Chapter 4: Introduction

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From the very beginnings of organized religion in Egypt, Sumer, and Babylonia (c. 3000 b.c.e.), certain members of the established or state religion have become dissatisfied with the structure of orthodox worship and have broken away from the larger group to create what they believe to be a more spiritually transcendent and personal form of religious expression. Sometimes these splinter groups are organized around the revelations and visions of a single individual, who is recognized as a prophet by his or her followers. Because the new revelator's teaching may seem unorthodox or heretical to the beliefs of the larger body of worshippers, its members are branded as cultists or heretics. In other instances, those practitioners of ancient wisdom who celebrate the rituals of a religion that existed long before the dominant faith had established itself are condemned as devil-worshippers. It has been observed that the god of the old religion often becomes the devil of the faith that has supplanted it.

Often, the members of cults are forced to meet in secret due to oppression by the established majority religion and the state or because of their own wishes to practice their faith in private. Because these groups often require their members to swear to maintain the strictest of silence and secrecy regarding the rites and rituals employed by their religion, the general term "mysteries" is often applied to them. The word "mystery" comes from the Greek word myein, "to close," referring to the need of the mystes, the initiate, to close his or her eyes and lips and to keep secret the rites of the cult.

In ancient times, the students who would be initiates of the mystery schools were well aware that they must undergo the rigors of disciplined study and the training of body, soul, and spirit. In order to attain the self-mastery demanded by the priests of the mysteries, the newcomers understood that they would undergo a complete restructuring of their physical, moral, and spiritual being. The priests, the hierophants, preached that only by developing one's faculties of will, intuition, and reason to an extraordinary degree could one ever gain access to the hidden forces in the universe. Only through complete mastery of body, soul, and spirit could one see beyond death and perceive the pathways to be taken in the afterlife. Many times these mysteries were taught in the form of a play and celebrated away from the cities in sacred groves or in secret temples.

In contemporary usage, the word "cult" generally carries with it very negative connotations and associations. Many men and women, who draw upon stereotypes created by sensationalism in the media, hear the word and immediately think of devil-worshippers sacrificing babies or black-swathed zealots, carrying bombs under their robes, intent on blowing up a church, synagogue, or mosque in order to appease their angry god of wrath. Too often, it seems, the word "cult" has become synonymous with "hate," and religious hatreds tend to have long memories.

Writing in the March 15, 1993, issue of Time magazine, Lance Morrow suggested that every cult is a kind of nationalism with citadels that "bristle with intolerant clarities and with high-caliber weapons." Scratch any aggressive tribalism or nationalism surface and one is likely to find "a religious core, some older binding energy of belief or superstition, previous to civic consciousness, previous almost to thought." Here, Morrow discovered, is the great paradoxGod-love, the life-force, the deepest well of compassion "is capable of transforming itself into a death force, with the peculiar annihilating energies of belief."

A number of apocalyptic cults, such as AUM Supreme Truth, the Branch Davidians, and the People's Temple, have seen signs in contemporary society that they have interpreted as omens that the end-times are fast approaching. Because these groups want to isolate their members and prepare to defend themselves during Armageddon, they have frightened the general population by their stockpiling of arms and their occasional antisocial acts. The mass suicides carried out by members of Heaven's Gate, People's Temple, and Order of the Solar Temple have also presented negative and alarming images of what many believe to be typical cultist practice. However, for every Heaven's Gate seeking to send its members to a "higher level" aboard a UFO, there is an Aetherius Society, wherein its members simply wish to convey the messages of hope and good will that they believe was given to them by the Space Brothers, extraterrestrial visitors in the skies. For every AUM Supreme Truth releasing poison gas in a crowded Japanese train station, there is a Falun Gong that trains its members to be emissaries of peace and champions of civil rights in China. Caution must be used in labeling any seemingly unorthodox group of religionists as a cult; what is regarded as antisocial or blasphemous expression by some may be hailed as sincere spiritual witness by others.

Delving Deeper

brandon, s. g. f. religion in ancient history. new york: charles scribner's sons, 1969.

gaster, dr. theodor h., ed. the new golden bough. new york: criterion books, 1959.

morrow, lance. "in the name of god." time, 15 march 1993, pp. 2425.

rosten, leo, ed. religions of america. new york: simon & schuster, 1975.

steiger, brad. the fellowship: spiritual contact between humans and outer space beings. new york: doubleday, 1988.

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Chapter 4: Introduction

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Chapter 4: Introduction