Countering Cults Constructively

by John Wijngaards in The Outlook, vol 20 (1986) 4, pp. 105-107

Last year when describing our Housetop Centre in the Winter issue of The Outlook, I mentioned in passing our apostolate among the so-called ‘sects and cults’. In May of this year four Vatican departments published a joint paper on these ‘new religious movements’ in which they brought together findings from 75 countries. The Roman document is surprisingly positive. Avoiding the trap of indiscriminate ‘cult bashing’ which so many Christians fall into, it outlines the psychological reasons which make small religious groups attractive, and observes that cults are not a serious threat to the Church, but should be seen as a pastoral challenge. This positive approach is, no doubt, due to the fact that the four Secretariats in question are those in the forefront of dialogue: with other Christians, Non-Christians, Non-Believers and Culture. In our Housetop Centre too we have found consistently that it pays to adopt a positive attitude.

A good amount of publicity has been given by the media to what they call the new ‘sects and cults’. As could be expected, it has been the unusual features that were given most attention. We were shown saffron-clad monks dancing barefoot in Oxford Street to the rhythm of the Hare Krishna mantra. We saw pictures of thousands of Transcendental Meditation practitioners gathered in a mass meditation at Fairfield, Iowa, in an attempt to heal the world through collective consciousness. We followed with interest the excesses and expulsions of the self-styled god Rajneesh. Recently we have been regaled with the hilarious pranks of a Satanist conning credulous believers. The spotlight has been focused on whatever was sensational, exotic, bizarre. It has branded the sects and cults as ludicrous and strange.

Throwing the First Stone

Such a presentation however obscures the fact that the members of new religious movements are ordinary people, not significantly different from everyone else in society. Some recent studies have shown that most are not paranoic individuals, not casualties from broken families, not drop-outs from society in the ordinary sense of the word. Many are highly intelligent and gifted persons. As the Vatican report points out, they are good people who joined these movements out of honourable motivations.

This is also our experience at Housetop. Of course, real abuses do occur. Some sects fasten themselves as bloodsuckers on unsuspecting victims exploiting them financially for next to nothing in return. Some practise indoctrination, instil fear and foster abject dependence on a master. Some are led by confused visionaries who, like blind leading the blind, cause untold misery to faithful followers. The Vatican report rightly states that people should be warned about such dangers. But there is another side to the new religious movements. Their membership is made up of many individuals who, though woefully misguided, mean well.

Moreover, if we consider the interest and concerns of some movements dispassionately we cannot but concede that they often stand for values which should appeal to us Christians. They interpret life in the light of spiritual principles. They exact complete dedication and offer personal guidance. They search the treasuries of the past while expressing confidence in an exciting new age. They form friendly communities that offer mutual appreciation and support. In many ways they seek to realize goals to which we as Christians also aspire. Above all they hanker for human purpose in a meaningless world.

The Search for Affirmation

For meaning is what this new quest is all about. Many of us live unnatural lives. Urbanized living has robbed us of direct exposure to whatever is mysterious in nature. We no longer enjoy the support that comes from belonging to close-knit kinship groups. Most of all, our relationships are constantly in danger of deteriorating into role playing and diplomatic skirmishes even within family life. The deepest meaning for our existence can only be given. It is offered to us by someone who accepts us and loves us as a person and to whom we can give a similar acceptance and love in return.

No one can give himself or herself such a meaning. Attempting to secure such meaning for oneself by turning to things, whether material possessions, comfort, power, or whatever it may be, is doomed to end in failure and frustration. It produces the alienation felt so deeply by many in present-day society, utter emptiness, boredom. Blaise Pascal called it an experience of nothing, ‘ennui’. For Kierkegaard it was a feeling of existential disgust ‘that sickness unto death”. The Vatican report speaks of this same reality when, basing itself on experience in many Western countries, it relates the growth of the new religious movements to the depersonalizing structures of contemporary society.

It is for this reason that, strangely enough, open-mindedness not declared hostility will help us combat the evil side effects of some movements best. Success in relating, not rational argument will win us a hearing. False claims, brainwashing, moral blackmail and other harmful practices can be convincingly exposed once we have established human contact. During the past twelve months our Housetop Centre has been involved in a number of cases where applicants could be successfully persuaded not to join a movement that would certainly have brought them grief. Most often however new cult members are well beyond reach by the time their families and pastors have woken up to the fact.

What the Family Can Do

Since Catholic parents turn to us for advice, our Housetop experience may document the pastoral needs felt at that moment. What helps families best is a constructive approach not mindless criticism of the cult and its leaders. They need to study the details of the particular movement and try to understand why their son or daughter feels attracted to it. Pastors too are more helpful by admitting their ignorance and showing empathy than by hurling abuse. One Catholic mother whose only son joined a New Age group was deeply hurt when her parish priest reacted with the remark: ‘What else can you expect from a one-parent family!’ To suggest the correct, positive approach Housetop drew up a leaflet entitled ‘Advice to relatives and friends’ which can be had free on application (39 Homer Street, London W1H 1HL). As far as I know, Housetop is the only Catholic Centre in this country directly involved in this specific kind of counselling.

Taking the new religious movements seriously should make us also consider the possibility of going out to meet them. The Vatican report rightly reminds us that we must be true to our own beliefs and principles esteem for the human person, respect for religious freedom and faith in the action of the Spirit who works in unfathomable ways in other people too. The new religious movements challenge us to discern ‘the mind of Christ in their regard’; asking us to sincerely try to understand ‘where they are and, where possible, reach out to them in Christian love.

The Vatican report does not mention explicitly that this reaching out in Christian love can at times be best achieved by joining others in common prayer. I am not proposing that we should join in bizarre rituals or compromise our Christian faith by taking part in worship that could be interpreted as idolatrous. But so often the members of new religious movements feel the need to sing bhajans, pray or meditate. Since we too are praying people, what is more natural for us than to join in, either using the same words if they are suitable to us as well, or by simply joining in silent, supportive prayer. Not only have I found temples and meditation halls conducive to prayer, it has frequently helped me to establish meaningful spiritual contacts. Sitting cross-legged on the floor before a lighted candle would probably be branded as bizarre by our enlightened media. I like to think that this is how Christ prayed and how he might sit on the prayer-mats of today’s ‘publicans’. And did he not tell us that some spiritual ills can only be healed by fasting and prayer?