Cult Hysteria: The Irrational Fear of Religious Minorities

cult hysteria

When I turned 30, I spent a week at an ashram.

After considering my options, retreating to an emerald-green island of lush palms to reflect on my life and the decade that stretched out before me seemed like the ideal transition to a new chapter.

The weekend before my trip, I met a friend for lunch and told her about my plans.  She regaled me with descriptions of oily purple sunsets and fresh, exotic fish meat from her own experiences in the same country.

But when I told her where I planned to stay, her smile instantly dropped.  “Isn’t that a . . . a cult?”

Her question totally blindsided me.

It’s worth noting my friend isn’t especially skittish, sheltered or without exposure to other cultures.  Worldly and well-traveled, she appreciates the pull to international adventure.  She volunteered in disaster relief efforts and her travel experiences included at least two war zones.

Yet the idea of me staying with this small group of (admittedly conservative, very devoted) religious people made even her uncomfortable.


For starters, no evidence existed to support her leap to conclusion.  The group I planned to stay with appeared on none of the lists compiled by human rights watchdog groups that routinely monitor suspicious religious organizations for abusive practices.  Established decades ago, they boasted a long history of humanitarian efforts and contributed generously to internationally recognized charities.

But many people, without realizing it, view religious minorities with suspicion—–even if they themselves subscribe to a minority religious tradition.  It seems the very idea of an esoteric-but-organized religious group inherently calls to mind a charismatic, super megalomaniac leading poor, disenfranchised souls through a monotonous life of all-encompassing personal slavery to his ego.

In other words, in the minds of many people, any spiritual tradition outside those with official ties to one of the major world religions falls squarely under their definition of “cult.”

Let’s talk about that word for a moment:  cult.

Without Googling it, or looking it up in Wikipedia, what defines that word for you?

Okay.  Go ahead.  Google it.

You’ll discover quickly that that word, and its definition, remain a subject of contention among scholars, law enforcement and in popular culture.  In short:  there is no agreed upon definition at all.

The Oxford Dictionary offers two vague, but telling, entries for the word cult

1. “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

2. “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”

Under the first definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit neatly.

Under the second definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit at one time.

But when most people use the word cult, they mean a group that:

*Is centered around a deified leader who claims exclusive knowledge of the divine
*Abuses its members sexually, physically and/or psychologically
*Discourages dissent or healthy theological and spiritual debates among members
*Uses progressive techniques to systemically isolate members from their friends and family outside of the cult
*Harshly punishes rebellious acts among members

You notice anything about that list?  The first thing that leapt to my mind:  not one of the world’s major religions has escaped the same accusations.

Yet we assume most Christian churches are not cults.

No well-meaning friend or family member ever pulled me aside before a meditation at a Buddhist temple, solemnly warning me in hushed tones to “watch out for brainwashing!”

Let me be clear, I am not knocking the world’s major religions.  In fact, I personally benefited from all of them in unique, life-changing, powerful ways.  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judiasm & Hinduism all color my life experience richly.  I admire the charity, patience, love and tolerance promoted by the vast majority of peace-loving religious people around the globe.

I only mean to illustrate the point that minority religions are not afforded the same benefit of doubt.  But they deserve it, or at least they deserve it as much as any other religious tradition.  Thousands of minority religious groups around the world manage to live peaceful, relatively decent lives without ever harming a child or holding their wives in slavery.

Certainly, abusive groups exist among all of them.

In fact, all relationships, including marriages and family relationships, employee/employer relationships, and yes, relationships with religious communities, carry the potential to become abusive.

But most don’t, and that is no less true for smaller religious groups than larger.

I went to the ashram, by the way.  And inevitably, I turned 30.  And it was fine.  More than fine.  The powerful healing I experienced continues to carry me in subtle ways throughout my spiritual life even years later.

But the most important lesson I brought back with me: when it comes to experimenting with new spiritual practices, trust yourself.  Ultimately, seekers take grave risks in search of the truth—but the most of the time, the darkest perils in spiritual life lie within us.

Know yourself.  Know your heart.  Know your mind.  They are yours.  No one owns them but you.

Do not fear people who think and live differently than you; fear people who believe theirs is the only way to think and live.

That’s really scary.


  1. I love this article! One thing that I found over the years is the Bonewits Cult Evaluation Scale done by Isaac Bonewits. It’s very common sense but helps evaluate whether the group you’re interested in is more of a cult or not. Here’s a link to one.

    Thank you for all that you do and write! I’m always glad to see Moody Moons in my inbox.

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