Of religions and cults

Christianity is not a cult

Nobody joins a cult hoping to be led astray and knowing what it is, but they do join a religion with at least some idea of what it is.

Since I can remember, I have been interested in people’s beliefs, whether they consider themselves religious or not. As I grew older, I learned about cults and the horrifying acts and atrocities within, whether inflicted upon its members or by its members. I was baffled by the thought process of those who join cults and why they do what they become persuaded or coerced to do.

Piqued by my interest in this topic, and having done some research, I have come to realize that religion usually helps its members find some purpose in life through the understanding of their importance and the roles they play within this spiritual or human faction, whereas a cult extorts its members by stripping their individuality to serve the whims of its leaders.

Similarities between cults and religions have been drawn from having devoted followers, charismatic leaders and segmented teachings, which the participants live by. Cults are disguised as something else before being revealed as what they are, whereas religions are not.

In my class “Religions of Humanities,” I was taught that the characteristics of religion include being ancient, flourishing after the passing of its founders and having set traditions. Cults are temporary, fizzle with the passing of their founders and usually lead to the destruction of life and/or dignity.

I will discuss the vast differences between Christianity and the religion I am most familiar with. A cult I am still grasping the enigmatic evil of, NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um), a name curiously derived from the word “Nexium” which is a proton pump inhibitor used to reduce stomach acid, as founded by its leader Keith Raniere.

According to “The Program,” a memoir by Raniere’s former girlfriend and business partner, Toni Natalie, Raniere was considered “one of the smartest men in the world with an IQ over 200.” Raniere cunningly convinced Natalie to leave her husband and slowly took control of her life, wearing her out with his insatiable sexual appetite even before forming the cult.

While NXIVM was established, Natalie recognized Raniere’s obsessions being expressed to ensnare more women and fought against him only after much time personally trying to break from his hold.

Hands in prayer.
Photo Credit | Patrick Ullmer

In my experience, three defining steps of religion a member undergoes include the imprint, teachings and traditions. In Christianity, the imprint, stamp of belonging, is baptism. The teachings of Christianity are focused upon the Bible, God’s creation and sustaining of humankind in the Gospels.

A certain emphasis on the personal development path is acknowledging weakness to selfishness and the strength to overcome while surrendering oneself to the spiritual powers that guide them to understanding and purpose. The traditions are of specific steps of sacraments revolving around self-care, care for others and the next step of life with others in baptism, marriage and funerals, which most religions also tend to have laws about these large life events.

Cults are similar in defining steps but are more manipulative by deceiving others into joining the machinations of a leader who has ulterior motives. For this example, I will explain the “traditions, teachings and imprints” backward as they were executed in that way.

Since Cults are quite temporary, the “traditions” will be replaced with “established customs.” In her book, “Captive,” Catherine Oxenberg describes being expected to be barefoot with others in a seminar, follow the same welcome actions upon Raniere’s arrival and eat very little under the guise of learning to fortify their bodies differently. These were the “established customs” of NXIVM its members followed, barefoot and abstaining from food so as to subtly break down their defenses of personal need by taking away comfort first.

NXIVM teachings made the members realize their weaknesses and immerse themselves in personal shame, a veiled form of brainwashing participants to see Raniere as a stable figure, with sexual favors to him to ascend to the next levels of their “personal development classes” in this disguised “marketing enterprise” of “business ethics.”

The final aspect of this process was the “imprint” within the branding of Raniere’s initials on his followers with a cauterizing pen, leading to a firestorm of media coverage on NXIVM and Raniere’s eventual incarceration.

Religions are more expressive in leading followers to separate themselves from a certain pleasure to realize a deeper meaning, whether human or spiritual. In “Humanities,” I learned Buddhism’s founder Buddha was a prince who had every worldly power yet felt unsatisfied. In accepting his own mortality, he found peace. He actively sought to help people realize their frailty while discovering their purpose and strength. His goal was to liberate, not dominate.

Similarly, Christianity was designed by Jesus Christ. He sought to renew morality and redefine a spiritual understanding between humans and God. The Ten Commandments, God’s rules of life and morality bestowed to humankind, acknowledged by Judaism and Christian teachings, have influenced our society’s laws to ensure order against chaos, violence and theft.

The endorsement of selflessness, whether it be used to further devote oneself to one’s God or others within this acknowledged temporary life (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) and most often respect to other forms of life (Hinduism, Sikhism) of attaining personal enlightenment (Buddhism) are various teachings within various religions.

One argument for Christ’s divinity being real to Christians is found in author C.S. Lewis’s statement in his book, “Mere Christianity” — “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher… Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse…” Someone whose teachings have caused a spiritual wave of followers led to the deaths of millions and by this cause could not be of anything good if it were a simple human design. Only a vast spiritual power beyond anything in this world could have created a religion that has lasted so long and faced hundreds of crushing persecutions throughout history, only to remain to spread throughout this world. It would have died out centuries ago if it had been of any human design.

Christianity is the only religion whose founder’s birth was foretold centuries earlier and who came with the express purpose to die for his followers, which is not what Buddha, Confucious or any other religious leader came to do.

Christianity is the answer, the one true religion in which people are not forced to join but must choose to. Eventually, many do by realizing this life is temporary, and their service to their fellow man and woman is more personally sustaining than to themselves.

If you do not follow a religion, does that mean you cannot be a good and honorable person? Heavens, no.

Do what you know is right and help those around you to the best of your ability. You can attain morality without Religion. I wrote this article to help myself get a more refined view of where I stand and what my religion means to me.

This unusual topic and article were born when I reevaluated all of my college classes. The class of “Religions and Humanities” was one of my “generals” during my earliest years. At that time, the sex cult that was NXIVM was being dismantled for what it was. I was hoping to learn through each “Humanity” class why anyone would join a cult, especially one as evil as that, but it was never discussed or explained. In doing my research presently, I realize I am quite lucky not to have fallen in with a cult.

I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind wherever they stand, but only wish to explain religions usually seek to bring out the best within a human stemming from its founder. In contrast, a cult seeks to exploit it. A following began from a selfless act of love such as Christ’s torturous death on a cross cannot be evil as its religious leader was scarred for the benefit of others. In contrast, a cult leader scarred others for his benefit.

Religion is not a cult, nor does it exploit its members in the ways a cult does.

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