Cults: What defines a cult? Who wants to join?

TALK ABOUT WEIRD cults! I heard about this religious cult that worships a guy who’s been dead for almost 2,000 years. This guy claimed be be the son of God himself, and his followers say he was able to make the lame walk and the blind see, cast out demons, and work such neat tricks as feeding a huge crowd with a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread. Talk about portion control! They claim he even could even raise the dead!

In fact, his followers believe he was raised from the dead himself, and walked around for awhile so his friends could touch the mortal wounds inflicted by those who killed him. Remarkably, this guy has tens of millions of followers today. In bizarre rituals, these cult members gather to chant, recite prayers and to eat bread and drink wine that they believe has miraculously changed into the dead guy’s flesh and blood. There are many other strange practices and odd beliefs that go along with Catholicism — the largest sect of the Christian cult — but most of us are probably familiar with them.

The tragic suicide of the Heaven’s Gate members, and the senseless waste of 39 pairs of brand-new sneakers, has triggered this reflection on another of life’s ongoing mysteries: cults. How do we define a cult, and why do people join them?

What is a cult?

What’s the difference between a cult and a religion — except that the former can wipe out its entire membership with several vials of barbiturates and a few bottles of alcohol? Is the difference solely in the size of the groups’ memberships and their longevity? Each is a group of people who share a set of beliefs and rituals. Each group’s beliefs seem equally grounded in reality (or fantasy, depending on how you look at it) — although we don’t often think that way about established religions simply because their ideas have been around much longer and have become so ingrained in our culture. So, if cult members can stick around without killing themselves in order to hitch a ride on a UFO … or drink a batch of tainted Kool-Aid … or get themselves barbecued by Janet Reno and the FBI, and if they can get their membership roles up to respectable numbers, their cult just might make the cut to bona fide religion.

Don’t religions begin as cults?

Each group’s beliefs seem equally grounded in reality
(or fantasy, depending on how you look at it)

We label these small groups “cults” because their beliefs and practices are foreign to us — they don’t conform to those of established religions. But didn’t even these religions start as cults? Wasn’t Christianity considered by the established Hebrew religion and the Romans as a cult that grew around the charismatic figure of Jesus? It began as a cult of just 12 men — 13 if you count Jesus himself — and their ideas were considered heretical by the Jewish clergy of that time (they still are, I suppose).

Websters defines a cult as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” Well, regarded by whom? Aren’t Lutherans considered unorthodox by Catholics? Aren’t Reformed Jews considered unorthodox by Orthodox Jews?

Aren’t Mormons (a Christian faith) regarded as unorthodox by some other Christian faiths? So are they cults? Certainly, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) was founded by Joseph Smith in 1847, it was considered a cult; but now, with a membership of about 10 million and growing fast, it’s a respectable religion.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, another Christian sect, seems to be on the cusp of making the transition from cult to established religion. Likewise for Scientology, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard’s cult (it calls itself a religion) that, thanks to celebrity-member endorsements by Tom Cruise and John Travolta, is gaining respectability.

Heaven’s Gate.

Believing that one’s spirit transports to a UFO is, when you come down to it, no more fantastic than the belief that at death one’s spirit transports to a mysterious place called Heaven.

I have mixed feeling about the Heaven’s Gate members and their fate. On the one hand, I understand them: Like many of us, they were lost souls searching for meaning and purpose in their lives; seeking a power and a reality that supersedes the difficulties of life on this planet. (That’s what all religions promise, isn’t it?) And their belief that their spirits would be transported to a UFO trailing Comet Hale-Bopp is, when you come down to it, no more fantastic than the belief that at death one’s spirit transports to a mysterious place called Heaven. It’s just a ’90s update on the happily ever after-life theme.

In light of this misguided faith, their suicides are indeed tragic. On the other hand, their monumental stupidity for following this Marshall Applewhite character makes me angry. We all saw this guy on TV; with the shaved head and the wide bulging eyes, it’s obvious to the casual observer that this guy is friggin’ insane! And it’s a mystery to me why anyone — no matter how lost he or she is — would trust and follow such a comic-book madman. By the way, what were the quarters for? Was the transport device to the UFO coin-operated?

Trinity Broadcasting.

Trinity Broadcasting seems to have a cast of characters that is interchangeable with that of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation.

For anyone who doesn’t think Christianity is a cult, I dare you to sit through a few hours of programming from the Trinity Broadcasting Network — a fundamentalist organization whose 24-hour-a-day “ministry” is available on many cable systems and broadcast channels around the world. Trinity Broadcasting seems to have a cast of characters that is interchangeable with that of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation: men and women with very large, often bleached hair who rant almost unceasingly. And when they’re not ranting, they are all singing. It seems that to be a regular on this show you have to have an album of country-gospel music.

Running the show are Paul and Jan Crouch, she being a Tammy Faye Bakker clone, complete with makeup fresco (paint applied to wet plaster), and who you suspect glugs Jack Daniels backstage. One of the regular guests on the show is Benny Hinn — the Jon Lovitz of Christian ministries — who also has his own show. Hinn’s claim to fame in his sideshow-like appearances is faith healing, a hilarious display of chicanery and, since money is involved, outright fraud.

Hinn invites arthritics and sufferers of mysterious back ailments and such onto the stage where he invokes the name of Jesus and smacks the sufferers on the foreheads, knocking them backward into the waiting arms of a Hinn assistant.

Mainstream religion, eh? Nothing cult-like about that? Of course they are all continually and shamelessly begging for you to send them money, and selling such bogus merchandise as jewelry made from the rocks lying around Calvary. And to enforce the idea that you must send them money, they pull out the old “tithing” law, a Biblical edict that demands that you donate a portion of your income to God. You must send money!

God Himself demands it! Of course, they are the representatives of God, and so they’ll gladly take your cash, no questions asked, and let God know of your generosity. When I tuned in, they were trying to raise a few million for their new “Devil-Bustin’ Satellite.” If this is what Jesus envisioned for his followers, or a way to salvation … I think I’d rather cake myself in mud at a Burning Man gathering.

Cult … religion … whatever you want to call it — whether it follows Jesus or Ra or UFOs — is a set of beliefs that humans create to help them make sense of everyday life, justify its joys and sufferings, explain it mysteries, fill its loneliness, and create purpose and meaning. When it comes right down to it, there’s no difference at all between Catholics and Heaven’s Gaters and Mormons and Baptists and Buddhists and Scientologists and five people in Ogden, Utah who find meaning in channeling the spirit of Liberace. People believe what they need to believe.

What you have in your mind?