Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Characteristics of a Cult

Members of mainstream religions spend a considerable amount of time worrying about "cults" and the possibility that their children or someone they care about will be "lured" into joining a cult.  They are not quite sure how to define the word but what they usually mean is a religious group that is small and "strange" to their thinking.

Occasionally, members of the large, mainstream groups will use that label when referring to other large mainstream groups.  Fundamentalists often refer to the Catholic Church as a cult because of its deviance from scripture and its penchant for saints and graven images, which strike the Fundies as nothing but idolatry.  The Catholics often consider all protestant churches to be cults because they have left "the one true church".  Almost all Christians consider Islam to be similar to a cult because the Christians don't accept Mohamed as a prophet, and the Muslims return the compliment because they do accept Mohamed as a prophet.  And, of course, the Jews consider all other religions to be futile attempts to curry favor with the god who has chosen them above all others.  (How they can still believe this I don't know, because it appears that this god has chosen them above all others for persecution, not favor.)

Needless to say, the Abrahamic religions consider the religions of the far East to be cults and the attitude in those cases is quite revealing.  There may be millions of people who believe in Krishna or the Buddha, but their religions are still considered cults in the eyes of many in the West simply because they are rather new and small there.

The International Cultic Studies Association publishes a list of characteristics that are common to cults on its website.  The list is reproduced below. A quick perusal of the list by anyone who has any significant experience with one or more of the main Western religions (and who is honest) will reveal that the list describes them as well.  The ICSA website cautions that the list is only an analytical tool, but I think the insight is revealing.  What it reveals is that all religions are cults; some are just larger and older and thus more accepted.

The List is as follows:

1. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

‪2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

‪3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

‪4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

‪6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

7. The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

8. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

9. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

‪10. Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

11. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

12. The group is preoccupied with making money.

13. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

‪14. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

15. The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

At various points the list tries to make distinctions between cults and mainstream churches as if such distinctions can be taken for granted. The parenthetical at the end of number 7 is particularly revealing.  In it, the authors claim that "ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations" are accountable to "authorities" in a way that a cult leader would not be.  This statement is so obviously untrue that it borders on the bizarre and seems to be an example of the truth being spoken via an obvious lie that is its opposite, which is a phenomenon one sees so often when observing the religious.

Mainstream denominations dominate their communities.  The "authorities' are usually made up of members of those denominations and they are usually hostile toward smaller, newer religions that they usually call "cults".  Those authorities are much more likely to investigate any hint of wrongdoing within or by one of these disfavored "cults".  In many cases, the authorities appear to be actively hostile to them.  At the same time, the authorities are much more likely to use their inherent discretion to overlook transgressions by leaders of "mainstream religious denominations". 

As was the case with the definition of delusion in DSM-IV, it appears that the religious have deliberately skewed this checklist so as to make it appear that their own religions do not meet its criteria.  But, the things it says describe those religions just as well as it does smaller religions, and the obvious attempt to exclude those mainstream groups only makes that more clear.

The religious who hear this sort of thing protest that this is simply untrue and they point to some of the devious and manipulative ways that "cults" recruit and the "strong-arm" methods used by "cults" to keep members from leaving.  What these arguments fail to take into account is that mainstream religions don't need to be so aggressive in recruiting or retention simply because they are dominant.

Once a group becomes a dominant social and economic force in a community, people will seek to join it and members will try to stay simply because of its dominance.  Failure to belong to the dominant religion can result in loss of social status and economic loss without the religion or its members taking any sort of extraordinary action against those who don't join or who leave.  The only "trick" they have to use is withholding their "love", just like their god allegedly does, from the apostate.  Thus, the alleged differences between mainstream religions and cults evaporate under the light of reality.

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