In today’s WSJ, Mitch Horowitz writes that “America has probably supplied the world with more new religions than any other nation.”
He brings to mind a favorite quote about my own faith:
Christianity began as a fellowship in Judea; moved to Greece and became a philosophy; moved to Rome and became an institution; moved throughout Europe and became a culture; moved to America and became an enterprise.
(I wish I could recall the source of this quote, if anyone would like to remind me I’ll post the citation.)
Horowitz then discusses the nature of cults, and the distinction between them and “new religions” to which America has always been a safe harbor.
[many academics and psychologists] agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership.
He concludes with reasonable standards. These would be good advice to no small number of “normal” churches in Christian denominations.
Yet every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy. As opposed to a cult, a religious culture ought to be as simple to enter or exit, for members or observers, as any free nation. Members should experience no impediment to relationships, ideas or travel, and the group’s finances should be reasonably transparent. Its doctrine need not be conventional—but it should be knowable to outsiders. Absent those qualities, an unorthodox religion can descend into something darker.