Cult or religion: a rose by any other name?

It came up in conversation again, the well-worn idea that religion is all about controlling people, and that there is no meaningful distinction between a religion and a cult.

I’ve been at theological college, preparing to become a priest, for five years now.  From the point of view of leadership in my denomination, I’m in on how things really are.  I don’t expect I’m going to get to my pre-ordination retreat and have the director sit us down, wide-eyed, for an explanation of all the special secrets no one told us before now.  So, from that insider’s point of view, I’m going to examine this idea that a religion is just a cult that got successful.

For that purpose, I’m going to use the list of characteristics of a cult published here.  I recognise that such a list is a useful analytical tool without necessarily being exhaustive, but it will do for this exercise.  My main point of reference for “religion” will be my own denomination; but having studied ecumenically, with lecturers from at least five denominations and fellow students from more, I’m confident that my comments apply more broadly.

So, let’s take them one at a time:

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.

The leader of my denomination is the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He recently resigned to go back to academia, after the failure of his attempts to forge a way forward for a church divided over sexuality, the ministry of women and the interpretation of the Bible.  Trying to serve all, ultimately I think he pleased very few.  Certainly no one took his views as immutable law.

Some might like to object that the position of the Pope in Catholicism comes closer to this, but even then I’d disagree.  As one example, I’ve sat in ethics lectures where a Roman Catholic priest with a doctorate in canon law has explained to his students why the Vatican is wrong, with its approach to “moral micro-management,” and it’s my observation that most Catholics feel free to ignore the teachings they find silly or unhelpful.  Again, there is no commitment here to the idea of the Pope as being above critique or reproach.

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

The attitude I have consistently encountered is that questioning and doubt are spurs to learning and growth.  The mind which seeks a deeper understanding is commended.  Dissent is trickier; there are certainly times when, for clergy, public dissent is discouraged or even punished.  One could argue that there are points at which public dissent by clergy can be very harmful to their congregations; and also that there is a time and place for dissent, and times and places where that is unhelpful.  But at the same time, Spong and Holloway remain bishops in the church, despite their very public dissent.  So the issue can be as much about good order and working together as about whether dissent is tolerated at all.  But for the average believer?  I’ve never seen anyone take issue with dissent.  And people who truly take issue with the church on some point tend to exercise their freedom to leave, often to worship elsewhere, without that encountering any opposition.

– 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).

In your average parish, there might be a meditation session once a month; perhaps once a week, if there is a very committed group.  Similar use might be made of something like a Taizé-style service with sung chant.  Speaking in tongues is popular on the charismatic fringe, but very few congregations can boast more than a small number of tongues-speakers.  As for denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines (a few overworked staff aside), that simply is not part of my experience in the church at all.  Since none of these activities are compulsory, they can’t really be effectively used in the manner described.

– 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).

Good grief.  I already have a life, which is enough trouble for one person, thank you.  Believe me when I tell you that I have no interest in running yours too; and I’ve never met any member of the clergy who would feel differently.

– 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).

There is, I think, the possibility of the church falling into this kind of trap at times.  The church does understand itself as participating in the Missio Dei, the mission of God.  (In the words of Moltmann: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”)   However, the church at its best recognises that the image of God rests in all humanity, and that the church is here to serve the world, not exalt itself over it.  At the very least, it remains true that when the church begins to exalt itself, voices from within its membership are able to speak out against that, and are resourced to do so from within the Scriptures and traditions which shape the church.

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

I think this may have been true in the past, particularly in the early days of the church when it was illegal and persecuted.  Today occasional pockets of it do pop up from time to time, particularly in fundamentalist groups.  But the history of Christendom and Establishment tends to give the larger denominations much less scope to understand themselves over against the society in which they are embedded.

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

I need say very little on this, except perhaps to note that even bishops and senior officials in the church can have complaints raised against them, be formally investigated and be removed from office should they be upheld.  Church leaders are not above reproach.

– The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviours 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).

Ethical behaviour and the importance of conscience are not undermined, in my experience, by the pursuit of growth or money in the church.  Quite honestly, it’s hard enough to encourage members to participate ethically, without putting additional difficulties in the way.  Actually, that’s a relevant point; this list of criteria seems to assume a great deal of involvement and activity on the part of members; rather than the sort of participation we tend to see for churches, where most people turn up to one service a week (if that) and don’t get involved beyond that.

– 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.

All of my training in pastoral care has highlighted how harmful shame is, and how destructive and debilitating being trapped in guilt is.  We are taught to help people to gain insight into these emotions, and encourage them to leave them behind; to seek forgiveness where guilt is appropriate, to build reconciliation, and to work in ways which are liberating and enlivening of people.  The use of shame or guilt to influence or control would fall squarely into the category of spiritual abuse, and the church works very hard to equip us to avoid those pitfalls.

– 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.

The church encourages people to place their families as a priority.  The pastoral care provided around baptisms, weddings and funerals brings this into high relief.  It would be considered grossly unethical to behave in the manner described here.  Occasionally, a congregation member may be challenged, for example, to give up an addiction; but I don’t think that’s the sort of personal activity in mind here!  This kind of radical reorientation is simply not part of becoming a church member in any way.

– The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Many congregations are aging and shrinking.  This can be a concern in some places.  But I have never seen a church congregation concerned with bringing in new members in a way which displaces its life of worship or its care for its own community.  Congregations don’t exist simply in order to make new members, which is I think what is suggested here.

– The group is preoccupied with making money.

(Gasp, wipe tears from eyes)  That was the best laugh I’ve had in ages…. oh, wait, you were serious?  Have a look at a few parish budgets, or even better, a diocesan budget or two, sometime.  Churches don’t make money, and we have a list of things we want to spend it on far bigger than we can afford.  Money’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.

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

I sort of touched on this already, but unless you think an hour or so of a Sunday morning is inordinate, this really doesn’t apply.

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

This just isn’t part of the landscape of the church at all.  Live with whomever you please, and socialise with whomever you please.  It really is not an issue.

– 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.

Even the most devoted church members I’ve known, generally monks and nuns, don’t think like this.  They maintain family and social contact beyond their own community, and value those people for who they are.  As for reprisals for leaving… it just doesn’t happen.

So there you have it.  That’s my two cents on it.  I hope it helps you to see that a mainstream religion is worlds away from a cult.  And if at some point you strike a religious leader who seems in danger of falling into one of these traps – stand up and tell him or her.  You’re free to disagree.  It’s not a cult.


2 comments on “Cult or religion: a rose by any other name?

  1. The Big A says:

    I disagree wholeheartedly. Religion is a cult, used for brainwashing people like yourself that a ‘god’ that cannot be seen, is praised beyond belief.

    It’s like a Disney fairy tale. It’s not real.

    That’s my 2c worth, because religion is not worth much more.

  2. paidiske says:

    Whether or not Christians are correct in what they believe isn’t really the point of this post. If you think we’re not, that’s a position which can be maintained with intellectual rigour and integrity.

    What I was arguing,though, is that there is a substantial difference between a cult and a mainstream religion, in the culture and experience of it. Whatever might be said of your average Sunday morning service, it is not brainwashing in the correct sense of the word.

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