Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

Dan Watson: Stepping out from the shadow of my father

Vol. 36 No. 05 June/July 2019
Dan Watson                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

By Dan Watson

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, most of my family and relatives were very much involved in a religious cult called Agni Yoga.

Agni Yoga is one of the occult neo-Theosophical religious doctrines produced by Russians Helena and Nicholas Roerich around 1920. It was supposedly transmitted to Helena Roerich by spiritual or supernatural means via table rapping and telepathy from Madame Blavatsky’s spiritual mentors she referred to as Master Morya and Master Koot Hoomi. It is loosely based on Blavatsky’s writings from her works Isis Unveiled and The Sacred Doctrine. It is a philosophy of living ethics blending aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism and combining them with Christianity. So, you get the law of karma and reincarnation mixed in with some of the teachings of Jesus.

In these teachings, God was not a personal god, but rather more of an abstract concept. For example, God is in us all and everything around us. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was considered to be an actual historical figure that walked the Earth in biblical times as an ascended master. This philosophy encourages striving for enlightenment through daily meditations and prayers. It was referred to simply as “The Teaching.”

By the late 1950s, there were small groups of Agni Yoga followers popping up in various parts of the country. My grandparents would host weekly Agni Yoga meetings at their home in the San Francisco Bay area on Thursday nights. They would also host special meetings once or twice a year whenever Guru Ralph Houston came to town.

Houston lived in upstate New York in an old mansion he called the Ashram. He was a direct disciple and student of Nicholas Roerich. Sometime in 1959, the young man who would become my father began attending the classes my grandparents were hosting. He was an artist living in a friend’s garage and was a beatnik. This is where my father met my mother. They began dating, fell in love, got married and I was born in 1961.

Father became a leader

My father excelled at understanding the “Teachings” and, as time went by, he became the leader of the classes. He started to gain many followers and eventually began taking students on a probationary level toward discipleship. “The Meetings” were held at our house every Thursday evening. My bedroom was right next to our living room, where my father would hold his classes. I was allowed to leave my bedroom door open so I could listen to the adults’ conversations. Listening in on all of my father’s classes over the years, I remember the many times I heard him give his standard lecture to his students about how there was a “delicate silver cord” connecting all of us to the Hierarchy and to the Masters and that the very moment you doubt or question anything from the Teachings, this delicate cord would be severed forever and your connection with the Hierarchy and the Masters would be forever lost. You would then become a “dark one” working for the dark side against the brotherhood of light and you would no longer be protected by the Hierarchy.

The first time I heard this, I instinctively thought it was nonsense. At that moment, I realized I had doubted my father, Guru Houston, the Masters, the Hierarchy of Light, and the Teachings. I could not help it — it was an automatic response. I had committed the unforgivable sin — I doubted.

I was conflicted about this for a very long time, but I never dared tell anyone. What if my parents discovered that I had turned over to the dark side? Did they already know? Could they see it in my face or in my aura? Could Guru Houston sense it from his Ashram all the way from New York? What would I do if they kicked me out of the house for doubting the Teaching?

I was only 9 years old, incapable of taking care of myself. If my loving grandparents found out, would they turn against me? My whole social circle was totally engrossed in this religion. I kept my mouth shut about it and no one ever seemed to know, so eventually I figured it really didn’t matter.

‘What a scam’

It wasn’t until years later that I fully understood what my father was doing. “What a scam,” I thought. If you were to believe his sales pitch, that meant you had to believe everything my father said was the undisputed truth because he was the guru and claimed to be in direct contact with the Masters and the Hierarchy of Light. This gave him total control and power of his flock and he knew it.

I observed this control mechanism work very well for many years. As I grew older and wiser, I could see this pattern and system of fear-based control ingrained in numerous other religious doctrines. I think that playing the role of leader and guru might have gone to my father’s head, and he may have indulged himself with the adulation of some of the female students. For whatever reasons, my parents announced to my sister and me that they were splitting up and that Dad would be moving out.

This happened about the same time that Guru Houston informed us that soon many natural catastrophes would be plaguing the Earth and society would be breaking down, that we should prepare to leave the populated areas of the cities and suburban areas. We were told to pool our money together and purchase land in the Oregon wilderness and build a commune and Ashram there where we could all live together and be safe from the chaos and dangers of the approaching apocalypse.

So that’s just what the group did. Someone was put in charge of finding and purchasing the land, someone was put in charge of overseeing the construction and fabrication of the structures, living quarters and ashram. When the time came, we were to sell off our homes, cars and other unnecessary belongings and move into the new compound safe from all the crazy people.

This project was about halfway completed when Guru Houston unexpectedly suffered a heart attack and died. Things got really weird after that. I noticed drastic changes taking place in the behavior of the adults. With Houston gone, things soon fell apart.

Power struggle

The men in charge could not get along and there was a leadership power struggle going on. I remember that the land was eventually sold off, but I don’t think everybody got their money back from that fiasco.

Shortly after my father’s girlfriend moved into his new home, his followers found out that he had left his wife and two children without any child support. One night, they all confronted him about this and shamed him into eventually giving my mother the lawful minimum monthly amount of support. Things were never the same between my father and his flock after that.

As time went on, his followers slowly dropped off until he found himself sitting there by himself on Thursday nights. He maintained the delusion that he was still a guru and was well on his way to becoming an ascended master. He continued to hold meetings all by himself for over a year. He eventually moved up to a secluded part of northern California near the Oregon border, where he continued to study the teachings of Agni Yoga and hold his solitary Thursday night meetings. It was observing my father’s rise, success and failure as a cult leader that set me on the path to seek the truth, a truth free of delusion.

It wasn’t until I got much older that I began reading, researching and studying the origins of Christianity, the bible, Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and the historicity of Jesus. I eventually came to the realization that I was an atheist. However, with this realization came the oppressive feeling of being trapped and unwelcome in a world full of mostly superstitious believers.

The way I see it, humanity is still very much in its infancy. It is very slowly evolving, just like everything else on this planet. Naturally, some life forms will evolve faster than others. I like to think that atheists are a small but growing number of members of the human race who are evolving perhaps a little faster than the rest of the herd — evolving beyond the need for superstition, beyond the need for belief in God or other myths.

Dan Watson works as a computer repair technician and lives with his wife Rebecca in Castro Valley, Calif.