When Organized Religion Becomes a Cult

By Eliyahu Federman

The distinction between cult and religion lies squarely in how those leaving or those wanting to leave are treated

Diane Benscoter tells her harrowing story of leaving the “Moonie” cult. In highlighting the dangers of cults, Benscoter uses clear examples like David Koresh, Jonestown, suicide bombers, the Westboro Baptist Church, but often the line between conventional religion and cult is not so clearly defined.

Cults claim exclusivity, are highly secretive, and authoritarian. To many of my atheist friends, religion fits the bill. What distinguishes religion from cults is the ability to question without being shunned and ability to reject dogmatic tenets without being shunned.

Many religions make exclusive claims to truth. There is nothing wrong with that. Many systems of philosophy do the same. Kantianism’s categorical truths are, for example, incompatible with utilitarianisms balancing of harm and good.

The harm stems from a system that shuns and ostracizes adherents that don’t accept their exclusive claims to truth. That is where conventional religion becomes a potentially harmful cult. Forcing people to conform by using the subtle threat of social alienation is a form of coercion.

People leave religion because of the seemingly restrictive lifestyle, conflicts between science and literal biblical interpretation, ethnocentrism, sexism, dogma, intolerance or boredom. Those may all be legitimate reasons or just misapplication of religious principles but the bottom line is those are personal choices people make about whether to follow a particular religion.

Any religious community can become a cult. It’s not about how faith is expressed in a community but more importantly how people are treated if they want to leave and disbelieve.

While camping in northern Wisconsin I found an opportunity to talk with several teens of the Old Order Amish. The Old Order Amish are distinguished from more modern Amish because they strictly forbid automobile ownership, modern books and require strict traditional dress.

It was either the modern unknown world, or their family. If they chose not to return, their family would disown them. — Eliyahu Federman

I asked the older teens why they returned to their community after the Rumschpringe (which is a period where youth temporarily leave the community to experience the outside world). The answer surprised me.

I was expecting to hear that they returned for the longing of a simpler life, free from the rat race and materialistic pursuits of the modern world.

They almost unanimously expressed that they returned to Amish life because they had no other choice. It was either the modern unknown world, or their family. If they chose not to return, their family would disown them. Leaving their loved ones behind was not seen as an option. Sadly, that, in my opinion, is the definition of a cult.

The Amish lifestyle is beautiful, environmentally-friendly and family-focused. But shunning those who want to leave is a sinister form of coercing adherence.

The historical roots of three monotheistic religions, namely Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are founded on the story of Abraham, a man who was willing to question authority and refute the superstitions of worshiping material objects. This story is the foundation of monotheism and should serve as an example of how nonconformists should be embraced.

According to Biblical lore, through a process of logical deductions and observation of the universe around him Abraham began to question the validity of idolatry and recognize that because the universe is so complex it must have a designer. Abraham was unafraid to challenge the mores of his time and to question authority. This is the historical underpinning of monotheistic religions.

Religious communities and society as a whole should allow wider expression and diversity, allowing all to feel welcome and comfortable.

In order to prevent crossing the line from religion to cult, communities need to purge themselves of dogma, intolerance and ostracizing those with different beliefs, so their adherents have true choice on how to live their lives.

Ideas are not set in stone. When exposed to thoughtful people, they morph and adapt into their most potent form.

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