Disclaimer: • The following PowerPoint slides include the crucifix as a backdrop. This is in no way intended to denigrate Christianity. I wanted a religious backdrop for the PowerPoint and all of them have crucifixes on them. In addition, I am not implying that all Christians are crazed cult followers.
Bell-Ringer • What comes to your mind when you think of a “cult” or “cult members”?
Definitions • By definition, a cult is “a religious organization whose characteristics are not drawn from existing religious traditions within a society.” • Whether created from outside the society or created within the society, cults bring something new to the larger religious environment. • We often think of cults as engaging in extreme behavior, but cults usually do not appear in such an extreme and bizarre form. • The word “cult” (or “new religious movement” if you want to be P.C.) covers a wide range of groups and organizations, but religious cults in the U.S. today share several characteristics.
Shared Characteristics • At the center of religious cults is an authoritarian structure, meaning that the leader(s) require absolute and unquestioning obedience. • Cults also share a rejection of the secular world’s laws and ways. • Strict discipline of the adherents. • Rigidity in thinking. • Conviction that they have sole possession of truth and wisdom. • Belief in the group’s moral superiority. • Discouraging of individualism.
Why do they form? • Most converts to cults are looking for friendship, companionship, acceptance, warmth, and recognition. The cult provides this support. • Adherents to cults look for immediate experiences and emotional gratification that they could not find elsewhere. • Cults emphasize authority. By having a firm authority structure and a clear, simple set of beliefs and rules, they offer converts something in which to believe. • They profess to offer authenticity and naturalness in an otherwise artificial world. They attempt to show that they are not part of “plastic society.”
Why the hate? • After all, in a sense all of the major religions in the world today started out as cults. • The 1960s and 1970s were a time where great social disturbances were taking place: the counterculture, sexual revolution, racial tensions, explosion of recreational drugs. For older folks, these new developments were threatening. Some of the biggest “cults” of this time period actively targeted young people, so many believed that these cults had “brainwashed” the younger people. • The majority of cults, however, do not use things like imprisonment and violence to get what they want. • Public attention to mass suicides like Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in South America in 1978 further cemented the “evil” cult leader in the public’s mind.
Cults of the Past: The Millerites • The Millerites were followers of William Miller, a farmer from New Hampton, NY, who interpreted the Bible to pinpoint the return of Christ “around 1843.” • After undergoing a conversion experience, he developed a method for computing the precise time of Christ’s return, known as the millennium. • Miller initially predicted the millennium would begin in March of 1843. When that failed to come true, he then said it would be March and then October of 1844. • It was said that many Millerites abandoned their jobs and property and gathered on hilltops to await the second coming of Christ.
Heaven’s Gate • Formed by “former” psychiatric patient Marshall Herff Applewhite (“Do”) and former nurse Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles (“Ti”). • They came to believe that they were the earthly incarnations of aliens millions of years old: they were the two witnesses mentioned in Chapter 11 of the book of Revelation, placed on this earth to "harvest souls," i.e., to help save as many people as they could. • They told their followers that they would be persecuted and put to death by their enemies, their bodies would lie in the open for three and a half days, and they would prove their deity by rising from the dead and disappearing into a cloud. The “cloud” was a spaceship that they would hitch a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet as it passed the Earth in 1997.
Starting on March 31, 1997, the 39 members of the cult began their process of reaching their deity. Dressing identically and working in teams, they began the process: • The first team of 15 received the barbiturate phenobarbital mixed into pudding or applesauce. They then drank vodka to wash it down. • It's surmised that after consuming this toxic mix, they lay on their beds with plastic bags over their heads until they passed out. Those who still lived removed the bags and covered their bodies with purple shrouds. The following day, Sunday, the next team of fifteen followed. Finally there were seven on Monday, and then only two.
Follow-Up Questions • In 2011, Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was convicted of two counts of felony child sexual assault (12 and 15 years old). • In his defense, Jeffs argued that his sect believed in a “marriage of eternity called celestial marriage, wherein celestial means heavenly authorized, not to be intervened by government intervention.” • Were Jeffs’s First Amendment rights violated? Why or why not?
Follow-up Questions II • What limit, if any, should be placed on people’s rights to express themselves according to the doctrines of their religion?