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Adding to “Cult”

The podcasts I subscribe to are about week behind my blog. This is obviously due to the fact that there is a lot more that goes into that than what goes into this. Some of them I listen to will talk about the same subjects and news stories, but I get them first because I don’t have to spend a week editing the audio together. I bring it up because in the last few days I have listened to three different podcasts all mention the HBO documentary “Going Clear.” Dr. Steven Novella, of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, made a claim on their review that the divergence between a religion and a cult is in how they treat their followers as opposed to what kind of beliefs they held. He was indicating this in response to Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s remarks that the beliefs of the Scientologists are not quantifiably any crazier than the beliefs of the Catholic church so it’s not that which makes a Scientologist a cult member.

Novella went on his show this week to clarify the difference as a listener wrote in to say that he was being to glib while simultaneously giving religion a special place when it comes to holding beliefs: i.e. if the group treats its members well it can have whatever crazy belief at its core and still be ok. The hosts of Cognitive Dissonance claimed that the reason Scientology sounds so out there is because it is new, a sentiment which can be found in Bill Maher’s movie “Religilous” with regard to Mormonism. The hosts at Cognitive Dissonance though raised a good point about Mormonism. It’s far back enough that still invokes the old spirituality, but also adds in the often incorrect scientific knowledge of the day. The time of Joseph Smith was an interesting one as it seems to represent the beginning of the end of the spiritualist movement. Yet, it’s not so far back that the beliefs couldn’t be couched in an obscure language with an unknown founder. We know everything about Joseph Smith to know that he was a con man and a criminal. We know the same thing about L. Ron Hubbard.

Part of what I said earlier was that I now view Scientology as a cult because of it waits as long as it can before you learn its creation myth, which is pretty ridiculous with its strange attention to details like the spaceships that look exactly like DC-8 jets. But that isn’t really enough. While I find it very telling it doesn’t separate religious sects that we know to be a cult but are still within what we consider to be established religions. The Branch Davidians made no secret about their beliefs, so we can’t consider them to not be cults. There has to be another qualification.

I would add this: that its adherents believe the external world is out to destroy them. The Davidians believed this to be the case, and then were unfortunately given empirical evidence that this was the case when the ATF showed up to arrest them for hording automatic weapons. Scientology does the same, as well as a large amount of smaller Christian sects that perceive the world as being hostile to their religion. It causes them to isolate themselves form the external world thus making the group more and more insular, forbidden in some respects to engage with the external world except where they have to interact in order to gain more followers.

This mentality is obviously absurd. If the Scientologists didn’t make their presence known, if they didn’t engage in law suits just because someone criticized them no one would pay any attention to the group provided they weren’t breaking any laws.

However this new qualification also applies to people like Rick Scarborough who thinks any action which is not in full line with his specific interpretation of Christianity is an assault against him. For instance he recently said that he and his followers should be prepared to go to jail or worse in order to protest gay marriage. I’m all for free speech and the right to protest, but who is he going to protest against, who is going to arrest or kill him for doing so? If the Supreme Court does render gay marriage to be a right, they will do so without regard to him and his followers, it has nothing to do with them. The idea that gay marriage now, arresting Christians later is absurd to the point of lunacy. Yet their belief, also shared by Dobson, Santorum, and many others is that somehow they are under an assault. It’s an us v. them, mentality that I think is awfully worrisome since the “them” is literally everyone who has no opinion on gay marriage or is openly in support of it.

In this respect they are in complete line with the Scientologists who also despise gay marriage and homosexuality (although I’m at a loss for what their justification is). As well as thinking that the world is populated by people who wish to destroy them. While I’m against their bigotry and intolerance, I don’t wish them near the kind of ill that people like Scarborough wish people like me. Combining qualification one and two I think we can move toward a more specific definition of cult so that we can isolate “Religion” from it.

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