During one of our recent discussions about food taboos, a sage commenter noted that one of the theories regarding such prohibitions is that they aid social cohesion—if we can all agree to, say, eschew beef or Funyuns, we instantly have something that defines us in opposition to “The Other.” Given the inherent creepiness of that tactic, the commenter wondered, was there perhaps a history of cult leaders using food taboos to bind together their flocks?
Well, as it turns out, the answer appears to be a resounding “Yes!” A surprisingly large number of cults insist on austere vegetarian diets—if not in their formal literature, then at least in practice. The first example that springs to mind is the Unification Church, which has been known to feed its recruits a high-carb, low-protein diet consisting largely of rice and mashed legumes. The denizens of Jonestown subsisted on a similarly bland diet, as attested to by a very fortunate escapee:
The food was woefully inadequate. There was rice for breakfast, rice water soup for lunch, and rice and beans for dinner. On Sunday, we each received an egg and a cookie. Two or three times a week we had vegetables. Some very weak and elderly members received one egg per day. However, the food did improve markedly on the few occasions when there were outside visitors.
This dietary restrictions seem to have less to do with social cohesion, though, than with social control. Constantly hungry followers lack the energy to rebel, or even question. In fact, we reckon this applies to non-religious institutions as well—if you looked at successful political revolutions throughout history, don’t most of them take place in countries with at least a modicum of wealth? It’s tough to riot in the streets on an empty stomach.
The irony about the Unification Church’s dietary tactics, of course, is that the organization is a major player in the food industry. That sushi you had the other week? Chances are its passage from ocean to table benefited Rev. Moon in some small way, due to his control of True World Group.