Sep 29, 2019

Why 'cult' might be the wrong word for most new religious movements

Many new religions provide community life and a sense of purpose for followers.
Alice Moldovan for God Forbid
ABC News
September 29, 2019

If you've ever dismissed a new religious group as a cult because they believe in alien lords, you may want to think again.

The core tenets of many religious beliefs — including those that have been around for thousands of years — are just as incompatible with science, argues Carole Cusack, an expert in religious studies at the University of Sydney.

"There is nothing inherently crazier in believing in an alien messiah than in believing in the virgin birth, which is a core doctrine of Christianity," Professor Cusack told RN's God Forbid.

She's talking about the Raelian movement, who say on their website that "life on earth was created by extraterrestrials who were mistaken for gods by our primitive ancestors".

While some new religious movements take advantage of their members and leave them feeling isolated, Dr Cusack says "most of them are entirely harmless".

She says that when new religions break the law they should be subject to punishment — but the same rules should apply to established religions.

And she believes the word "cult" is a derogatory term that we may regret using in the future, because it's unlikely people will stop forming new communities around new religions.

"I like to call them baby religions," says Susan Jean Palmer, a researcher at McGill University in Canada who studies new religions.

"They start with an individual having a mystical experience, or revelation, and then he or she manages to communicate this to family and followers. And then it starts to grow."
'Falling in love' part of conversion

One of the religions Professor Palmer has studied is the Twelve Tribes, which started in Tennessee in 1972 and is now active around the world, including in NSW.

It has faced criticism in the past from former members who said they were cut off from family and friends while living in the religious community.

The community's aim is to create a perfect group "where everybody learns to love and help each other", she says.

The group sees itself becoming "the bride of Yahshua", the Hebrew name for Jesus that they've adopted.

During her recent work in Australia, Professor Palmer interviewed members of the Twelve Tribes in the Blue Mountains town of Katoomba.

She says some members were attracted to the group by "the community life, this close social life, the bonding between the members and cooperation" — rather than a religious zeal.

Some initially told her they "wished people would stop talking about the Bible and stop talking about God," she says.

"Eventually they got used to it and learned to understand that was the glue which kept the group together."

Members of the Twelve Tribes have been criticised for the way children are disciplined by being spanked with a thin rod as a form of religious observance.

Professor Palmer says the children she encountered in her research "are not abused, but well-cared for and happy".

The ABC approached the Twelve Tribes communities in NSW, but they did not respond by deadline.

Religion can provide something beyond a way of explaining how the world works: the promise of a better future with a like-minded community.

"Emotional connection — falling in love — is a huge part of religious conversion to any kind of group," says Professor Cusack.

But while this connection links charismatic leaders to their followers, Professor Palmer says it's not right to call all new religious leaders crazed.

"We don't really know what goes on in the brains of these talented people. I see them rather like creative artists who inspire other people," she says.

"It's sort of like saying, 'All concert pianists are crazy.' They have very different personalities. And they create these little cultures, and some of them take root and grow up to be major civilisations.

People 'should be allowed to choose' a new religion

There are many accounts of new religions discouraging contact with outside family and friends, and members facing difficulty when they leave.

Both academics agree that new religions should be subject to the law, but that ultimately, people will choose to join out of their own free will.

"When there are actual breaches of the law, obviously it is correct to intervene, because the modern secular state relies on the rule of law," Professor Cusack says.

"But if there aren't [legal breaches], and people choose, then they should be allowed to choose."

When it comes to the sensitive matter of children being born into a religion or community, Professor Cusack says there are parallels to life outside religion.

"Children don't ask to be born into abusive families either. It's a problem that secular society has as much as any religious group," she says.

"It's not right to see this issue as something exclusively pertaining to religious organisations."

Both academics want to find an alternative to "the c-word" to describe modern religious groups.

"We could stop using the word cult, though actually the word NRM ['new religious movement'] doesn't have quite the same bang," Professor Palmer says.

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