On America, Land of Cults

A Baltimore mother accused of joining a cult and starving her child says she was acting on her religious beliefs. … Continued

A Baltimore mother accused of joining a cult and starving her child says she was acting on her religious beliefs. What’s the difference between extreme religious conviction and delusion? Between a religion and a cult?

An American cult is what happens when radical individualism meets religion and philosophy.
A cult becomes cut off from the mainstream of traditional religion and the global community of faith. It begins to converse only with self. This dangerous isolation is an important topic, as American religious communities such as the Episcopal Church drift in this direction. Mainstream global Christians do not delight in this drift as they recognize the temptations of the cult all too well from their own temptations to isolation.

Extreme stories litter the paper every day that show the consequences of isolation. Cults begin to delight in their edgy behaviors and to call what the rest of the world calls “wrong” something good.

Why is America a particular breeding ground for cults? The root is in a misapplication of good American ideas.

Americans rightly rejoice in their heritage of legal and political equality, but the usefulness of an idea can have limits. Positive political ideas can be toxic when misapplied to other areas. Treating the ideas of individuals equally is excellent for society in the voting booth, but not so good in the laboratory or the parish.

Liberty is a very good thing, but so is excellence, and there is noteworthy tension between these two goods. American society mostly has done a good job allowing for moral excellence, virtue, while being cautious about imposing too much virtue on dissenters.

There is much to fear when culture gets the balance wrong. Liberty can always devolve into the merely libertine while excellence can become the tyranny of the experts. Humane society cannot survive either extreme for long.

Traditional Christianity asserts the importance of both liberty and excellence. Christianity asserts the essential freedom of human to choose his path. God Himself let Adam and Eve choose and face the consequences of that choice. Christianity also asserts that while human beings are created equally in the image of God, all human ideas are not equal. Some ideas are true and some are false.

No king, rich man, or mob can decide what is true, good, and beautiful.

A cult gets the proper tension wrong in two ways. First, in its relationship to the outside world it is radically autonomous, defying dialogue with the broader community in the name of what it claims to know. Second, internally it often demands a rigid suppression of thought and dissent in the name of community standards.

This is dangerous, because religion, like any field of knowledge, is powerful, complex, and fraught with peril for small communities. Cults have at least two characteristics that make them likely to go bad: they refuse to defend their beliefs using reason and they never or rarely change their minds based on external ideas.

All of us are tempted to talk only to a small group of like-minded folk, but, as recent revelations about left-of-center media lists reveal, such conversations become dull and predictable. Fringe members of the community begin to press the envelope and if the community is not careful then dangerous ideas can be “mainstreamed” in the small group.

Too little dissent can create a groupthink that slowly allows genuinely frightening ideas to gradually gain credence. The lazy tolerance for anti-Semitism that manifests itself in certain leftist web sites is one example of how otherwise sane groups can be hijacked by too much conformity.

Much of the “new” atheism presently suffers from the perils of this intellectual inbreeding. Of course, traditional Christians can give this warning, because they have bitter experience of these dangers.

There is another danger in talking about “cults” for more mainstream religious and non-religious people. We can misuse the term by applying it to any person with strong religious beliefs, especially if they are in the minority. If cults are in danger of close-mindedness, some Americans avoid this error by going to the opposite extreme. They associate any strongly held religious opinions with close-mindedness or cultic behavior.

This is a dangerous mistake that can cut off valuable conversations.

For example, while most reasonable Americans believe in God, it would wrong to say that all strong-minded atheists are in a secular cult. A few extreme secularists may fall into the “cult trap,” as the founders of the American Atheist organization did, but their failure is not because they have unpopular views or express them forcefully.

Cult members are very opinionated, but that does not mean every religiously opinionated person is part of a cult. Thinking you are right is normal, having disdain for everyone who disagrees with you is cult-like. My own strong religious views have benefited by being tested by reading scholars who disagree with me, ranging from Pope Benedict XVI to Michael Ruse. Both the Pope and Ruse hold their views strongly, but reasonably, and are not isolated from a global conversation.

Overuse of the term “cult” in the public square sometimes substitutes for actual arguments with thoughtful dissenting groups. As a traditional Christian I have serious theological disagreements with my friends in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), but it is wrong to label them a cult.* Any quick search will show LDS are willing to defend their views using arguments accessible to non-LDS. These arguments have changed under pressure from counter-arguments from non-LDS scholars and improved. I am not persuaded, to say the least, by these arguments, but LDS willingness to produce careful and responsive scholarship is a nearly infallible sign that they are no cult.

America has long operated with hazy, but generally Christian, moral consensus. America has typically tried to provide maximum liberty to those who dissent in a way that is consistent with social order. For example, the government would not allow polygamous marriages, but would tolerate some types of religious dissent from forced government schooling.

Hopefully, if this consensus changes over time, the tension between religious liberty and social order will be maintained and continue to tip ever so slightly in favor of dissenting views. Today’s cult, after all, might be tomorrow’s received wisdom. The humility to recognize that this is true is also an important part of a good and reasonable society.

*The word “cult” has popular, technical philosophic and theological uses. Some technical theological uses of the word “cult” might apply to LDS, but I am speaking of the use of the term in newspapers like the Washington Post.

John Mark Reynolds
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  • kert1

    Wow Mark, I think you said it all. Very good commentary on what a cult is.The things I look for when labeling a cult are a small group in power (often individuals), and the inability of individuals to make choices or leave.As a Christian I appalled by people that seem to need power, in religion or others. Certainly we need leaders who actually lead, but it can’t be the leaders who “elect” themselves. We need to stay away from these types and pray for good leaders who serve the people.It is governments jobs to force people to act in a basic socially responsible fasion, if they won’t on their own accord. But no religion can force people to follow it’s ways. By it’s definition, religion is a choice. We must allow people to choose to come and go whenever they please. True religion will flourish under these conditions. Certain religion must warn us of our actions and the consequences, but threats and violence against dissenters is never appropriate.I’m proud to live in a country that supports these values.

  • Paganplace

    Actually, Mr. Reynolds only seems to have ‘said it all’ in that he wants to define ‘cults’ as anything but what he represents, and imply, it seems, that ‘individualism’ is at the root of cults, as known by the media. In fact, cults are pretty much defined by authoritarianism, and refusal to question the leaders and premises, …to see different points of view. Isolationism and control are certainly hallmarks of ‘cults,’ but it certainly has little to do with whether or not someone calls it ‘mainstream’ religion or uses familiar terms:In fact, most dangerous cults pass themselves off *as* mainstream religion: in fact, in some, the only difference is the degree of control involved: Fundamentalist rhetoric …enforced through certain control where others simply treat the way of thinking as something to direct just at politics, for instance, seem to make quite effective ones. Meanwhile, people representing or claiming to represent ‘mainstream’ religion love to bandy about the term ‘cult,’ meaning, anyone they don’t like, …atheists, Pagans, tribals, whoever they please, even when they *use* lack of authoritarian structures to *claim* such beliefs are ‘cults.’ I think the words they mean to use are ‘heresy’ and ‘apostasy’ …not ‘cult.’ But the latter still carries fear for them, whereas the former refer to xenophobic episodes in ‘mainstream’ belief. Certainly, Pagans are often accused of being in a ‘cult,’ (or associated with imaginary ones, eg those ‘Satanic Panic’ hobgoblins who exist only in the minds of certain bipolar preachers) …disinformation used, in fact, to divide families when there’s no such structure involved at all. The word requires a bit more careful discernment, then that. Or, I think, we’ll continue to be bewildered when some kid dies in an ‘exorcism’ or withholding of medical treatment or even some group suicide. Frankly, the difference becomes clearer when you *are* of an ‘alternative religion,’ ….outfits like the ‘Boston Church Of Christ’ or the Name-your-town-here branches so often operate under the radar *because* they don’t *say* anything differently from so many others. Not for a long while, anyway.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Paganplace,I certainly agree that “authoritarianism” is a hallmark of cults and don’t particularly disagree with what you said.I would apply these criteria to Christian groups and do in the article. My own Church certainly has never taught me NOT to question leadership, encourages it in fact. If I disagreed with basic ideas in my Church I would leave and they would not use physical coercion to keep me or do anything other than having loving and thoughtful debates with me.I know not all groups calling themselves Christian behave in that way, but as I pointed out not all groups calling themselves atheist or Pagan do either.It is wrong when all Pagans are confused with Satanists or when all Christians or religious in general are called anti-intellectual. I certainly do NOT think all atheists or secularists are extremists (what I call extreme secularists). I am really not sure what we are disagreeing about. Yes?John Mark

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Paganplace,I should add that my article directly attacks the notion of calling things you don’t like a “cult.” If it was not clear let me repeat it this way:I am not (now) a Pagan and don’t agree with many of their ideas ( of course ideas are diverse between Pagan groups) but some Pagan groups are certainly not cults in the sense of the term we are using in this discussion. Being wrong does not make you a cult, but neither does having strong views and thinking you are right! John Mark

  • wiccan

    “All of us are tempted to talk only to a small group of like-minded folk, but, as recent revelations about left-of-center media lists reveal, such conversations become dull and predictable.” Like Rush and his Ditto-heads?”The lazy tolerance for anti-Semitism that manifests itself in certain leftist web sites is one example of how otherwise sane groups can be hijacked by too much conformity.”Silly me, here I thought that those “right-of-center” placed a high premium on conformity, too. Care to be more specific in your accusations, sir, such as the names of these “left-of-center media lists” and these anti-semitic “leftist web sites”? Or is the fact that they are “leftist” in your eyes enough alone to damn them?(Please remember that to be critical of the actions by the State of Israel is not enough to automatically be anti-semetic.)

  • johnmarkreynolds

    I meant the following:Second, internally it often demands a rigid suppression of thought and dissent in the name of community standards.to be an attack on bad authoritarian structures.Wasn’t that clear?

  • ender2

    I find it hard to believe that this right wing fundamentalist xtian is Prof. of Philosophy at any college or University. Is Biola the college of choice for homeschooled ReichWingers?

  • Athena4

    My working definition of a cult is a group that you don’t like, and I say that somewhat facetiously, but at the same time, in fact, that is my working definition of a cult. It is a group that somebody doesn’t like. It is a derogatory term, and I have never seen it redeemed from the derogatory connotations that it picked up in the sociological literature in the 1930s.” J. Gordon MeltonWe tend to think of America as a “breeding ground for cults”, but cults have been around for as long as humans realized that they can control others through religion. Christian Europe in the Middle Ages certainly had their share of small fringe groups dominated by a charismatic leader. The Huguenots, Albegesians, Templars, Hospitallers, Arians, etc. were all outside of the mainstream of Christianity in their time. I’m sure that Martin Luther and John Calvin were considered to be cult leaders in their time.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Athena4 makes an excellent point. I probably will not be able to respond much this weekend, if at all.I hope we can all agree that left or right, Christian or not, that group think is dangerous, and good critical thinking skills essential in religion just as much as in any other discipline.

  • Paganplace

    “I am not (now) a Pagan and don’t agree with many of their ideas ( of course ideas are diverse between Pagan groups) but some Pagan groups are certainly not cults in the sense of the term we are using in this discussion.”You imply that Pagans who are not ‘cultists’ are some kind of ‘exception’ to …what? I say, interesting time to start capitalizing. Name *one* ‘Pagan group’ that is a ‘cult.’ “Being wrong does not make you a cult, but neither does having strong views and thinking you are right!John Mark “And you decry ‘moral relativism.’ 🙂 Mr. Reynolds. Actually, I don’t find your views ‘strong.’ I find them aggressive and ill-informed.There is a big difference. But not one which has a great deal to do with the subject at hand. I’m not sure you are reading that. You’ve also misattributed something ‘Wiccan’ quoted as something Wiccan *said.*

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Paganplace,I started writing “Pagan” instead of “pagan,” because you thought it proper in a previous thread (perhaps I misunderstood you?) and try to do what folk like in regards to their religion. When I was a neo-Platonist non-Christian this was not what I would have done, but wanted to respect your beliefs and preferences.I meant to say something positive: Pagans (like other groups including Christians) can be cult members, but not all all Pagans are. Please don’t read anything else into it.I am aggressive with my views (and mean to go on being so as it stimulates the dialog that this fan of Socrates craves), but continue to press to be better informed. Folk on these comment threads can continue to increase my knowledge with my gratitude. As the weekend writing “heats up” please do not take my silence as disrespect for later views. John Mark

  • Paganplace

    Btw, I’ll also note that when ‘conservative bullies’ start saying ‘Whether you’re ‘Left or Right,’ well, it’s pretty indicative of where certain pedals are turning. Seems it wasn’t too long ago you were claiming to represent the ‘mainstream’ with certain things most particularly about my sexual orientation, which a less-discerning mother might have confused with you saying represented an eternal fate of torture worse than death. Now where could someone get a notion that failing to say ‘amen’ was a good reasone to watch her child die of thirst and starvation? What *could* someone have taught her?

  • Paganplace

    I mean, if we can put this in perspective, I was a teen punker geting kids out of cults, learning how to go about it the hard way, and the Pagan columnist here was getting published with a seminal work… Ten years before the people who gave you those credentials even existed. You wanna know what’s a Pagan. Ask.

  • Paganplace

    I mean, speaking of convenient fantasies… very easy to think you can redefine an entire continent’s worth of culture and heritage to avoid the fact that if this tale is true, the woman who did this horror did it under ‘strong’ Christian auspices and for ‘strong’ Christian reasons. Insane, yes. But you yourself aren’t someone I consider very sensible, yourself, sir. That’s why you say there’s something about ‘The Left’ involved. Maybe you need to believe that, and not pay too much mind to the details and overriding ideologies that say there’s something in this universe that means contraception is ‘murder’ but driving mommas insane for fear of Hell is ‘duty.’Dig? Don’t think that’s what your own savior had in mind. Could be there’s folks out here who make better friends than scapegoats.

  • mono1

    western civilization is dieing because 2 delusions.delusion 1,delusion 2,the above 2 delusions are not limited to the western hemispher.religion is decided by the creator god of this universe not by the* mainstream *or the mass delusion of the society,any drift is a human cult.delusion or cult 1 led people to lock themselves at the parish of human thought and reason where it took them no where!delusion 2 led people to lock themselves at the parish of the *savior* where they still digging in the relics that took them no where!in god they trust but liberalism and laissez faire laissez passe is the way the truth and life ????????

  • PlutarchFan

    Paganplace,FYI: According to Wikipedia, Biola is 101 yrs old, not 25.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    I am sorry not to have time to respond further, but I should add that my grad work was at the University of Rochester (founded 1850) a private non-sectarian university.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    I was able to get back on line briefly (work break). Someone asked off-thread if I thought the word “cult” was even useful. I think it is in professional theological or philosophical work where it is not just an insult.In popular use, it is not so useful if we are not careful to define what we mean. If it is just another way to say “I don’t like their ideas,” then it is not useful. We already have words for that.

  • Gaby1

    Dear Professor Reynolds,As usual, I completely disagree with you. First, a cult or sect is nothing more than an offshoot of an original philosophy (i.e. religion).Staying in the Abrahamic religions for now, both Christianity and Islam, are nothing but a sect or cult of Judaism.In America, there is no original church or religion, never has been and never will be, unless you count the ancient believes of Native Americans.Therefore, you are promoting a cult or sect citing your very own believe.The Catholics are an offshoot of Judaism, the Protestants are an offshoot of Catholicism, the various Lutheran/Protestant sects, the Episcopalians, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, are nothing but cults/sects.Each of those denominations will propagate more cults/sects as time passes.But don’t worry, there will always be plenty of fishies and sheeples to buy into any cult/sect that is in vogue any given century.At least Pagaplace and the rest of the druistic cults have plenty of compassion for the earth and their fellow humankind.Sorry to be so blunt, must be the German in me.

  • INGOODFAITH

    G A B Y 1 & Friends:Oye Vay!

  • Gaby1

    JJ,Oh weh, to you to! Have you noticed you can no longer post the word E*lat?

  • edbyronadams

    “This dangerous isolation is an important topic, as American religious communities such as the Episcopal Church drift in this direction.”Episcopalians becoming cultlike, who woudda thunk it?

  • Paganplace

    “Paganplace,FYI: According to Wikipedia, Biola is 101 yrs old, not 25.Posted by: PlutarchFan”Well, that’s the figure I took off their own website. Wikipedia is …wikipedia.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Break in my writing day . . . Paganplace: the “25 years” logo refers to the School of Intercultural Studies. It became a school 25 years ago . . . Biola is 101 years old.

  • INGOODFAITH

    Dear GABY1 & Co.; Talking about CENSORing [this & Postglobal] Blogg’s posts?YESZZZZZZ. Is it WAPO? doing or yours Baby1 thats been descriminates against “EC{LAT”-i}ON’s. Acsually “IT”s spelled “EKLAHT”ARIANS. We’r dealing with inferior Humans )not evolved yet into HUEMATES, like [i] WE; US?Note: One cannot even mention? or use ‘Selected”? Biblical Character Names of certain CULT’ures & their SECT’ions like , from the biblical “SHEMITE” of EBER’s, named by “IT”, God; NOT-BY-WAPO & friends} Example: see words;”JO{K}TA{N}” & or “PEL}E{G” [Both Brothers from where EBERU HEBREWS originally originate] are Equal in inhertitance in the eyes of the CREATOR..YAWH..].See words: “SH{i}LO}{H” [Means PEACE or prince of?]. See words like: “H{}U}MATE” [means Evolved & “NATURALLY SELECTED” & No more as if “god(s) Chosen People” Story’s.] or words like; SHO{L}{O{}{M}” [means PEACE, Quiet].See compound words like: “HEL{LO} {W}{ORL}{D””INTERNATION YEAR Of {A}{STR}{ON}{OMY} 2009{dot}COM” or .ORG.Please REMOVE the {curly brackets} in WAPO’s editor/Processor and link them & press “Submit” & see how Ye will be nicely DENIED apolagetically.How can thety invade the intellectual gifts of such prophetic & blesseth ‘Beautifull Minds/Thinker’s?i [WE] say that WAPO & Co., hath serious “Religious Jealous Psychosis”! The Primary curse of the Teriary’s, lurks in front of them, not behind them, that plagues/afflicts them & their family.Forgiveth them for they know NOT What They DO’eth?

  • Paganplace

    “Break in my writing day . . . Paganplace: the “25 years” logo refers to the School of Intercultural Studies. It became a school 25 years ago . . . Biola is 101 years old.”Fair enough, …maybe it won’t take twenty five more years of intercultural study to figure that it does you little good to claim your misunderstandings of another culture are ‘logically justifiable’ and thus ‘right.’ Seriously, sir, the whole point of *that* canard was to deflect from the fact that youseem to think your credentials allow you to claim making wild accusations about ‘Pagans’ is our fault for pointing out that modern Pagans are a real religion with a proper name. Certainly, people have been playing that kind of sophistry to various agendas for far more than a mere century, and they’re still kind of bewildered when it comes to a) People freaking out while being extremist Christians, and b) People who aren’t, not fitting the labels you teach in your Fundie school.

  • Athena4

    Speaking of cults… someone woke up JJ…

  • johnmarkreynolds

    We should also never make the mistake of thinking that commentators reflect the opinion of the general reader. Just as with talk radio, commentators are a particular group of people (a very small one).That is not to say that this shows the commentators are wrong or weird, just that most readers think x based on the comments here is a pretty bad argument.

  • spencer1

    JMR mentions free will as something that god permits. But there is in fact no possible way to identify an organism that exhibits free will, and no such unambiguous possession of free will has ever been observed. In making this comment I certainly have a warm and fuzzy feeling that I am exercising free will, but that is very far from proof.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Spencer1 makes a good point. Christians do believe in free will (for God it is absolute, for humans more or less qualified but it at least DID exist in an important way) and many (not all) non-theists disbelieve in it.This is an involved philosophical topic having nothing to do with our preferences. My favorite intro (was my personal introduction) to the topic was Watson’s “Free Will” Oxford UP . . . I think it quite reasonable to believe in free will, but your mileage may vary. Those interested in God and free will might start with a book by a prof of mine at University of Rochester Edward Wierenga “The Nature of God.” (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion)Another book to introduce people to reasonable faith at an undergrad level is the Oxford UP textbook “Reason and Religious Belief.” (HT to an undergrad prof there!)

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    I don’t get this essay. It is just “make it up as you go.”It is just too insensible to argue with.In this man, there is, I have obswerved many times before, an unconscious, unaware intolerance and hypcrisy, which can often be very off-putting.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Daniel,I argue that:1. we should not isolate ourselves from broader communitiesI also assert that Christians agree (traditionally) with 1 and 2 as do other people of good will.Finally, I claim that all groups (including traditional Christians) are tempted by 1 and 2, but should not be.For the moment forget the essay, just stick to this: we don’t really disagree about this right? We have common ground on this, right?

  • spencer1

    How is it possible to even begin to follow an argument that contains absolute nonsense like “God Himself let Adam and Eve choose and face the consequences of that choice.”

  • Gaby1

    Athena:He’s been around all along, just a lot more subtle than previously. Now were are back to the Old JJ! Warning…..Blessed be!

  • Gaby1

    Paganplace:Why argue with those who will never accept your arguement?Mr. Reynolds claims that he knows something of which he has not the faintest idea and you are giving him fodder to pursue that claim.I think I understand your anger, but to be honest in his forum you don’t stand a chance. He will never accept that your beliefs are as valid as his. Remember, he’s been there done that and now he is “saved”.

  • Paganplace

    Actually, Mr. Reynolds, I sort of have the advantage of you in that I have quite a number of years of education in many flavors of the *Christian* point of view on ‘The Problem of Free Will.’ Actually, the opening of your article here seems to demonstrate exactly why I *do* think ‘The Problem of Free Will’ leads to a lot of cult-like teachings that mean it’s not a big way to go for certain Christian, authoritarian cults, from what you yourself say about ‘The dangers of individualism’ (which you blame for these cults, rather than the far more obvious *authoritarianism,* …scorn of ‘disbelief’ as ‘not subordinating free will to a God lest we be punished and blamed for it’ ‘Spirits of rebellion’ they did and do call it. Certainly, I’d agree that we can exercise our wills to the good, even without threats and duress. But the dynamics I describe are powerful. Even when you try to demonstrate how ‘free will’ works, you describe it in terms of ‘choosing’ between things which you presume are inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’ …by what standard? There’s still a presumption of a ‘judgement’ there. Like you’re ‘supposed’ to do one thing under all circumstances or not. Are, ‘Xboxes’ bad? Don’t know much about them, Obviously I’m conscious that people find them big-time-wasters, but I occasionally find a book the same.Sometimes I’ll play a game if I can get one running on the ol’ PC, cause I feel to need a bit more of that sort of stimulation, but I guess I don’t find them to be ‘temptations,’ never mind ‘sinful ones.’ …Maybe arguing with trolls can be the same way, I dunno. :)Not what I’m talking about, though. Actually, I think the Christian ‘Problem of Free Will’ has everything to do with trying to negotiate obedience to *authority,* ..frankly, selling ‘temptation’ as such a big threat that people feel to always be either going to extremes or not. Contextualizing everything in terms of ‘God’s Will’ …to the point that they’ll end up calling distributing condoms tantamount to ‘murdering babies.’ And what does that make actually murdering babies, compared to ‘Obedience?’ That’s where the problems start. Doesn’t take anything as shocking as this tragic tale in question to see the dynamic operative.

  • Paganplace

    You know, just as I hit enter, I recalled a supposedly-Chinese joke… There were some workers under a particularly-autocratic Emperor’s regime, sitting around their fire, and one spoke to another, and it went like this:Worker A: “What’s the penalty for rebellion?”Worker B: “Death by torture.”A: “And what’s the penalty for lateness?”B: “Death by torture.”A: “Well, I hate to tell you this, gentlemen, but we’re late.”

  • Paganplace

    “Finally, (and for me at least this thread has come to a useful end!)”So, Mr. Reynolds, it was a ‘useful end’ to the discussion which transpired below to simply claim ‘I dismiss this with talk about my Xbox and it proves my kind of nonfunctional assertions who’s a ‘cult’ and who ‘doesn’t understand?’ Or presume I haven’t read CS Lewis? Well, have a Pepsi for me (or don’t) or something. 🙂

  • Paganplace

    “But Christians should keep the real end in mind during this Holy Week (for Western Christians) as Christians remember that God Himself was willing to experience the results our wrong choices and to feel our pain.”You realize, of course, that this is just another kind of duress? Another thing that says, from young ages, and even smaller ‘sins’ “This is because of you and yer damnable willfulness?” That’s another thing which is meant to shut down thought and awareness, …making, on some levels, the smallest disobedience hard to contemplate. Christians wield it like a weapon, “If we can’t scare you for yourself, believe this innocent man-God was tortured to death cause of *you.* And your ‘Free Will.’You deny it, but you can’t even speak *without* referring to it. This is a lot of how these nasty cults get started, not in ‘rebellion’ against Christianity, but because Christianity itself, too often *primes people to think that way.* Frankly, it’s not ‘immorality and individualism and materialism’ that make people want to do, and be able to do, these things to each other. It’s too much. Loaded *so* heavily on them that under stress, the ‘morality’ …even eventually, the *trappings* of that humanity, outweigh the humanity. Outweigh the heart, the spirit, the goodness, and most especially the ability to exercise, then even the *ability to remember* the ability to say “No.”Even when it comes to violating bounds even the churches acknowledge. Mass-media Christians, and even mainstream churches set a whole lot of these dominoes in place, and then charlatans and very troubled victims.. don’t feel they can control what’s happening. “Our end is Love.” Then mind the means, sir.

  • justillthen

    Continued:You further take shots at the “left of center” media and leftist web sites, as well as atheism, as if these are the dangerous ideals that create and support cultism. It seems to me that the media is mostly hyjacked by the right, Mr. Reynolds, not the left, and it was the talking heads of the right that were priceless in spreading to mainstream America the selling of the Iraqi War debacle, for one example of many. This is hypnotism by repetition and bullhorn, where the term “liberal”, (Jesus’ clear preference, if you ask me), becomes a slur attack. Anti semitism is practiced most regularly by right of center individuals and groups, not left of center. Hitler was not a pussywillow idealist. He no doubt was some form of idealist or he would not have dreamed of a purified world for his Aryan Brotherhood. God, if there was one, clearly made perfection when He created the German Male… Hitler, as well as the KKK and Aryan Nation and others, are right wing philosophies. Why do you use “certain leftist web sites” as your example of anti-semitism and how “otherwise sane groups can be hijacked by too much conformity”?I appreciate that, though you take a shot at atheism, you also note that traditional christianity has experienced challenges in forced intellectual conformity.I also appreciate your concept, recently stated, that the fundamental stance of a Christian should be loving kindness and forgiveness. I am aware that may not be your exact words, but I agree with the concept. Outside of your Mom and Dad, I have been disheartened at how little those foundational principles are adhered to in the daily lives of those I know, (and love!), that are fundamentalists. Inside their own circles of believers they are usually extremely kind and good people, caring and compassionate. But to others of differing beliefs all to frequently they hold forth the mask of compassion and kindness while under the mask it is all too clear they are judgemental and elitist. Not to make too broad a generalization, of course! :-)I do not believe that God created a single way of Truth, or to get to Truth. It is my belief that there are as many valid ways to perceive God as there are perceiving eyes. We are all unique, and our relationship to the Creator is likewise unique. Individual liberty and excellence do go together very well, especially in those that recognize their connection to the Creator and their own creative self, and exercise their free will in the expression of that relationship. Whatever it may be. That can mark greatness.As greatness is marked by those that accept the individual and his unique expression of that gift, though they may be, and see, the Divine in a completely different way than we do.

  • justillthen

    Hello Mr. Reynolds,I recognize that I come in late to these debates. Oh well… I have come back through this thread often this week reading and re-reading your essay and the comments posted. I have until now been a bit at a loss as to how to make a comment. Your essay left me a bit hazy. True for the most part I could say, but then I was not sure. I was not clear, I suppose, what was your real point. I think this result is in your tendency to make jabs and insults at what you consider spiritually and societally ill without making your position clear consistently or plainly.An example is your marrying of ‘cultish’ behavior of isolation and self-immersion with events in the Episcopal Church for instance. They are hardly cultish or isolated, but are having a hot in-parish debate over homosexuality, one of your favorite ‘evils’ to rail against. Another example is contained in these statements of yours:”Positive political ideas can be toxic when misapplied to other areas. Treating the ideas of individuals equally is excellent for society in the voting booth, but not so good in the laboratory or the parish.”Give virtue to voters but don’t give much virtue to dissenters, if they are in the pews? How is that much different than one of your fundamental conditions to define a cult? You state a few paragraphs later “Second, internally it often demands a rigid suppression of thought and dissent in the name of community standards.”Is it not generally true that most of the mainstream religions that make up the American religious spectrum believe in their own religious standards, and do not take well to criticism of them or dissention from them? Your definition of cult easily applies to conventional religion, no?You are right that America has been a fertile ground for the creation and cultivation of various religions, new and old, those we would call ‘valid’ and those we might give little credence to. Freedom of religion, in law and generally in practice, (if one is of a christian persuasion in particular!), supports the environment that is fertile for religion to prosper, and cults as well.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    John Mark ReynoldsI have some hard feelings against you based on a number of your remarks during the Presidential Election campaign. While I did have some sympathy for your point of view, I have grown gradually do dislike you more than a little, I often wish that you would just stick to your own kind, and go away.I am not willing to acknowledge common ground with you, as long as you persist in the continued insults to people who believe differently than you. I am able to see that this persistence in casually insulting people seems to be unconscious, and just a part of the way you are, rather than the conscious excercise of your “free will.” Nevertheless, it is an extremely irriating trait that you have.I am largely in agreement with Justtillthen in his criticisms of you. I no longer make specific criticisms of your essays, because there is just too much to criticize, and it is not worht my time, and I do not expect you to change.

  • spencer1

    Consider a system, electro-mechanical or human. Without being able to look inside the system and fully understand how it works, we ask if it has free-will. We observe its response to various inputs over a certain time period. It seems obvious that there is no way to decide whether the system has, on the one hand, free-will, or on the other hand is simply executing a more or less complex decision algorithm. And the conclusion is that to ask whether free-will exists is an unanswerable and thus meaningless question. To be more specific, is it possible for me to play chess against an invisible opponent and tell for sure whether the opponent is a human with free-will or a computer?

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    John Mark ReynoldsEven your brief comment to me is so obtuse as to be pretty much incomprehensible. Therefore, how can I agree with you since I don’t even get your simplest remarks?You do not make much effort to communicate with people who believe differently than yourself. You would be better off to stick with your own kind, and talk just to them, so that your casual, unconscious insults are less likely to do much harm.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Daniel, Let’s establish some common ground. I believe that people should not cut themselves off from listening to people who disagree with them. We should make an effort to understand people who disagree with us and we should avoid hasty labeling as a “cult” groups of people who disagree with us.I said cults tended to avoid talking to people who disagree with them. They make little or no effort to understand people who disagree with them.This problem exists on both the left and the right of the religious world. It exists in non-religious people. Don’t we agree that this is bad? I hope this is expressed in a more comprehensible manner. Thanks for reading and commenting!John Mark

  • Paganplace

    Well, Mr. Reynolds: I think we can agree that it’s good to see other people’s point of view: but especially as regards ‘cults’ in Abrahamic monotheism, ‘Free Will’ is a *problem.* Kind of a ‘patch’ on some contradictory assertions to preserve the idea that people must obey, but must be able to be ‘justly’ punished, for being ‘created’ in such a manner as to ‘sin’ by an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being… The notion basically ends up boiling down to, in practice, “Free Will exists, but it’s a bad thing, obey these laws or you and maybe your loved ones will suffer terribly.” There’s a real element of *duress* there, and this is the kind of thing that can lead to people starving their children to death or doing otherwise, to ‘save’ them or themselves from the ‘sins’ of not praying the right way, or, if they think their kids might be gay, or just ‘have the divil in them’ or whatever.’Free Will’ just becomes a way to claim it’s OK to assign *blame* when the system breaks down or shows an ugly part. It also tends to blind people to the fact that we *can* be conditioned, *can* be cowed, *can* be coerced. As I often say, we’re just animals who can choose our own conditioning, in some ways. And apply some reason to that process. Best to make it good. It’s not that human instinct is ‘base’ or ‘evil,’ …in fact, some of these horrors are too common *because some may condition themselves and others to be on the edge of reactions that are instincts, yes, but ones that come out in *extremes.* Teaching that one minority or another is a threat to your children, or to ‘children’ in general, for instance, often causes people to physically-react with *blind rage…* The instinct isn’t ‘proof of evil human nature,’ but in fact, someone having *appropriated* an instinct that was evolved for what we’d now call *extreme situations.* Cult-like behavior isn’t a far cry from some more ‘mainstream’ religions, and much *of* that is in fact that claiming free will is *to be shunned and suppressed as a cause of disobedience.* We can choose to reject such demands though. Before it gets that far, hopefully. Free will is a quality to be honored and cultivated, not used as a liability clause. Nor a means to deny that we have to be mindful of what we choose to believe. Free will isn’t a ‘problem’ in my theology, as some make it out to be… Frankly you don’t have to take many philosophy classes to see that most of the classic arguments about it aren’t any different from certain theologies: they can’t resolve the ‘issue’ because of attachment to certain ‘given’ assertions that simply aren’t consistent with each other, never mind in touch with human experience or what we can know about ourselves.

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Paganplace,I don’t think you have correctly understood the notion or role of free will in Christian theology. You might start with some of the books I mentioned . . . Briefly, free will is a gift from God. Humans do abuse it and that is bad, but it is also used by humanity to do great good and create (as J.R.R. Tolkien points out!) great “sub-creations.” To think that “free will” is bad or a patch in the Jewish and Christian traditions is wrong . . . since of course you can have great freedom without HAVING to choose evil. I can today choose either Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi as my drink. I can do so freely. I can also choose to finish a book or play Brawl on the Wii. These are all choices and are good. Of course they are trivial, but I could also choose to do some greater goods (like feeding the poor). Some choices hurt other people or hurt self. These choices God warns about as “bad.” It is pretty hard to deny that some choices we make are hurtful or harmful to others . . . even choices that seem good to us or to society in the short term. The “punishment” is in the deed and in what it does to our souls. God warns us about this, but allows even this choice since He desires free children. Free will is NOT just an explanation of evil, but a mandate for creativity and joy. It certainly has been that in my own life and religious practice. I enjoy the choices . . . and in all God’s universe very few of those choices are “wrong” compared to the zillions of good things I can choose to do or the gajillions (another technical term!) of creative possibilities. For more on this I recommend “Surprised by Joy” by C.S. Lewis or Tolkien in general. John Mark

  • johnmarkreynolds

    Finally, (and for me at least this thread has come to a useful end!) Christians are taught by our Lord Himself to “love our enemies” and “pray for those” who are cruel to us. This is of course hard to do. It does not prevent giving justice . . . but it does balance the teaching about the wickedness that is out there. Even when we think a person or group wicked, we know that they too are souls created in the image of God. God will judge them (and us) and so are essential posture must be love and forgiveness.When I have met those Christians who do this well (like my Mom and Dad!), it does not prevent them from taking strong stands or debating ideas hard and with vigor. We don’t have to like every idea and can oppose them . . . however, the Christian posture must be fundamentally loving. Do Christians fail at this? All the time and non-Christian culture rightly calls us on it. No harm in that kind of accountability!But Christians should keep them end in mind during this Holy Week (for Western Christians) as Christians remember that God Himself was willing to experience the results our wrong choices and to feel our pain.John Mark

  • alltheroadrunnin

    Reynold’s definition of cults perfectly describes the activists of both USA political parties, nowadays — doesn’t it?

  • justillthen

    Hello Danielinthelionsden,Although I can easily understand your aversion to aspects of Mr. Reynolds stance, you may not be doing yourself much of a service by refusing to acknowledge common ground. Unless of course you do not believe in listening to those of different views, which seems apparent by your response. Finding commonality is one of the early steps to resolving differences, if resolution is sought. I would not assume that Mr. Reynolds is looking for resolution of specific differences of opinion on religious matters, nor is he looking to alter his beliefs. You may not either, I do not know. But this debate is not about essential change of fundamental differences but a broader conversation of what may be healthy or otherwise in religious belief and ‘cult’ behaviour. It is easy to agree with Mr. Reynolds that being willing to listen to different opinions is valuable. Your unwillingness to concur only aids in the maintenance of differences and oppositions, it seems to me. At least it keeps you at odds with him, even if there is common ground to be had.

  • justillthen

    Hello Paganplace, Your dialogue with Mr. Reynolds regarding free will, it seems that we would have to include into it definitions of morality and conditioning. Free will seems, at least, self evident. There are those that say it is not and that we are essentially just conditioned beings and we follow that programming. There seems much validity there, as more often than not decision making occurs without much inner debate or dialogue. We follow our patterning and programming. But the ability to choose seems apparent. I would guess that is true for most if not all animals, not just humans, but becomes more obvious in humans and ‘higher’ species. Morality is of course a mutable thing. There are those that suggest a True Morality, lets say, and I am sure that Mr. Reynolds would be one of them. I am not against the thought either, on some level, though my version would be different in some ways than his. And the same as his in some ways… But still morality, like beauty, is in the eye of the (be)holder. There is no indisputable source of Truth. I imagine you agree. That said, there then is no indisputable version of Morality. What we are left with is consensus. What does the majority find as appropriate moral values. These often get signed into law.

  • artistkvip1

    hi i read your article and i agree with some assertions and find others nonconvinceing. . i think in general people should be able to decide what they themselves truely believe, other wise how could you call what they have faith or belief. i wonder under your criteria whether the quakers would be considered a cult? whether Abraham, because he was willing to kill his child if god ask him to would be the head of a cult? i wonder about monks and others who go on extended retreats to meditate and seek spirituality should be considered cult members. i also wonder why the neo cons and the religious Christian right who actually managed to condone a war started on lies and torture of human beings, while praying i guess earnestly with each other in the white house but doing thier deeds in secret would not be considered a cult. if i were to guess there are good human beings and tragically warped ones on both mainstream religions and cults. i do agree when the group seeks break the criminal laws as decided by the particular group and to arm themselves to fight the rest of the world instead of merely stating thier beliefs openly and going about thier business as human beings or relocating to a place that is like minded, they have crossed a line in civilization which need to be addressed. If they want to do things which harm no one but seem strange to me that would seem to be thier right. i think people even have the right to be wrong if it does not effect anyone else, of coarse the apparent starving of a child did harm someone else and did violate criminal laws so it would seem you are debateing the wrong facts or have the wrong motives if you would like to actually help solve this kind of problem. perhaps this looks like a handy wedge to make yourself look superior and… isolate you from humanity without realizing your true actions while dressed up in such…pretty clothes