Q: What’s the difference between a cult and a religion?
A: Tax breaks.
Not the most tolerant sentiment in the world, but illustrative. I’ve been reading a lot about cults, recently, because I’m trying to put together some scraps of prose for a TV script I’m working on. It doesn’t have a name, really (I’m terrible with names) but the basic premise is combining two essential elements: the leafy green wonders of the English countryside and the insane self-parody of the Waco siege at Mount Carmel. It has the working title of Waco in Wiltshire, although that makes it sound like a show about a terrible stand-up tour. Anyway. It’s one of those “study in contrast” pieces I’m so very fond of. You know the thing: lingering shots of rain-sodden badgers and tulips growing in the mud, then this big scary compound full of nutcases. Clever stuff.
But anyway, the point I’m getting around to is that I’ve been doing research (read: playing the Wikipedia daisy-chain game, where you start off at Waco Siege before migrating to the secret ingredients in Grappa and you’re not quite sure how) on cults. And the essential differences between a cult and a religion.
And here’s my conclusion: there isn’t one, save for legitimacy. Y’see folks, a religion is a group of people who gather together to
a)worship a legitimate shared deity
b) around whom is built a culturally-significant set of practices and codices, and
c) pass on to their children the essential teachings and wisdom that is their heritage and birthright
A cult, on the other hand, is a gang of nutcases who
a) share a mass delusion based around a logical fallacy
b) indulge in bizarre and incomprehensible rituals, and
c) brainwash their children and susceptible innocents under fear of violence.
Do you see the problem? It’s an us-versus-them problem. Logically (and I can’t, in all honesty, apply that word with any conviction to any comments on belief of any kind), a discernment between the noble and upstanding teachings of Gentle Jesus Meek & Mild and Saint Vernon Howell (nee David Koresh) is impossible. Both are logically-inconsistent subjective morality plays. The initiation of the 51-day siege which ended (as Bill Hicks maintained until his death, and was recently all but proved) with Bradley Tanks shooting fire into a building containing women and children was at the behest of the Federal government because, it was claimed, the Branch Davidians were stockpiling weapons* and abusing children. If these were serious concerns, then why does the Roman Catholic church go unmolested?
Legitimacy. Christian churches have been around for, oh, quite a while, and that by itself obtains legitimacy. A legitimate belief system entails many things: widespread acceptance, relaxed government attitude to money-making and banking, land leasing, etcetera. A Church (or Mosque or Synagogue or, indeed, any significant body of people who worship one thing) is something that is accepted, both culturally and morally. That’s what makes it different from a cult.
It’s worth pointing out that the Branch Davidians were ostensibly Christians who happened to have several minor differences from surrounding, accepted Christian churches, making the Waco Siege look, to an atheist outsider’s eye, like an act of targeted religious genocide. But that would, of course, be ridiculous. But already, as you can see, the lines between tolerated, acceptable faith and dangerous sedition is quite vague. Christianity as a religion is pretty bad for this sort of splintering. There are an estimated 41,000 different Christian denominations around the world, a truly staggering number when you consider that Jesus’ teachings amount to “be nice to people”. That’s more than 10,000 denominations per word.
If it’s hard enough to determine which Christian denominations are bona-fide sects and which are dangerous cults, things get even more difficult when it comes to something like Scientology, that belief system that’s pretty popular among Californians and nobody else. The knee-jerk reaction to Scientology is to dismiss it as a dangerous cult and a menace to our children. But when you put aside personal prejudices it’s not that apparent. Here are some facts about Scientology:
a) It’s based on a confused, illogical and contradictory set of stories created by a notorious fantasist.
b) It’s a fee-based hierarchical structure with different levels of study.
c) It teaches that humans are immortal entities who have forgotten their true nature and must return to “the good life”.
d) It is recognized as a religion by many governments, afforded tax breaks, and allowed to own premises and provide education to minors.
e) It has been accused of human rights violations, intimidation, violence, shady business practices, brainwashing, defrauding, and political manipulation.
These are things that are also true of Christianity. And Islam and Judaism**.
I’ve actually been to a Scientology open day (they have a centre in my local city) and had one of those E-reader test things. The people I met there had the wild smiles of people at war with themselves and the look of the permanently downtrodden, but I went to a Presbyterian school so I felt right at home. Apparently my Thetan levels are way off and it would only cost £2000 and six months of hard work to get them back on track. I immediately cut them a check, but then I was told that smoking and drinking were forbidden and I had to fight them off with the half bottle of lukewarm Jack Daniels I had in my bag.
This problem extends to films that depict cults. Most fall into the first category of being obviously and totally evil. Examples include Rosemary’s Baby, where the cult that controls the apartment building is obviously in league with Satan, or Children of the Corn, which uses the same tired trope.. This is a script-writer shortcut: rather than depict people who belong to cults as misguided or purely wrong, it’s much easier to paint them as evil beings. This is the same way we treat Nazis in film. As shocking and terrible as it is to consider, most Nazis were not steely-eyed, cold-blooded killing machines, but loving family members who liked cream cakes and long walks. That they happened to belong to a blood-thirsty regime which engaged in systematized genocide is a fault of their perception. These were good people doing bad things, and that’s a tricky position to think about, never mind portray on screen. It raises all sorts of questions about Moral Ambiguity: are we, the people who think we’re good, the people who’re actually bad? Who’s drawing lines, and where are they drawing them? What is right and wrong?
This is all sophomore philosophy, but illustrative in its own way. It is the function of our society’s cultural outpourings to depict other cultures as either archaic or flawed. Other cultures are subversive by definition if they open our minds to new ideas not accepted by the majority. Thus the function of films about cults is to portray the ideas behind those cults as flawed. Suggestions of moral ambiguity are also subversive by definition.
This is illustrated to perfection by first the book and later the film, of Fight Club. Anyone who isn’t a first-year student knows that Fight Club is a bit hackneyed by virtue of its influence, in much the same way as A Clockwork Orange seems jaw-droppingly subversive the first time you see it and never again after that. Fight Club (or, if you like, Calvin & Hobbes for grown-ups ) is not about a religious cult but a cult of personality, but this is broadly the same thing. Fight Club is subversive because it presents a moral dilemma: in the beginning, it seems like a good idea, allowing people to deal with their emotional baggage. But it mutates so subtly that before too long we realize we’re rooting for guys who are full-blown terrorists and fanatics. We, the audience, are now rooting for the bad guys. How did that happen? Moral ambiguity.
My point is that any depiction of cults that uses the easy route of “well they’re obviously worshipping the devil” is presenting a half-truth, and any mid-way smart audience will see through it in an instant. To tackle the idea of a subversive and possibly dangerous cult gathering requires a level of finesse. All word-changing religions started as cults, funnily enough. Christianity under the pre-Constantine Roman Empire was regarded as so dangerous and subversive that its adherents were put to death. Later, Protestants were put to death for much the same thing, etcetera, etcetera. Depiction of religion is tricky in any medium without offending, and the suggestion that all religions are an ambiguous moral hodge-podge is a very subversive idea indeed, and one likely to make many people angry.
So, in conclusion, I will probably abandon this project and stick to something safe, like a cartoon series about a blue cow who farts butterscotch or something. But then again you know how angry dairy farmers can get.
*In case you’re wondering if the Catholic church stockpiles weapons, it does. Sort of. Well, it has its own army , and if you read carefully you’ll see that the Pontificate Swiss Guard is managed by the church itself, not Vatican City, making it in effect a personal army, something which is actually illegal in Europe with the exception of the Atholl Highlanders. The Pontificate Swiss Guard, as was pointed out in a recent episode of Archer, don’t use Halbards anymore. They use Heckler & Koch MP7s, of which Vatican city has a significant stockpile. It’s a tenuous argument but I’m sticking to it.
**Notice at no point so far have I said anything about personal faiths, especially yours, which I’m sure is reasonable, thought out, intelligent and socially responsible. Please don’t firebomb my house.