Friday, February 25, 2011


The Wall Street Journal is asking "When Does a Religion Become a Cult?" and states the obvious:
America has probably supplied the world with more new religions than any other nation. Since the first half of the 19th century, the country's atmosphere of religious experimentation has produced dozens of movements, from Mormonism to a wide range of nature-based practices grouped under the name Wicca.

By 1970 the religious scholar Jacob Needleman popularized the term "New Religious Movements" (NRM) to classify the new faiths, or variants of old ones, that were being embraced by the Woodstock generation. But how do we tell when a religious movement ceases to be novel or unusual and becomes a cult?

It's a question with a long history in this country. The controversy involving Hollywood writer-director Paul Haggis is only its most recent occurrence. Mr. Haggis left the Church of Scientology and has accused it of abusive practices, including demands that members disconnect from their families, which the church vigorously denies.
Now's where they go for the argument we hear all too often:
To use the term cult too casually risks tarring the merely unconventional, for which America has long been a safe harbor. In the early 19th century, the "Burned-over District" of central New York state—so named for the religious passions of those who settled there following the Revolutionary War—gave rise to a wave of new movements, including Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism and Spiritualism (or talking to the dead). It was an era, as historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom wrote, when "Farmers became theologians, offbeat village youths became bishops, odd girls became prophets."

When the California Gold Rush of 1849 enticed settlers westward, the nation's passion for religious novelty moved with them. By the early 20th century, sunny California had replaced New York as America's laboratory for avant-garde spirituality. Without the weight of tradition and the ecclesiastical structures that bring some predictability to congregational life, some movements were characterized by a make-it-up-as-you-go approach that ultimately came to redefine people, money and propriety as movable parts intended to benefit the organization.

Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths.
The writer, Mitch Horowitz, then goes on to add two more categories:
Financial control and extreme leadership.

Financial control translates into levying ruinous dues or fees, or effectively hiring members and placing them on stipends or sales quotas. Consider the once-familiar image of Hare Krishna devotees selling books in airports. Or a friend of mine—today a respected officer with a nonprofit organization—who recalls how his departure from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was complicated by the problem of a massive hole in his résumé, reflecting the years he had financially committed himself to the church.

Problems with extremist leadership can be more difficult to spot. The most tragic cult of the last century was the Rev. Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, which ended with mass murder and suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978. Only a few early observers understood Jones as dangerously erratic. Known for his racially diverse San Francisco congregation, Jones was widely feted on the local political scene in the 1970s. He was not some West Coast New Ager gone bad. He emerged instead from the mainstream Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pulpit, which sometimes lent a reassuringly Middle-American tone to his sermons.
We say Mr. Horowitz is wrong about all of this, of course, because cults have expanded their reach so far into the mainstream over the last few decades, it's almost impossible for his old school definitions to apply. For instance, homeopathy doesn't fit within his definition, but it's most definitely a cult - a cult that's gone mainstream.

As "Wendy" said on the Quackometer blog:
Homeopaths live in the same space as you but are in a different world, and they ‘know’.  To come out of that world is a complete revision of assumptions, thought systems and thinking style.  It is very hard to do.  I think I’ve been trying to say that for a long time.  The larger the numbers have grown the easier it is for people to live in that world with others like them.
In other words, the Homeopathy cult's reach is such that there's no need for control over the follower's movements. And why should there be? It's online, it's on Oprah, it's in Whole Foods - Hell, even conservative Michael Savage is a Homeopath, and Rush Limbaugh is a fan!

Our point is, there's no escaping the Homeopathy cult's influence once you're under it, so there's no need for it to engage in behavior control, information control, thought control, emotional control, financial control or extreme leadership.

Those old definitions no longer matter. Even the government will force someone to go into a Scientology program, like Narconon, so who's fooling who here?

Now, all that's needed for a dangerous cult to exist is for everyone to ignore what they're up to and not think too hard. To reject critical thinking. Think about it: Even John Edwards - a top tier presidential candidate - was able to believe the nonsense a NewAge fruitcake like Rielle Hunter was laying down. It is our contention that could only happen if NewAge - which is now the umbrella term for all cult activity - was a familiar, yet still unknown, part of the culture.

We ask you, when was the last time we heard of a Homeopath being convicted for murder or manslaughter? We hear of them killing people, certainly, but so few outsiders understand cultism the Homeopaths almost always walk free because the mental trap cults have weaved around society is unknown to those charged with getting at the truth. Most people think Homeopathy is Herbal Medicine and there is almost no effort to explain the difference, anywhere.

Anyway, we're happy to see anything that mentions cults, cultish thinking, or cultism in America, but unfortunately, under the circumstances, this particular piece is about as worthless as they come.


  1. One of things I like about your blog is how you have completely shattered any pretense of a support for religious freedom.

    I look forward to posts where you excoriate any sectarian collective that tries to foist their superstitions onto innocent bystanders.

    Keep it up

  2. Thank you, thank you [bowing] you're too kind, really.

    I will add, seriously now, that freedom of religion does not equal I have to respect for your beliefs, or freedom from criticism, or that - as an atheist - I can't do everything in my power to limit religion's sphere of influence. Not to mention, I barely touch on religion - this is primarily an anti-cult and NewAge blog - because most established religions hate them, too.

    You gotta pick your battles,...

  3. Here's the difference that I see: the crisis that is Scientology is such small potatoes compared to whackjobs who want to force prayer in schools, ban abortions, teach myth in science class and prevent same-sex marriage.

    Those aren't "conservative" values those are religious values

    The battles you pick are against moths, but there're dragons to slay. Moths do damage and are pervasive, insidious and destructive and eliminating them IS important

    But the dragons are destroying the landscape in great swaths.

    You fill a skyscraper of "NewAge" with everything from Wiccans (though the precepts pre-date Christianity, meaning there's nothing "new" about them) to homeopaths-- yet the doctrines (such as they are) are really no more whacky than a virgin birth, global flood, speaking in tongues, faith healing, a 7000-year-old Earth, et al

    I'm both amused and impressed by what you do here slamming the bent-brained. But the very same kind of thinking is wielding a huge ax across the freedoms of Americans who have a Constitutional right to have their govt be outside the sphere of influence of talking donkeys and snakes.

    Scientologists vs Evangelicals-- Who's doing more to inflict non-believers with their faith?

    You don't strike me as a guy who shirks from a conflict because it might piss off people

  4. This is a post only answerable through my email.

    Hit me.

  5. What I can say is you're looking at one thing - say, Scientology - whereas I'm looking at a NewAge tapestry that Scientology's only a small part of.

  6. I absolutely match with everything you've presented us.

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