What Makes a Cult?
The Rev Gary Bouma has said that a cult is any group that someone has decided that they do not like. Thus it might surprise the reader that Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army and the Jehovahs Witnesses have all been labelled cults, alongside more accepted groups that have more easily fit into the public perception of ‘cult’, for example, the Moonies, the Branch Davidians, the Temple of God, to name a few. The modern perception of a cult has been media driven – reports on disasters are the things that stick in the public imagination long after the event – so the word ‘cult’ has become synonymous with dangerous charismatic leaders with devoted followers who are brainwashed into bizarre beliefs and practices who may at any time be persuaded to end their lives at the whim of the cult leader. These perceptions, which make for a good media story, are not representative of the many religious groups practicing peacefully and quietly in communities around the world. The anti-cult movement has played a significant role in this process. Religion gives rise to intense passions. The anti-cult movement attracts a strange array of participants with diverse and often conflicting backgrounds – what was essentially a fundamentalist religious movement that developed to bring the lost back to the fold of true believers found strange allies amongst skeptics and atheists who were anti-religion generally and saw the rise of new religions as the antithesis of progress.
Over time the anti-cult movement became big money for ‘deprogramming’ so called ‘victims’ of these cults. There was money to be made by the anti-cult movement, since distressed parents whose children had apparently broken from their families values and culture would pay large sums for their children to be kidnapped, or at the very least removed by means of deception, from the clutches of the ‘cults’ and ‘deprogrammed’ so that they would abandon any new beliefs and return to the beliefs of their families of origin.
Of course kidnapping and then holding someone against their will for the purposes of ‘rescuing’ them from a cult (or anywhere) is illegal – this was more than a small problem for the anti-cult movement and spawned many legal cases over a decade in the United States where the courts were asked to entertain that people needed rescuing since they had in effect lost their minds and needed to be kidnapped to do this. Margaret Singer (on whom Esther Rockett relies to spin her anti-Universal Medicine lies) was the expert witness (or ‘gun for hire’) brought in to defend the kidnappers from criminal prosecution on the basis that anyone drawn into a cult needed to be rescued, since their rational minds had been taken over and the only recourse was to remove them from such surroundings by force. Margaret Singer was a staunch advocate for the terrible effects of cults and created a mythological psychology to explain these dangerous effects that had no credibility as a theory whatsoever. She variously argued that a Hindu Vegetarian Diet produced a susceptible state so that the person could be brainwashed, that singing hymns and chanting had the same effect (although if you were in a mainstream church this conduct was presumably ok) and that pretty much anyone was susceptible to mind control. There were mixed responses over time, but in the end the courts said it was bunkum. No-one lost their will to make choices and presenting religious beliefs and practices did not amount to evidence of mind control.
Indeed this seems obvious when you point it out – you cannot use someone’s beliefs or rituals to say they are brainwashed – since you could suggest that the beliefs of the Catholic Church in the Virgin birth and the power of the saints and the reciting of the rosary is evidence of mind control or that the belief of Tibetan Buddhists in a pantheon of Bodhisattvas to whom one dedicates many hours of religious dedication and practice is a form of brainwashing – or you could, but you would be considered lacking in basic tolerance for those who hold other beliefs than your own. It is indeed fraught. What the anti-cultists do not like is that individuals choose religious beliefs that do not accord with their own – whether they are orthodox religious beliefs or atheist views.
Once a group is called a ‘cult’ it appears to be acceptable to sling any insult at their beliefs that if such conduct was directed at another group – say Muslims or Catholics – then it would be considered vilification or at the very least a basic offense against religious freedom.
What makes a group “unacceptable”?
Groups that have been labelled ‘cult’ do not have any defining characteristics except for one – someone decided that they did not like them, often because they do not accord with mainstream views, in particular established and accepted religious views. However, what is acceptable or tolerated by the dominant religion is continually shifting – so what may be a cult today may be accepted tomorrow (eg Salvation Army). It also changes according to the levels of religious tolerance in the society as well as the presence of the anti-cult network. If the anti-cult network picks up on a group then it uses social media to ensure that the group is identified and ‘outed’, however unreasonable this targeting is. In this regard the anti-cult network and those like Esther Rockett and Lance Martin who spread its vicious agenda has to be considered a public nuisance. The anti-cult network promotes itself as educational, this however is a very thin veneer if you examine its effect on the communities in which we live. Does it really serve in a relatively harmonious and secular society like Australia to introduce division and prejudice? Does it serve to introduce new levels of divisiveness that were spawned in a different culture (the United States) from a society hell-bent on preserving a fundamentalist Christian agenda?
The anti-cult network and the terminology ‘cult’ allows for the expression of unbridled hostility and outrage at groups that have done no more than earn the ire of a few people. It may be interesting to note that outside the attempt at division and hostility, both Lance Martin and Esther Rockett have contributed very little to society against the backdrop of a successful business (Universal Medicine) that has delivered rich philosophical teachings and self-healing techniques that have inspired hundreds to turn their lives around and live today a vital, joyous and fruitful life.
Aside from certain aspects of the media not telling the real story that is there to be told, and a great Australian story there is to proudly tell, it took little for Universal Medicine to earn “cult” status in the media once the involved journalists became complicit to the fabricated story. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of the public at hand, the media is quick to take up a cult story and also we are living in a culture that promotes mainstream views over anything that might be unusual or challenging. The cult label has been played with by Esther Rockett and Lance Martin and it is hard to know if they actually believe their own fictional accounts, but they have made the most of the anti-cult rhetoric and sought alliances with the anti-cult network. On reflection, a lie is a lie no matter how many times it is repeated. As such, there is little a group can do to not be labelled a ‘cult/new religion’ by the dominant religious view or by the media seeking to beat up a story. As the Reverend Bouma suggested, being labelled a ‘cult’ simply means that someone has decided that they do not like you. In this case the internet trolls Lance Martin and Esther Rockett with a couple of other unhappy folk determined that they did not like Universal Medicine and adopted the cult label to suit their agenda, making the most out of the label to attack Universal Medicine and Serge Benhayon. They had a willing media who always look for a story that has conflict in it – even if the only conflict is that of the media’s making. We will explore in other blogs the fallacious content of Esther Rockett’s anti-cult narrative and we will discover that Esther Rockett is an internet troll, not an expert on cults.
Bouma, Prof G., Cahill, Prof D., Bodycomb, Dr J. (2011). ‘Cults (Religions that harm?) and Defining Charities.’ A Submission to the Australian and Not-for-Profits Commission’s Consultation on Defining ‘Charities’ 29 Nov 2011. Melton, JG., (2004). ‘An Introduction to New Religions’. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, OUP, pp16-35 Richardson, JT. (1996). ‘Journalistic Bias toward new religious movements in Australia.’ Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 11, No. 3, 289-302. Richardson, JT. and van Driel, B. (1997). ‘Journalists Attitudes towards New Religious Movements.’, Review of Religious Research, Vol 39, No. 2. 116-136.