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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".
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.
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.
- Little explicit instruction "you'll figure it out" or "whatever you feel
willing to offer" Which is especially nasty when coupled with either or both of the
- High implicit expectations "everyone else did" or "of course you
don't have to"
- High deniability "we never asked that of you" or "did I ever
- Copious shame. Do you ever feel bad for having missed something you
weren't actually told about?
3-Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by Leadership
- Politics; does most everyone vote the same way?
- Social; how much time does this group take up?
- How much time do you spend with non-group members?
- Is one of the scare-off speeches "you won't tend to have non-group friends"?
- If there is a non-Craft function, is your attendance expected?
- If you 'can't make it' are you missed? Or is your absence actually
"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:
- How much reliance is placed on the interpretation of the leadership?
- Is it "bad form" to question their sources?
- Is it unacceptable or rude to check things out yourself?
- Is questioning the dictates or the logic of the leadership frowned on?
- Is it considered inappropriate to discuss alternate views or
- How much hostility is there toward non-group members?
- Does the group have "enemies"?
- Is there an "us" vs "them" mentality toward outsiders?
- Are non-group members ridiculed?
- If people leave the group, are they regarded negatively?
- Are thoughts or interpretations initially valued if they came from the
group (or the leadership in particular)?
- Are thoughts or interpretations initially derided if they came from
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
- Invite your friends
- Bring your children
- "Keep an eye out for like-minded people"
- "Have them come by just to see what it's like"
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:
- Publications, especially small local ones that might serve (coincidentally)
to attract students
- Public events, again, with an eye to 'potential members'
- Purely social organizations that "just happen" to duplicate group
- Important point; Does the leadership of these
other groups coincidentally duplicate that of the main group?
- Corollary point; if the leadership changes from that of the main group,
do the leaders of the main group become resentful or disinterested?
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.
- Charging money for spiritual instruction, classes or initiations
- Fees (other than token) for legal clergical functions such as marriages.
- Donations encouraged or required
- Requirement to bring more (material, food, whatever) than strictly needed
for rites, classes, etc. and the excess being retained by the leadership
- When copied materials are mailed, shipping and handling that totals in
excess of 10-20% of the printed postage
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
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.