Jesus Christians.com

Preferred Language:  English | Espanol | Deutsch | Francois | Po Polsku | Easy English

What is a Cult?


This is probably a long overdue article for general use, although it will probably just roll together a lot of stuff that most of us already know.

The word "cult" is an interesting term at this point in history, in that the media can use it to totally destroy someone's reputation (especially the leaders of new religious groups) and still be safe legally (at least for the moment) because the dictionary definition has not yet caught up with the popular definition.

If you were to sue the media for calling you a cult, they would point out that the dictionary says that the word just means "a system of religious beliefs". But in the meantime, the religious world abounds with hand-crafted attempts at listing ways to identify groups that would fit into a more sinister (and more widespread) popular definition of a cult. These lists of traits deserve a closer look.

We all know of groups that we would consider dangerous. In fact, it is the worldwide experience of such groups as Jim Jones' Peoples Temple (the ones who all committed suicide together in South America) and the Children of God (the group that I was in for a few months prior to their descent into free sex) which has led to this concept of a broad grouping of organisations that are regarded as being similarly (if not equally) dangerous... called cults.

The problem is that vague definitions which include groups we don't like often relate to groups that we do like as well. And there seems to be very little effort on the part of people who are trying to write the definitions to deal with this contradiction. The reason is because it is so universally common for people to NOT apply the same principles to judging in-groups that they use when judging out-groups.

New, Little Groups

One cluster of traits that are supposed to be common to cults is aimed at identifying groups that are small, new, and active. Organisations that are big, old, and lukewarm often feel threatened by such groups, and so they tend to define cults along lines which exempt bigger, older, and less active groups, even though they don't come right out and say in so many words, "If you are new and small you must be dangerous."

For example, one supposed trait of cults is that they are obsessed with "recruiting". It seems to be the goal of just about every group to grow, but this is generally most noticeable amongst the newer more active groups, especially if they are, in fact, growing. Big established groups "recruit" too, but they do it more passively, just by virtue of their bigness and their oldness. People go to big churches because their parents did, or because it has a congregation close to where they live. Even the rather tame concept of Christian evangelism is usually connected with denominations that are neither Catholic nor (in England) Anglican nor (in Scotland) Presbyterian, nor (in Germany) Lutheran. In other words, the tendency to "recruit" (or "evangelise") is usually associated with someone other than the official religion of the country.

How would we rate on this? Certainly our numbers would not suggest that we are very successful at recruiting, but our presence on the streets every day meeting new people is still generally referred to as "recruiting" by the cult-busters. To me, this indicates that what is really being condemned is not recruiting as such, but just active teaching of anything that they themselves do not agree with.

Some lists also say that cults center around the teachings of a living leader. Notice that it does not criticise groups following the teachings of a dead leader (e.g. Martin Luther, John Wesley, George Fox, or Jesus Christ himself). That is an obvious way of condemning the new groups for having a leader while justifying the old groups.

And the argument is often given that the new leader is claiming Messianic powers or authority. There are a few people like this, but they rarely have many followers. So in the end, the trait gets altered to include any leader who is regarded as "charismatic". And how do you define charismatic? Well, if it's a new group (because he's still alive) and it's growing, then its leader must be charismatic. Stay away from him!

Targeting Communes

There is another general trait that is used to condemn small new active groups in a way that is not likely to reflect back on the bigger, older, more lukewarm groups, and that is the high levels of commitment and discipline within the membership of small new groups. And these standards of discipline are usually strongest in groups like our own, where people choose to live together and to share everything in common.

The amazing thing is that both the Catholic and Anglican Churches have religious orders which have all the same traits that are used against any group that lives together communally, and yet it never seems to cross the minds of those who are shouting "Cult! Cult!" so loudly that there is a contradiction in condemning new groups which do the same things that occur amongst select members of the old groups.

The list of supposed tools for mind-control amongst cults include things like peer group pressure, loss of privacy, dramatic changes to one's lifestyle, quitting jobs, leaving families, regulations about such things as what time you will eat or what time you will get up, higher levels of accountability, and even such "nice" things as greater feelings of unity and purpose. Such things are almost unavoidable in a communal living arrangement, whether it be some dangerous suicide cult or whether it be a religious order in the Catholic Church. So what that list of "mind-control traits" is really targeting are religious communes of any sort.

Hypnosis?

While we are on the topic of mind control, which is a huge concern (supposedly) amongst anti-cult groups, bear in mind that it has so far never been proven that ANY of the techniques that they condemn actually enable people to seriously control the minds of anyone who does not wish to be controlled. The real concern amongst those who are screaming out against mind control is that these new, active groups are threatening the mind control that the status quo already has on the masses of the world. In fact, some lists of sinister cult traits come right out and say that anyone who teaches people to think differently from the norm or who points a finger at the establishment is likely to be a dangerous cult.

One of the more serious claims about mind-control amongst cults is that they use hypnosis. I don't know if there are any who dangle watch chains in front of you and say "Look deep into my eyes," but even if there were, the world's best hypnotists tell us that they cannot hypnotise anyone who does not want to be hypnotised. So, while they call it hypnosis, the anti-cult people claim that other techniques are hypnotising people when they really are not.

These include techniques such as the Hare Krishnas chanting or the Pentecostals singing the same song over and over again dozens of times (or, for that matter, Catholics reciting the rosary) that we Jesus Christians do not use ourselves. But neither do we think they are necessarily dangerous. I've been in Pentecostal meetings where they sang a song over and over and mostly it just bugged me, but occasionally I have gone along with it and somewhere after the 20th or 30th time I stopped being bugged and just decided to think a bit about the thought being expressed (usually some nice thought about God being awesome or whatever) and it turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. But I don't think that it has resulted in them controlling my mind.

"The End Justifies The Means"

There is one rather clever argument against cults. It says that they teach that "the end justifies the means". I first remember hearing this phrase used in relation to totalitarian governments. Such governments, I was told, exercise unwarranted control over the masses in order to achieve social harmony. Social harmony (the "end") could not be justified by the loss of freedom that became the means to that end. In that context, the concept definitely had a sinister sound to it.

But then I realised that virtually every decision we make relates to certain ends and certain means. Every government makes some rules that inconvenience some people, but they do so because the rules achieve some goal, or end. Some ends are not worth the means necessary to achieve them. If, for example, the end is to save one or two lives, but the means is the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, some people will argue that it is not worth the cost.

So what is really being said about cults is that they use radically different criteria when trying to determine whether a thing is right or not. For the average person, conformity to the status quo is all-important. There are very few "ends" which would justify stepping out of line and risking ostracism. But new, small groups are much more likely to rock the boat, to question authorities, to challenge conventions. And the cult-busters will tell you that such groups are, of necessity, using reprehensible "means" to achieve their desired ends.

Mind you there ARE some nasty means that have been used by cults. The Children of God (later called The Family) convinced their members that offering free sex was a legitimate means to the end of converting a person to their brand of salvation. And some, like myself, left the group because of that, whereas a lot found it to be a convenient teaching to justify their own desires for kinky sex. On the other hand, every church in the world will tell you that certain good things that they do justify some things that they do which may not be perfectly idealistic or perfectly in line with the teachings of Jesus. And the cult-busters themselves have resorted to any number of unethical and even illegal schemes to supposedly "free" people from cults, claiming that the end justifies the means. In each case, what needs to be studied are the value systems that influence people to think differently with regard to which means are justifiable and which are not. But it is not fair to condemn anyone just because they argue that certain ends justify certain means.

Loyalty

There are some things that are done by various groups to create or maintain loyalty to the group. The problem is that cult-busters only see these things as being evil when they have already assumed that loyalty to a particular group is evil. When the same things are done by the status quo, they overlook it.

Wearing uniforms is one such practice. We Jesus Christians don't wear uniforms in our community, but a lot of groups, from the Salvation Army to church choirs and public schools use uniforms without being accused of mind control. Small new groups often use uniforms to make themselves more visible, but they can also be used as kind of a test of loyalty. I remember how my brother vowed that he would never wear a "funny suit" when he first started attending the Salvation Army, but there still came a day when peer group pressure led to him donning the suit and saying that he was glad to wear it.

Competition for promotion within a group, requirements that people submit to the authority of the group, and use of group jargon all happen to greater or lesser degrees in all groups, and they all aim at some kind of group loyalty. For example, I sometimes get quite aggravated by the Quaker practice of "testing" personal revelation by submitting it to the counsel of the "meeting", but I also realise that it has been a good stabilising technique that has been used for over 350 years of Quakerism.

Leadership

We have said much elsewhere about the idea of good leaders being called manipulators or authoritarian when they are in a target group, while just being regarded as good leaders when they turn up in other groups. They too are a part of this cluster of arguments aimed at condemning little new groups on the basis of them having effective leaders, rather on the basis of something really wrong that they are teaching.

Teachings

Of course, when it does come to the subject of teachings, the mainliners will condemn almost anything that they themselves already teach, just on the basis that the new group has given it more emphasis than they themselves have given it. Certain Christian teachings like confessing our sins, accepting persecution as normal, believing in life after death, talking about the return of Jesus or the end of the world, seeking to know God's will through various "signs", and just generally dedicating our lives to serving God all can easily land a person in the "cult" camp if they are seen as being out of step with the very light treatment that they get in the doctrines of the status quo.

Conclusion

So, in short, if someone wants to call a group a cult, and they use the criteria that have been referred to above, it is virtually impossible for the target group to escape the tag. No wonder that so-called British cult expert, Graham Baldwin claims that there are more than 500 different cults operating in England alone. If the truth were known, that figure probably includes every denomination in the country!

What is a cult? A cult is any group you don't like, or that you disagree with. And if the group you belong to is not popular, then you can expect that it will be called a cult too.

Mail us at:   fold@idl.net.au,    OR write to:    Godstuff Comix,  P.O.Box A678, Sydney South, Australia 1235