23 September 2007

Cults = Religions

From the New York Times the other day, 12 members of an underground Christian sect were executed in China on charges of murdering rival evangelists:
The leader of a Chinese Christian sect and at least 11 of his subordinates have been executed for ordering the murder of members of a rival religious group, as the authorities seek to suppress big underground churches that they deem cults.

. . .

Underground religious movements have become an enormously delicate issue for the Chinese leadership since the Falun Gong spiritual group organized a nationwide movement that Communist Party officials viewed as a threat to their hold on power in the late 1990s.

Since that time, the police have condemned some large underground churches, including many Christian churches, as cults. That makes it illegal for them to raise funds or recruit members, and it can mean arrest for anyone associated with them.
It's an ugly situation, both the interdenominational violence and China's silencing of political dissidents. But I have to admit, I like that China classifies Christianity as a "cult." Because that's what it is. That's what all religions are.

The Washington Post apparently has a weekly feature called On Faith. This week, they ask what the difference is between a religion and a cult. I distinctly remember facing this question in my 9th grade English class (and I was
planning to blog about it before the WaPo scooped me... damn them!). As I recall, the class never found a satisfactory answer. I certainly didn't have one at the time.

Willis Elliott, a Christian pastor, says many things with which I passionately disagree in his essay, but puts the answer to this specific question best when he says: "A religion is an old cult, and a cult is a new religion or an innovative deviation from an old religion."

Both believe wacky things. Both employ the same tactics to sustain and propagate those wacky beliefs.

The word "cult" (and Martin Marty of the University of Chicago adds "sect" as well) is primarily a perjorative, a quick and easy way to dismiss a religious group whose beliefs disagree with yours. It's an attempt to shore up the legitimacy of "religion" by disqualifying the "bad apples." The use of terms like "cult" and "sect" certainly doesn't belong in an unbiased academic setting (the same way academics wouldn't talk about certain cultures as "primitive"). And we need to start weeding them out of the public discourse as well; or, if we decide to keep both terms "cult" and "religion," we need to use them interchangeably.

Equating religions and cults can do only two things: increase respect for cults, or decrease reverence for religions. The latter is, of course, what we want. But I have to admit, I worry about the former. I stand by my opinion that the spirit of religious plurality is good for everybody but atheists. That's why I'm satisfied if the word "cult" keeps getting bandied about in common parlance. Let what's dismissed remain dismissed. Wacky beliefs are detrimental to society. We need to be rejecting them, not tolerating or embracing them.

(Interestingly, the New York Times has two separate news feeds for "Religion & Belief" and "Religious Cults." The news article on China above was listed in the latter.)

1 comment:

pauzhaan said...

Wacky beliefs are detrimental to society. We need to be rejecting them, not tolerating or embracing them.

That is a concept to be discussed! I agree, in principle, but how and who decides what "we" atheists tolerate or "embrace". (For me,it's hard to embrace much beyond non-theist Buddhism.)

But "tolerate" is a different story. I can tolerate Mormons more than I can tolerate Scientology. But that doesn't mean I'm likely to vote for a Mormon.

And of all the religious cults that I can tolerate, I wouldn't want my kids to marry one!