In my previous post on Scientology, I lauded Lawrence Wright’s New Yorker article but ended with my misgivings about labeling Scientology – or anything else – a cult. I also said that I would save those thoughts for another blog post. Well, someone asked me for those thoughts, so here they are. I suspect that this blog post will be a bit more personal and perhaps rambling than most others I write, but I am doing this as much for myself as for anyone.
I don’t recall when I first heard the word “cult.” I suspect it must have been a long time ago. I can, however, accurately guess how I might have described a cult back then: a group of Kool-aid drinking believers tricked or brainwashed into following a charismatic though probably insane leader, resulting either in the leader hoodwinking them out of their fortunes and liberties or in their collective suicide.
I suppose it’s not that unreasonable an impression to have. After all, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” originated after Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple and the nearly 1000 suicides that occurred at Jonestown. Alternatively, you might recall the Heaven’s Gate group, 39 of which committed suicide when the comet Hale-Bopp passed near Earth. They believed their souls would join a space ship that trailed the comet. I don’t contest that these and other groups pose a danger for those who get too involved, especially without understanding the stakes.
The problem, however, is with the implications of labeling something a cult. Who gets to make that decision, and once it’s been made, what does that mean? These are questions I didn’t consider until I enrolled in what would become my favorite college class led by my favorite college professor. The name of the class was “Contemporary Religion in America,” and the section I recall best was the one in which we discussed the Branch Davidians. The Branch Davidians are a Protestant sect splintered off the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists. They are best known for the Waco siege in 1993. Ultimately, the Branch Davidians’ compound burned down and 75 people died in the fire. How that came to pass – namely, whether the FBI was responsible for starting the fire – became and remains contentious. In this class we read a book and watched several video clips, and I came to my own conclusion. But whether you think the FBI is responsible or not doesn’t change the most memorable conclusion I made during that section: that 75 people had died, including a lot of children, and no one seemed to care. I say that not for melodramatic effect (someone must have cared, after all), but based on what I read and the video interviews of those who were there, either for the government or as journalists. The Branch Davidians had been labeled a cult. They were deviants. Weirdos. Sickos. Dangerous. And whatever happened to them… they had it coming.
In that class we learned about the long history of deprogramming. When an individual is suspected of being taken in by a cult, sometimes people they know – usually family members – pay to have that person taken from the group, which frequently entails force, or kidnapping. So-called cults have to deal with a level of harassment that other similar groups do not. This includes deprogramming, and can also include expensive brainwashing suits brought against them, or increased governmental harassment (I think Waco qualifies, either way).
Stendhal recently said in another post: “Maybe the only difference between a cult and a religion is a couple thousand years of success.” I’d say this is mostly right. The media tend to report on cults only when they are involved in conflicts and problems. In doing so, they contribute to the sense that they are always wrong. Furthermore, many Americans find deeply disconcerting the notion that the age of revelation has not yet passed. The idea that Divine word can be spread not only 2000 years ago, but to people here and now, can be unsettling to some. I, for one, agree that the idea that the age of revelation has not yet passed is silly. But I differ from many that I think the idea that there ever was an age of revelation is equally silly.
I’ll end on a more personal note. Growing up, I was raised in a nonreligious household. However, I still attended a regular Sunday School at a place called the Ethical Society. It was part of the Ethical Culture movement, a group that has its roots in New York Jewish intellectualism and is essentially a secular humanist movement. I remember during youth group events when people would describe trying to explain to friends where they went for Sunday School – and having to explain that it wasn’t a cult. Sometimes it was said as a joke, and sometimes it was not. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect it is absurd and appalling that anyone in this truly innocuous group would have to insist to anyone that they weren’t in a cult. The bottom line is that almost everyone subscribes to a community or a communal way of thinking that an outsider can (justifiably) consider stupid or absurd or (less justifiably) dangerous. It is incumbent on us to remember that we are all in the same large family, and we have allowed the word “cult” to become too powerful, too pejorative, and too capable of stripping groups of their humanity.