kabala, for example. In practice and in my experience as a cult critic I have found the opposite to be true. Naïve seekers in their narcissism will bite and chew and digest most anything that “resonates” with them. Too late they discover that the experience was toxic, useless, or a complete waste of time and energy. This caution has been tossed aside in the cult-like operations of many new Kabala groups that accommodate celebrities and the post-modern sensibilities of wannabe Gnostics.
This brings me to complaints about Pritchard. Belief in his power and gnosis and in personal experience have carried some devotees into territory that lasted for many years until they discovered that somehow they had been “had” or that they had been in deceptive cult territory. Naturally, the ex-members complain and use the means available on the Internet, in the legal system and in news media to right what they see as a wrong. Former members have complained that Pritchard is manipulative as to devotion, to funding him, and as to sexual inappropriateness. The reaction of the Belzebuubs is predictable when cult behavior dominates the group. Outsiders must be devalued and insiders will avoid dissent. It may be predictable but it is frequently not healthy to behave this way.
One of the hallmarks of a personality disorder [I also work in a psych hospital] is to instinctively blame others for everything that goes wrong in one’s life. The personality or quirks of a revered leader are often absorbed, as in social contagion, by devoted members into their own personalities.
Rather than apply corrective measures where appropriate, or even think about them, Pritchard and his group posted a laundry list about the former member complaints giving the impression that Belzebuub has a persecution complex. Let me put this in perspective: I have been a cult specialist and critic of spurious or eccentric movements for nearly thirty years. One of the most common and lame retorts to criticism from within a controversial cult is “They persecuted Jesus too. The early Christians started out as a cult.” Yes, and Jim Jones of the People’s Temple started out as a legitimate Disciple of Christ minister and a cult.
Now, let it be said that reaction to any group with a cult label can be harsh and unjustified but to avoid legitimate criticism, a personality disorder will latch on to the most egregious attack and say “everyone” is doing it to them. Here is an example from Pritchard’s Belzebuub cult.
“4. They created a climate of religious hatred against him in Cyprus where the Orthodox Church is strong, making him appear on TV as a cult leader and the devil with untrue allegations made against him, prior to these TV shows a person who had tried to set up a group in favor of Belzebuub was told they would be killed if they did so in a certain area of a city in Cyprus – the neighbor making the threat said he would “cut off the heads” of all the people setting up the group if he could and would also go to the mayor and accuse them of doing bad things if they set up there. Witnesses state a main figure from the group who appeared on the TV show was aware of this before the TV show.”
Note that there are no specifics or references for the reader to verify the cult’s complaint. This is an instance of social contagion. It reflects an argument by self-reference or “if you do not believe, just ask me. It is true because this is my experience.”
Added to the Belzebuub complaint list are 79 comments (when I last looked), most posted within two days or on same day which shows what? It shows action in concert by group members as sheep guided by a shepherd. Most responses were superficial at best and repetitive. There is a curious conformity in speech among the followers, but I will examine one of the more thought out comments:
“G. says: March 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm
“I remember this incident that happened in the Iraq war, where these soldiers were tormenting prisoners of war. Some enjoyed humiliating the prisoners by taking pictures of them being tortured. By the time these pictures reached the public, it was too late.
The prisoners had endured so much horrific abuse that it just silenced the world. As the story unfolded, it became clear that many other soldiers could have stopped it, but they turned the other way.
The soldiers doing this were young and influenced by corrupt leaders who taught them that these prisoners deserved to be robbed of their dignity.
In this case, those who attempt to violate Belzebuub have carefully evaded physical laws. Yet through invisible torture, it seems that they attempt to imprison him.
However, at least in this case, the pictures of these violations have been released while there is still time – that we have this opportunity to stop it is a miracle. I hope that whoever holds the key to ending this will have the courage to do it, and I pray that none who profess to love Gnosis will turn the other way after seeing this…”
G’s comment is a clear example of an argument by equivocation or false analogy. The same argument can be reversed to apply to people yet in the group and their behavior. In G’s mind the opposition has the cult trapped or imprisoned in some eradication scheme devised by “corrupt leaders.” Again, she has no inclination to self-examine—the group in her mind is an elite force that “mud people” have no right to criticize. She naively wants the reader to believe that Pritchard/Belzebuub represents a universal Gnosis. Her tactic is to accuse her alleged persecutors of what her leader is accused of. This is a highly simplistic tactic or knee-jerk reaction employed by people to put opponents on the defensive.
This leads to the question: Does Belzebuub deserve this negative attention? One devotee stated:
“Belzebuub is a unique spiritual teacher. He is one that can be met and who teaches in the astral plane, which is why many people have had experiences whilst either in dreams or in a conscious OBE, where they have had a spiritual encounter with Belzebuub.”
Unique? I do not have personal experience or history with the Belzebuub cult but I can address many of the knowledge claims and the paranormal notions stemming from such claims. As I indicated above, Belzebuub is anything but unique. Every occultist, self-proclaimed magus, and enlightened guru and their followers claim to interact on “inner” or astral planes. Sri Chinmoy (now deceased) was notorious for claims by his followers that “Guru” met them on spiritual levels, in “dreams,” out of body experience (OBE) or through incredible signs and meaningful coincidences. The Eckankar cult devised by Paul Twitchell relies heavily on “soul travel” in astral regions to pursue spiritual enlightenment or to commune with Vairagi Masters including Twitchell. In my experience with Summit Lighthouse, the Prophets [Mark and Elizabeth] made constant use of astral connections with their followers. Of course, not every one of these groups uses “astral” the same way (every cult has its unique loaded language), but they all essentially claim paranormal communication or a form of telepathy between themselves and the leader.
Leaving aside for the moment whether OBE is real or can be proven under stringent scientific observation, the fact of an OBE dos not make anyone more “spiritual,” holy, or a better person. Some of the worst people have testified to astral encounters with some of the worst gurus. Take Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). His story is instructive in this regard. Well-educated, important people were taken in by Crowley’s charisma and his magical rituals all aimed at what he called the “Great Work.”
Crowley pushed his “Magick” to extremes using sex, drugs, mountain climbing, yoga, incantations and his inherited fortune all “to escape the mortal coil and to achieve something undying.” In other words, he sought the divine union in Gnostic fashion. Peers and former lovers, male and female, regarded him as a wastrel obsessed with reconciling his quest for spiritual perfection with his pathological hedonism. “Do what thou wilt, is the whole of the Law” became his infamous motto, often adopted by Thelemites and neo-Satanists.
Crowley by any estimation, save for the most depraved of Satanists, was no role model. But his relative honesty regarding his antisocial passion was refreshing when compared to the sappy claims made by so many contemporary occultists who would deny their flaws and require devotees to avoid doubt. As the self-proclaimed Great Beast, Crowley’s sense of humor never completely left him as evidenced by the last two lines of his epitaph: "And now the silly bastard’s on the shelf, We’ve buried him beneath another sod."
Although Crowley wrested control of the Order of the Golden Dawn for a time, he took Golden Dawn lessons in “astral travel” and the Great Work of Gnosis into his formulation for his extant cult, the Ordo Templis Orientis.
My point is made, I think, that Belzebuub is not unique and much less is he impressive when compared to a host of contemporary Gnostic sect founders. The Agni Yoga group, for example, founded by the Roerichs, easily claims over 3 million adherents, most of them in Russia. So is this a tempest in a teapot when considering the brewing saber rattling about litigation regarding Belzebuub?
Crowley resorted to suing opponents when his ritual magick would not work on the astral level (not that magic ever works as claimed). If it did work, why depend on courts anyway? I have heard many less litigious occultists resort to the old saying, “The enemy’s karma will catch up with them—we do not have to sue.” These occultists actually have faith in their own powers.
Not so with Elizabeth Prophet of CUT who in 1981 sued a former member for $33,000 the cult claimed he owed them. The former member, who became my friend, countersued for a much higher sum and after many years of litigation was finally awarded $1.6 million. He died in 1986 of multiple sclerosis before appeals were overturned, but his daughter, also an ex-member of CUT, was able to split the award with their lawyer. My point here is that the ex-member of CUT, Greg Mull, engaged a cult with similar astral plane powers. (CUT at the time had close to 20,000 adherents, most of whom were using decrees or chanted spells (astral energy) to counter Mull). He and I had lengthy talks about how real these powers were and whether one could be protected from them. I recall that he was scared stiff of “dark forces” in 1981 just after he broke with the cult as the belief system lingered mightily in his mind. He was not Catholic or especially Christian but he continually repeated the Lord’s Prayer for relief. I was a target of these magical decrees as well; however, I recovered from my phobic belief regarding astral energies before I met Mull.
If astral powers are real, I should have been toast decades ago. Imagine having a reputation like mine as an adversary to hundreds of cult leaders like Prophet and Belzebuub, all of whose followers believe wholeheartedly in astral energies and the ability of their leaders to manipulate reality with astral power? My answer to anyone who cares about these forces has been that either these powers are feeble or I have one helluva guardian angel! Take your pick. This fact is true for anyone unaffected by sorcery.
From what I understand, the former members are considering legitimate complaints of fraud based on evidence the courts can honor within the law. There will be no discussion of whether Pritchard’s beliefs are real or not. In Mull’s trial, similar evidence was presented. As the cult members circle their wagons in the name of “Gnosis,” I truly wonder what it might take to bring the remaining devotees of Belzebuub into reality before they can consider what gnosis really is?
For more about what constitutes harmful cult behavior as opposed to socially healthy cult behavior, see my essay, A Razor’s Edge Indeed: http://www.jszimhart.com/cult_101
http://www.scp-inc.org/publications/newsletters/N2204/endprophet.html; Church Universal and Triumphant [CUT], Inc. and Elizabeth Clare Prophet vs. Linda Witt. 1989. "Appeal from a Judgement of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Alfred J. Margolis, Judge." Court Appeal of the State of CaliforniaL Second Appelate District, Divison Five. Superior Court No C358191. April 10:1-32
http://www.movementsofgnostics.com/ (site closed)
note: Pritchard in his "inspired" self writes:
Christianity is the religion which formed out of the exoteric side of what Jesus taught, whilst the esoteric or Gnostic Christians were the practitioners of Jesus’ secret teachings and had an extremely deep and advanced level of knowledge. It appears that some of the authors of the texts were at advanced stages on the path to awakening, and were thus able to reveal great mysteries about Christification – that is, the incarnation of the Christ within the human being,...
In his ignorance, Pritchard confuses the essential Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ with later Gnostic developments and sects. In his narcissistic need to appear to "know" and "be" more than the average person in the pew, Pritchard sees the "path" or way of Christ more like a Scientologist than a Christian. There is no secret mystery in the Gospel despite many mysterious claims like the "virgin" birth, the "resurrection" of the body, and the ascension into "clouds or sky above."
The "mystery" was and is revealed by the Gospel.
HINT: Matthew 27: 50-51
Pritchard simply can not or does not want to get it.
a Pritchard book on astrology of the sun: