Rational Religion

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Comparative Anatomy of Cults


As most commonly defined, a “cult” is any system of belief which, A.  Replaces the system of belief an individual was raised to become a member of; B. Seeks to divorce the individual not only from the original system but from everyone who seeks his or her return; C. Demands unreasonable fealty, to the exclusion of all other loyalties, ; D. Demands expenditures of time and/or money which do not leave sufficient resources for outside pursuits;  E. Insists that you stifle all lines of inquiry which might threaten your allegiance to the Cause; and therefore, F.  Entirely dominates the subject’s consciousness.


Any new or unfamiliar system of belief will produce lots of external enemies and a comparable body of internal doubts.  It takes single-minded dedication to survive and keep the faith intact.  The external enemies help, of course, as long as they don’t completely exterminate the faithful.  Combating them rallies the congregation, and the stronger the opposition the more convinced the believers become that they are onto something rare and valuable that the outsiders don’t want them to have.


The personal questions are the greater danger, but proper discipline and sufficient distraction (like fighting the rest of the world) will keep them at bay.


All metaphysical religions (that we know the origins of) start as cults, and many of the most established and historically “respectable” maintain cultish enclaves, minus only elements A and B above.  (Convents and abbeys qualify, as do nearly all disciplined “religious” communities in which the believers have social contact mostly with each other and according to a relatively inflexible code of rules and taboos.)


Similarly, any individual who has been indoctrinated into a codified metaphysical system (as opposed to those of us whose metaphysics is the disorderly and unavoidable result of being forced to deal with the external world through an imperfect array of senses, organized by a relatively primitive central nervous system as filtered through a highly variable bath of hormones) is a prime candidate for recruitment into a cult.


All it takes is some profound disillusionment with the inherited system.  Since it’s supposed to provide comfort, solace and a respectable degree of happiness, almost every belief system will break down - for one person or another - rather regularly. 


If something comes along which promises those missing benefits, the subject may be inclined to make the jump.  All he or she is required to do is trade one set of specific beliefs for another; all the habits and patterns of thought are already in place. 


Just believe; work hard for the cause; and above all, don’t ask pertinent questions.  The people around you will love you, support you and protect you from the rest of the world.  Somebody will absolve you of all responsibility, for everything, as long as you let them make all your decisions and reap the rewards of your productivity. 


You don’t even have to live isolated in a convent or a commune.  You can live right out in the world, as long as you are not “of” it. 


This is very much like taking a bath in a wet suit...and about as pointless.


One can live involved in the world without becoming contaminated by the baser elements of it.  The key is to become one’s own person; something you have no chance of doing if you live isolated or insulated by some thick coat of dogma. 


I think you are supposed to interface with the rest of the universe; be affected by it and have some effect upon it, at least for your brief span of residency.  It can get pretty overwhelming, certainly, and all of us need retreats and enclaves into which we can escape it for a while, but total withdrawal is a copout.