A definition of cults, both obvious and subtle, with an explanation of their characteristics and pervasive nature together with the ways to avoid them.
Definition of a Cult
Originally, the word “cult” suggested worship and was not pejorative. In modern usage the word took on negative connotations. The critical meaning of cult is, I believe, in part the result of the mental development of humanity, where the mind begins to see devotion in its glamorous or illusory expression. Humanity turns toward the external, complicating the problem. We humans, in this devotional cycle, become hero worshipers and sadly, often in the sense of idol worship.
The pure devotion of the soul descends into the personality, becoming superficially ritualistic, superstitious, exaggerated, and exclusive–in other words, we become false and cultish. Even the word “cult” itself is used in a cultish way, e.g. a cult is what we call the religious brainwashing down the street from where we receive our own religious brainwashing. “Wash” is the apt term, because water is the symbol of emotionalism.
Group-think is strong. Reflecting on the list of attributes of cults, one might ask, “Are not most religions and new age movements cults?” Have we not all struggled through life under the binding spell of one cult or another?” We can look at this question in the light of useful concept: degrees. Applying it, we see there are not two categories: “cult” and “not a cult.” Rather we find that a great deal of human activity, particularly in the religious, metaphysical, and political fields, is cultish to some degree. And the presence, to some degree, of one or a few cult-like attributes–and especially the less crucial ones–would not be justification for the strong label of “cult.” As an exercise in critical thought, we could rate a given movement, assessing the prominence of each cultish tendency, on a ten-point scale.
The Size and Age of Cults
Some definitions of “cult” relate the word to small groups, but it is not the smallness of the group that is determinative, but smallness of mind. There is tendency to think of cults as relatively small groups or minor swirls of activity within human society but sometimes small groups can be closer to the truth than large ones. So size is not always relevant to cult status–there are large and small cults, and very new and very ancient ones. Society may perceive a cult as something always outside normal or established human society, but large and long established cults also exist as an accepted part of society, even while not recognized as such by most people. Actually, numerous large cults are imbedded in the fabric of accepted society. Some of these have benevolent and attractive aspects, but careful thought shows how the dark threads of cult consciousness are woven in with the brighter threads of high ideals and humanitarian endeavor.
Assessing Gold and Fool’s Gold
There are individuals beyond us in the scale of development and insight. There are always those to whom we can look for inspiration and those to whom we can offer our help, however large or small that gift may be. But we should not try to shift responsibility for the course of our lives to a group or a leader. We should not—to put it in psychological terms–expect a leader or group to take the place of the ideal parent or family that we never knew, while we assume the role of a dependent child. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that we are at a relatively undeveloped state compared to some ahead of us on the path of life. The problem arises when psychological immaturity, left over from an unfortunate early life, leads us to surrender ourselves to an individual or group, instead of using relationships as the catalysis for the evolution of thought, love, and divinity within us.
A pseudo-teacher engages in a conscious or unconscious game of power, and is dependent on the weakness and worshipful attitude of followers. That which is often most attractive to members of a group, a charismatic leader, tends often to encourage unhealthy dependency and hero-worship. The development differential between a teacher and ourselves is an opportunity for an apprentice/master relation, and not an occasion for uncritical submission to authority. Moreover, the Teacher and the Teaching are always as much within as outside us. And it follows that without the inner teaching, the external is rendered a meaningless illusion. It follows also that a good teacher is one who encourages competence and independence in us, so reducing the distance between pupil and teacher. Such a relationship is the antithesis of cultism.