It’s odd how things all come together at once. Today I was doing some research for a future post about the rise of Protestant Christianity in America. I stumbled upon a New York Times article from 1993 about a “renewed debate on the word “cult” in religious circles”. A few weeks ago the new book Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn popped up on my suggested audible books (I guess that tells you what kind of books I read). My girlfriend and I were on a road trip and decided to give the book a try. I didn’t know much about Jonestown other than it’s infamous end and this book did not disappoint. A few days later the anticipated release of Hulu’s The Handmaids Tale premiered and again, I found myself fascinated with a story I had somehow missed. Two stories of the extremes of religion. One real and one fiction, yet the similarities and present day possibilities were unnerving to say the least.
I commonly refer to my past church as a chult (a church/cult mix). I do this because people find it too offensive to have their faith called a cult. Sure everyone is mindlessly following the same rules, wearing the same outfits, abiding by one mans interpretation of “gods truth” but no, that’s not a cult. We seem to have the idea that unless you’re buried in a bunker and married to a guy with 15 wives you cant possibly be in a cult. But what’s interesting is we find that even those buried in the bunker with 14 other sister wives ALSO don’t believe they’re in a cult.
With the recent break in the silence surrounding Scientology we are given a prime example of true cult behavior. People like Leah Remini, Mark Rathburn, Mike Rinder, Marc Headly and more reveal a religion that most of us thought was strange yet harmless (references below for these stories from Scientology). These people lived open and successful lives. They weren’t hiding away, they didn’t dress in outdated clothing, they were just like everybody else. Until we realized they weren’t. Until they spoke out about the abuse, the lies, the manipulation, and the loss of control over their lives. They spoke of friends and family members who had completely disowned them simply because they no longer believed that little aliens were living inside of them. That sounds ridiculous right?
Yet the other day, I spoke with a man who keeps his atheism a secret because he doesn’t know how his family will react if he tells them he doesn’t believe in a magic man in the sky. If you can not accept that a talking snake brought about the fall of man or that the ark housed ALL the species of the world then what happens to you? If your loved ones aren’t biblical literalists, yet firmly believe there is a god in the heavens directing our lives, how do they react to your non-belief? It’s true that in today’s form of modern religion we see a more open-minded approach to the concept of god. Yet just as strongly as the left swings left the right swings right, and today we live in a country where a reality TV star is our president because religion still has power. It has great power and the world in The Handmaids Tale doesn’t seem as far fetched as it did at its release 30 years ago
And yet for decades journalists have avoided using the word cult for fear of offending the religious right. And it’s true that this word is an easy out occasionally tossed around. The excerpt below is part of the NYT 1993 article that opposes the use of the word cult.
My “exotic” religion covered up countless cases of physical, verbal and sexual abuse. Much like the Catholic Church out leaders moved an offender from one parish to the next rather than hold him accountable for his actions. (I use the pronoun him because I have yet to find a case within my former cult where this applied to a woman). We were taught that women were created specifically for men (Genesis 2:18-20) and therefore should be in submission to men (Ephesians 5:22-24 ). We were not allowed to listen to music post 1950, were forbidden from going to the movies, were held to strict dress and appearance standards and were encouraged to “pull away from” (i.e. shun) those who left gods will. Incredibly gods will aligned perfectly with whatever the pastor believed at the time. And as some read this they say “that sounds like a cult”. Yet I wasn’t locked on a compound, I could marry whom I pleased (provided he was of the male variety) and I had free access to the outside world. But I was not free. I knew this. No matter how many times the preacher screamed from the pulpit that if we didn’t like his sermons the door swung both ways, I KNEW it wasn’t that simple. Telling people they are free and allowing them to be free are two very different things. In the above excerpt we see that Dr. Richardson goes on to say “We must remember that 99 percent of minority religions are benign and peaceful and just want to be left alone. When they abide by the law they have this right.” The problems with this are first, that many branches of major religions are the ones actually doing the most damage. And second, much of this harm is able to be done thanks to the law. The law doesn’t protect people from being brainwashed. It doesn’t protect a woman from being culturally bullied into giving over her money to her husband, or from being taught to acquiesce every time he wants sex (marriage rape). Children are not protected from fraud educations, abuse under the guise of corporal punishment or lack of proper medical treatment. Even in cases where religious parents have been held accountable for abuse or poor medical treatment, its usually done so AFTER the child is critically injured or dead. The law doesn’t protect students of Scientology from signing a billion year contract that enslaves them to the whims of their leaders. Yet we all know that these things are wrong and most of us understand that these people are not truly free.
There are those of course who will read this and say “But they ARE free! The wives can leave at any time, the students of Scientology can simply walk away and even the children can report abuse to a teacher or leader.” I imagine these are the same people who believe that turning one’s life over to Jesus under penalty of eternal damnation is actually a “choice”. These people I do not debate because we are arguing with two completely different mindsets towards two completely different end results. . As for the problem of religious cultural intimidation in our country one may ask “Well then what is our option? To monitor every household and every religious place of worship?” No, I believe in the rights of Americans and the freedom of worship and that is an issue I will address in a post soon to come. Today I am simply asking people to be honest and aware of the affects of these so called “minority” religions on our society. I 100% concede that there are millions of Americans that belong to a church or a faith that in no way could be construed as a cult. I absolutely understand that religion in itself is not a cult and in fact brings much comfort and positivity to countless lives. I have never been on a crusade to erase personal religion or beliefs and I never will. But there is a rise in extreme religion in America and this rise cannot be ignored nor tip toed around.
New York Times: Debate over ‘cult’ is renewed More say religion is important in their lives Two groups speak as one against violence (1993) search.proquest.com/…D4940C28C6047FFPQ/11
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015 Documentary) – Available On: HBO GO / iTunes / Google Play Movies
Leah Remi: Scientology and the Aftermath – Available on iTunes / Amazon Video / Vudu
Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)