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Pick A Cult out of the Crowd

From the book in the Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America

by Robert S. Ellwood, Jr

  1. A founder who has had, or at least seems to know the secret of, nontemporal ecstatic experience.  (It is often not really so much having ecstatic experiences as being fascinated with their techniques, literature, and meaning.)
  2. An interpretation of the experience as possession or marvelous travel.  This familiar motif of archaic shamanism is strikingly renewed in Spiritualism and UFO cults and less obviously perhaps in the symbolism of interior mystical exploration and lore from faraway places.
  3. A band of supernormal helpers, UFO “space brothers”, spirits, gods and goddesses, etc.  It’s equivalent can be found in other cultic groups who prefer not to use such mythological modes of expression.
  4. A desire to be “modern” and to use scientific language.  There is something postscientific about the mood as well, a tendancy to distain as materialistic science and technology for their own sake.  But there is an instinctive realization that, in the battle against historic and emissary style, something in science - - esp.  the broad confident of unchanging natural law more typical of Victorian than of contemporary science - is congenial with the cultist’s experience of timeless absolute reality and can be used to strengthen it intellectually ...  like the scientist, the cultist also has felt a bitter alienation from much of the West’s religious past, and hence much is made of modernity and the hope of a better future. 
  5. A reaction against orthodoxy.  Hard language is often used in opposition to the established churches and also, when occasion suits, against scientific orthodoxy. 
  6. Eclecticism and syncretism.  [I had to look these up to be sure: eclecticism is selecting what is best from different sources; syncretism is an effort to reconcile various systems of philosophy or religious opinion]
  7. A monistic or impersonal ontology.  The cults may populate the “intermediate” cosmos between man and the absolute with any number of spirit guides, masters, space brothers or other quasientities, but the absolute itself is not the personal Judaeo-Christian God, but some more abstract entity, usually capitalized, like “Infinite Intelligence”, “Principle”, etc. 
  8. Optimism, success orientation, and a tendency to evolutionary views.  No doubt a part of the scientific and modern mentality, reinforced by a feeling that orthodoxy is too much devoted to other-worldly benefits, and that a faith based on present ecstatic experience ought to be able to produce benefits in this world, here and now, and a better world to come.  Some may lean toward apocalypticism, some toward a slower and more evolutionary change for the better. 
  9. Emphasis on healing.  Most cults provide some means for charismatic power to be applied to the healing of mind and body. 
  10. Use in many cases of magic techniques, that is, the use of nonempirical means for empirical ends.  The final purpose of the cult may be ultimate transformation, but there is generally a spin-off which can be applied to secondary, finite transformations. 
  11. A simple but definite process of entry and initiation, involving a definite act of separation, commitment, and study. 
  12. In some cases, the establishment of a sacred center, which are like Mecca to scattered members. 
  13. Emphasis on psychic powers. 
  14. Tendency to attract isolated individuals rather than family groups. 
  15. Increasing emphasis on participation by all members in the ecstatic experience through group chanting, meditation, and so forth.  The ecstasy is not just a display trance by the central figure, but a corporate act. 

On a further note, the author differentiates cults from philosophies in that they must meet the criteria for being considered a religion.  He cites these criteria as follows:

A. Theoretical Expression.  Any kind of verbal and conceptual expression of the means, or experience, of ultimate transformation.  Early stages include myths or stories to explain the attitudes, values, and concepts of the group.  A later stage is when verbal expression becomes doctrine, where the attitudes expressed in the stories are abstracted and codified.

B. Practical Expression.  What is done physically to actualize the experience of ultimate transformation.  Most worship is a mythical scenario on a broad sense, re-creating over and over the crucial moment of the unveiling of the new means of ultimate transformation, in other words, a presentation of the most important thing the group has to offer as that means.  Frequently the group will not recognise what they do as “worship”.

C. Sociological Expression.  What message is communicated by the organization of the cult, the interrelation of the members, the type of persons attracted to it, and the cult’s relation to the outside world.

Some ways to protect yourself when choosing groups. 

  1. Use your own transportation to and from the initial meetings.
  2. Take a trusted friend with you, for initial visits do not allow yourselves to be separated (even to the bathroom). 
  3. Ask “What happens if I decide to leave once I join?”  Listen to the answer carefully, then ask to talk to former members.  When you talk to former members do so alone in private. 
  4. Look to see if there are members over 35. 
  5. Do members have lives outside the group?  Have outside jobs, families, outside friends, other activities etc.?
  6. How does the group or its members feel towards different ideas, & beliefs or different interpretations of “their” ideas & beliefs. 
  7. Is their knowledge or training available for large fees?
  8. Is there any pressure towards the attendee to join the group?
  9. Does the group believe it has the only truth?  If you join will you be required to give up or change long held beliefs?
  10. Does the group use armed security people or bodyguards?

Use common sense, your own experience and judgement when evaluating the group, its leaders or members.  If you are unsure ask to leave and come to another meeting.