Cults are back in the news.
There’s the TomKat divorce and renewed popular portrayals of Scientology as a “cult.” Established religions also have their “cult-like” qualities. For example, the Catholic congregation called the Legion of Christ is in the news yet again for allegedly psychologically abusing youth at a high school.
While media reporting about cults is drawn to the sensational, cults are remarkably good to think with—precisely because cults tell us so much about ourselves.
When you ask someone to define a “cult,” you’ll usually get a standard list of characteristics: Cults have strange beliefs; they demand absolute obedience; they isolate their members. As the notoriety of a particular cult grows, inevitably there will be concern about various forms of illegal behavior and abuse.
But things get really interesting when you ask someone to distinguish a “cult” from a “real religion.” What makes Scientology’s claims about engrams and thetans different from those of other religions that believe in reincarnation and the spiritual essence of human beings? What makes the Legion of Christ’s emphasis on obedience qualitatively different from other forms of obedience routinely demanded by religious orders or, for that matter, by a government or a private business? Is the isolation required by Scientology’s SeaOrg or the Legion of Christ’s formation program more harmful than what Marine recruits experience on Parris Island? Given that the Legion of Christ’s founder was a rapist, does that mean that the entire organization is criminal to the core? Or was a manipulative leadership duping the unsuspecting rank-and-file? In any case, don’t all organizations—both religious and secular—have their share of rogues and reprobates? What makes a cult all that different?
These questions—both how they are asked and how they are answered—are important. But they sometimes reveal more about the earnest questioners than about the groups being interrogated.
In scholarly research and writing the term “cult” is used with caution and qualification. In an academic article, the term might be used as a sociological descriptor referring to a religious group that holds values and practices deliberately at variance from prevailing social mores. But the kind of value judgments that come with the word will often be set aside or questioned. From this perspective, calling an organization a “cult” is understood as reflecting implicit—and often unexamined—social standards about what constitutes “unhealthy” behavior. Conventional lists of “cult-like” characteristics usually assume that individualism, autonomy, and devotion to family are signs of psychological health. It’s not a coincidence that these are values emphasized by American society as a whole.
Of course, accepted social standards and practices often change, as do the standards and practices of new religions as they develop: today’s cult sometimes becomes tomorrow’s established religion. Being called a “religion” is social seal of approval; being called a “cult” is a social scarlet letter.
I have numerous “cult experiences” that I like to share with students to get them thinking about these issues. One of my favorites comes from my years in living in India.
One afternoon, I was standing with friends at a railway station, waiting for another friend to arrive. Next to us on the platform was a young man wearing a pant-shirt combination made entirely out of rough woven burlap. The weirdness of this was undeniable, especially because it was over 100 degrees outside. A couple of my friends asked the young man why he was wearing such a strange get-up. The young man politely explained that his religious teacher—his guru—had ordered him to wear it as a spiritual exercise.
This gave my friends what they wanted. They delighted in the taunts they rained down: Do you believe every stupid thing your guru says? Do you know how silly you look? Get a life!
I stood back from all of this not knowing what to think at first. But as I reflected on things, it didn’t seem to me that burlap clothes were that far away from hairshirts worn by Christian mystics as a sign of asceticism. I also knew that both Catholicism and Hinduism placed a high value on obedience to religious teachers as a way of self-transcendence, of overcoming one’s own ego. Deliberately appearing foolish might be part of that, too. While I thought about Hindu traditions of devotion, I also recalled that there’s a strong Christian belief in being “a fool for Christ” and Western literature has the character of the “holy fool” who has more wisdom than those who count themselves wise.
Maybe this weirdness had a legitimate religious purpose after all. Then again, maybe the young man’s guru was taking perverse pleasure in exercising power and authority for their own sake. I just didn’t know.
This is why “cults” are good to think with.
When we call something a “cult,” we have the opportunity to consider our own standards regarding what kind of group we take seriously and what kind we dismiss.
If we think about things more deeply, we might even realize that our focus on individualism and autonomy is something culturally quite specific and has its own tensions and inconsistencies. Of course, we can still make judgments about what is unhealthy and what constitutes abusive behavior— for example, I think that the Legion of Christ should have been disbanded long ago. But in making such determinations, starting off or ending with the word “cult” doesn’t help us very much, unless we’re willing to step outside of ourselves for a moment to think through our own assumptions about what it can and should mean to be a religious person.
Mathew N. Schmalz teaches religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.