In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.


No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.


Bull Shot

Sitting on an idling bus in the Lincoln Tunnel, I supposed I was too far underground for an epiphany to hit me. Then, on the way to Third Avenue it descended on me. I was passing one of the countless gift shops of Midtown when I saw it—a miniature replica of the Wall Street Charging Bull statue. Golden calves come in all sizes and shapes and when they grow up they may be very aggressive. Deadly even. Movie makers have long recognized the deep symbolism of the golden calf. And not just Cecil B. DeMille. Dogma, perhaps the most notorious of the anti-religion, religious films, centers around Mooby, a cartoon network golden calf, for one of its subplots. Even Bruce Almighty has the eponymous Bruce leaning back against the statue of a golden calf as he enjoys his new success in his new house, empty of all personal satisfaction. The list could go on. And of course, Wall Street.

What is it that makes us believe that gold leads to happiness? We all want it, if we are willing to look into the mirror with any semblance of honesty. Maybe we don’t want to be filthy rich, but who doesn’t really want to just kick up their heels and let their lucre do the work for them? Enter the “Prosperity Gospelers”—God wants it for you. Even if you demure and lower your eyes coyly, wealth will find you. And like that idol on Wall Street, calves grow up to be bulls. The horns of the dilemma are almost too literal. For a fulfilling life, give it all away. Like a misdeed long past, still unatoned, that bull follows you. You can’t escape a charging bull.

The episode of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is one of the more disturbing scenarios in Holy Writ. Moses, alone wreathed in the glory of the Almighty keeps forty days of silence and, tellingly, the clergy construct a golden calf. Probably an image of Yahweh. The next morning, “the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” Until distant Moses returns home. The calf is burned and ground down to dust, the people drink it, and the Levites kill three thousand of their compatriots. Prequel to Jonestown? “For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” The killing of their neighbors is their ordination. A blessing bestowed upon those who would worship the golden calf. That 7000-pound charging bull will follow you, even into the tunnels and tabernacles. When the golden calf is loose, no one is safe.

Bull comes in all sizes