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Cults and Cultism in American Religion

by Dr. [now Father] Joseph Miller

Your Eminence, Archbishop Chrysostomos, Your Eminence, Bishop Photii, Your Grace, Bishop Auxentios, Very Reverend Archimandrite Akakios, Reverend Mothers Elizabeth and Kypriane, Reverend Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Let me begin by asking your forgiveness, because it is possible that someone will be offended before I finish. Do keep in mind that the topic is cultic behavior and the cultic mentality, and not individual persons. On the other hand, neither is what I have to say fictional. It touches on tendencies that must be checked in everyone, however well-intentioned.

As with all human beings, I know nothing from myself, except by way of my own experience; so, with the exception of my own experiences, everything I mention today has been borrowed from someone else. The list of my benefactors and teachers is long and growing longer. Some of my benefactors and teachers are present today, but not all. And it is definitely by assignment and obedience that I have prepared these comments, because it is not a topic I would offer to you otherwise.

Let me note some further limitations. My approach to this topic is from an American perspective, and as a layman, one whose perspective on the Church is from west of the Icon screen. I look upward at the Church, from the bottom rank, whereas those of you whose lives are behind the Icon screen will have a much different perspective; the views and experiences are quite different. Lastly, you may well know already everything I will have to say. But the topic is one that deserves frequent treatment.

America, of course, is a land of cults of many kinds, mostly situated within a religious organization. Sociologists of religion indicate that they know of about two thousand cults active or discernible at any given time, most of them small and of local or regional distribution only. Of the famous and nationally and internationally known ones, the easiest to name is the so-called Peoples Temple group, also known as the Jim Jones or Jonestown cult. It is perhaps a contemporary prototype or icon of cults and cultism. Over nine hundred or so human beings, members of this cult, perished in 1979, as lemmings follow their leaders over a precipice and into the ocean to death. This is very instructive. Doubtless you remember that the secretary and assistant of Jim Jones was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox Priest. Of those cults still active, you know already about the Church of Scientology, the Moonies, probably the two best known, largest, best organized, and, one must say, best financed. David Koresh and the Branch Davidians are also still in the news, albeit mostly posthumously.

As you know, the word cult derives from the Latin cultus, meaning simply worship or devotion. By this definition, our worship of the Holy and Undivided Trinity and of Christ the God-Man constitutes a cult, as does our veneration of the Theotokos, the Holy Fathers, and Saints of the Church.

The context of this talk is that of harmful cults and specifically of cultic mentality and behavior. The context of this talk also must address cultic behavior within Orthodox Churches and amongst Orthodox clergy. This is inevitable.

Because cultic behavior has become a common feature of American life in religions, or in surrogates for religion, it has attracted much interest from behavioral scientists.

Here we need a parenthesis in which, as briefly as possible, to discuss science. Science is nothing more than accumulated systematic observations of phenomena perceptible to our senses. It is no more arcane or demonic than counting beans into different piles according to some logical method, and then counting the beans in each pile. It is knowledge. Knowledge may be applied in good or evil ways. Do not blame knowledge for the evil that men do. If you must attribute blame, blame scientists who extrapolate their knowledge into some philosophical or religious domain, far away from their expertise. For it is by knowledge—systematically acquired and evaluated experiences—that we know to stay on the curb until the light turns green before we cross, or how to tie our shoes. Those of you who traveled here by any other means than by walking entrusted yourselves to human science. Even then, it was your knowledge which directed your walking. As the Deacon says, May the Lord direct your steps. Knowledge is a gift from our Creator. And indeed many of the Fathers were both men of great knowledge and persons with profound interest in the sciences.

As a science, cult watching is an anecdotal, descriptive, observational pursuit, as distinguished from experimental science. Cult watching resembles bean counting.

There are two aspects to this discussion of cultic behavior: that which pertains to cults in general, and that which pertains to cultic behavior in Orthodox Churches—although the latter derives entirely from the former.

What follows is an enumeration of observed traits of cultic behavior. These traits describe the modal attributes, i.e., the most common traits of the cultic personality. However, one must distinguish between cults generated by this kind of behavior and cults generated by the followers of strong and sometimes truly charismatic Orthodox Christian persons. In the first instance, the cultist himself is reprehensible and a great spiritual danger, both to himself and to those who find him attractive. In the second instance, these otherwise charismatic religious personages are reprehensible when they allow themselves to be made into cult figures, since such behavior is neither prescribed nor condoned by the Orthodox Church.

Cultists and cultic behavior have the following characteristics:

1) The most common feature—the trait of cultists most commonly observed—is the apparently insatiable desire to control, amounting to a compulsion, to control everything; people in particular, of course, adults and children, but also money, property, animals, automobiles, toys, the weather, society, and everything else. One man or one group of cultists, however, can only control within the limits of his or its energy and attention, and those limits are usually the limits of the cult. The great need to control is for the sake of power. Power attracts great temptations and is hence a danger to the cultic personality, something usually not realized by the cultic personality. No matter how philanthropic or God-loving a person may appear or think himself to be in such instances, this is still cultic behavior.

2) Persistent, systemic anger—anger displayed openly—is a certain sign of cultic mentality. This use of anger, sometimes simply careless and sometimes deliberate, is also related to other passions, usually fleshly passions, not under good control. The cultic personality cannot tolerate anything he cannot control, and in the presence of things he cannot control, his inner frustration comes out as anger. Anger, of course, is the primary and certainly most primitive means of control. It is primitive especially for Christians. The Apostle James tells us how to regard anger: ...for the wrath [anger] of man worketh not the righteousness of God. (St. James 1:20). Angry people often take deluded refuge by a self-serving interpretation of what righteous anger is, that is, a spiritual trait that belongs to God and which has nothing to do with human anger or wrath.

3) Adherence to and dissemination of a particular doctrine, enunciated and interpreted by the cultist idiosyncratically. The cultic personality says, and this is my paraphrase, I alone possess the real, the whole truth. I have truth that will lead you to your best destiny. I have truth or a true explication of the truth that you cannot otherwise obtain. I alone can interpret this doctrine accurately. All others are impostors or renegades, or at least much inferior to me even if they agree with me, and I rightfully have dominion over them. There is continual self-justification. We impute this characteristic, by the way, to individual cult leaders, not to their followers.

4) Ancillary to the foregoing is a decided appetite for money. Money, as you know, equates to power and to control. It is always necessary to understand that both good and bad cults rest on money and economics. All organizations need support. I am speaking here of the cult leaders love for money and misuse of it. The Church of Scientology and the Moonies are particularly clever, insidious, and aggressive about this. A man I know was asked to contribute heavily toward the publication of a book, whereupon he was forgiven for transgressing some rule of the cult—in his case for having an independent thought. That particular cult, not incidentally, was self-described as an Orthodox Christian group.

5) Discounting, demeaning, denigrating, dismissing, and patronizing the rationality of followers, creating and exploiting self-doubt. The success of the cult leader depends on two elements: a) convincing people that their own rationality is insufficient, inadequate, or simply wrong; and b) finding insecure, emotionally needy people looking for certainty. Here also may enter the phenomenon known as ego destruction, so much used in extreme situations like prisoner of war interrogation, brainwashing, sensory deprivation, and induced stress. Your leaders have abandoned you, etc. Your friends no longer care about you. Your friends have given up on you. I am the one who truly cares about you, and Im the only one. The cult leader, by the way, will usually describe all possible rivals as brainwashed, ignorant, or spiritually inferior—if not directly, then often by innuendo. Ego destruction, let me hasten to add, is entirely perverse by definition to the Christian askesis of obedience.

Ego destruction and the breaking of the will, the cornerstone of monastic life, are conceptually and practically antithetical to each other. They are two entirely different things. Moreover, the breaking of the will is appropriate to monastic therapeutic protocols, not to the life led by laymen in parishes.

In Orthodox Christian religious life, voluntary submission is a fundamental and essential element of the breaking of the will, understood entirely within the context of the pleroma of Holy Tradition. Cultic ego destruction, as the term is used these days, is heavily coercive and dehumanizing, attacking the very soul itself.

6) The cultist arrogates to himself authority and powers which have no basis in commonly understood reality. The cultist perceives or feels threat, or experiences jealousy, in the presence of any other authority whatsoever, and will go to great lengths to circumvent, discount, or simply ignore other authority figures. The cultist, as you can understand, may have colleagues, but no friends who are peers. The cultic personality cannot tolerate true intimacy or equality.

7) Cultists want to isolate their devotees, so that their sources of information are more and more confined to the cultist. When you have questions about anything at all, come to me for the right answers. Avoid those outsiders. They dont care about you the way I do. This refers to the insatiable need for power and control. Jim Jones moved his people finally to South America, so that they would not only feel, but be, dependent on him for everything, including daily subsistence. But he told them he was moving them away from pernicious influences. Any religious leader should warn others to avoid salacious and unhealthy contacts, of course; however, this is not in the context of making himself the only source of news and information.

8) Manipulation of families and other emotional bond situations, inserting distrust into difficult family situations, not seeking to repair but to explore and exploit. Suggesting or encouraging divorces if there appears to be even a small rift between a husband and wife, for example. In Orthodoxy, this is a violation of the very sanctity of the Mystery of Marriage, even if the Church does grant, for very specific pastoral reasons, divorces—but again, not by the action of an individual Priest but a decision of the Bishop and a spiritual court.

9) Manipulation of all followers, carefully designed use of disinformation, seeking out the vulnerable person and, in the vulnerable person, a precise weakness—casting doubt about other followers, setting one segment against another by Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass logic and semantics.

10) The cultist, in other words, seeks to weaken his followers, bend them to his will, and deprive them of their own wills, making them mindless automatons, puppets to the puppet master— Trilbys to Svengali—, by a variety of intentional techniques, thus intensifying their feelings of inadequacy and dependency on himself, building up his own ego at the expense of those who follow and support him. This is all done under the rubric of obedience, that supremely praised and much abused virtue. The Christian leader, on the other hand, seeks to strengthen in Christ those who follow him and are entrusted to him, to build up the sense of Christian self, so that they may be able to make informed, free, and self-responsible decisions, with his spiritual guidance, to follow the dictates of conscience and the love of God.

11) The cultist is insensitive and disdainful of followers, uncaring toward them, but zealous in defense of his own perquisites. He is openly scornful and punitive toward those who leave, becomes sarcastic and mean-spirited towards them, and even vengeful.

12) The cultist, having denigrated and dominated everyone into submission, has thereby arrogated to himself the power to make all decisions, thus effectively depriving his group of exercising any voluntary choice. Voluntary choice, as we know, is essential to our being able to choose virtue over vice, and hence the freedom to choose salvation  and Paradise over sin.

The cultic person or cult leader will, over just a bit of time, exhibit most of these behaviors—though not necessarily every one of them.

In this context, is there, or has there been, such a thing as an Orthodox cult with spiritually damaging consequences to its members? The answer is obviously, yes.

The first warning to Christians was sounded by St. Paul when, in writing his First Epistle to the Christians of Corinth (1:11-12), he said: For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you Baptized in the name of Paul?

In I Corinthians 3:3, he writes: You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says I follow Paul, and another I follow Apollos, are you not mere men?

Before St. Paul, there was the Prophet Amos: This is what the Lord says to the House of Israel: Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. For Gilgal will surely go into exile, and Bethel will be reduced to nothing. Seek the Lord and live (Amos 5:4-5).

Cults are harmful in these respects:

1) To the groupies, cult life erodes or destroys freedom or perceived freedom of choice, takes away responsibility for self-direction, destroys self-confidence in ones own rational thoughts, and corrodes or destroys the whole personality. It is the polar opposite of theosis, or divinization, since its focus is solely on the human cult figure or cult personality rather than on Christ. The personality, of course, is the visible aspect of the human soul. Thus, even a Christian-based cult can be soul-destroying.

2) It can lead the cult figure to prelest or plane (spiritual delusion or deception). Too often we think only of damage to cult members, whom we see as victims, without realizing that there is always damage to the cult leader also. Cult leadership makes for pride, a sense of infallibility, and opens the cult figure to many other temptations. It encourages him to think himself perfect, as the criterion of truth and the standard by which all others should measure themselves.

Who is susceptible to a cult? What one notices about those who agree to be in a cult is that almost certainly the individual has emotional or intellectual needs (or both) which have not been filled—some empty pockets. To speak of emotional needs frequently draws a frown from unlettered clergy or would-be theologians; but therein lies the key to understanding why cults are so attractive to some. This action of the mind is not unrelated to religious faith, because one always decides whether to believe or disbelieve, what to accept or not to accept. It is disheartening, sometimes, to realize how many presumed religious decisions are made on the basis of emotionality alone and without the moderating influence of rationality and cognition. It is disheartening, sometimes, to realize how many decisions are made by clergy responsible to and for the Church on a basis of emotion alone.

The desire (emotional need) for some structure for ones life, some sense of shared experience with others, some esteem, or love (or at least attention from others), for some experience which is transcendent or metaphysical, or that appears to be, some relief for the overpowering  Angst of meaningless existence—these things make one susceptible to cultishness. People who very noticeably and often painfully do not feel good about themselves suffer much from anxiety and loneliness, are depressed, dysfunctional to some degree, do not achieve what they might, have great difficulty setting a course in their lives, and do not use the personal gifts they have. What is so relevant, here, is that cult members almost universally come from among such people, from people who have never felt good about themselves. They are sitting ducks for a cult leader. They feel empty and unloved within. They are emotionally very vulnerable to anyone who is self- onfident and appears to be a strong person, who has a program which will make them feel good about themselves, replacing some kind of uncertainty. Feeling good about oneself feels very good.

How does one protect against cultism? If the absolutely critical  importance of filling the emptiness of the souls of people handed into his care, within the fullness of Orthodox Christian experience, Christian doctrine and spirituality, lovingly in Christ, is clear to a clergyman, then by Gods grace he will know how to protect his people from cults and the cultic mentality. The fullness of Christian experience rests on Christian love. Unless we wish to contest with St. Paul, we know in our hearts that it is love which never fails. We know in our hearts all the other things that fail, but we know in our hearts that it is love which never fails. We know this from our own experience. We know that it is the soft answer which turns away wrath. We know that it is not the flippant or snide comment which bespeaks love. So, if a clergyman knows that there is a person in his parish who palpably and painfully does not feel good about himself, he can certainly help such a person by an infusion of Christian love, by teaching that person to experience love. Whatever else we might do, it is love which in the end does not fail. And this love impedes cultism, both within the Church and by preventing Orthodox Christians from retreating into cults.

If I may be so bold as to advise you directly—something which the Fathers tell us that we should do only with deep respect and out of love and concern—, may I say the following, as a man who has counselled troubled souls in a secular setting for many years, with humble sincerity? A healthy avoidance of cultic dangers rests in what you do. You must shepherd your people with full respect for their own rationality, their own freedom to make moral choices. This is a task well beyond ordinary human abilities, and you must have the humility to understand the absolute necessity of God's grace for yourself, in order to bring this all about. If you understand and function in this manner, then you will be a shepherd indeed. If you think about love as something you do to and for others, you will already know how to give love to this one suffering servant who does not feel good about himself.

To say that only sin makes a person feel badly about himself is, on its face, simplistic and does not address the Churchs actual definition of sin as an illness in need of treatment and as an illness with many causes and consequences. We who live our Christian lives west of the Icon screen by and large respond very well to shepherds who understand applied Christian love and its role in curing sin. By and large, we the average sheep do not really need or respond very well to sheepdogs, whose only skills are barking and running a lot, biting and snapping, and walking on our backs. Sheepdogs rule by fear and intimidation. Shepherds control with loving concern. Deal lovingly with us, then, giving whatever instruction to our rationality that we seem to lack, so that our own will can be inclined by love toward a better Christian life.

Here, let us think a bit more about effective shepherding, since good shepherding is part of the love which is the antidote of choice to cultism and cultic persons.

First and of prime importance, is trust—just ordinary human trust. What builds trust? Trustworthiness under all circumstances, and especially difficult ones. Without trust no Priest or spiritual leader can succeed. We must as laymen, of course, not disallow errors and lapses in  our Shepherds. If we do, we, too, fail at love. But we must have basic trust in our spiritual leaders. You will need to know us—know us as individuals—, which is without doubt tedious and time-consuming, because we are infinitely variable. You will need to show us the patience you prescribe for us, and the forgiveness we must practice, and you will need to be the exemplar (again, without our thinking that you must be perfect, which again leads to a cult mentality). You will need to be a good Christian and not judge us inequitably. You need to treat us as a good Christian would, which is to treat us as you would like to be treated.

Quite some years ago, a man named Marshal McCluhan made many headlines by proclaiming The medium is the message. By this he meant that the way and the means by which the message was transmitted had enormous effect on whether the true message was transmitted. In short, Orthodox Christianity is understood only in terms of the person instructing us. The local Orthodox Priest becomes the whole Orthodox Church, and will be so perceived by everyone, both his parishioners and anyone who might see or hear him.

In this vein, here is the advice of an Elder Paisios, who was a hermit on the Holy Mountain: The sermon does not influence people so much. People today hear a great deal. The priest must follow another path, one which will produce spiritual fruits. It is this: Endeavor as much as you can to become a good priest by working on yourself. Then you will see that your parishioners will start becoming better persons, without your even exerting yourself for them. Therefore, it is worth exerting yourself, working on yourself. Such work is quiet work upon your neighbor.

The Elder continues by suggesting that Priests work on their own souls, rooting out faults, fasting, keeping vigil, and so on. People seeing this happening will soon begin to follow the example.

Also keep in mind that personal agenda may remain hidden for some time, but that ultimately these agenda will manifest themselves. If you have been open and straightforward with your people, these agenda will not surprise anyone and will not corrode the essential trust they have in you. If, on the other hand, you kept some of your priorities carefully out of sight, especially self-serving ones, then when these agenda become manifest, they will create a discord in peoples perception of you, and thus trust will be seriously eroded. Tell the whole truth at all times: all of it. There is no substitute for openness, with love and kindness as the modifiers. Once trust is broken by some tiny duplicity, trust becomes Humpty Dumpty. For want of trust, the whole ministry will fail.  Consider us to be fellow human beings like yourself. Gently and kindly instruct our ignorance. If you sufficiently instruct us lovingly, i.e., kindly and not angrily, cults outside of Orthodoxy will not be nearly so attractive, we will be armed against them, and you will have, in part, guarded yourself against your own cultist mentality.

You are all intimately familiar with Platos Law of Assimilation. If you are not, this is not the place to admit it. Most simply stated, this means that we know and become what we experience. It is in our childhood and formative years that we are most susceptible to what we experience. If we experience love and instruction kindly given, the twig will be bent and the tree inclined to be loving and knowledgeable. If we experience anger, disdain, distrust, contempt, or neglect, our souls will be distorted and grow crookedly. Raise up a child in the way in which he should go, and when he is grown he will not depart from it. This is from the Book of Wisdom. It is a commandment too often interpreted to mean that a child must be punished in order to grow up. That is a seriously one-dimensional and distorted view of raising children. Raising up a child in the way in which he should go will, of course, include discipline, direction, and instruction in Christian belief. But twigs and trees are raised with boundless love, great solicitude, endless patience, tireless care. As it is with the child, so it it is with your spiritual children.

We learn what we are by the way our environment acts toward us. We learn we are loveable if someone treats us lovingly. We learn we are sinners if someone explains sin to us. We learn we are redeemed and redeemable if someone loves us enough to tell us that God so loved the world that He sent us His Beloved Son. Even suffering and bearing the Crosses of life can be taught lovingly.

We are also very human, in that we react as humans do. If I suddenly jump on your foot, you will react. If I do it three times, you will flinch when you see me coming; you will be fearful and quite on guard against me, not open to learning from me. You understand the implication here. What we experience in our environment forms our own reactions and attitudes; hence, the importance and responsibility to act in such a way as to bring out the best and not the worst in the people for whom you are responsible to Almighty God. Clergy are very quick to quote from St. Paul, Obey those who have the rule over you. Very seldom do we hear that accompanying instruction that those who have rule over us must also give account of us. We must be realistic and say further that we sheep, rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, nevertheless have an expectation that the Priests family, too, should embrace the virtues of the Priest himself.

To sum up succinctly, if I may, once more, humbly advise you, it is your assigned task as clergy to shepherd us lovingly, guiding us away from danger and toward virtue by your constant example. Needless to say, this is impossible if we, too, do not show love and care for our Priests, since ultimately in Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, the Priest is not separate from us,  but is a leader among us. In showing us love, however, you protect us against cultic depredation by guarding yourself against it first and then by your manner of shepherding.  Therein lies the key to avoiding cultism, its harmful effects, and its pernicious persistence in religious life.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak today and to participate in this conference and pilgrimage. I prayerfully commend you to our common Faith.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVIII (2001), pp. 27-36. The Rev. Dr. Miller is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean of Student Services, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, Washington