Sunday, May 12, 2013

Is Christianity a Cult?

In the last week or so, I have been doing some pretty gruelling reading, and not just reading but-- rather more gruellingly-- listening and watching. I became interested-- perhaps morbidly fascinated-- by the story of the People's Temple, the cult who committed mass suicide in 1978, under the influence of their charismatic leader Jim Jones. Nearly a thousand people died, in a purpose-built settlement in Guyana called Jonestown.

One of the most compelling aspects of the Jonestown case is how well it is documented. There is a website, maintained by a university, where transcripts and audio recordings from the cult's archive can be found. And the cult kept very full archives indeed, right up to the end.

I am not including a link to this site, as I would urge readers not to visit it. It's not that it is salacious in itself-- it is perfectly sober and factual, and rather intended to counteract sensationalism than to foster it.

But I actually regret reading and hearing some of the material I encountered on it, which has cast rather a chilling shadow over me in the last week or so.

And it has made me face the question: is all faith a bad idea? Should we run a mile from anybody who claims to possess authoritative knowledge from on high, as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church claims to do? I was not asking myself this question in any rhetorical spirit. I was very shaken by what I learned of Jonestown and what happened there.

It's not that Jonestown was a specifically Christian or even religious tragedy. The Reverend Jim Jones began as a Christian preacher in the mid-fifties, and his group (the People's Temple) were affiliated to a major Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ. (It wasn't just this organization that lent legitimacy to the cult. Harvey Milk, the gay activist who has been exalted as a hero figure in recent years, defended Jim Jones in a letter to President Carter. The columnist Herb Caen also wrote sympathetically of the People's Temple.) However, Jones pretty much stopped even pretending to be a Christian towards the end of his life, and the Peoples Temple had embraced Marxist-Leninist principles by the time they moved to Jonestown.

But I think Christians have to honestly face the fact that many of the characteristics of cults seem to be applicable to Christianity.

First off, cults tend to cut their adherents off from friends and families and other ties. Which may put one in mind of Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

Secondly, cults tend to demand complete commitments of time and money from their adherents. This may not seem very relevant to Christianity today, but it certainly seems to apply to the primitive Christianity as pictured in the book of Acts. In this regard, I have always found the story of Ananias and Saphira rather troubling:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Saphira his wife, sold a piece of land, And by fraud kept back part of the price of the land, his wife being privy thereunto: and bringing a certain part of it, laid it at the feet of the apostles.

But Peter said: Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost and by fraud keep part of the price of the land?

Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thy heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God.

And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and gave up the ghost. And there came great fear upon all that heard it.

But even today, the claims of Christianity are absolute. "For me to live is Christ", said St. Paul. "He must increase, and I must decrease", said St. John the Baptist. "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it", said our Lord.

Third, cult leaders tend to make grandiose predictions which, when they do not come to pass, are explained away by their followers. Take, for instance, Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witness, who claimed that the world would end in 1914. The Jehovah's Witnesses get around this by explaining that the end of the world began in 1914. And there are many other examples from other cults.

This must remind us of what C.S. Lewis described as the most embarrassing verse of the Bible-- Matthew 24:34, in which Christ seems to claim that "this generation" will not pass until he has returned. (This is a complicated topic, and not one I intend to return to in this post-- there are plenty of other Catholic and Christian sites where this apparent problem is discussed, and resolved to my satisfaction-- I am merely mentioning it as part of a prima facie case that Christianity has cult-like characteristics.)

Aside from all that, there is the general fact that Christ repeatedly enjoins us to "doubt no more, but believe". He chides his disciples for their lack of faith. Doesn't this seem just like a cult leader? Shouldn't belief be a rational response to sufficient evidence, not a virtue in itself? In everyday life, aren't we put on guard by someone who keeps repeating "Trust me"?

If that weren't enough, I have to admit that the psychological dynamics of cults seem all too similar to those of mainstream religious believers.

One thing that seems apparent from reading about cults is how much of their appeal comes from a sense of togetherness, of bonding, of belonging. The people in Jonestown were barely given enough to eat, lived in primitive and overcrowded conditions, and were worked to exhaustion-- and yet many of them described their community as a paradise, and were willing to die rather than see it broken up.

I can testify that this sense of bonding, of belonging, of self-transcendance, is definitely something I find in Catholicism. It is a source of great joy to me that the liturgy in which I participate, and the prayers I recite, and the Bible that I read, give me a sense of profound togetherness with Catholics all around the globe and all through the centuries. There is even a sense of self-sacrifice and self-abandonment in this; we rejoice to climb out of the ego, and assent to a creed that is not of our own making, to submit to a morality that seems so much more solid and objective than the moral fashions of the day or our own moral intuitions.

Again, cults thrive on the opposition of the world. The more relatives or friends or colleagues seek to persuade the cult member that she is being duped, the more she congratulates herself on her loyalty, and the more she takes the hostility of the wider society as a confirmation of the cult's specialness. Is this not a similar situation to that of Christians, and especially Catholics? Don't we use "the world" as a pejorative term? "Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you."

So, having identified all these similarities, why do I remain a Catholic?

First off, I would say that deception itself implies authenticity somewhere. You wouldn't have fake banknotes unless there were real banknotes in circulation. Jim Jones was known as "Dad" by his followers. Does this prove that fatherhood is itself a fraud? Hardly.

The mind is notoriously capable of perceiving patterns that aren't there-- for instance, seeing a face on the moon, or finding hidden messages that Paul McCartney is dead in the cover of a Beatles album. But this capacity only exists because the mind is built to perceive patterns that are actually there. The religious urge is rooted deep in the human soul. It can be abused and perverted by cults (and by ideologues). But how does this prove that the religious urge is evil in itself, or has no proper fulfilment?

Secondly, I would posit as the biggest difference between the Catholic Church and a cult that the Catholic Church is constrained by its own traditions. The Pope cannot wake up in the morning and decide that abortion is OK, or that lying is permissible in a good cause, or that plural marriage is to be instituted. The teaching of the Church has developed painstakingly over centuries, and the Church has never contradicted its own defined doctrines. Making an act of faith in the Catholic Church is not writing a blank cheque, or signing away your conscience, because you can be sure that there are some things the Church will never teach or demand-- for instance, that evil should be done in order to bring about a greater good. (This is why the concept of heresy, which is so often portrayed as being rather sinister and manipulative, is actually a very important safeguard.)

(I hope I may not be misunderstood in making this point. I am not saying that the Church's dogmas and doctrine are to be valued as a kind of protection for Church members from their own leaders, who would otherwise abuse their power. I don't actually believe they would. But I do believe that, for someone who is trying to discern a clear difference between the Catholic Church and cults, the existence of a definite body of dogma which cannot be contradicted should be reassuring.)

Third, the difference between the Church and suicidal cults could not be greater. The Church, of course, denounces suicide as a mortal sin. Not only that, but the Church has consistently insisted that martyrdom, while it is is noble and even necessary in certain circumstances, is never to be sought for its own sake. Some heretical sects, such as the Donatists of the fourth and fifth centuries, did believe that martyrdom should be actively pursued. The Cathars, everybody's favourite heretics, were also rather keen on the notion of suicide, believing as they did that all matter had been created by Satan.

I think, too, that the profundity and fertility of the Church's teaching is a clear sign that it is not, to be blunt, a scam. Listening to the tape-recorded ramblings of the Reverend Jim Jones, and trying to make sense of his faux-Marxist brand of utopianism, the contrast between such fabrications on one hand, and Christian doctrine on the other, could not be starker. How is it that the apostles, such very ordinary men, could have laid down the basic principles upon which such a magnificent (and complex) edifice of theology, dogma, canon law and doctrine could have been raised, over so many centuries? Was St. John the Evangelist simply lucky when he began his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God"-- anticipating such intricate metaphysical and Christological debates? Why do the Gospels and the epistles, written by so many different hands, fit together so perfectly? Why did the Popes, down through all the ages, show such a bulldog-like refusal to condone heresy or to water down orthodoxy, even when the matters at hand seemed like the merest wrangling over terms, and even when there were very good worldly reasons to compromise?

The New Testament is a very slim work. And yet all the fabulously intricate teaching of the Catholic Church is contained in embryo within it. Not only that, but I would argue that no doctrine has ever surpassed the Christian doctrine in terms of sublimity, depth and insight into the human condition, to the extent that-- even in our post-Christian age-- writers and philosophers and film-makers and many others find themselves drawing upon it for symbols, vocabulary and categories of thought. How credible is it that a bunch of frauds from Galilee could have inspired all this?

Another argument I would make is that it is very difficult to see the great figures of Catholic history as manipulative power-trippers in the style of Jim Jones, the Reverend Sun Yung Moon, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, L. Ron Hubbard or all the other self-aggrandising, money-grabbing cult leaders of history. (Is Mormonism a cult? I don't think it's a cult now, but I think it was a cult in the nineteenth century.) St. Paul and St. Peter and St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch did not decide to take their congregations with them when they went to their deaths. St. Padre Pio's gifts brought him a life of suffering, mortification and obedience, not power and riches. Saint Bernadette Soubirous lived an obscure life as a cloistered nun. What personal good, in worldly terms, did her visions do her? And the list could be multiplied indefinitely.

When we read about the manipulation and madness of religious cults-- and even not-so-religious cults like the People's Temple-- there is a temptation to recoil from all religious truth claims, to cry "a plague on all your houses", to resolve to take nothing on faith and to only trust what we can see and verify for ourselves. Such an attitude, however, is naive and in the long run impossible. Ultimately, we can't help but placing faith in something, even if it is simply the received wisdom of the society we live in. Not only that, but the great enigma of life lies before us unresolved-- we have simply shrunk back from the precipice, but the precipice is still there. The galaxies above us and the galaxies within us require an answer. Our souls cry out for an eternal home, for an ultimate commitment. Cults are successful because they offer an answer to these questions. They offer satisfaction to our deepest longings. The fact that they are shown to be false does not mean life's most profound questions are unanswerable, or that the human soul's deepest yearnings must go unsatisfied. I believe that there are answers; and I believe that they are to be found in the teaching of the Catholic Church.


  1. A very interesting, intelligent post.

    It seems to me that you identify a quandary that _countless_ numbers of good people fall into these days.

    You write:

    The mind is notoriously capable of perceiving patterns that aren't there ...

    The mind, the mind.

    The mind can see so much - on one level, excluding what other dimensions of our humanity have to tell us.

    I hear that you have been revolted and disturbed by what you read this week.

    Aspects of your humanity could _FEEL_ something which others could not feel.

    Aspects of your humanity can feel what is great, noble, good in the Catholic faith that others cannot feel.

    Richard Dawkins appears to be a kind of modern type trapped in simply rationalism.

    The kind of arguments which you honestly confront in the first part of your piece are sufficient to convince a Dawkins mentality of a too-easy identification between Jonestown and Rome ...

    The tragedy of our day is that more and more people become like Dawkins unable to see beyond the purely mental ...

    I am enjoying discovering you - as I seek out Catholics on the internet who can reflect intelligently on the tragedy of Catholic Ireland.

    I am also starting to blog on Catholic Ireland and would like to give you a link ...

    PS. Also love your quote below from dear, dear Hilaire Belloc - a man with significant Irish roots whose Irish-American wife (first generation American of Irish parents) played such an unsung role in his work.

    I am blogging on Belloc too - one of my dearest friends even though he died in 1953 - and cannot quite resist giving you my Belloc link too

  2. Thanks for your kind comments, Roger. I will link to your blogs when I get the chance.

    I do think it is important for Christians to face challenges head-on rather than skirting them.

    I am not a big Belloc fan myself, though I love that quotation, but I am a huge Chesterton fan. I am a founder member of the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, such as it is. I don't know if you are based in Ireland but somebody who came to the last meeting is interested in starting up a Belloc Society. We might even merge and make it a Chesterbelloc Society!

  3. Yes Maolsheachlann, non-skirting is indeed important as you have admirably demonstrated.

    I am based in Ireland again, after a painful yet providential seven year absence. I would be very interested in a Chesterbelloc society although I am far from Dublin.

    I have read little of GK as yet - although I see that his more generous approach was in many ways more effective than Belloc's sometimes too scathing manner.

    Still Belloc is extraordinarily important to me. His defects were a result of his passion - no small thing. And Belloc had a way with him that often seems more cogent and focussed than I have found in the admittedly little of Chesterton I have read.

    I am very much hoping to find and read Christendom in Dublin soon. I think I shall have to buy a second hand copy, although if you knew of an online version, I would be much obliged to you (My budget for books is limited and there are many I need to hunt down and read, particularly about Catholic Ireland.)

    I really thank you for the link, will reciprocate and say more soon ...