Probably no news event in recent memory has occupied mass media attention to the degree that Shoko Asahara and his Aum Shinrikyo "cult" have these last few months since the March gas attack on Tokyo subways. Few people have trouble identifying this group with the word "cult", as their antisocial actions have shocked the world.
But this word also causes considerable confusion, as different people seem to have different notions as to just what constitutes a "cult". Originally, the word was rather neutral in its connotation, as it is defined in Webster's Dictionary as simply "a system of religious worship or ritual". According to this definition, there would be little if any difference between a cult and a religion. Any group of people meeting together for some spiritual purpose would constitute a "cult".
Much more than even the word "alien", however, the meaning of "cult" has in recent times shifted from the neutral meaning it originally had to a word with a rather sinister nuance. Nobody belonging to any religious group would want to consider their group a "cult"! Some people ­p;­p; particularly those belonging to exclusivistic groups committed to the position that they are the only "true" faith ­p;­p; use the word to refer to basically all groups other than themselves. More generally, however, it is used to refer to religious groups considered to be "fanatical", "far out" or "anti-social".
So how should we distinguish between a "cult" and a "religion"? A quote from Lewis Carrol's famous novel, "Alice in Wonderland", is particularly appropriate here. I forget which character is talking, but in the course of the dialog concerning semantics, he or she says, "Words mean what I want them to mean!" They certainly do in our own minds. But if we're to have a meeting of the minds, we need to pay particular attention to the ways words are used. Particularly with respect to abstract terms such as "cult", people often end up talking past each other because they are not really operating from the same definitions.
The following is my attempt at giving a clearer definition to the contemporary meaning of the word "cult". Hopefully, it will not muddy the waters any more than they already are. In my mind, groups that fall into the category of "cult" are ones led by a powerful, charismatic leader or small group of leaders to whom adherents are pressured to maintain strict loyalty. Independent thinking is strongly discouraged and a strong sense of dependence on the group is fostered. Various techniques of "mind control" are used to further these goals. Likewise, doctrines are easily changed as suits the pragmatic needs of the leader(s), with inconsistencies and contradictions explained away as "receiving new light" or similar such rationalizations. Scrutiny of the group's teachings in light of the established facts of science and history are, of course, forbidden, with any doubts crowding into one's mind being written off as "attacks of Satan" to be resisted at all costs.
Perhaps a couple of examples will clarify this definition further. The kind of manipulation and fear tactics used by Aum Shinrikyo, as have been documented by the media, clearly fit this definition of a cult. Shoko Asahara was like a god in his follower's minds. His every order was to be followed unquestioningly. The doctor who participated in the subway gas attacks testified that he had deep qualms about indiscriminately killing people ­p;­p; particularly as a doctor supposedly dedicated to saving lives ­p;­p; but that he was afraid to resist carrying out Asahara's orders. Members were isolated from their families and deprived of adequate sleep, proper nutrition and time to think in order to destroy their critical thinking capabilities. This is what is meant by the term "mind control". It is a form of "brain washing" designed to turn followers into virtual robots. In the case of Aum, followers were even given mind altering drugs to help solidify the group's control over the individual.
Another "cult" the mass media spotlight has been focused on here in Japan is the "Unification Church" (technically "Unification Association"), the official name of which is: "The Holy Spirit Association For The Unification Of World Christianity." Founded in Korea some 40 years ago by the "Reverend" Sun Myung Moon, this organization has had its strongest following ­p;­p; particularly in terms of its financial base ­p;­p; here in Japan.
As is the case with most cults, at the point of their first encounter with the cult, future "Moonies" are typically idealistic young people who are searching for some kind of meaning in their lives. In Japan, "video centers" have been a particularly effective recruitment tool. Lonely young people are befriended on the street, on campus or wherever, are made to feel important with lavish compliments and other such tactics, and then invited to view a series of videos at a fancy video center. These promotional videos play on the desires of nearly everyone for "world peace" and "unity" among the peoples of the world, and the Unification Association is extolled as the way to make this happen. Grandiose plans for such things as the "International Highway", supposedly under construction beginning with an undersea tunnel connecting Japan and Korea, are highlighted. Incidentally, as part of the subterfuge, the Moon organization actually purchased a section of land along the Japanese coast closest to Korea, dug a hole in the side of a hill as though it were a tunnel being built and erected large signs proclaiming it to be this great undersea tunnel under construction. This sort of deception underlies practically all of their activities. In fact, they even dare to call it "heavenly deception", rationalizing it as a necessary means to the end of taking resources away from Satan's kingdom (the world outside the Moon organization) and putting them in the hands of God's representative, or as Moon refers to himself, the "Lord of the Second Advent"! (See related article on Moon's mass weddings.)
These are but two of numerous such organizations that are preying on the unsuspecting. Thus, what I would consider to be a "cult" is any religious group that uses people as a means to its ends. The individual is not important, and once someone becomes a burden or gets in the way of the organizational goals, he or she is simply cast aside. Loyalty to the organization is maintained out of a sense of fear ­p;­p; fear that one will "lose one's salvation", "be cast into hell" or however it is worded. Failing to realize that they are already in a kind of hell, adherents are pressured into sacrificing their health, their financial security and everything else for the organization (which in reality typically means for the luxurious living of its leaders!).
This is the exact opposite of what an "ideal" religion should be. The primary purpose of a religion should be to serve God, and that primarily means serving people and putting their needs above those of the institution. As part of this, people are encouraged to think for themselves ­p;­p; to embrace their doubts and questions as they work through them to satisfying answers. That, of course, can be hard work, and for people who don't really want to think for themselves, the pat answers offered them by cults can on the surface seem reassuring. Likewise, true religion should invite inspection of its finances as well as comparisons between its teachings and the established facts of science and history to see if they are really true.
When put in these terms, it is clear that "cult" and "religion" are poles apart. Likewise, it should be obvious that no religious institution (or philosophical "ism") fits into that 100% "ideal" category all of the time. Human foibles and vested interests assure that goal is unreachable. But nevertheless that must still be the goal of a true religion. Thus, when it comes to the marketplace of ideas, it is very much a matter of "buyer beware". "Truth in advertising" laws don't seem to apply to the world of religious and philosophical ideas. Thus, my advice is to check it out first. The biblical advice of some 2000 years ago still applies: "Put all things to the test and keep what is good (true)" (I Thessalonians 5:21).
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