A Fine Line between Cult and Culture

I ran across this trailer for a new documentary on Discovery, about Hillsong Church. We used to listen to and perform music from them all the time, back when I was religious.

One line (taken completely out of context, I’m sure) from the trailer: “There’s a fine line between cult and culture.”

I’m not sure that’s a useful way of thinking about it.

Religions and other groups fall on a cult spectrum. Let’s say the UU is at one end, and Jonestown is at the other. My religious communities were closer to the latter end of that spectrum, but there were always other groups we could look at that were worse than we were.

“We’re not like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We don’t shun dissenters.” (Actually, we did. We just didn’t focus on it or acknowledge it.)

“We’re not like the Mormons. We don’t believe in Joseph Smith, bogus golden tablets carved with Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics, and magical glasses that translate them into English. (No, we just believed that Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden were real and that Noah actually saved the entire planet from a divine flood by packing two of every animal into a big boat.)

The first rule about being in a cult is that you don’t know that you’re in a cult. (If you did, then you wouldn’t be there.)

Being able to compare ourselves against such “cults” gave us a ready self-justification. We could comfort ourselves, saying, “We’re not a cult. We’re not like them.” We drew a line between “cult” and “not cult,” and we were on the “not” side.

Instead, we should have seen ourselves as being on the same cult spectrum, along with every other group. We should have looked for similarities between our behavior and cult-like groups and been skeptical about the cult-like aspects of our own communities. Rather than drawing an imaginary line between “cults” (them) and “non-cults” (us), we should have been looking at both as on the same continuum, with similarities and differences.