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Rethinking Cults Today

Last night, I woke up thinking incessantly about “Cults”.  What makes a “Cult” a “Cult”?  Is it not a “religion”, or is it?  What’s the difference between a “spiritual movement” and a religion?

If a child pretends to talk to an imaginary friend, is that a “Religion”, a “Cult”, a “spiritual movement”.

My story with religion is life long.  To make clear that I’m not just a layman atheist blindly critical of religions, I actually studied Religion (as a social science class) in University, and I have read the Bible in English and in Chinese.  I also paid my dues by doing a research paper on American Religions, along with attending services in 4 different denominations to document my research.  Not that I’m very good at it, but I do know more about religions than most “religious” people who only go to church twice a year.

But my encounter with a Cult started in my University 1st year, when my new roommate introduced me to the concept of being a TREKKIE, where he would incessantly quote Mr. Spock from the Sci-Fi TV /Movies of Star Trek.

There was also the Star Trek drinking game, the inside jokes, the Secret handshake, etc.

“I’m not fanatical about it,” he would explain to me, “I don’t dress up like THOSE freaks.”

He also explained to me the Rigid difference between a TREKKER and a TREKKIE (according to him).  The second one dresses up, but the first one doesn’t.  (according to him).

For someone who is neither, I was a little disturbed by the ritualistic existence of both, based upon a science fiction story.  I like the story, I didn’t get the systemic ritualistic informal societies that sprung up around the devotion toward that story.

Around that time, I was also introduced to the mysterious groups known as the “Moonies”, who famously brainwashed young people in America into abandoning their families and joining their cult.

Then, I heard about the ancient fraternity of the “Free Masons”, with their rumored weird rituals and secret meetings and members who supposedly included the Founding Fathers of United States.

Then, more recently, there are the Scientologists, whom I only saw when I was young as a group of strange people giving away free sci-fi books.  They didn’t dress up, and they didn’t even talk about their books that much.

Even more recently, there are Comic book fans, who like the Trekkies all dress up for conventions, and spend all their savings for “items” and collectibles.

So, all over this place, there are groups of people who devote so much of their energy, time and money on strange practices.  What are the “Cults” among them?

Are TREKKIES a cult, if they spent so much money on their collectibles and conventions, and avoided talking to their non-Trekkie parents?

If Scientology is also based upon a Sci-Fi book, then what makes it a Religion or a Cult?

Are Star Trek Conventions and Comi-con “churches”, no matter how temporary?

My hyper-intellectual side want to know.

Or perhaps it’s all subjective, to the whim of the overall society?

“Free Masons” and Fraternities and Trekkies, despite all of their weird rituals, are not threats to main stream Christianity, so they are not deemed to be “cults”.  They are not even considered to be “religions”, because to do so might actually raise them up to be threats.

But Moonies and Scientologists were threats, because both seemed seriously religious, and were undermining mainstream American Christian teachings (not to mention church membership).

So, in America, what is a “cult” depends on (1) whether they undermine the mainstream belief and teaching at least.

Even more, the Moonies and Scientologists were highly secretive, particularly in their high level hierarchies.  The Moonie leader “True Father” Sun Myung Moon kept the finances of his church relatively secret, eventually leading to a conviction of tax fraud in US and 18 months in prison.

(Moon also presided over the Wedding of Roman Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo in 2001, against the Celibacy order of the Vatican.  Surprisingly, the Vatican did not excommunicate the Archbishop as they threatened to, until much later in 2009 “by default”.  So, go figure on why Vatican excommunicated Bishops named by China).  http://www.cesnur.org/2001/moon_july25.htm

Scientologists have even more secrecy relating their finances and their practices in the “high levels”.

So, typically, a “Cult” invites suspicion because its secrecy or non-transparency.  Trekkies may be strange to people, but they don’t hide what they do.  Still, Masons are secretive, and thus was accused at times of being a Cult.  Still, some organizations like the Free Masons have defended their Secrecy as necessary, because they were historically persecuted.  In other words, they had to be secret, because at times, their members were being locked up for being members.  (But that’s very Chicken-Egg kind of argument.  Neither Moonies nor Scientologists were being persecuted in the beginning, but they were still very secretive).

Still some more, Moonies are now more accepted in US, having seem to shed the stigma of being a “cult”, although their numbers are not increasing like it was back in the 1980’s.  Scientologists on the other hand, are still “cult”.  Perhaps that’s because again, the “threat” factor.  Scientologists are still recruiting from the elites of Hollywood.

* So, what about all those “cults” in China, like FLG?

1st, China has no shortage of “weird” stuff.  If MILLIONS (if not a billion) of Chinese can believe in traditional qi-based medicine and acupuncture, (which scientists cannot explain), that’s pretty weird by far.  Chinese government and people can tolerate “weird” pretty well.

And China has anime-dress up conventions too now.  (And Need I mention that China made all the leaders of APEC dress up like Star Trek characters last year?  http://rt.com/news/204015-putin-summit-startrek-clothes/)

Weird, China has no problem with you.  Spiritual, China has no problem with you.

Secretive and openly challenging, then China will have a problem with you, much like in US.

Problems for FLG are, that it went the way of Scientology instead of the way of Star Trek.  FLG tried to recruit from the Communist party, and it was being secretive (combined with a Messiah like leader).

If FLG was smart, it should have made movies about FLG and just sold movie collectibles, and hold conventions for dress up fans.  It would have gotten just as many fanatical followers, minus the suspicions.

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  1. N.M.Cheung
    April 17th, 2015 at 07:57 | #1

    I have to disagree on your comment on Chinese traditional medicine and acupuncture. Science may not yet be able to explain them, but they are the repository of thousands of years of folk wisdom and experimentations, much more than just placebo effect, as Ephedrine and Artemisia came from herbs. As for cults, China is a big country with different stages of development, so superstitions and ignorance inevitably occur, those that affect social harmony will be suppressed, as the recent example of a Christian cult family attacking a woman in a MacDonald, and 2 were executed. FLG I think caught government by surprise when they managed to organize a demonstration in Beijing, and now are mostly a U.S. phenomena. I don’t know if they are financed by U.S. government, but they are ubiquitous eyesore in N.Y. Chinatowns. More like the Chinese Moonies and a lot less effective. Far more worrisome are the Islamic fundamentalists in southern Xinjiang. I hope more economic development and integration there will eventually solve it. I wish Chinese government instead of controlling border let those wish to leave grant their wish and good riddance like those in Tibet allow one way exit.

  2. April 17th, 2015 at 09:19 | #2

    Acupuncture and reflexology can be explained by science. They work on the interlinking nerve in the human body. Some are harder to understand, like “Qi”(气) which still cannot be explained by modern science.

  3. ersim
    April 17th, 2015 at 12:07 | #3

    Sometimes I wonder if being an “american patriot” is like being a member of a cult which calls itself the “united states of america”. Just a thought.

  4. April 18th, 2015 at 07:57 | #4

    @ersim
    Basically, there is nothing wrong with being a patriot. The problem is when absolutism replaced sensibility.

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