Are Cults in the Eye of the Beholder?

One of the most interesting aspects of cults is that they are often interpreted differently by different people. What that means is that to a Christian, their faith is perfectly reasonable, sane and many will state they worship the triune God of their own free will. Ask an atheist or humanist what their opinion is of Christians and you’ll probably see a startling number of people who feel that Christians are cult members. It’s hard to imagine a world without Catholicism, but when Christianity first spread to Rome, the Romans did not embrace Christians with open arms, but rather paved the way for the execution of Jesus Christ, who by many definitions, would have been viewed as a cult leader.

In Tacitus 109 AD, it reads, “To dispel the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again, not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome.”

Oh, what would Tacitus think if he saw the Pope in his robes of splendor seated from the Vatican leading the Catholic Church!

While Tacitus left a scathing review on Christianity and Jesus, Josephus, during the same time period, left a much different view.

In book 18 of the Antiquities, Josephus writes, “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”

As you can see, there are many different interpretations of what defines a cult and the question must be asked if like beauty, each person defines for him or herself what the standard is. Are there definite, concrete terms that define a cult or is what defines truth and reason to one person; degrading subjection and mind control to another?

The truth is that if you use any of the checklists and hold any religion against it, chances are you will find them classified as a “cult.”

Some common characteristics of cults include the following. Try using the model against any number of religions and see whether or not they fail or pass the test.

Group holds unquestionable commitment to its leader (whether dead or alive) Practices such as meditation, chanting or speaking in tongues are used to squash doubts and strengthen submissiveness and commitment to either the group or leader Questions that lead to doubt or dissension against the group or leader are discouraged and may lead to forms of punishment (emotional or physical) The group sees things as black and white- an “Us vs. Them” mentality The group teaches that the end result must be obtained by whatever means or methods necessary (whether violence, or illegal activities are involved) The group is heavily focused on expansion and recruiting new members The group becomes exclusive with members feeling that socializing with those outside the group is “evil” or a sign of a lack of commitment to the group leader or group. Members become obsessed with the group and will cut ties with their “former life,” friends and even family members in order to move forward on their new spiritual journey

Many of these attributes and characteristics are present throughout all religions.

What do you think? Are cults like beauty in the eye of the beholder and do all religions have some form of cultic behavior?

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