Portrait of a Cult

Say the word cult around here, and immediately thoughts of Jim Jones, David Keresh, and Charles Manson come to mind.

Dictionary.com defines cult as

1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.

2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.

3. the object of such devotion.

4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

A search of the internet quickly produces a Checklist of Cult Characteristics, many of which we all expect to see in such a list, yet a few that might make us a bit uncomfortable.

Such as….

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
  • The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  • The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I openly admit to browsing the selection in order to choose the items that are most relevant to my point.

Now think for a moment about our concept of church and/or religion in this country. The Church is often one of the first, most vocal, and most direct critics of cults. We pity the poor souls who fall victim to the cult mentality, who get trapped in a viscous cycle of incorrect beliefs and who put their trust in a particular set of rules in hopes of being saved from the evils of the world.

Am I the only one seeing an irony here?

Every single organized group of people who establish rules for worshiping something or someone are in many ways a cult.

The Pharisees were a cult.

Several other flavors of religion are a cult.

My faith heritage fits WAY more than its share of cult characteristics. It is a cult.

257,000 flavors of Christianity have a majority of the characteristics of a cult. Christianity is the mothership of cult mentality.

I readily admit than many of what I see as cults do much good in the world. However, the point here is to examine the less favorable characteristics of such groups.

Jesus came to set people free from the prison that is cultism. Why else would he give us just two rules? Love the entity that is universal life force, and love each other…unconditionally. Need more specifics? Love those who don’t see the world through your same set of rose colored glasses. Don’t exclude them. Don’t refuse to do business with them.

Jesus never promoted the organization of groups.

Jesus never promoted the concept of isolationism.

Jesus didn’t come to organize an exclusive club.

Jesus brought a message of freedom, not cultism.

Jesus came to deprogram us, not enslave us to an ideology/theology.

What do you think? Is organized religion a group of cults or am I horribly misguided in my thinking?

17 Responses to “Portrait of a Cult”

  • Angie, you’ve nailed it! There are many who have disagreed with me over the years, but I stand by my belief that Catholicism, at least in my family’s way of living it, is a cult. I can’t speak for other church organizations, since I’ve been avoiding them all equally since I left the church as a teenager, but I know how brainwashed I was, and how amazed I was at the rest of the world once I escaped.

    I’ll be interested to see if others agree or disagree. Keep seeking, it’s fabulous out here!

    Hugs and butterflies,

    • Interestingly enough, I recently learned about a beautiful strong, and intelligent woman who fell victim to a priest (and married him and endured subsequent violent physical abuse) because of the unquestioning beliefs of the family and their loyalty to the Church. She was truly alone and without any type of support system as she made her escape. I was stunned at hearing the story.

      I’ve also come to think that families (as well as most other “groups”) run the risk of becoming a cult if not extremely vigilant. I am blessed. My family has consciously chosen not to be controlling and demanding because they value the relationship over the dogma. The differences create a bit of tension at times, but so far, no walls.

      It’s a very interesting dynamic….groups that is.

      Blessings to you and yours!

  • Angie, I think organized religion of any stripe, not JUST Christianity, walks a fine line sometimes when it comes to this topic. And I do think that the more fundamental and legalistic the flavor of a particular brand of organized religion, the more of the markers that can be checked off this list.

    But… let me play devil’s advocate here a minute… with the caveat that I struggle mightily here almost every day about the answers to these questions for myself and for my family.

    Does the good ever outweigh the bad? Is the support of a loving community to walk with us through life’s many transitions enough of a reason to stay? Is there any chance to sway the exclusivity toward love and change the paradigm into something positive? Is the support and structure and security necessary for some people, some of the time? Have I simply outgrown something that is still valuable for others – or is the structure itself inherently so flawed it needs to be dismantled? Who will fill up the space organized religion takes up if it collapses?

    I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. But I do think different people are in different places. And sometimes wide open spaces with no structure are too scary to contemplate depending on where someone is in their life. Where you are going, where I am going – is a place that many if not most have no desire to go and will never get to. I want EVERYONE to come with me. To experience the freedom and feel the wind in their hair. But the further I go, the more I realize that most people are okay right where they are. And it isn’t fair of me to yank them out of their comfort zone and force them to take this journey with me. So part of letting them be means I have to accept that what no longer fits for me may be working just fine for them.

    YET… at the SAME time… I want to stand up and scream at the incongruity. I want to shout prophetically from the hills. I want to grab people and shake them and say “wake up!!!”. I want to turn over the money changers tables and highlight the hypocrites and out the abusers. And I don’t care if it means the temple stones come crumbling down around me.

    SO…. it’s a dilemma, for sure. And one I don’t even begin to know how to unravel for myself, much less for anyone else. All I know to do is to keep asking and seeking and moving and growing. Trying to be as patient with myself as I can, and as compassionate with others as possible.

    Keep going… it’s worth it!

    • So much wisdom in what you have written, Renae. So much wisdom. Does the good ever outweigh the evil? YOU BET!!!! Let me be the first to say that if I were stranded someplace with no money, no food, and no place to stay, I would find the local affiliate of my church heritage. I know without a doubt they would help me, the wandering stranger.

      Like you, I recognize that this is still working and working very well for a great number of people. It is not my place to yank them out of that and demolish something that does much good in the world. Like you, I recognize that I have outgrown what once was a perfect fit, and unfortunately I have yet to find something that is comfortable with where I am now (much like shopping for clothes at this point in my life—AAARRRGGGHHH!!!!!!) Where are the yoga pants of support groups?

      Compassion is the key. I’m not here to destroy what is, but rather support and validate those who feel they’ve moved beyond what is…to give them a voice. It’s lonely out here, but thanks to technology, we are finding one another.

  • Angie … These definitions would fit a lot of jobs and social clubs too. I was a part of a Rotary club once that fit these definitions more than any church I’ve ever attended. They constantly hounded us to bring in new members.

    I once worked a job where I was taught a belief system about the product, could not question the boss or his judgements, they had an us versus the world mentality, you had to get permission to do anything, and if we didn’t we would be punished (written up) or fired. That’s pretty cultish, yet we don’t rough up the place that makes us a living.

    Even the same can be said about families. The Morgan family is a close unit. We’ve taught them “family first” principles. I’ve taught my children a belief system (things we do and don’t do as a family). I’ve taught them they respect us (Lea and I) as parents and not question our every motive. There are certain ways we dress, act and rules to follow, IF you break those rules there can be punishment. According to the above standards, my family is a cult.

    As for the churches, there are plenty of things churches have done wrong, but there are many things churches do right too. There are many that have the same cult mentality as my family, past job or community service organizations. To label all of them as a cult would be a little unfair.

    Jesus can to establish his church, he died for his church, and what and who are his church is his decision. The church is made up of imperfect people and has, is and will make mistakes. Many churches are simply doing the best they can, doing what they believe is right…. just like service clubs, jobs and my family.

    When it comes to organized religion, there are many examples of organized religion. God “organized” a religion for the nation of Israel. The Ten Commandments, the laws regarding the tabernacle, and the sacrificial system were all instituted by God and were to be followed by the Israelites. Jesus met with his followers on a daily basis. The book of Acts is full of examples where Christians were meeting together to breaking bread, pray, serve, etc.

    However, I will be the first to admit that many have misunderstood God’s freedom and have worshipped the rules and rituals rather than God himself. And I know that any church who is more interested in keeping the rules and worship the rules than they are God is in trouble. BUT, what churches are guilty of this, is for God to decide and not me.

    Our goal is to simply do everything we can to get to please God, get to heaven and take as many people with us as possible. And, I personally need to be very careful that we don’t beat up on the very bride Christ died for. To mess with someone’s bride is a little too ballsy for even me :)

    I hope this makes sense.

  • Ang,

    One more thought. If the church (organized) started being the church it was intended to be, it would focus on relationships (God and others) and service to others. It would be a powerful tool in the community and the world. It would be community. It would see to the needs of the poor, hurting and suffering. It would focus, not on rules, but on loving one another by service to them.

    That’s my dream for the church.

    • Trey,
      I agree with so much of what you say. Just as Renae mentioned, the good probably does outweigh the bad in most cases. Your examples of the work situation and the club are precisely why I’m not much for any of these groups. It just doesn’t fit anymore, and often the stress of conforming for the sake of the ideal isn’t worth the benefits.

      I grew up in a family just like you described, but that didn’t stop me from questioning, challenging, and even rebelling. Yes, there was punishment when boundaries were crossed, yet I was still given room to think for myself, something for which I am very grateful. Often times the cult mentality of religions punishes those who think outside the box or who challenge the why’s. I know you well enough to know that you give your kids room to challenge your why’s without chopping their heads (or hands) off for it.

      And I like your dream for the church. Hopefully I can be a part of something like that someday…..maybe even be a part of making it happen.

      Love to you and yours,

    • Trey,

      For the sake of discussion, may I point out an inconsistency I see in what you’ve said? Your dream would be my dream also, as long as everyone meant EVERYONE, not others who believe like I do. But somehow, this dream seems at odds with what you state as “our” goal – to do everything we can to please God, to get to heaven, and to take as many people as we can with us. Because a loving, serving body that meets people where they hurt is NOT going to be focused on pleasing anyone by following a set of rules, the here and now is going to be much more important than the sweet by and by, and the only way to be inclusive is to quit worrying about where folks might end up and focus on what they need. To me – THAT is the abundant life Jesus talked about – and the only way to please God – by seeing the image of the divine in every person we encounter and acting accordingly.

      The goal requires conformity. The dream requires compassion. I vote for the compassionate dream.

      • Renae … I’m obviously not understand my inconsistencies, but then again I’m a little slow sometimes.

        I read back through my post several times and couldn’t find even one place where I used the phrase, “those how believe like me.” Nor did I state anything about being inclusive to a certain few who believe like I believe. Maybe you’re reading through the lines.

        I admit, I want to go to heaven. On my way I want to serve as many as possible and take as many as possible with me. It’s a journey that is about a relationship with my God.

        Hope this helps,


        • Trey – you are right – I did do some reading between the lines. Based on my own history – getting to heaven and making sure others get there too involves conforming to a pretty strict credo of beliefs. I unfairly just assumed that of your statement. Thus, I made the assumption that the goal was focused on making sure as many of those people as possible accepted a strictly defined set of beliefs – while the dream seemed to be meeting needs out of an overflow of love based on relationship – with God and with other people. In my mind – those two ideas are incompatible. However, YOU did not define the first part that way – I made that assumption without enough information. I apologize for putting words in your mouth.

        • Renae … no problem at all. I know that’s a common thing to think. I’d like to think I’m trying hard to change/fight against that belief of exclusiveness. I never want to be one of those, “my way or the highway,” type people.


  • No, you’re not off your rocker. You’re seeing things correctly. Thing is: anything can become a cult if you allow it to become the monster list (included in your blog post). That’s what’s so refreshing about mixing things up a bit, so that you never rest in your VIEWS, which should be changing as rapidly as you’re growing, in my humble opinion.

    Great post!

    • I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. Anything can become a cult. Unfortunately, we’ve allowed religion to do exactlythat. Not all religion, but many groups have made themselves into a cult. Prime example…..paraphrased of course….

      “Thanks for volunteering to lead a Bible study. In the future, we’d prefer you choose reference materials written by someone in The Church for your Bible studies.”

      If we fear different thinking, see it as a threat to our way of believing, and exclude access to it for church members, then something is very wrong. VERY WRONG. I will probably never forget being told that I needed to watch what I chose to publicly discuss when there are new or weak Christians around. SERIOUSLY?????? When did thinking critically become a bad thing? When did challenging status quo and encouraging one another to stretch beyond our comfort zone become wrong? I acknowledge that there can be such a thing as TMI for newbies, but restricting access to spiritual insights because they don’t completely align with the ideals of a particular group is very dangerous in my opinion.

  • Lisa Gore:

    Ok just because I can’t help myself—this is one of conversations I enjoy as it helps us focus on the “spiritual”. If we are discussing being a better, more loving person in relation to whatever one believes we are moving in the right direction. If we are focusing on service and our own journey—yipee—but this conversation seems a little on the “plank in the eye” side. Who are we to judge someone else’s beliefs? Cult, maybe, dogma, maybe, but who are we to sit in judgement of others means to their own spirituality? I think others learn about a loving God by our actions not our words. (Sorry Trey—love your preaching but the service you do makes a much bigger impact on others) I have an aunt that is soooo ingrained in her church’s doctrine it is hard to listen to sometimes but there is no finer Christain example. She not only “talks the talk, she walks the walk.”
    I say good healthy questioning brings many of us closer to our own God but others come another way. Is it our place to decide what is the right or wrong way? Aren’t we lucky we were given intelligence to question and live in a country where we can?

    • Lisa … I agree…. service will always out do preaching. That’s why we need to be doing more of it.

    • I think it is very important to be able to step back and see things for what they are. Once we can do that and recognize what’s going on, it becomes much easier to “allow” others to see and experience things differently yet still love them. I think that’s the key….being aware, and then allowing the “cult” tendencies to slide in favor of service and love of others.

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