When does religion become a cult?

Posted: October 8, 2011 in Current Events, Religion
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I was stunned yesterday to hear a pastor of a leading southern Baptist Fundamentalist Church state that because Mormonism is a cult, the Republican Party should not endorse Romney.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.  I can’t believe that it isn’t just a matter of time before one of these Christian extremists puts their foot so far into their mouth that the rest of the U.S. population with even a molecule of intelligence simply decides that enough is enough.

Jeffress, the pastor involved, made it clear that he thought that religion needed to be the dominant factor in choosing a political leader,  not intelligence or experience, or even, it seems, moral integrity since he was willing to concede that Romney was probably a good, moral man, but still not a Christian.  This is somewhat ironic as many view Perry as a little dim witted while Romney come across as a much more competent candidate.  So they’d rather have a dumb Christian than an intelligent non Christian.  (It is important to note that “Christian” in this pastor’s definition has a very narrow meaning, referring to “born again Christians”)  This pastor claims to represent a large faction of the evangelical Republicans and, evidently, was influential enough to be called on to make an introduction at the Republican convention.  He is not an inconsequential weirdo from the fringes.  No, he’s a mainstream, evangelical weirdo.

What exactly is a cult anyway? A commonly used set of standards was proposed by Dr. Robert Lindon.  I’ve summarized his eight points below.  While I feel that Mormonism may well qualify as a cult, I really think that many other supposedly mainstream religions would also qualify to one degree or another.  While reading them below, consider what you know about the Baptist fundamentalists (of which the Westboro Baptist Church are the most extreme, but really just more extreme in their view from the others) or even such religions as Catholicism.  If we are going to apply a standard to one religion, we have to apply it to all.

1. Control of information and communication resulting in isolation from society at large.

2. Manipulation of experiences by the group or leader to show divine or spiritual “specialness”, which can be interpreted to the benefit of the leader.

3. A black and white view of the world, where conformity to the group’s rightness is the only accepted behaviour and is necessary to be “Pure”. Guilt or shame is a powerful control device.

4. Confession.  Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed to an authority figure who can discuss them openly with the group without confidentiality, and a penance or punishment is provided.

5.  The ideology of the group is considered the ultimate truth, beyond any question or discussion. Members are discouraged or forbidden to seek any kind of truth outside of the group.

6. Words and phrases are used and repeated by rote in order to discourage thought and force the member to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Member’s personal experiences and needs are secondary to those of the group and should be sacrificed for a higher good.

8. The group is exclusive, often judging those outside of the group to be inferior, or damned, or infidels.  People outside of the group should be rejected, including family members.

So, Scientology and the JWs fit the mold quite well.  But I can’t help but think that a lot of fundamentalist Christians fit into the cult category almost better than the Mormons do.  I’ve met a lot of Mormons and they seldom have the narrow worldview that fanatical Christians do, especially relating to point #8.  As for the Catholic faith, it would depend on the degree of belief in certain religious dogmas.  I’ve met a variety of Catholic priests with quite a variety of beliefs.  But with the exception of #1, the other criteria statements all seem to have at least some relation to the practice of the Catholic faith.

Raising the specter of a cult if you are speaking as a Baptist is a little ridiculous.  Any religions silly enough to apply standards to other religions have to be ready to apply them to themselves as well.  They can’t have some kind of divine exemption card.  -And I say “silly” because most religions don’t fare well against objective standards, so they’d be wise to leave them alone.

OK, not to leave anyone out, my next post (when I get to it) is going to be pro-religion and anti-atheist.  How am I going to manage that?

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