So, are You in a Cult?

Perhaps an odd question to be asking, but since most of the Christian fundies who see any pagan jewelry you might be wearing are possibly thinking it already, it's probably worth considering. The fact that paganism is not really organized is both a strength (much diversity and room for inspiration) and a weakness (not much in the way of quality control).

This page actually started when I was realizing that a particular local group and I were not compatible. At one point I was ranting (I do that a lot) and made the remark that such-and-so people ran their group like a cult. The person I was ranting to pointed out (quite rightly) that such-and-so did not charge any money for participation. I agreed, but something still stuck in my craw.

Isaac Bonewitz wrote an article around '79 that looks seriously at some ways to actually evaluate that question. When I revisited his page, I realized that asking for money is not the only red flag in the world. I think his list is very good as far as it goes. Being an occasional extremist, I think it doesn't quite go far enough. He mentions some qualities that do indeed function as red flags. My purpose here is to give some specific examples, while realizing full well, that any one (or even any three) red flags do not automatically mean "it's a cult".

Signifigant Caveat

See the last line of the paragraph above: these are only red flags; many of these same behaviours show up in perfectly normal and happy groups, families and companies. Look for number of red flags. Look for patterns. That's when to start thinking carefully.

Hopefully you do make a habit of actually thinking. My toying with this list started when I was just past a time in my life when I thought loyalty was a good enough substitute to critical thinking. Let's just say that's not a pattern I would recommend. Ever.

1-Internal Control
This is easiest to see in overt expressions of "power-over". Because that is so often annoying, it's very common for people to leave. So it ends up not being used much. However strong internal control can more subtly (and thus more effectively) be accomplished by a lack of clearly defined roles for members.

2-External Control 3-Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by Leadership
"I know more than you do about this tradition" is, hopefully, perfectly valid when said by an oathbound initiate and teacher to their pre-initiate student. However to assume that this situation will always obtain between those two people, even after the latter is an initiate, is to make the assumption that time served directly equals knowledge gained. This is not always the case. As my Psych 101 teacher used to say; some people have 40 years of experience. Some people have one year, repeated 40 times.

Flip the question on it's head. Are the dreams, ideas, innovations and inspirations of the leadership treated well? Do those of the membership get the same respect, and are they sought after in the same ways as those of the leadership? If not, why not? I mean that seriously why not?

4-Wisdom/Knowledge Attributed by Members
to the leadership of the group. Two big potential red flags here are:

5-Dogma
How many things are there that cannot or should not be questioned? How much hostility shows up when they are? Are interpretations from other groups subject to serious ridicule? Are other interpretations 'not to be discussed', especially to new members?

6-Recruiting How much pressure is there to

7-Front Groups
How many other groups is this group connected with, or are it's aims expressed through? Is the connection made public, or is it 'just not talked about yet'? Some possibilities: 8-Wealth
In many Pagan groups, money is not an issue. Mostly because the Pagan community tends to be fairly broke. So while in some religious groups there might be a wide distinction between the Cadillac-driving guru and the broke acolytes, this isn't a real likely Pagan scenario. However, disparity can be subtle. If you find too many of the following; first question whether the group actually is Pagan, and secondly think about whether or not you actually want to participate in it. Another way to look at transfer of wealth is to consider other valuable services. Yard work, cooking, cleaning and so on. In a normal close-knit group, there will be a usual amount of back-and-forth willingness to work with each other. I can't even count the number of times I have helped someone move. However, if the majority of the services are being done for the leadership by the membership, then perhaps there is some unbalance here.

In the event of any such unbalance, an unwillingness to look at it or discuss it would also be a big red flag.

9 - Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non- tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners. How much peer pressure is there related to any aspect of sexuality?

10 - Sexual Favoritism Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups. Leaders who tell "some of the group" to 'not come tonight' and then have 'private classes' with 'certain students' are clearly abusing their power.

11 - Censorship Amount of control over membersí access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s). Again, a tricky one, especially in an oathbound path. Certain information by it's very nature will need to be delayed. But delay is not the same thing as hide and control.


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