In Good Faith

My daughter just got involved in a very controlling religious community. What defines something as a cult, occult or a community of faith?

Alycia Erikson - Christian

Rev. Alycia Erickson, pastor of Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, has a passion for working with the LGBTQ and straight communities.

I hear your concern for your daughter. I’ll focus my response on defining what a cult is. A cult can form from almost any type of group, not just religious. In her book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Thaler Sanger writes that the label “cult” refers to three factors: the origin of the group and the role of the leader; the power structure or relationship between the leader (or leaders) and the followers; and the use of a coordinated program of persuasion (also called thought reform or brainwashing). It can be deeply painful when someone you love gets involved with a group you fear could be a cult. I encourage you to learn as much as you can and never stop loving your daughter. 

David Gardiner - Buddhist

David Gardiner is an associate professor in the Colorado College Religion department, specializing in Buddhism and religions of China and Japan, and is co-founder and director of BodhiMind Center.

I’m sure some sociologists of religion have defined those terms but the subtleties escape me. Trouble with “control” is that it seems some people like it. They’re either wired or else emotionally inclined, for reasons of past conditioning, to need things in black and white. I’m told as a college teacher to beware that the brains of incoming freshmen are often still adolescent in wiring, knowing only right and wrong answers and thus not yet capable of handling much ambiguity. It’s true that the older students seem more mature in this sense. But in a religious community where someone feels uncomfortably controlled and doesn’t like it, I think one ought either speak up or walk away. The same goes for any relationship. 

Ahriana Platten - New Thought-Unity

Dr. Ahriana Platten is founder-executive director of In Good Faith, leads Unity Spiritual Center and speaks around the country on the topics of interfaith and intercultural understanding.

A “cult” may be considered to be dangerous to a person’s physical, mental or emotional health. Beware of faiths that isolate people from family members and those they love. Beware of faiths that require adherents to participate in sexual encounters with leaders, use illegal substances or engage in illegal activity. These are signs of an unhealthy and potentially dangerous environment. The “occult” may be defined as a field of study that includes mystical phenomenon. Certain teachings of the faith may not be available to beginners. One must pass various initiations and rites in order to receive the next level of information.  There is nothing sinister about this process. It simply assures one level of information is fully understood before the next is provided — much like higher education. 

Bruce Coriell - Earth-based Christian

Bruce Coriell served as an interfaith chaplain in colleges and universities for over 35 years. These days you are most likely to find him off wandering rivers and mountains.

Originally, the term “cult” was synonymous with worship and “occult” meant that which is hidden. In contemporary use, the words have become twisted by stereotype and emotion to mean an awful group of religious people with whom I disagree. I believe we are better off setting those terms aside and focusing on unethical behavior by religious groups. Any community (religious or otherwise) that attempts complete control of its members’ time, money or relationships should raise red flags. As you respond to your daughter, any attempt to make her leave or force her to choose between your family and the community will reinforce that community’s influence. Instead, reinforce your complete acceptance of her and invite her to stay in conversation with you. Unconditional love will win over. 

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