Ever since Rajni asked me about cults—specifically, if I think a certain spiritual group is a cult—I’ve been pondering what “cult” means to me. Here’s my response to Rajni’s question.
Rajni, you asked what my thoughts are of RS (Radha Soami Satsang Beas) being a cult. It’s taken me a few days to reply, partly because it’s taken me this long to get my mind around the concept of “cult.” Like lots of people, I use this word loosely and pejoratively to refer to a group of fervent believers that I don’t agree with.
For example, I might say “It’s disturbing how many people belong to the cult of global warming-deniers,” or “Creationism is a cult that ignores the reality of evolution.” Naturally I don’t consider that my own beliefs, no matter how strange they might appear to others, are cultish. For obviously I believe in my beliefs.
This is in accord with how the Wikipedia “cult” article starts off: “In religion and sociology, a cult is a group of people (often a new religious movement) devoted to beliefs and goals which may be contradictory to those held by the majority of society.” Since in my own mind I’m the majority that rules (when I’m of a single mind, at least), if some group looks like a cult to me, it is.
Such might sound unduly subjective. But I’m speaking from a single individual’s personal point of view. Certainly there are quasi-objective criteria that serve to distinguish a dangerous group of people from a benign group of people, as listed near the bottom of this “What is a cult?” page. Steven Hassan, a noted cult researcher, covers much the same ground in his Freedom of Mind Center FAQs.
Some groups are easy to identify as dangerous cults. The members of Jonestown who were forced to drink cyanide-laced punch obviously were in such a cult. So were the Branch Davidians who died at Waco. However, once we get away from the extremes, it becomes difficult to decide what groups get tarred with the epithet “cult” (for this term almost always is used negatively) and what groups aren’t.
I like to think of cults, religions, and science as forming a continuum. Each has a way of dealing with reality and trying to understand how the world works. Science—where I personally feel most comfortable—focuses on facts: demonstrable truths for which there is clear and convincing evidence. Religions emphasize beliefs: faith in hypothesized truths that can’t be confirmed as facts because they lie outside of the realm of normal human experience.
Cults, using the term in the extreme sense, apply physical or psychological coercion in an attempt to make their members conform to certain religious beliefs. Since “psychological” encompasses almost everything that goes on in a religion (preaching, praying, proselytizing, promulgating do’s and don’ts, etc.), I think that every religion has decidedly cultish attributes.
It is just that, as the Wikipedia article says, once a spiritual group reaches a certain size it ceases to be looked upon as a cult, having become a recognized religion. For example, at first Christianity was considered to be a cult by the Roman authorities; then it became the official Roman religion. What changed? Its political and cultural power, not its beliefs.
There are good reasons to call the Catholic Church a cult (as this web site argues). However, when a billion people belong to a group, its got the power to be considered a religion--no matter how cult like is its marginalization of women, abuse of children, authoritarian organizational structure, and claim to salvational exclusivity.
Turning, then, to the question of whether RS, or RSSB, is a “cult,” I’d say, “From one perspective, sure it is.” For RSSB is a decidedly minority religion, and thus possesses two cultish characteristics: it is a religion, and even more, it is a minority religion.
Now, I realize that I’m straying from the Steven Hassan definition of cult—which emphasizes the coerciveness of a religious group—but keep in mind that I consider all religions coercive, because they necessarily have to enforce the belief of members in supposed facts that can’t be confirmed. Science doesn’t do this. Skepticism is a scientific virtue. For religion, skepticism is a failure of faith.
I’ve enjoyed reading the comments to the post where I shared your message. You can see that people knowledgeable about RSSB have quite different attitudes about whether this group is a cult. One former member claims on Steven Hassan’s web site that RSSB definitely is. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, once we get away from blatant physical or psychological coercion. Some people consider the display of a donation box to be a coercive attempt to get money from disciples; others view the “seva box” in an utterly benign light.
So I keep coming back to the individual subjective answer to the question, “Is RSSB (or any other religious group) a cult?” Usually there won’t be a general consensus, unless we’re dealing with an extreme Jonestown or Branch Davidian sort of situation. What I find most interesting is to ask myself—as you might ask yourself—“What leads me to ask the question?”
You listed several characteristics of RSSB that led you to say, “These things would ordinarily be indicative of a cult, or at least resemble one.” I’d suggest that it really isn’t important whether I agree with you or whether anyone else agrees with you. What is important is that these characteristics (and there may be others) rub you the wrong way. They don’t feel right to you.
I believe that I know how you feel, because our minds seem to work in a similar fashion. You said that you’re not looking for a religion. Neither am I. I “signed up” for RSSB some thirty-five years ago precisely because I wanted to be a member of a non-religious spiritual group. Now, either RSSB has changed or I’ve changed. A third alternative is that both RSSB and I have changed: RSSB in the direction of becoming more religion-like, and me in the direction of liking religion even less.
As you said in your message to me, much of what concerns you about RSSB isn’t cultish but religionish. I mostly agree with Randy’s comment where he argues against considering RSSB a cult in the usual sense of the word. I think that RSSB is better called a religion—but just as “cult” is a pejorative term to religiously-minded people, so is “religion” a negative term to my scientifically-inclined mind. And, so it seems, to yours.
You spoke more of what you aren’t looking for in a spiritual path, than of what you are. Reading between the lines of your message, I suspect that you’re attracted to a genuine spiritual science. I could be projecting onto you my own predilection, of course. Regardless, RSSB is also called “The Science of the Soul.” That’s the subtitle on the RSSB web site.
What continues to attract me to RSSB is the scientific nature of its meditation practice. When you strip away the superficial religious/cultish trappings of RSSB, you’re left with a mystical core focused on the direct experience of higher states of consciousness. This diagram does a good job of summarizing the hypothesis, or theory, which the Science of the Soul meditator attempts to confirm: that consciousness can be raised, like a rocket leaving the confines of material reality, to more elevated realms of existence.
What continues to distance me from RSSB is the religious nature of most of its spoken and written communications: discourses, newsletters, books, directives from the Dera, and such. Now, I realize that what I call “religious” most other people associated with this group would call “scientific.” That is, they consider that firm faith in the Master and the RSSB teachings is necessary before success in the experiment of meditation can be achieved.
I look upon such faith as religious in nature, so I disagree with this perspective. Such disagreement would be par for the course in a truly scientific group, where unproven hypotheses are openly debated and the results of alternative experiments discussed. But in a religion, dissent isn’t encouraged (unless you’re a Unitarian).
Well, I’ve used a lot of words in an attempt to answer your simple question. I don’t feel like I’ve expressed myself very clearly. However, the subject you raised defies an easy answer.
Glancing at a printout of your message lying next to my computer, I just noticed that you said, “I’m not coming to you for answers, just your thoughts.” Whew. I feel better. I’ve given you plenty of thoughts. But no answers. That’s the way it is here at the Church of the Churchless.
Warm greetings, Brian