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Understanding ‘Toxic Religions’

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The “Heaven’s Gate” UFO cult horrified the world on March 27, 1997, when 39 members committed suicide. The shockwaves stirred memories of earlier incidents such as the 1993 Branch Davidian debacle in Waco and the 1978 “revolutionary suicide” of the People’s Temple followers in Jonestown.

Such incidents present a disturbing reality: religions can become toxic. What is intended for the welfare of people can instead fuel wars, ethnic cleansing, prejudice, fanaticism and even suicide. A simple glance at the day’s headlines illustrates the toxic potential of religions.

Such incidents also inflame stereotypes. Any attempt to understand the nature of toxic religions must penetrate stereotypes and conventional wisdom about “dangerous cults.” When such myths are deconstructed, we can ask diagnostic questions that assess any religious group, including our own, for its “toxicity.”

Myth One: All cults are dangerous. Most religion scholars reject the disparaging term “cult” for other, more descriptive terms. For example, Ruth Tucker writes in Another Gospel: “The word ‘cult’ has unfortunately become a pejorative term that sometimes reflects more on the speaker’s attitude than on the subject being spoken about, and is a word that is of questionable value in studying religious groups.”
Scholars often use the terms “sect,” “alternative religion” or “new religious movements” (NRMs) to describe religious groups that offer a vision of personal or social transformation that differs from society’s predominant religious orientation.

There are hundreds of such groups listed in J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions. While some groups are violent, most do not endanger society. Rather than stereotyping NRMs, we could ask: What is the real source of the religious group’s perceived “difference”? Is the group’s tension with society due to theological, sociological, cultural, or behavioral factors? What is the impact of this “difference” on its followers and the surrounding community?

Myth Two: Cult leaders are maniacal and manipulative frauds. Bromley and Shupe, in their book Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare, note that cult leaders are often charged with greed, political empire-building, power-grabbing and insincerity. Such accusations should be weighed on a case-by-case basis, instead of assuming that alternative religious leaders are uniquely subject to these problems.

For example, while researching my dissertation on an American Buddhist group, Nyingma Centers, I was impressed with the sincerity, personal character and devotion of its leader, Tarthang Tulku. On the other hand, Christian leaders are not immune to financial, sexual or power abuses. Rather than label leaders of NRMs, ask: Does the leader of a religious group manifest personal integrity?

Myth Three: Cult followers are brainwashed zombies. Some alternative religions demand intense commitment, while others do not. Melton and Moore, in their book The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism, note that “the majority of persons entering alternative religions leave voluntarily in a period ranging from a few months to a few years.” In addition, popular brainwashing theories would also apply to evangelical Christian “born again” experiences.

Hexham and Poe, in their book Understanding Cults and New Religions, conclude: “We reject the brainwashing thesis not only because it represents an attack upon religious conversion generally but also because there is considerable evidence that people join new religions of their own free will.” Rather than prejudge followers of NRMs, ask: What motivates followers of a religious group to join? Is their commitment healthy and life-transforming, or does their devotion have unhealthy elements?

Lorne Dawson surveys studies of “cult-related violence” in his book Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Analysts usually link three factors to outbreaks of violence—apocalyptic beliefs, heavy investment in charismatic leadership, and social isolation—but they are not, according to Dawson, sufficient to predict what groups will become violent.

Neither naivete nor prejudice about alternative religions can substitute for a critical examination of any religious group’s teachings, actions, leaders and followers. The human tragedy of events like the “Heaven’s Gate” suicide challenges us to practice discernment (I Jn 4:1-7) and to test for toxicity in all religious expressions, including our own.

James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

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Online Resources:
Links to CNN news stories on “Heaven’s Gate”
University of Virginia’s Religious Movements Homepage