19 Sep 2007

Cult Plus Time Equals Religion

Newsweek/Washington Post - On Faith

by Susan Jacoby


You might as well ask what is the difference between a "real" government and a political experiment. For the most part, the only difference between a "real religion" and a "cult" is longevity--a distinction that also applies to governments. If enough people believe in some form of the supernatural for a long enough period of time, we stop calling it a cult and start calling it a religion. Religions are cults that last.


A more useful distinction would separate religions (or factions within religions) that attempt to control nearly every aspect of people's lives from religions that allow their members considerable latitude to choose different ways of existence without being driven from the fold.

"Controlling" religious sects engage in brainwashing and apply severe social penalties to force members to do what free human beings normally find revolting. I have no doubt that the women engaging in polygamous marriages in the fundamentalist offshoot of Mormonism (denounced by the official Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints) have been brainwashed or coerced into believing that they are doing what the Lord wants. A 14-year-old who engages in sex with a dirty old man, and thinks she is behaving virtuously, is the victim of such a religion. She is in the same situation as a Hindu woman who, a century ago, felt obliged to burn herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre. Or, for that matter, of people groomed for human sacrifice thousands of years ago.

Controlling religions try to prevent their members from engaging in any contact with nonbelievers--defined as anyone outside the faith. They are generally opposed to secular education. They try to prevent children from reading or seeing anything that might contradict the religion's view of reality. In many ultra-Orthodox Hasidic communities, for example, children are forbidden to read nonreligious magazines and newspapers or to take books out of the public library. Television sets are tuned only to a cable channel that broadcasts the inanities of a particular rabbinical leader. The ideas of rabbis from other branches of Judaism are considered even more dangerous than the preachings of the goyim. (These practices are, of course, entirely contrary to mainstream Jewish intellectual traditions.)

In general, all fundamentalist religions are terrified of secular education. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of books written thousands of years ago know very well that it is dangerous to their faith to expose children to more rational ideas before the youngsters have been thoroughly indoctrinated.

One of the main reasons why it is a mistake to call atheism, freethought, or secular humanism "just another religion" is that unfettered inquiry is the basis of the secular worldview. Free inquiry is the mortal enemy of all controlling religions. Of course, secular ideologies such as Stalinist Communism can become controlling religions too, since they take on the imperviousness to evidence that is the ultimate expression of religious fanaticism. But that has nothing to do with the open-minded secularism, rooted in the Enlightenment, that is the basis of freethought today. Fear and loathing of intellectual challenge is the essence of all controlling religious factions, whether the God is called Stalin, Jehovah, or Allah.

Finally, controlling religions engage in violence when brainwashing and social sanctions fail. Fundamentalist Islamists, in many countries, have been known to kill women who insist on their right to choose their own husbands. They kill women who want to call their rapists to account in civil court. They achieve by murder what they cannot achieve by attempts at mind control.

Christian societies, of course, used to kill people for blasphemy. But time--and the rise of the great separation between church and state pioneered by the United States of America--has turned most of the Christian world away from the dogmas of controlling religion. But don't call this "real" religion, as distinct from a cult. It is simply religion moderated by secular knowledge and secular government.


http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/susan_jacoby/2007/09/cult_plus_time_equals_religion.html

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