Google infiltrated by "cult-like religious sect," says NYT reporter

"A few months ago, a source called with a totally bananas tip," tweeted Daisuke Wakabayashi, a reporter for The New York Times. "An ex-contractor was suing Google, saying he was fired for complaining about a cult-like religious sect that had infiltrated one of its business units. Couldn't be true, right? Read for yourself."

I read the Times story (which Wakabayashi wrote with Cade Metz), and it is indeed bananas. It says the leaders of a spiritual sect called the Fellowship of Friends "gained a foothold inside a business unit at Google" and began hiring other Fellowship members, according to a lawsuit filed by a former Google video producer who said he was fired for complaining about the sect. The Times says it "corroborated many of the lawsuit's claims."

The Fellowship of Friends is based in a small California town 70 miles north of Sacramento. Between 500-600 members live in or around an "elaborate, 1,200-acre compound full of art and ornate architecture." The members give 10% of their income to the Fellowship, according to the times.

The organization was founded in 1970 by a former San Francisco Bay Area schoolteacher named Robert Earl Burton. The Times says Burton "based his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed in the early 20th century by a Greek Armenian philosopher and one of his students," but oddly doesn't identify the philosopher as Russian mystic George Gurdjieff or his student P. D. Ouspensky .

Mr. Burton based his teachings on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed in the early 20th century by a Greek Armenian philosopher and one of his students. They believed that while most people moved through life in a state of "waking sleep," a higher consciousness was possible. Drawing on what he described as visits from angelic incarnations of historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Sebastian Bach and Walt Whitman, Mr. Burton taught that true consciousness could be achieved by embracing the fine arts.

In 1996, The Los Angeles Times reported that Burton was being sued for demanding sex from a 17-year-old boy:

Disillusioned former members say the fellowship is more than just another California curiosity. A growing number of them–as well as some academics–call it a cult that entraps its mostly well-educated members with a false promise of spiritual evolution. A recently ended lawsuit and accounts from ex-members echo that claim and add another: Burton, they say, has for years seduced young males in the group.

The suit and similar allegations by other members have spurred dozens to leave the group. It was brought by a Marin County man who claims Burton first demanded sex from him at age 17. Troy Buzbee, who had asked for $5 million in damages, charged that Burton brainwashes members into a state of "absolute submission," allowing him to feed a "voracious appetite for sexual perversion."

The Times reports that Peter Lubbers, "a longtime member of the Fellowship of Friends," runs Google Developer Studio, which produces videos to showcase Google developer tools, and "brought in several other members of the Fellowship, including a video producer named Gabe Pannell."

In 2017 and 2018, according to the suit, Mr. Pannell attended video shoots intoxicated and occasionally threw things at the presenter when he was unhappy with a performance. Mr. Pannell said that he did not remember the incidents and that they did not sound like something he would do. He also acknowledged that he'd had problems with alcohol and had sought help.

In 2021 Jennings Brown produced a podcast about the Fellowship of Friends for Spotify. From the show description:

Ex-members say it's a doomsday cult and that its leader, Robert Earl Burton, preys on his followers. On October 20, 2018, journalist Jennings Brown was at the Fellowship's extravagant compound, observing the final black-tie dinner before the end of the world. Robert had predicted the apocalypse was going to begin the next morning and Jennings wanted to report on the community as it prepared for a global catastrophe. But Jennings soon realized the end-times prophecy was just the beginning of the story. He'd spend the next three years investigating the Fellowship and its dark secrets.