Saturday, October 12, 2013

What makes a cult?

The following quotes are taken from Walter Martin's monumental work Kingdom of the Cults, and are what I quoted in the podcast Is IHOP-KC a Cult? They are all taken from the 1985 printing, which I own (the 2003 printing, which I borrowed, was used in the podcast - the only differences are the page numbers). As I said in the podcast, I use these because many times websites present identifications of a cult that are far too specific, or are tailored towards the specific cult the author is speaking about. Also, I do not believe Walter Martin to be the be all, end all source on cults, but because his work on cult groups is so well respected and thorough, I believed it to be a good source for grounding our understanding.

The first quote we will look at:
[Quoting Dr. Charles Braden:] “A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” [pg. 11]
From this, we discern regarding a cult:

1) It differs from the "normative expressions of religion" in our "total culture." As I noted in my podcast, this is not argumentum ad populum; that is, "If you have a nation that's 99% Sunni and 1% Shia, the Shia Muslims are a cult because they aren't as large as the Sunni." Rather, Braden is arguing that, if you have a set standard on the core issues for a religion's beliefs and how a religion is to be practiced, and another group detracts from all that, it can be considered a cult. For example: the Ahmadi Muslims believe that their founder fulfilled the end-times Islamic beliefs, and the promised Messiah and Mahdi awaited by Muslims, and that Jesus moved to India and was buried there, none of which the Sunni or Shia hold to be canon. For this reason, orthodox Muslims look upon the Ahmadi in the same manner that orthodox Christians look upon the Mormons. The latter breaks away from the "normative expression" of Christianity because, in upholding doctrines regarding man's deification, inheriting planets with spirit wives, etc.

After quoting Braden, Walter Martin immediately adds, in his own words:
I may add to this that a cult might be defined as a group of people gathered about a specific person or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are, for the most part, followers of the interpretations of Charles T. Russell and J.F. Rutherford. The Christian Scientist of today is a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy and her interpretations of Scripture. The Mormons, by their own admission, adhere to those interpretations found in the writings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. [pg. 11]
So we learn:

2) Instead of solely being gathered around the expressions of the religion based on the teachings of their founder or holy scripture (or both), a cult is grounded upon the interpretations of those documents by their leaders or governing authority. A cult may use the Bible as their primary document, or may claim that they follow what scripture says, but their interpretation of that scripture is grounded upon not serious biblical study or the plain meaning of the text, but rather what their leaders or religious authority tell them. If you were to remove Joseph Smith from history, Mormonism would not exist. If you were to remove Charles T. Russel from history, the Jehovah's Witnesses would not exist. If an individual in a cult were honest, he would have to admit that his interpretation of passages of scripture his organization depends on would only be read in such a way if his leader or interpreting authority told him it was to be read in such a way.

Continuing on, going into the psychological structures of cultism:
First and foremost, the belief systems of the cults are characterized by close-mindedness. They are not interested in a rational, cognitive evaluation of the facts. The organizational structure interprets the facts to the cultist, generally invoking the Bible and/or its respective founder as the ultimate source of its pronouncements. Such belief systems are in isolation; they never shift to logical consistency. They exist in what we might describe as separate compartments in the cultist’s mind and are almost incapable of penetration or disruption if the individual cultist is completely committed to the authority pattern of his organization. [pg. 26]

3) A cult's belief system, or its effect on its members, is to engage in logical inconsistencies, with the facts and method of thinking interpreted by the organization's authority. This means that the cult members' sense of reality in his mind, and the sense of reality given him by the organization, are two different things, sometimes at odds with one another; in order for this inconsistency to survive, the cult member has to engage in some form of intellectual or logical inconsistency. Muslims, for instance, will uphold two different standards for their own religion and Christianity, or non-Muslim religions in general. One example: some Muslims will deny the Bible based on variances between the manuscripts, even if they're "just grammatical"; however, they will shrug off the variances in manuscripts of the Quran because they're "just grammatical."

Continuing on:
Second, cultic belief systems are characterized by genuine antagonism on a personal level, since the cultist almost always identifies his dislike of the Christian message with the messenger who holds such opposing beliefs. The identification of opposing beliefs with the individual in the framework of antagonism leads the cultist almost always to reject the individual as well as the belief, a problem closely linked with closed-mindedness and one that is extremely difficult to deal with in general dialogue with cultists. [ibid]

4) A cult member's identity with the cult becomes attached to who he/she is. Attacking the organization is seen as attacking the individual. In the case of many cults, it might be seen as attacking God Himself. Even if someone wishes to attack the error and not the erring, the erring will take the attacks against the error as an attack against themselves. This is why, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses respond to criticism or critical thinking with hostility, as if the individual is questioning their own sanity. Likewise, many in Hyper-Charismatic cults will become so engulfed in the teachings of their church and teacher that any attempt to question the legitimacy of the ministry will be seen as kind of an attack from the devil against God (even if the person may not openly say this is the case).

Continuing on:
Thirdly, almost without exception, all cultic belief systems manifest a type of institutional dogmatism and a pronounced intolerance for any position but their own. This no doubt stems from the fact that in the case of non-Christian cult systems that wish to be identified with Christianity, the ground for their claims is almost always supernatural. [pg. 27]
While some might argue here, "Surely all religions have a form of dogma?", Martin goes on to explain:
...cult systems tend to invest with the authority of the supernatural whatever pronouncements are deemed necessary to condition and control the minds of their followers. Thus it is that when Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, and his successor, Brigham Young, wished to implement doctrines or changes of practice in the Mormon Church, they prefaced their remarks with proclamations that God had revealed to them the necessity of such doctrines or practices among the saints. [ibid]
Hence we learn:

5) A cult's dogma and doctrine may not only be founded upon the supposed scripture of its base religion, but in the personal revelation and "divine commands" granted to its leaders or founders. As Mr. Martin pointed out, this includes any serious changes made to the orthodoxy of the religion, or with any claims that might be made regarding the interpretation of a passage of scripture, or direction which will be taken by the organization. There are, in essence two authorities: the authority of their base religion (whether it be their holy writings or the sayings of its founder); and the authority of their leadership structure, claiming to speak with divine authority or guidance. Mormons, for example, are not only dependent upon scripture for their guidance, but upon the pronouncements of Joseph Smith and his successors, which are all claimed to come from God.

Continuing on:
The fourth and final point in any analysis of the belief system of cults is the factor of isolation. [pg. 28]
By "isolation," Mr. Martin does not mean merely living on an island somewhere and ignoring the world around you, ie., social isolationism - rather, he refers to rational isolationism. He explains later on that this is the "isolation or compartmentalization of conflicting evidence or concepts."

Hence we learn:

6) A cult's belief system, or the tendency among its believers, may lean towards an understanding of the truth and contradictory evidence, while at the same time there are irrational excuses made for it. This means that while a cult member may be aware of contradictory evidence, they will not read it or rationalize from it as a non-cult member will. As an example, Mr. Martin brings up the fact that many knowledgeable Mormon historians and scholars are aware that there exist thousands of differences between the first edition of the Book of Mormon and the current edition, and that these changes were made not only by Joseph Smith but his successors as well; however, they believe both the revisions and the errors are divinely inspired! Some in the more extreme circles of KJV-Onlyism have made a similar argument, recognizing that there are differences between the earliest manuscripts of the Bible and the manuscripts used by the KJV translators, but at the same time stating, amazingly enough, that those changes were divinely inspired.