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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 398)...

    I wonder if you can elaborate on the idea in My Ishmael of the similarities between cult and tribal mentality. I agree that people who join cults are looking for a sort of tribal fulfillment for which we all may be looking. I can also see your reasoning in asserting that the word 'cult' has bad connotations in our culture and that we are predisposed to believe that cult leaders are crazy. However, I believe there is a psychological control element to cult behaviour that I don't imagine is present in tribal behaviour. I know that often people involved in a cult want to leave and can't which also doesn't translate to the dynamic within a tribe, in my opinion. Also, I don't think the self-destructive aspect of cults translates to tribal thinking. I can't imagine a tribe destroying itself because of perceived threats from other tribes. I guess what I'm saying is that I think cults are bad. I can see that the desire to join one is a symptom of our non-tribal society and I think this is a valid point. The rest of the argument in My Ishmael is a bit of a stretch for me.

    ...and the response:

    To say that "cults are bad" is rather like saying "television is bad." I think you have to be somewhat more discriminating and say that BAD cults are bad (just as BAD television is bad). The media love "bad cult" stories, because they can always let themselves go to town on them without fear of reprisal. The first thing a news editor does with any kind of cult story is to send reporters out looking for disaffected members who will dish some dirt on the cult. Not surprisingly they generally find someone who will make any accusation you want to hear. Are cult members locked up? Sure. Tortured? You bet! Child abuse? Nonstop!! Even Janet Reno trotted out her innuendos about child abuse once it was decided to destroy the Branch Davidian at Waco (where not a single person had ever been charged with a single crime). After the siege began there, members who had been away from the compound, far from seizing this opportunity to "escape," actually snuck back INTO the compound, where our noble guardians of public morals ultimately turned them into charred corpses.

    Some marriage partners turn out to be abusive, but this doesn't make sense as an argument against marriage. Some cults turn out to be bad for their members, but this doesn't make sense as an argument against cults.

    The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cult as "A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader." Does the fact that it's"generally considered" to be extremist or false mean that people shouldn't be allowed to belong to it? In the Roman world, Christianity was considered "extremist and false." Is living in "an unconventional manner" something to be outlawed? Is there something wrong with following an "authoritarian, charismatic leader"? Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were all "authoritarian, charismatic" leaders.

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