Tuesday, June 30, 2015

What Makes it a Cult?

I have a high school friend who is considering moving their family from one state to another because they found their "spiritual home." This strikes me as more than just a little bit culty, and got me thinking about what's the right definition for "cult."

Of course, my friend thinks this is all positive. It's wonderful that they've found their spiritual home with this group.  All positive goodness. But don't cult members always think like that when they're inside one?

The meme at right floats around the internet, poking fun at organized religion as nothing more than a big cult. And while I'll admit to having chuckled at the image, I don't think it's an
insightful or valuable representation. It bothers me that cult is too easily tossed around as a term of derision towards all religion.  Some are not particularly harmful.

The google definition of cult isn't much help either. Google defines cult as "a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object." Using this definition, one could easily make the case that Christianity is a cult for Jesus Christ. Then we're right back where we started -- all religion is just a cult.

It seems to me that the connotation of the word cult implies that the organization is fringe and causes significant personal harm at the whim of a single, charismatic leader who dictates the dogma for the group and controls their personal lives.  But again, it's all a sliding scale, isn't it?

One characteristic of cults could be that they cause demonstrable harm to the members. But individual preachers can be charismatic and bilk parishioners out of money without being a cult, right? Here's a few:

  • Joel Olsteen has made millions off the "Prosperity Gospel"
  • Pat Robertson tells elderly poor people to give him more money so they'll get more from god.
  • Creflo Dollar gained notoriety recently for asking for donations for a new private jet.
The Prosperity Gospel sounds SO much like the Nigerian bank scams that it would be funny if it weren't so tragic for the congregants. "Just send your televangelist money and you'll receive even more from god" is just like "Send me money and I'll share my fabulous wealth with you." It plays on people's greed and gullibility. Even though I consider those generally undesirable human traits, they are still people. And these ministers cause them demonstrable harm with this sort of scam. 

So do "Prosperity Ministries" rise to the level of cult? I don't think so. The term in my mind seems to also convey an aspect of self-righteousness and shunning of any people who disagree with the dogma.  

This brings me to a couple religions well known for shunning non-believers or apostates.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses - JW's are famous for shunning apostates. Families disown family members for admitting they don't really believe anymore. 
  • Catholics  - As recently as 1983, Catholics were expected to shun apostates! Good thing they have a way to revise errors in Catholicism. 
  • Orthodox Judaism
  • Amish - Shunning is a formalized process for the Amish. 
  • Scientology - They even have a formal name for it: Disconnection.
  • Islam - Most Islamic Sharia law demands execution for apostasy. Islamic nations have been known to fulfill this law and kill apostates. That's one hell of a shun!
This one seems to be a stronger indicator of "culty-ness".  The end result of this formalized shunning of non-believers is an isolation from mainstream society based on the doctrine of moral superiority. 

In the end, I think it's isolationism in general that I most strongly associate with cults. Closing a group off from the outside world allows radical ideas to persist better than they would if a cult member could tell their friend the crazy things their cult leader said.

So what's the take-away? I suppose it's that we should strive to be as welcoming, multi-cultural, and diverse as possible. The cross-fertilization of ideas will help us discriminate between those which have merit and those which don't. We should be skeptical of ideas that are both secret and sacred. Truth withstands scrutiny.  It seeks publicity and understanding. It never hides because the public isn't ready.

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