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“Cults” and Intentional Communities

Knowledgebase > "Cults" and Intentional Communities

A fair number of people today believe that our society is swarming with dangerous “cults,” religious (and sometimes political or social) organizations that are terribly destructive to their members and a real danger to society at large. For better or worse, intentional communities are often drawn into the “cult” controversy. Communities, after all, in many cases do have features about them that many consider “cultic.” Individual will is sometimes suppressed for the good of the group; some communities have strong-minded leaders; commitment to the group can run high; and so forth. Community-minded people, therefore, cannot escape the “great American cult controversy.” While off-course groups and dysfunctional — or even outright evil — individuals certainly do exist, my own conclusion is that the “cult” scare is, by and large, seriously overblown. To say the least, many of the most frequent allegations about the “cult menace” don’t hold up under scrutiny. Groups that represent a real threat to the public do not number many thousands, nor do their members number hundreds of thousands, or even millions, as some anticult activists assert — unless one considers every Hindu temple and Muslim mosque and intentional community in the land a dangerous “cult,” a patently preposterous proposition. Nor is the “cult menace” growing; religions with unconventional appeal have been around as long as civilization, and the fear of the different is just as ancient as alternative pathways themselves are. While not all traditions and groups and persons are wholesome, most are relatively innocuous. One wishes that the anticult denunciations that are so easy to throw around in generalities would be based on real case-by-case evidence, not the sort of spectral hysteria that fueled the Salem witch trials. If I could choose just one step forward in the “cult” controversy, it would consist of the abandonment of the term “cult” itself. As Catherine Wessinger once wrote in Communities magazine, “The word ‘cult,’ which formerly referred to an organized system of worship, is now a term that slanders any religion that you don’t know about and don’t like.” The term has come to do for religion what “nigger” has done for race relations. And that does matter; when a society tolerates pejorative language, it announces that some people are marginal, even subhuman. Hate thought, we have painfully learned, can lead to hateful acts. The widespread belief that destructive “cults” are proliferating and posing a grave danger to society can lead to terrible acts. Many who have studied the Waco siege and fire believe that the federal agents at the scene badly overestimated the danger that the Branch Davidians posed to society, never tried to understand just who the Davidians were and what they believed, and as a result set up a situation in which several dozens of innocent persons (many of them children) were killed. People who see “cults” as a major social menace often draw up lists of generalizations by which a savvy observer should be able to identify evil groups. The problem is that the items on those lists almost always apply just as fully to good, healthy groups as to problematic ones. Consider these items from the typical cult-hazard list:

  • “A ‘cult’ has a strong, powerful, dominant leader.” But that doesn’t identify inherently dangerous situations. Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve System, is enormously powerful and makes decisions that deeply affect the lives of all of us, so is he automatically a “cult leader”?
  • “A ‘cult’ works extremely zealously to attract new members.” But missionary zeal is a crucial element of Christianity, Islam, and other religions the world over. Most religions are always very happy to receive new members. You can believe that you know the ultimate truth and work hard to get others to accept your version of truth without deserving to be considered a social menace.
  • “A ‘cult’ is preoccupied with getting money.” A lot of groups sure do want your money. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a religion that wasn’t preoccupied with money. Moneytheism is probably the true American religion. It may be sad that our social institutions seem so uniformly thirsty for cash, but that situation is definitely not unique to “cults.”
  • “‘Cults’ suppress questioning and doubt.” Most religions believe that they embody the truth, and urge followers to promulgate that truth, not question it. The Pope endlessly tells his flock to follow his teaching on birth control and quit questioning it. That hasn’t worked too well for him, just as it hasn’t worked too well for most leaders, “cultic” or otherwise.
  • “Indoctrination techniques help keep people involved in the group.” Most groups have rituals and practices that push members to stay involved. It’s possible (at a stretch) to see things like meditation and chanting and speaking in tongues and group yoga as manipulative, but they don’t cause otherwise sane people to lose their free will.
  • “A ‘cult’ imposes major lifestyle restrictions on members, sometimes telling them what clothes to wear, how to raise their children, and even whom to marry.” Most groups are not all that restrictive, but a few, indeed, are. Hardly any, however, are more restrictive than a Catholic religious community that tells its members they can’t have sex, can’t have much money, and must do as they’re told. Most persons wouldn’t like that, but those who voluntarily choose a restricted, guided lifestyle often find it empowering. Ask any nun about that.
  • “‘Cult’ members often cut off ties with their birth families and old friends in favor of total dedication to the ‘cult’.” Actually, that’s just what Jesus advised his followers to do; see Matthew 19:29 and Luke 14:26.
  • “‘Cult’ members are asked to give huge amounts of their time to the group.” All religions and most social groups urge their members to be highly dedicated to group purposes. Hard workers are prized. And what’s so bad about working hard for a cause in which one believes? Building community isn’t easy, and the most dedicated persons are the ones who make it happen.

All of that is not to say that abuses don’t occur, that people don’t get hurt. People do get exploited, and bad people take advantage of good people in every corner of our society—in child care, in schools, in religious organizations, in offices and businesses, in intentional communities, and everywhere else. What’s unfair is singling out small religious organizations and intentional communities for special persecution just because they happen to fit someone’s preconceptions about “cults.” People have the right to basic freedoms as long as they’re not hurting others, and they should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. When truly abusive situations do occur, call the police. Short of that, friendly dialogue is usually possible if you don’t come on like a mortal enemy. The average person encounters thousands of individuals, groups, and communities in a lifetime, and inescapably has to work through a never-ending process of making judgments about them. If you encounter an intentional community or a religious group you need to evaluate, I would suggest keeping precepts like these in mind:

  • Different is not always pathological, and “normal” is not always safe. Some groups can be wildly unconventional yet utterly harmless; others can look very normal, superficially, and still be deeply flawed.
  • People have different needs. One person’s great communitarian or religious experience can be another’s worst nightmare.
  • Double standards are unfair. Small, offbeat groups should have the same rights and privileges as large, well-established ones. Lots of groups of all sizes and types are eagerly looking for new members, for example, and it is not any more wrong for a small, unconventional community to urge you to join than it is for the biggest church or social club in town to do so.

One should take responsibility for one’s own actions. One of the most frequent allegations against “cults” is that they engage in brainwashing of prospective members. Actually, intelligent brains are next to impossible to wash. Most people are well capable of making decisions that are right for them and usually have mainly themselves to blame when they make bad ones. Our society seems to encourage people to blame others for their bad decisions, and that misses the real problem. The nature of personal relations is subtle and never the same twice. One individual may encounter a given group and find it the best thing that ever happened to him or her; another person may find the same group disgusting. People need to find their own congenial relationships. Joining a group is rather like romance—the chemistry that makes it magical is different in every case. Behaviors often criticized as signs of abusive situations do not necessarily identify a dysfunctional religious group or community. What, then, should a prospective communitarian do to avoid falling in with a bad crowd? The basic answer is eternal vigilance. One should be on the lookout all the time—and probably more so in regular, daily life than in a communal situation. Keep both eyes open, and don’t let emotion get in the way of common sense. Be wary of persons who are both authoritarian and convinced that they have all the answers. Most communities are wonderful, uplifting places that provide their members with good, meaningful lives, but a few fall short of the mark. If you’ll indulge me in one last list, here are a few final tips on staying centered in life:

  • Trust your instincts. If you don’t feel good about a person or situation, remain skeptical until your doubts have been resolved.
  • Don’t give your money away unless you are willing to let it go unconditionally and never see it again.
  • Remember that things are not always what they initially seem; keep your options open even as you begin to take steps toward serious commitment.
  • Question authority.
  • Stay away from people who have guns.
  • Remember that life goes on; if you make a mistake, extract yourself from it and get on with things.

Communities, on the whole, are the greatest! With a bit of prudent common sense, living in the company of others can be the best experience life has to offer.


Many calm and reflective books on nonmainstream religions provide a useful counterpoint to the rather sensational array of popular volumes that have contributed so heavily to the widespread public fear of the influence and growth of “cults.” All of the works of the British sociologist of religion Eileen Barker offer useful insights; perhaps the most direct is New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction(Unipub, London, 1989). John A. Saliba, a Jesuit priest, knows a lot about disciplined community living; his books, especially Understanding New Religious Movements (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995), are fair, measured, and quietly rational. Mariana Caplan, who lives in the Hohm Community in Arizona, offers solid personal insights into the stresses that occur in families when children make religious or personal choices not pleasing to their parents in her book When Sons and Daughters Choose Alternative Lifestyles (Hohm Press, Prescott, Arizona, 1996), and offers practical suggestions for getting beyond hostility and stereotyping in the generational conflict. My own perspectives on “cult” issues are elaborated at greater length in a theme section on “Intentional Communities and ‘Cults'” that I edited for Communities magazine, No. 88, Fall 1995.

Author Bios: Tim Miller teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, where he specializes in alternative religions and intentional communities. He is the editor of America’s Alternative Religions and author of The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America, a multi-volume history of intentional communities over the last century. He may be reached at the Department of Religious Studies, University of Kansas, Lawrence KS 66045 USA. Email: [email protected]
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