Comparative Cults

'Comparative Religion' is a discipline that examines the similarities and differences between religions. If any sphere of human activity can be said to be perpetually engaged in 'reinventing the wheel' it is religion: not in doctrine of course since every religion is unique but in history and organisation such groups seem fated to make the same mistakes and to march with fortitude and faith down the same wrong paths.

What is a Cult?

Since each cult is unique, trying to include them all in one definition is next to impossible - there will always be exceptions.

"No we are not a cult!"

Languages change over time. The English that Chaucer wrote is not the same as Shakespeare's or ours. They also diverge over distance. I write tap and you write faucet. You say washroom, I say loo, they say dunny.
One way in which meaning can change is from 'good' to 'bad' and vice versa (linguists call this pejoration and amelioration). Asylum, now a 'bad' word associated with mental illness, was once a 'good' word meaning a refuge. By association asylum-seekers also become 'bad'.

Words can have different emotional content for different people. Evolution, a 'good' word for biologists, is a 'bad' word for fundamentalist Christians. And now I've upset some Christians, because through association with another religion altogether fundamentalist has become a 'bad' word associated with violence.

It can sometimes seem that the emotional content of words is more important than their actual meaning. For example once economists began describing currencies as being 'weak' or 'strong' politicians found themselves in great difficulty, since a Finance Minister who says he wants to 'weaken' the currency will be misunderstood by the electorate, or so he believes.

Any attempt to discuss cults is going to be loaded with 'good', 'bad' and 'emotional' words. A valiant attempt on the part of the reader to allow for this would therefore be appreciated!

What were cults?

To archaeologists a cult is the localised worship of a god, as in the cult of Artemis at Ephesus mentioned in the New Testament ('Diana' comes via the Latin translation). Finds from temples with no obvious practical use are sometimes described as being 'cult objects' - sounds good, means nowt.
Ancient historians use the word for the 'mystery cults' of classical Greece which persisted into Roman times. The mystery element has survived in that many modern cults have some hidden knowledge that is not revealed to outsiders or sometimes even to ordinary members. Gnosticism, a recurring Christan heresy, followed this path, as did the Sufis of Islam. Freemasonry is an organisation that deliberately imitated this secrecy.

Cults are religions?

'Religion' has two meanings. The first is a set of beliefs about the supernatural, sometimes including a belief in the existence of a God or Gods. The second is an organised group of people who adhere to such a set of beliefs. Thus Christianity is a religion and the Catholic Church is also a religion.

The modern meaning of Cult does not include belief sets, only organisations. Religions and cults can be said to be at either end of a sliding scale, with some organisations somewhere in the middle. Cult is also used by the media to label things that have attracted a loyal group of enthusiasts: cult films, cult pop groups, cult TV programmes, etc. The label is selective and implies 'silly'.

Confusingly the word 'sect' is used for Cults in Europe outside the UK. 'Sect' in English once simply meant organisations that followed the same religion, but has become pejorative due to its derived adjective 'sectarian' as in 'sectarian conflict' between for example Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Nowadays it is sometimes used by the English media as a euphemism for 'cult', if this spreads presumably it will no longer be correct to refer to the Catholic Church as a 'sect'.

"We're not heretics either!"

Heretics are those who claim to be 'true' practictioners of a religion but are rejected as such by greater numbers who also claim to be orthodox. Most major religions have heretics, indeed it could be said that the appearance of organised heresy is a sign that a religion has become firmly established.
Since it is a 'bad' word no one wants to be called a heretic, which may in part account for the frequent insistence of splinter groups which break away from a cult or religion that they are really returning to the 'true path' which the majority have left, a claim which sometimes defies logic or historical fact.
What annoys heretics most about the epithet is that they themselves do not control it - it is the minority that outsiders normally see as being the heretics. By their nature cults are particularly vulnerable to heresy, as we shall see later.
Sometimes over time the heretics become the majority, in which case positions reverse and the former orthodox become the new heretics. More often however the former heretics accept that they are now a 'new' religion, as was the case with Christianity.
Religions and cults alike often seem to expend more energy and resources opposing their heretics than they do other religions, though this may simply because heretics live next door and are thus more visible and easier to persecute.

A Comparative Chart

Not all the cult elements below apply to all cults, but at least some should fit. A religious organisation may include one or two cult elements, since there is no clear divide between the two.

Cult Religion
1 Absolute authority
Authority often originally appeared through a prophet who had a direct channel to the source of supreme wisdom. He was charismatic, infallible, and irreproachable. His successors also have access to the direct channel. The doctrine is sacred, innovative, exclusive, and absolutely true. The doctrine solves all problems and explains everything.
Though the faithful do their best to apply the founder's teachings they may not always succeed. Sometimes even the leadership can make mistakes in doctrine, mistakes which should be freely admitted and promptly corrected..
2 Total dependence
The importance of being in the group or following the group's precepts in order to be 'Saved' for eternity is paramount. Everything outside the group is corrupt. Fear and guilt are being played upon heavily.
Being a believer is a good start to leading a happier and more fulfilled life. If there is an afterlife, then there will be benefits there as well.
3 Unquestioning obedience
The supreme authority is not to be questioned. Any doubt or criticism can only come from the devil or from one's own evil acts or failings. Censorship is neccessary to protect the members against ignorant information from the outside and against corrupting contacts from friends, family and society. Outgoing news is disseminated through propaganda.
Only by asking questions and examining the teachings can believers learn the truth for themselves. Only through knowledge and faith can those who criticise and oppose be confounded. The truth should not be hidden, it is for all to share.
4 Radical commitment
There can be no greater purpose in life than belonging to the group. The power of the group is measured by its number of members, its wealth and its external political influence. Every aspect of the member's life is submitted to the higher precepts presented by the group or its leader. Working for the group takes precedence over everything else.
Helping each other
Outsiders are welcome to join, but they should only do so because they truely understand and believe. Power in this world is not important, indeed wealth can be a distraction, though neither is poverty any guarantee of salvation. Believers give time and aid to the faith voluntarily. Helping others is a joyful experience, not a duty.
5 Totalitarian world view
The group's higher purpose supersedes the laws of society and give it special rights to act against real or imagined enemies. The more opposition is encountered from the outside, the more members are confirmed in the evil power of their opponents and the sanctity of their own cause.
Optimistic world view
Those not of the faith are potential converts, not enemies. In reality, most people are indifferent rather than hostile. The faith will prevail in the end.
6 Rejecting apostates
Any means are justified in pressuring waverers to stay, otherwise they will not be Saved. If they do depart, they must be cut off from the group lest they contaminate others with their lies. They have joined the enemy - and taken secrets with them!
Sad partings
It is regrettable but true that some will find their faith diminishing and may leave. Staying simply to please others would not be right, making everyone involved unhappy. Keeping in touch with them is vital, since at a later stage in their lives they may wish to return.
7 Great Changes
In the near future great changes are going to take place. Unbelievers will die or suffer greatly, but the group will be Saved and receive their just rewards.
A Bright Future
It may take a long time, but eventually all worthy people will follow the true faith.

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