Monday, August 20, 2007

Cult and Religion

When does a cult become a religion? After all, Christianity was originally one of many mystical and apocalyptic Jewish cults; so when did it become a religion instead of a cult? By 313, when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and decreed that its practice would be allowed in the Roman Empire, it was a religion. But what is the dividing line?

According to sociologists, a church is an established religion that follows mainstream practices and are part of the prevailing culture;, such as the Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Baptist churches in the United States. Sects are splinter groups that have broken away from the churches; they usually follow stricter rules than the churches, but have mostly mainstream beliefs, such as the Amish. Cults are religious groups that follow non-mainstream practices, based on the surrounding culture; in these terms, Baha'ism, one of the ten largest world religions, with 6.1 million followers, would be considered a cult in North America, while Christianity might be considered a cult in India. Based on these definitions, a cult would become a church if its practices become mainstream, either by changing the practices or by becoming so large that it comes to help define mainstream; this is what Christianity did in the first three centuries after Christ.

According to Christian theologists, a cult is a Christian-based religion that does not base its theology strictly on the Bible; it usually denies one or more basic tenets of the Bible or adds more prophets, and centuries ago would have been called a heresy. In these terms, Mormons would be a cult rather than a religion; but Wicca is not a cult because it is not based on Christianity. The only way a cult can become a religion is to let go of the practices and beliefs that contradict the Bible.

The anti-cult groups have another definition: A cult is a religious group that brainwashes its members and controls their lives in unhealthy ways, such as isolation or sleep deprivation. Traditional examples of cults in this case are the Krishnas and the Moonies.

A more useful definition may be "a small, recently created, religious organization which is often headed by a single charismatic leader and is viewed as a spiritually innovative group." And possibly the most honest is from Leo Pfeffer: "...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult."

So where does this leave the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT)? When the church moved from California to Montana in 1981, at the height of the publicity about the Krishnas and Moonies and deprogramming cult members, it was definitely considered a cult by the local community. And according to most of these definitions, it was: it had non-mainstream practices, was led by a charismatic leader, and was feared by the locals. Whether theologians would consider it a cult depends on whether it is considered to be Christian-based: the church incorporates some elements of Christianity along with elements from seven other world religions. With its apocalyptic teachings and closed-in mindset, it was one of the cults fought by the anti-cult groups.

But over time, CUT has settled in and, to all appearances, grown up. Members of the church who used to live on church land are moving into surrounding communities and blending in with people who follow the traditional religions. The charismatic leader has retired, due to Alzheimers. CUT hosts teen retreats, just like Methodists and Baptists do. The church has contributed land for wildlife on the edges of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The housing development, originally for church members only, has been opened to other people. Church members interact with other locals, hiring each other, patronizing each other's businesses, and socializing. It has shed many of the attributes of a cult, but it is not a church or sect. So I still don't know where this leaves CUT.


Valli said...

This post illustrates one of my favorite things about good you are at explaining something fairly complex, without it sounding like you are 'teaching' it. You make it sound like a conversation (yes a bit one sided!) but still comfortable and smart all at the same time.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in the history of the Christian Apologetics.