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Definition of a Cult

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By Michelle Belanger

For those who don't know, I'm a student of comparative religions -- got my degree and all. ;) (Although the Jesuits who run the college that gave it to me are pretty horrified that I chose this particular community to apply my talents to).

Anyway, a little over a year ago, I had the pleasure of lecturing at the local high school here on cults and alternative religions. It was a great opportunity, and all the kids and teachers who listened in on the lecture seemed to leave with a new appreciation for tolerance and religious diversity.

First off -- a little warning -- this is going to be long. Enjoyable to read, I hope, but long.

That said, here's how I showed the students the definition of a cult:

Farmer Bob is a shepherd. He's Christian, and he understands Jesus, the Lord being his Shepherd and all. Well, one day Christ appears to Farmer Bob in the form of a purple sheep. And this sheep walks right up to Farmer Bob and says, "Bob, Christianity's a great religion, but the folks in charge got some things wrong. So I want you to fix those problems. Here's my new message..."

OK, so Farmer Bob has now had a vision -- a revelation as it were. And he goes and preaches his message to his buddies at the local bar. Some of them think he's been out in the sun too long, but a couple of them hear what he has to say and agree with it. These few people start meeting in the barn with Farmer Bob every Tuesday to discuss the message of the purple sheep. Local folks start learning about these meetings, but if you haven't heard the message and agreed with it, then you aren't invited to the meetings. So the locals are left to speculate on what Farmer Bob is really doing in there with all those other farmers, and those sheep...

And by religious definitions, you now have the Cult of the Purple Sheep. They branched off from an established belief system, but with some very different views. They are not big, and they are not widely accepted. They are, in many cases, even feared because their beliefs are not widely known. But there are a few people who believe the message, and these few are pretty loyal and dedicated to their interpretation of the truth.

After some time, Farmer Bob's message gets out to a lot of people. His little group grows and starts needing more barns to meet in. They start establishing their own rites and rules for doing things that set them more clearly apart as a group unto themselves. They still operate within the structure of Christianity, but they are distinctly doing their own thing. And now they are so big, that when someone talks about Christianity, they have to say, "Well, we've got the Lutherans over there, and the Methodists, the Catholics...and the Cult of the Purple Sheep. I know, I know -- it sounds crazy, but some of the things they have to say are actually pretty good..."

So now, the Cult of the Purple Sheep has become a Sect -- a recognized and acknowledged branch of an established religious system. It's still got its roots firmly in its Christian origins, but it is big enough and widespread enough that it has to be acknowledged by those on the outside. Time passes, and Farmer Bob really starts preaching to people. More and more people join. The system they develop defines their group more and more by their own practices and beliefs, and the influence of Christianity becomes less and less apparent. With a whole lot of believers, a lot of public recognition and acceptance, and rites, organization, and rules that define them as their own group, Farmer Bob's original cult has now become a religion, separate from Christianity. What do they call it? Baa-baaism -- of course. ;)

* * *

So after that little anecdote, I asked the class why a cult was bad -- because by all technical definitions, a cult is just an early stage of a newly developing religion. All our notions of "cult" in a bad sense, our our notions of "cult-like activity" -- those are connotations attached to the word through the media, public opinion, and so forth.

After a lively discussion on everything from the Wiccans and Voodoo to Waco and Jonestown, we came up with the following criterion for a "dangerous" cult:

  1. They take the money of their members, usually trying to make the members who don't donate feel bad for not contributing to the welfare of the group. The authority figures within the group hoard all this money for themselves, spending it on bigger buildings, more decorations, fancier robes, etc.,
  2. They discourage members from associating with people who have different beliefs from the group. Members are especially discouraged from marrying or getting into a long-term relationship with anyone who isn't a member. And those outsiders they do get involved with are encouraged to become part of the group before any marriage / relationship will be recognized by the group.
  3. They use fear tactics to inspire members to adhere to the group's rules. Members are threatened with terrible outcomes and made to feel guilty about their actions if they do anything against the rules of the group.
  4. Those who question the group's beliefs too much are disciplined and censured. Questioning the beliefs is severely frowned upon, and members who try to work against this or fight certain beliefs are usually cast out and demonized to the remaining people in the group.
  5. Children of the group are indoctrinated from an early age with the group's beliefs, and are discouraged from exploring any belief system save for that of the group.
  6. Group leaders are given special priviledges. Certain rules that apply to the lay people often do not apply to them. In extreme cases, the group works to allow its leaders to break or avoid the laws of the established culture, or covers up transgressions against the same.

Guess what the class learned? We just described the Catholic Church.

Right now, as our community is still defining itself and its beliefs, as we are establishing our identities as separate and distinct from the culture that we grew out of, every single vampire group that exists -- every house, every coven, every clan, clutch, every temple -- is a cult. This is not a bad thing -- it's just the term they use in sociology and the study of religions to define a small, just starting out group.

The other definition of "cult" has pretty much been established through ignorance, intolerance of religious diversity, and misinformation.

Something for everyone to think about.

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