Religion or cult? How to tell the difference

Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who persuaded nearly 40 people to join him in committing suicide to avoid a cosmic "recycling" of the Earth.

I’m reading Hugh MacLeod’s new book, Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination. It’s not as diabolical as it sounds; it’s all about figuring out how to do what you want to do for a living, escape the rat race and earn a great living.

Early in the book, MacLeod says something profound: “The market for something to believe in is infinite.” In context, he’s saying that we’re here to find meaning and to help other people do the same. The more you can do that, the more you’ll have a successful life (and by extension, earn a good living).

Sadly, there are people – cult leaders – who pervert and take advantage of people’s need for something to believe in. They offer counterfeit truth to people who can’t tell it from the real thing, and once a cult has people hooked in, they make it difficult for them to get unhooked.

In the U.S., both religious movements and cults can flourish under the protection of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause. Some of my agnostic and atheist friends believe there’s no difference between a religion and a cult; as a lifelong Christian, I beg to differ, of course. For that reason, I enjoyed Mitch Horowitz’s article in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

In the article, Horowitz examines when a religion becomes a cult. He lists four criteria agreed upon by Stanford University research Philip Zimbardo and others:

  • Behavior control, monitoring where you go and what you do.
  • Information control, discouraging members from reading criticism about the group.
  • Thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning.
  • Emotional control, using humiliation or guilt.

Horowitz adds three of his own:

  • Financial control, levying onerous dues or fees, or forcing members to work and placing them on stipends or sales quotas. (In the old days, those Hare Krishnas at airports weren’t trying to sell you books just for your own self-enlightenment, he notes.)
  • Extreme leadership, someone forceful enough to impose ideas that don’t pass muster in the light of day.
  • Untoward secrecy. A religious culture should be as easy to enter or exit as any free nation, he says, for members and observers alike. Its doctrine should be knowable to outsiders. There should be no barriers to any member’s travel, relationship or ideas. Finally, the group’s finances should be reasonably transparent.

Don’t let your own search for meaning get weighed down by a cynicism that concludes there is no meaning; there is, and finding it can make your life. Recognize, though, that lots of people try to sell you on their version of meaning; be skeptical when you first meet them, and use this list of cult attributes as a way to screen out those who want your soul and gifts to enrich their lives instead of yours.

Related Reading (Amazon Affiliate Link)

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