What is a cult?
Derived from the Latin cultus, meaning “adoration,” cult has for hundreds of years been a synonym for religion. Until recently, the word did not have an unfavorable meaning. In earlier times, if one wished to slight a religion, it was called a “sect” or a “heresy.” But the latest edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary gives us the third meaning of cult as “religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”
Had the world cult always been used this way, there would be few religions that would not have been called cults at one time or another.
For example, the Romans considered Christianity so cultish and strange that they exterminated its adherents as enemies of orderly government for more than two centuries.
John Calvin and his followers, who began the religious movement that became the Presbyterian church, were persecuted as an obnoxious unorthodoxy by the prevailing religions of the time. They had hardly become accepted religion in Zurich, Switzerland, however, before they were denouncing other new faiths as unorthodox and spurious. They declared that since Baptists wanted to be baptized, they would do it for them—and they drowned them. They burned Unitarian Michael Servetus, one of the most extraordinary men of the time, as a cultist and heretic.
The Puritans fled England in search of religious tolerance. Once they had established their Congregationalism in Massachusetts, they considered any but their own churches as spurious. They drove Roger Williams, who was a Baptist, out of the colony, and the first Quakers who tried to settle in America were deported.
The first followers of John Wesley wanted to stay in the Episcopal church of England, but the latter would have nothing to do with such unorthodox members and drove them out to start their own cult, the Methodist church. A hundred years ago, the Mormons were an abhorred cult.
The question that should be asked of every religion is not, “Are you a cult?” but, “What are you a cult of?”
The questions you should ask of us are, “What are your beliefs?” “What are your practices?”
The premier organization for the study of cults, the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) maintains a list of organizations that have been accused of being a cult, but refuses to make an evaluation on whether or not any particular organization should be labeled as such. This is because there are generally three approaches to labeling a new religious movement (NRM) as a cult the first two are: 1) a psycho-pathological approach, where an evaluation is made based on the diagnosis of members of suffering psychological trauma as a result of their membership in the NRM; and 2) a theological approach, where the label of “cult” basically means “we think you teach something heretical, which poses a perceived spiritual danger to people”. “Spiritual danger,” however, is based on religious dogma, and can not be objectively evaluated. Psycho-pathology often does not come to light until someone has left a NRM, and even then, it is difficult to ascertain whether the person was already suffering from psychopathology when they joined the NRM, or if the NRM actually caused the psychopathology. Psychologists, in general, have been hesitant to label NRMs as “dangerous cults” on this basis.
The third way in which NRMs are evaluated is by examining their behavioral traits, in how they operate. Certain key characteristics of harmful cults from the past (like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, or Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate) have revealed certain common patterns of behavior. For example, the intentional creation of mental, emotional, and psychological fatigue to break down the independent will of members, and subsequent re-indoctrination with the NRMs teachings. This is very much in common with psychological torture techniques used in “advanced interrogation” of terror suspects.
Great care is taken in the Tribe of Gaea to ensure that those who join are doing so of their own free will and informed choice. While we do expect changes in behavior and lifestyle aligned with the goals and values of the Tribe, we do so in a gentle, non-pressuring manner. We invite people to commit, but do not coerce or manipulate that commitment.