What makes a religion?
What makes a belief system a religion, and what makes it a sect? Sometimes the distinction is clear, and sometimes it is a grey area – even Buddhism has its groups with sect like tendencies. Most people cannot say what exactly makes a cult, but feel it is just something they know when they see it. Evaluating a group can be tricky, but there are some signs too look for that are distinctive traits of cults.
The Fundalmentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been in the news a lot recently after it was revealed to practice polygamy and pressure (if not actually force) teenage female members into marriage. They claim religious freedom, but the values of the free and democratic world disagree. The latest rulings say the removal of 400 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch was unlawful, and they should be returned. The case will probably drag on for a long time, challenging as it does our concepts of freedom of choice.
In another ‘cult’ case in London, a teenager was freed from charges stemming from his taking part in a protest where he held up a sign saying
Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult
The court found the placard to be neither ‘abusive or insulting’. Similar protesters in Edinburgh, Scotland were told by both court officials and the Police that they had ‘no issue’ with the word ‘cult’ used in peaceful protests.
Marks of a Cult
Many groups dwell in grey areas of cultish behaviour, including some Buddhist groups, due to restrictive policies and teachings. It is up to each individual to maintain their critical faculties and decide where the boundaries lie. Typically Buddhism maintains an approach of open investigation. Dhamma is to be investigated individually by the wise, and should not be pursued as a dogma.
The Marks of Cults below is only a rough guide, that highlights some of the characteristic signs of a cult, and each involves a judgment call:
All groups have expenses and programs to maintain, but cults (and semi-cults) make a determined effort to separate people from their money. In many cases they require members to actively engage in full time fund raising for the group. The raising and spending of money should be transparent, and be of benefit to the group as a whole, and not particular individuals.
It is a mark of calculated control when people are encouraged or required to sever communication with their families. Often a family will disagree with their children’s choices, but that should remain a personal relationship problem and never a characteristic of the religious group. Scientology is frequently accused in this regard. In other cases Cult members are encouraged to only associate with other members both in work and socially, keeping away from the ‘real’ world. Some Buddhist groups also discourage any contact with other mainstream forms of Buddhism.
While free sex groups are not necessarily cults, any reputable religious group will discourage promiscuity and never condone systematized policies of sexual favours. This is one aspect that occurs frequently, such as with the quasi-sect started by Charles Manson, or with the Latter Day Saints group above.
- Personality Driven
Meaning that there is a strong charismatic leader around whom the cult has developed. Not all charismatic religious leaders are cultists, but all cults do have strong charismatic leaders. In a few cases a charismatic Doctrine/dogma can replace the leader, especially in the instance of a cult based around a deceased guru.
Exclusive Dogma: “Only we know the truth”. “Everyone else is wrong” Often followed by “criticizing us is going against God” [or other authority]. Similarly anyone who leaves the cult has gone against God, or fallen into Evil ect… Individual thought and opinion is discouraged in favour of the group’s party line.