Oregon writer, Rain Trueax, and Oregon painter, Diane Widler Wenzel co-author Rainy Day Thought. Diane generally posts on Wednesdays and Rain on Saturdays. There may be extra days or changes as situations warrant. Comments are always welcome and appreciated as it turns an article into a discussion.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


"...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion;
and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect;
but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult."
Leo Pfeffer

In the discussion on polygamy, the subject of cults was raised. Many nations, including the United States, value freedom of religion. That tolerance extends usually until a group is shown to be a threat or found to abuse children. The secretive nature of cults makes some of that proof hard to get until it can be too late for some of its members.

Some groups that start out being seen as cults by the community eventually are seen as religions by the mainstream-- Christianity itself and Mormonism are two that come quickly to my mind. Some cults, like David Koresh with the Branch Dividians or Jim Jones with the poison Kool-Aid, go down in infamy but disappear for all practical purposes. Although since often a few followers linger, it might only take the arising of another charismatic leader to bring them to life. Being raised in some types of cults can leave children unable to function fully in the world. A couple of years ago a young man, who had been sexually used by the cult he had been raised in, had broken free of it but could not escape what had been done to him. He tracked down and murdered the woman he saw as having been instrumental in his abuse. He then killed himself.

In Central Oregon some years back, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers bought up land to found their own little Shangri-la. He got into the newspapers for some of his offbeat teachings-- total sexual freedom being one of them-- as well as his own propensity for riding around in one of his many limousines. Most in Oregon were pretty tolerant of them but the neighboring community wasn't so sure. Many successful people supported it and lived off the grounds, coming there for religious meetings, teachings and rallies until it became a matter for the law when it was discovered that some of his underlings (if not him ordering it) had poisoned a food buffet in a nearby town as revenge for what they saw as persecution. With the legal problems, the cult folded its tents, the Rajneesh was deported and Oregonians were left to wonder what use could be put to the buildings and grounds it had occupied.

Once again Scientology is in the news because of Tom Cruise's vigorous proselytizing on its behalf and also on the Hollywood circuit is a teacher of Kabbalah (a mystic offshoot of Judaism) or so the teacher claims who has formed a group with that name. Madonna is one of its most famous members. Would we call these sects or cults?

I have my own definition what I would say was a cult. They believe they are persecuted, encourage their followers to hide their practices, deny the knowing of full truth to anybody but themselves, divide people from their family or friends, and engage in practices most would see as brainwashing. There are probably more but those are the ones that would warn me-- and make me think Scientology is a cult while Kabbalah is a sect-- for now. I also realize, by my definition, most 'mainstream' religions have divisions within that can be cult-like in their thinking and practices.

I believe people turn to cults because they want firm answers, authority figures, purpose to their lives, and someone who says they know the way
. We live in a world with many questions, much insecurity; and those who claim they know make others feel empowered. When the cult turns to bad things, such as happened in Oregon, perhaps a lot of those in it have lost their own ability to think for themselves. Faith is their answer and faith doesn't require thinking.

There is an interesting film from 1999 exploring spirituality, what is brainwashing, what are cults-- Holy Smoke starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel. It is a bit mystical, a bit erotic, and full of imagery-- some rather bizarre. It is not really a comfortable film and does not attempt to answer questions as much as pose them.

So any thoughts regarding cults?


Endment said...

Wow! What a challenging post!

First of all I guess I wonder why it is so important to make people, groups of people or belief systems fit into a category or box.

It seems to me that it would be appropriate to eliminate the word cult from our vocabulary. We won’t need to debate about the meaning of the word if we quit using it. Then the next step would be memorize the Leo Pfeffer quote: "...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult."

Rain said...

interesting comment, endment. Words mean things and we need to be careful when we choose them that they are accurate as well as that whoever we are talking to understands the same definition as we do. I do believe there is a valid use of the word cult but it may well be misused due to fear.

I also believe we need to be careful what groups we join or support economically, make sure they are using practices that are healthy and not damaging us or others by what they do-- regardless of what we name them.

Parapluie said...

Over the years we have had differences of opinion on religion and cults. At one time we both considered the LDS Mormonism on the boarder line of being a cult.
I see we are both evolving in our perception of cult-like practices. After studying Judaism I feel all beliefs need to be questioned and not questioning is dangerous. The first instruction to Jewish children on the most important holiday, Passover, is to be questioning. Questioning is the cornerstone of their faith. Other faiths have indivduals and healthy practices which promote self examination and to the extent they do question they are healthy.

Parapluie said...

I don't know enough about the practice of Kabbalah or the groups now professing to be Kabbalah followers to say that these people are not thinking people and are brainwashed practicing a cult. I know of one instance where Kabbalah is being applied.
Aaron T. Woolf's PHD. dept. of Geosciences, OSU, lecture was upbeat and hopeful comparing the similarities of religions. He is trying to find the common means of conflict resolution. He believes peoples of different perspectives can come to a common space where they can converse and resolve conflicts using levels of perspectives from Kabbalah which parallel concepts in the other World religions such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

Rain said...

there is first the teaching of Kabbalah (spelled many different ways different places as it's written in Hebrew and the word is a translation). It is a mystical offshoot of traditional Judaism and I believe would be normally taught by a rabbi to someone who was already Jewish. As I understand it, it's not a beginning level either. Some years ago with my interest in many metaphysical subjects, I got some books on it and realized very quickly it was nothing to try and be self taught with. I believe you do need a teacher

And that's where the Kabbalah group, which Madonna belongs to, comes in. A man who studied briefly under a rabbi (as best I have understood) got married to a woman who had worked also with that rabbi. When the rabbi died, the couple claim to have taken the teachings out into the world. They formed a group which has practices which may have little to do with traditional teachings of Kabbalah. It's hard for me to see traditional kabbalah as selling red, string bracelets for $20 something to protect you or water that is supposed to keep you healthy or having men dress in all white for certain rituals but not women; but who knows. I don't know this group doesn't start with the foundation of Judaism in their teachings. I have read a bit about them but not enough to know anything more than I'd not join it.

If someone else knows more about this or would like to correct mistakes of mine, feel free to post as lengthy a comment as is required.

Rain said...

kind of an interesting site on what kabbalah says about itself-- Kabbalah Site

Parapluie said...

I enjoyed the Kabbalah web site but I am not going to buy a braclet or anything from the site. The site is designed well but I don't know if in this age of science we can say all knowledge is of the scientific type even including Kaballah.
It is just nice seeing the site perhaps there is a connection to the painting I am working on of myself at your house. My painting is "mystical" because the way I painted the Navaho rug at the center looks like light reflected in water. As I was painting the Navaho design of repeated triangles I was reminded of female reproduction or creativity. Light and water have meaning in Kabbalah and other spiritual context, I have no idea what they mean in my painting of myself.
I was going to come visit and finish the painting at your place but now I might leave it as it is. I'll post it on my blog.

bernie said...

To become Jewish, one has to be educated in the history and customs of being Jewish. It is more than a religion. The Jewish peopel are not evangelistic, they do not solicite conversion or recruit follwers. The person who wants to convert is asked why they want to convert and they have to be educated, usually by a rabbi or cantor on the history and beliefs of Judism.