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As a frequent critic of  religious theology, I thought that it might be interesting to look at the similarities between certain belief systems and what society has deemed “cults”. It may be obvious for something like devil-worshiping or perhaps Scientology, but every major belief system has gone through a period of infancy that was indistinguishable from a modern cult.

What we will look at here are two examples, one of something that is seemingly already a cult, and another of an established religion that obviously has some similar tendencies. Later, we will see what it means to truly be a dangerous, “drink-the-kool aid” cult.

All of the major religions today started out as cults by definition, so then why does something like Scientology sound so crazy and Islam or Christianity does not?

Fitting the Description

“Dictionary.com” gives the following definitions for the noun, “cult”.

  1. A particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
  2. An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers.
  3. The object of such devotion.
  4. A group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
  5. (Sociology) A group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
  6. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
  7. The members of such a religion or sect.
  8. Any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

Reading through the definitions it is quite clear that any major religion would classify for the technical definition of the term “cult”. Let us outline this revelation by taking Christianity as an example with reference to the various definitions of the term cult.

  1. Christianity is certainly a particular system of religious worship with rites and ceremonies.
  2. Christianity also places the utmost veneration in the person of Jesus, who has billions of followers.
  3. Have you ever seen “Jesus Camp”? Devotion is an understatement (more akin to fanaticism).
  4. Christianity has made a global organization based upon the worship of the same one person.
  5. Christianity has numerous “sacred texts” that outline everything from rites and rituals to why you get circumcised.
  6. Christianity fits this definition as well. Recall when (based upon the stories in the Bible) Jesus was beginning his fellowship, where people would hear him and follow him into the outskirts of town, and the ruling Jewish leaders wanted to have him killed because of his growing popularity. This is exactly the definition referenced in above definition number
  7. 6. Jesus (or Muhammed or Moses etc.) was seen as the dangerous leader of a burgeoning cult that threatened the established power of the accepted religion at the time. Christianity, and all modern religions by this definition, begin as cults.
  8. The church of Christianity surely has many members.
  9. Although this definition may play upon the extremism found in Christianity (and all religions), but faith healers fit this definition perfectly. They employ non-scientific ideas to human sickness and disease, claiming authority from some higher power. It should be noted that no one has ever been cured by a faith healer that could not be explained by natural and scientific examination (faith healers usually rely upon non-specific symptoms in order to take advantage of the placebo effect).

As it should be clear now, Christianity, and therefore all other modern religions by association (with the exception perhaps of classical Buddhism), fit the technical description of the term “cult” quite nicely. However, I understand that these are not the usual definitions you think of when you hear the term “cult”. However, it is still important to recognize that whatever modern spin we decide to put on the socially accepted definition of the term, the root meaning remains.

So then we also have to look at the pragmatic definition of the term “cult”, in the way that modern society sees it (suicide Kool Aid, Charles Manson, etc.).

Don’t Drink the Kool Aid!

Our discussion then, leads us to the more widely accepted definition of “cult”. Not the inclusive term that snares all religion, but the exclusive term that shifts the focus from the majority who believe in something supernatural or “crazy”, to the minority who believe it in similar proportion.

Along these lines, why is something like Scientology considered crazy while Christianity is not? They both plead for your money, they both lay out a full explanation of the universe and our place in it (how they make us so large in a universe where we are so small!), and they both outline ways to become fuller in the respective faiths. The categorical similarities in structure, faith, scripture, reverence, and veneration outweigh the differences in doctrine that both religions put forward. It is not really the point to argue that Jesus is more believable or more real than Xenu and his many star-ships. Both religions are making grandiose claims about the cosmos, with no evidence, creating large and powerful organizations with defined structure, and both defend the teachings without hesitation or skepticism. These are just a few of the similarities but the point is this: be it Jesus or Xenu, the structure of religious belief is consistent across almost all modern religion. Why then, are all opposing regions dismissed with the stamp of “cult” emblazoned firmly in society?

The answer refers back to our definition number 6 in the section “Fitting the Description”.  Newly forming and opposing religions are demonized (pun intended) with allegations of cult status because of just that; they are the opposing religion. It has been historically much easier for the ruling parties to maintain order in society by suppressing alternate religions and ideas that ran counter to their most guarded beliefs (frequently those in power were also leading members of the religion). This is how Islam can justify the slaughter of “infidels” and how Christianity can create crusades to wipe out Islam. My point is that, with the exception of the violent, secluded, modern definition of cults, new religions only seem crazy because they are new. I would find it hard to believe that if someone today created the religion of Christianity and tried to explain to the world, that anyone would take them seriously. Imagine this pitch:

Since there had to be something that created the universe, I will call him “God”. He has a personal relationship with me, like a father to a son. He also reads my thoughts, causes natural disasters now and again, and is all-powerful and all-knowing. Not only that, but he made a virgin girl give birth to himself, then he committed suicide because even though he is all-powerful, he made us to be bad. Because of this, we have to on occasion starve ourselves, give money to people who hear his voice in their head, and pick up eggs every year from a large bunny.

Does that sound a little harsh to you? Why? I am not making fun of their beliefs, I am simply stating them. If you thought that I was making fun of Christianity because my above pitch sounded ridiculous, you have just proved my point! When viewing a new belief system for the first time it seems absurd and cult-ish; you base it off of other belief systems that are in place. Old religion persists because of the time period in which it was created, and the generations of support it has accumulated. Ask yourself, would your own belief system sound outlandish to a newcomer, or would it make total sense? Would your views be considered cult-ish if you were suddenly the only Christian or Muslim or Jew? Can this new perspective shed some light on reality? In any case, begin with reason and rationality, and move on from there (do not take tradition for granted).

Cult Checklist

But this again, does not fit the description of what we all think when we hear the term “cult”. Below I have highlighted a recommended checklist that identifies possible cult groups. See if you can draw any parallels between the factors on the list and current belief systems you or your friends may have.

  • Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members.
  • External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed.
  • Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts.
  • Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or“fundamentalism;” hostility towards relativism and situationalism.
  • Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones.

  • Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden.
  • Wealth: Amount of money and/or property desired or obtained by group; emphasis on members’ donations; economic lifestyle of leader(s) compared to ordinary members.
  • Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.
  • Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
  • Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
  • Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
  • Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts.
  • Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s).

  • Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
  • Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
  • Surrender of Will: Amount of emphasis on members not having to be responsible for personal decisions; degree of individual disempowerment created by the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
  • Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.

Follow the Leader

Under the definitions that we have considered, most belief systems will turn out to be cults, with the exception being reason and science based systems like humanism, secularism, and atheism. The mutual exclusivity of religion allows for the term “cult” to thrive and become a polarizing factor in society. Of course there are extreme examples where these policies are perverted, but point is the same. All religion was at some point a cult, with beliefs, faith, commitment, and structure, treated in ways indistinguishable from how society treats modern cults. The question to leave yourself with then is: am I in a cult?