Strange and Curious Sects: David Koresh

In a 2008 post on the apocalyptic Millerite sect, I mentioned how several modern Christian denominations were formed from the Millerites’ ruin, and how the infamous Branch Davidians originated as a splinter group from one of these. That story, I think, is already well-known: the way a charismatic preacher born as Vernon Wayne Howell changed his name to David Koresh and took control of the group; how he began to proclaim himself a prophet and the reincarnated Son of God; how he decreed that all female members of the group, including preteen girls, were to be his wives, and began stockpiling guns; how a gunfight broke out when the FBI heard these rumors and tried to execute a search warrant, leading to a botched 51-day siege which ended in the fiery destruction of the cult compound and the deaths of many Davidians, including Koresh.

All these tragic and ugly facts are part of the record of history. But the strangest thing about this very strange cult is that today, 18 years after David Koresh’s death in the fiery end of the Waco compound, there are surviving Branch Davidians who continue to revere him as God incarnate!

Sheila Martin’s children burned alive. God, she says, wanted it that way…

On Tuesday, Martin and a handful of other surviving Branch Davidians will gather at a hotel off a freeway in this dusty Central Texas town to remember the federal siege on their religious compound, an event that has become synonymous with the word Waco.

In my posts on strange and curious sects, we’ve seen over and over again that even massive disconfirmation usually fails to shake the beliefs of the faithful. When the failed messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam, his followers explained it away as a sacrificial act of apostasy that redeemed humanity from punishment. The Millerites’ Great Disappointment gave rise to a profusion of sects, each with their own explanation for why Jesus had failed to return on schedule. Chabad Lubavitchers believe that their messianic rabbi isn’t dead, merely biding his time. But the fact that there are still surviving Branch Davidians must be the most stunning example.

What’s even stranger is that none of them even seem to regard David Koresh as a particularly virtuous man. The CNN article recounts stories from former Davidians like Kiri Jewel, who testified that Koresh was having sex with her before she started menstruating. And the other survivors are fully aware of this – some of them experienced it in their own families:

[Clive] Doyle says his daughter started having sex with Koresh when she was 14. Koresh fathered at least 13 children with sect followers and engaged in sexual acts with underage Davidian girls, according to the Justice Department, numerous affidavits of Davidians and interviews CNN conducted…

Doyle knows that trying to justify Koresh having sex with underage girls incites nothing but outrage from nonbelievers. And, initially, when David began preaching a message that his holy seed must be spread to any girl he preferred, married or in pigtails, Doyle admits he was bothered by it.

“I wondered, I asked, ‘Is this God or is this horny old David?’”

But even this doubt was blocked by the ultimate conversation-stopper:

But Doyle’s concern didn’t last long.

“I couldn’t argue because he’d show you where it was in the Bible.”

Whatever the Bible says – and it’s true that it says nothing about a minimum age of consent for marriage or sex – it’s obvious that the real reason for the Davidians’ continued devotion to their dead leader is the enormous personal cost they’d incur if they were to walk away this late in the game.

Having devoted their entire lives to Koresh’s teaching, having been drawn in step by step to the point where they were even willing to give up their daughters’ lives to his lust, if they were to admit now that he was a fraud, they’d have to confront the fact that all they lost was for nothing. And that would clearly be a blow too enormous for their ego, their very sense of identity, to countenance. It’s no surprise that clinging to their beliefs, retreating behind a wall of denial, is the psychologically easier course.

In coldly economic terms, it’s the religious version of the fallacy of the sunk cost, the stubborn and illogical urge to persevere rather than give up and accept a loss. For these poor, benighted souls trapped in it, there’s no easy way out. But this ultimate example of the costs of irrationality can, at least, be an example to the rest of us of the perils of becoming entangled in cultish delusion.

Other posts in this series:

New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • jack

    This is a deep and fascinating truth about human nature, and it explains so much. It is a big part of the reason that costly sacrifice is central to religion. It explains hazing rituals, 36-hour shifts for medical interns, and painful initiation rites in primitive cultures. The piece about sunk costs and Farmville was amazing, too.

  • downtown dave

    What a thought-provoking, insightful and heart-wrenching article. This should be read and considered by every human being on the planet. Each one of us should do a personal inventory of ourselves. Are we willing to take a good look at our hearts and minds and admit where we are wrong? Or are we willing to continue in the direction we are going, even if it is harmful to us and the ones we love, just because we don’t want to be open to public embarrassment and shame? This should speak to all, whether Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, Catholic, etc.

    Everything that is hidden will one day be exposed, even the secrets of our hearts.

    Isn’t it worth it to come clean, even if it means some pain, in order for us to be set free and to set our loved ones free?

    [extraneous preaching deleted —Ebonmuse]

  • Alex Weaver

    But the strangest thing about this very strange cult is that today, 18 years after David Koresh’s death in the fiery end of the Waco compound, there are surviving Branch Davidians who continue to revere him as God incarnate!

    I’ve met conservatives who brought up the mishandling of that siege as if it were a valid “yeah but you…” in response to discussion of Guantanamo. The one I’m thinking of was pretty intensively Catholic, so it wasn’t like she would have particularly sympathized with his beliefs. I think that’s even weirder.

  • Kacy Ray

    Any poker player knows, once you’ve gone “all in”, there’s really nothing left to lose.

    Early May, I was having a Facebook conversation with someone who believed that the rapture would happen on 21 May. During that day and the days that followed, the psychological writhing he engaged in was so pathetic to watch it almost made me feel sorry for him. I actually backed off and tried to be extra-gentle with my tone in order to see where he would eventually go with his rationalization. I even asked him if there was someone else I could take to that could help me understand what was going on, so that I wouldn’t have to bother him anymore.

    Dispite this, a few days after the nonrapture, he just broke contact altogether.

    I’d say giving your preteen daughter up for some lunatic’s sexual playtoy qualifies as going “all in”. If you are capable of that level of moral evasion, then willing to take that leap of faith, it seems almost unrealistic that you would be capable of opening your eyes from that point forward. Your moral compass is damaged beyond repair and the cost you’ve incurred is to high to count.

    And this nightmarish reality was once again brought to you by the letter “faith”.

  • J. James

    I can hardly believe it. It just seems so distant. This was before I was born. Yet people, in a span longer than my lifetime, still cling to those savage beliefs? It’s unreal! Where do they even live, on the compound still? You’d think after being thrust out of fantasy rapeland a little sanity would have diffused into them over the past TWO DECADES. Oh well. More crazy for us, I guess.

    Disturbingly enough, this isn’t even the craziest fundie thing I’ve seen today. Pop on over to Pharyngula and you’ll see what I’m talking about, courtesy of a Rachel Maddow clip.

  • Phillip Moon

    Most uncomfortable for Christians is the notion that this same concept can be applied to the followers of Jesus. They invested years of their lives and he ends up on a stick. There must be something more. They couldn’t have been wrong.

  • Alex Weaver

    They invested years of their lives and he ends up on a stick. There must be something more.


  • Charles Black

    This is nothing new in the history of Christianity.
    I mean there have still been Christians for 2000 or so years even though Jesus’s own prediction of his return around the C1st C.E obviously never came to pass.

  • konrad_arflane

    the religious version of the fallacy of the sunk cost

    In other words, throwing good faith after bad?