Sunday, March 19, 2006

Cults vs. cult-like behavior

When I was a kid, every now and then I would hear someone call Mormonism a "cult". This always struck me as some sort of absurd and ignorant insult used by members of older religions to justify their superiority over newer religions.

I've been an exmormon for sixteen years, and the other exmormons still haven't really convinced me that the term "cult" is much more than a rationalization for why believing in one fairy tale is good while believing in another is bad.

Now I'm not ignorant of the dangers of blind, unquestioning, overzealous obedience to authority. I'm just not convinced that the danger is something unique to organizations that fit a particular list of list of cult criteria.

I recently read the book Subway by Haruki Murakami, which is a collection of interviews with people involved in the incident in which members of the Aum Shinrikyo released deadly nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. If anyone is the perfect example of the dangers of a cult, it would be these guys.

The thing I found most striking though was the difference between the voices of the cultists and the voices of the victims. The victims had suffered a terrible tragedy, but they were ordinary people that anyone could relate to, whereas the members of Aum Shinrikyo had something fundamentally odd about them, and seemed like if they hadn't taken up with this group, they would have found some sort of organization to fanatically cling to.

Now obviously it would have been better if they had found some other organization that was not quite so dangerous. If the definition of "cult" is that there is a real danger that the organization will convince its members to kill themselves and others, then I can see the reasoning for supressing cults.

Yet if that is the definition, it would make sense to place Mormonism outside of the scope of the term. I've lived in the Mormon mindset, and I know that it exacts a high degree of obedience to a living man (the president of the church). But knowing the character of the organization and its members, I don't think it is rational or realistic to suggest that there is any serious danger of the leaders ordering a mass murder/suicide and/or the members carrying it out.

Now you may suggest that even when they aren't going all the way to a murder/suicide rampage, cults inspire a lot of other anti-social behavior based on encouraging members to see the organization as their primary community and primary focus. These potentially negative behaviors include taking up all of their members' time and money and restricting the members' social activities to the point where they are discouraged from maintaining contact with friends and family members who won't join the organization.

Mormonism certainly encourages this kind of organization-focused behavior to a degree. But mainstream religions and even many organizations that are not religions do it as well. So it's less a question of Mormonism being 100% cult-like and other religions and organizations being not cult-like at all, it is rather a question of degree.

It is also a question of temperament. An organization can't magically turn a rational person into a fanatic. A person who is inclined to be a fanatic will find a way to be a fanatic. It seems that questionable organizations are the result of this, not the cause.


Joseph's Left One said...

Very well said. I think you've nailed it on the idea that fanatics are just wired that way. I think some people are just attracted to different kinds of religion, as I said on my blog.

Hope your Sunday is going well. I'm home alone while everyone else is at church.

Matt said...

There are clearly different levels of cult. Let's experiment...

Cult-like 1. Displaying a minimum level of cult behaviour.
Cult-like 2. Displaying a medium level of cult behaviour.
Cult, but not considered very dangerous.
Cult 2: Menace to themaelves and potentially ohers

Anonymous said...

"All the world is queer save me and thee; and sometimes I think thee is a little queer."---old Quaker saying