This is a two-part rebuttal to anti-cult activist Jayanti Tamm which I wrote in 2011 but never published. In coming across it, I realized it says much of what I would say generally about anti-cult groups and individuals who circulate propaganda which demeans and “otherizes” spiritual minorities. We live in a populist society where the majority is increasingly running toward secularism and materialism. That is their right. It’s also why we need strong laws protecting the rights of spiritual minorities — because without such protections democracy becomes just another form of tyranny.
As I discuss in “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence,” America is vast and consists of many different communities. The normative values of one may be oppressive when imposed on another. That is the underlying sense of numerous cases such as Wisconsin v. Yoder where the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the rights of religious minorities to live their daily lives in keeping with their faith. The right to be different is what makes America great.
I happen to be a liberal, but lately I’ve been observing that there are different strains of liberalism. To me liberalism is about freedom of choice, and finding ways for people who have different beliefs and customs to learn to live together in harmony, with mutual respect. This is the type of liberalism often practiced by mayors of big cities like New York and San Francisco, where the population is steeped in diversity, and forcing everyone to march to an identical set of beliefs and customs would be a prescription for disaster.
Yet, there are people like Jayanti Tamm who stump for conformism based on a constricting set of values set forth by a fringe group of psychologists and lawyers at the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association or “ICSA”). They would presume to tell us all what is “healthy” and “normal,” or what “the law says” on particular issues.
When psychologists and lawyers start dictating how people should pray, meditate, or conduct their spiritual lives, we have a problem in set theory. However well-meaning they may be, psychologists and lawyers lack the spiritual training to be experts in such matters. It should be up to individuals how to conduct their spiritual lives, which are part of their interior lives and not generally accessible to psychologists and lawyers.
The truth is, neither profession has all the answers; they have (at best) limited solutions to a finite number of (typically secular) problems. Psychology is a soft science; law is not a science at all. Both fields are highly interpretive, and both professions (as popularly practiced) tend to be concerned with normative values, which over time are as changeable as the weather.
Neither psychology nor law “say” one particular thing on complex human issues. Rather, individual psychologists and lawyers decide how to interpret the huge amount of available data, which in itself is often contradictory. Yet, Jayanti Tamm has become a familiar purveyor of dumbed-down “cult checklists” purporting to tell good religion from bad, or acceptable from unacceptable practices. This is so much hokum, and I grow weary of seeing it in liberal publications which should know better than to publish it. She may be a hero at atheist swap meets or cult survivor emote-a-thons, but her views just don’t stand up to critical analysis, and her personal accounts are largely fictional.
A neutral, common-sense reading of history and civilization — as well as any decent textbook on comparative religion — tells us that in every society there are always a few people who feel a spiritual calling which is stronger and more definite than what is felt by the general populace. These people are in the minority just as musical prodigies are in the minority, Olympic athletes are in the minority, and red-haired, green-eyed people with Type O Negative blood are in the minority. None of these groups require deprogramming or exit counseling to make them more like the majority, and neither do spiritual adherents.
My objection to the type of anti-cult propaganda circulated by Jayanti Tamm is that it tries to conceal or sugar-coat a social control agenda. It’s based on an underlying premise that those who embrace secular materialism, scientific rationalism, and mainstream culture are so correct, so normal, and so healthy that they have a right to dictate how everyone else lives. To me, this is totalitarianism masquerading as liberalism.
In truth, the many spiritual minorities which dot our land are part of America — they do not lie outside her borders. The U.S. Constitution was designed to protect religious minorities from being subjected to tyranny at the hands of the majority. Today, one form taken by such tyranny is to portray those who dissent in whole or in part from secular materialism as if they were mentally ill, as if they were criminals, or as if the peaceable practice of prayer, meditation, and service somehow threatens the secular majority. (It does not.)
True freedom encompasses not just the freedom to express one’s individuality, but also the freedom to participate in a spiritual community. Ironically, it is often through joining in the life of a community that the individual experiences the most profound expression of his or her own self-worth.
As life in the mainstream has grown more difficult and stressful, people have created intentional communities, which are voluntary communities where one can choose to live one’s life based on spiritual principles. This is not something entirely new; it reflects a history where for thousands of years people have made a definite choice to live in convents, monasteries, ashrams, or other spiritual communities.
Why do some people spend a great deal of time involved in spiritual practice? Because for them, such practice is meaningful and provides genuine solutions to life’s problems. Why do some people look to a spiritual guide to help them in the spiritual quest? Because that quest can be difficult and arduous. Taking the help of a guide can ease the journey and help prevent missteps.
Just as we need scientific experts to awaken our minds, we also need spiritual experts to awaken our hearts. True freedom encompasses not just freedom of mind, but also freedom of heart. The problem with those who champion freedom of mind only — but suppress freedom of heart — is that they lead us to a heartless and faithless world in which love of God is skewered on the naked barbs of intellect. The resulting absence of oneness continues the age-old saga of human misery.
Here then is Part 1 of my two-part rebuttal to Jayanti Tamm. The second part is contained in another post.
Just Say No To Cult Checklists — Part 1
In a recent Huffington Post editorial, Jayanti Tamm tried to revive a “cult checklist” to be used as a witching wand for separating good religion from bad. The anti-cult movement has been pushing this idea for years, but it’s not endorsed by professional associations in the relevant fields of sociology, psychology, and religious studies. Rather, among scholars it’s generally assumed that a rich, vibrant religious culture replete with countless themes and variations (and few bright lines) is a perfect analogue to the diversity which America enjoys in other areas such as race and national origin. It flows from this understanding that what we need is religious tolerance, not stigmatization of religion via cult checklists.
Ms. Tamm uses familiar divide and conquer tactics. She would have the reader think: Of course, this checklist doesn’t apply to my church, but to the church down the street — the one my neighbor goes to. Yet, we need only apply it honestly to recognize that it would brand the early Christians as a dangerous cult with excessive devotion to a self-proclaimed leader who led nice Jewish kids out into the desert, fed them inappropriately, and demanded their total obedience to socialistic notions like helping the poor (to the detriment of more lucrative career choices). There is no form of monasticism — whether Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist — which can pass such cult checklists. That’s why their adoption is a proxy for outright rejection of most core forms of organized religion.
Before we reject something outright, we would do well to consider what we shall put in its place. In Communist China, the State demands allegiance to Science and Commerce. Belief in God — and especially an active life of devotion to God or to Buddhist practice — is considered “superstitious” and is persecuted. The government-controlled People’s Daily runs propaganda pieces accusing the Dalai Lama of “fueling evil cults.”
In America, we retain some freedom of choice. Capitalism is our economic system. Its original purpose was to complement religious liberty. Yet, we often seem to be in the grips of a pervasive media culture which constantly broadcasts the message that conformity to materialist views is the way to be hip and cool. Minority choices — especially in religion — are stigmatized. Minority religions are nonconformists in relation to that pervasive media culture. Puff pieces attacking them are cheap shots.
Where we see a piece which repeats the word “cult” 28 times, and tries to alarm the reader into thinking he or she may have joined a “cult,” the underlying agenda is one of social control. The word “cult” carries a strong social stigma, and the writer is telling us we ought to wield it against any group which fails to pass a checklist designed by the anti-cult movement and reflecting its particular biases. How self-serving is that?
Ms. Tamm is a speaker at the International Cultic Studies Association (formerly American Family Foundation), where she speaks on such topics as “Writing the Past: How to Successfully Write the Story of Your Hidden, Former Life as a Member of a Cult into a Published Book.” Such attempts to monetize one’s former religious affiliation do not speak of the highest motives. Nor is ICSA known as a group which seeks to improve the quality of religion through gentle remonstrance. Rather, it tends to be perceived by churches as seeking to lessen the influence of religion in society, often by mischaracterizing religious teachings and practices. ICSA’s leadership consists primarily of psychologists and lawyers whose approach to religion is largely oppositional. Thus, when Ms. Tamm comes to us in the guise of a disinterested person who would help us make better religious choices, we may reasonably doubt her credentials.
Because she makes her opposition to supposed “cults” personal, it’s difficult to rebut her without discussing some personal issues she brings to the table. She often plays (and replays, ad nauseum) the motherhood card. Just because she has a lovely infant daughter doesn’t make me want to sign on to her anti-cult campaign. Women have fought hard for the right to define themselves by what they find important. For some it might be motherhood, for others spiritual enlightenment. Emily Dickinson and Mother Teresa are two examples of women who bore no children, but made lasting contributions to society.
‘Tis oft said, “Those who can’t do, teach.” The blurb for her book Cartwheels in a Sari states that Ms. Tamm’s “need for enlightenment [was] derailed by her need for boys.” Her expulsion from a spiritual community does not make her an expert on religion any more than Richard Nixon’s resignation from office made him an expert on political integrity — unless in the breach. A theme running through her rhetoric is her transparent need for self-justification.
Unqualified experts propagate false views which lead to bad decisions which harm real people. Ask members of any religious minority whether they’ve been harmed by subjection to hateful “cult” stereotypes and most will answer yes. Yet, the subtext of Ms. Tamm’s piece is to propagate such stereotypes. I wish her every personal happiness, but I don’t believe her ideas can stand up to careful scrutiny.
Even troubled people — if they enter into the public sphere — have a duty to speak with imaginative honesty. In writings and interviews, Ms. Tamm speaks about her therapy — a particular kind of therapy which is ideologically driven, and which assumes a priori that religion is the cause of the client’s problems. Therapy can sometimes bring people closer to the truth; but ideologically driven therapy runs the risk of scapegoating religion and colluding with the client in blaming others for her own weaknesses and failures. Ms. Tamm fictionalizes her past — and so her present — living in an ideological bubble created by the think tank at ICSA.
Because of this patina of confused ideas about religion — partly imposed by faux therapy — she fails to apprehend that which millions of people with sympathetic hearts understand intuitively: the diverse religions practiced by the human family are ways in which people struggle to find truth according to their individual needs. This is true whether their religion is Western or Eastern, big or small, practiced in isolation or in fellowship.
Whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists, or are part of a Human Potential movement, their struggle is something sacred — as is the result, which is wisdom. It is not a thing to be cheapened through false stereotypes which portray spiritual seekers as deluded or suffering from some “cult illness” — the way Samuel Cartwright claimed that any slave who ran away from the plantation (because conditions were so bad) was suffering from an invented psychological malady called “drapetomania.” Faith is not a medical condition in need of cure.
Our secular society confers many benefits, yet produces pronounced feelings of alienation in some of its citizens, whose hearts cry out for a more profound truth than the latest GDP numbers (or even motherhood). Some of those people are spiritual seekers by nature, and find genuine relief from alienation — genuine joy — by following a spiritual path where they practice some disciplines which put them in touch with the spirit. Such disciplines rooted in self-giving also form the backbone for social programs helping the poor. Self-giving is not walking over hot coals, it is magnanimity of spirit. One learns to need less, give more, and find joy in giving.
Whether one studies ballet or molecular biology, there will be some discipline needed, some method to follow, some things to be done and not done. In furtherance of their individual goals, spiritual seekers often adopt a more communal lifestyle with a different set of values. They try to learn from someone who has spiritual wisdom. This is all in the great tradition of Plato.
Ms. Tamm would impose a false dichotomy between “good religion” — which is a pleasant Sunday pastime — and “cultism” — which is an integral spiritual lifestyle. This is a stealth attempt to delegitimate religion as a worthy field of human endeavor to which people might devote a substantial portion of their time. In his 1988 dissent in EEOC v. Townley, Justice John T. Noonan of the Ninth Circuit wrote:
[The parties] appear to assume that there must be a sharp division between secular activity and religious activity. … But of course such a dichotomy is a species of theology. The theological position is that human beings should worship God on Sundays or some other chosen day and go about their business without reference to God the rest of the time. Such a split is attractive to some religious persons. It is repudiated by many, especially those who seek to integrate their lives and to integrate their activities.
When Ms. Tamm suggests that a “healthy” religion must “compliment” [sic] a well-balanced life, she is of course implying that most of that life will be lived apart from religion, with religion consigned to a small cubby hole. Yet, as Justice Noonan noted, that is only one theory of religion — a theory at odds with the teachings of most prophets held dear by the major religions: Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Krishna, and Buddha.
Ms. Tamm favours lukewarm religion which makes few demands; yet the Huffington Post recently announced a partnership with CitySquare to “feed the hungry, heal the sick, house the homeless and renew hope in the heart of Dallas.” Such an ambitious project surely makes strong demands upon the time and commitment of the faithful.
Mahatma Gandhi said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” It’s a shared ideal among many religions that the person who overcomes her sense of “I-ness” through selfless work is doing something profound and holy. By contrast, Ms. Tamm takes the psychological view that a life centered around a strong ego and goals which are largely self-directed is a “healthy” life. But is this true of people who choose self-giving as their pathway to enlightenment? Does the Dalai Lama lack a good hobby like fly fishing? Would Mother Teresa have been more “normal” had she traversed the halls of academia rather than the streets of Calcutta?
Statistical normalcy is hardly a prescription for happiness. A life filled with meaning is an extraordinary life, and perhaps what makes it extraordinary is that it’s premised on self-giving. When Mother Teresa commends us to “give until it hurts,” she’s asking us to share in the human condition and take others’ needs to be our own. This is an ego-transcending (rather than ego-enhancing) philosophy rooted in oneness of the heart.
I respectfully disagree with the apostate who decides — in consultation with her therapist — that she’s found the perfect formula for psychological health: one part religion, ninety-nine parts me, me, ME!
This is no religion at all (unless we take Ayn Randism as a religion). I would not mirror Ms. Tamm’s dogmatism by placing self-giving on a “checklist” of things that “genuine” religions do; but I would be mindful that self-giving is a nearly universal constant among religions, one that should not be discounted lightly.
Some people succumb to the temptation to fill up their lives with “a million balloons and performing baboons” (a possible reference to the faculty of Ocean County College), while others find such acquisitiveness to be childish, and focus instead on seeing how much they can give. Ms. Tamm’s portrayal of those who follow the path of self-giving is (to coin a phrase) “so false you could go nuts.” Those who have discovered the higher wisdom of self-giving should not accept the bean-feast of reason.
Religion is a complex phenomenon. It’s often rooted in love of God, but may ask adherents to observe some practices out of faith and obedience. Many people of the Jewish faith do not eat pork or shellfish. They love that their faith makes some demands upon them. It helps them feel connected to their faith. If they have no love of Judaism, they may freely reject it. If they were previously Orthodox, but are now binging on pork rinds procured from their local bodega, their former congregation may shun them, because it too is free to set some standards by which the faithful are known. The fallacy inherent in Ms. Tamm’s reasoning is that she respects the right of apostates to reject their faith, but not the right of religious groups to require obedience as a condition of participation in a voluntary community.
A religion which makes no demands upon our lives, and fails to challenge us to change, has no power to transform us or lead us to God. We need not accept any religion, but if we do then we should expect it to challenge us, invigorate us, and take us to the very brink of faith and doubt. If it fails to do so, then it has become mere spectator religion of the type favoured by Ms. Tamm.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
End Part 1. See Part 2 here.
See also: Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Sidebar: A story about Mother Teresa and the Poor
(as told by Sri Chinmoy)
One time when Mother Teresa was in America, she went to visit Mayor Koch of New York City. Mayor Koch was unwell, so she went to inquire about his health. It was a very hot day. Mayor Koch offered Mother Teresa lemonade and a few cookies. He drank and ate his share very quickly and then noticed that Mother Teresa had not even touched her drink or her cookies. He invited her to start eating.
Mother Teresa said, “I cannot eat. I cannot drink.”
Mayor Koch asked, “Why?”
She replied, “In my poor Calcutta, there are many people who would have to pay their whole week’s salary just to buy lemonade and cookies.”
“But these cookies are the best in the whole world!” exclaimed Mayor Koch.
She replied, “All right, because they are the best, please wrap them up, and I will take them to Calcutta.”
The Mayor said, “I shall definitely wrap them for you, but you do not have to take them to Calcutta. It is quite far and when you reach Calcutta, the cookies will no longer be in good condition. There are so many poor people in Harlem. Would you instead like to go to Harlem with the cookies?”
She answered, “That is a splendid idea. I am taking the cookies to Harlem. On principle, I do not eat at others’ places. When I am about to eat, I see the faces of the hungry children of Calcutta. I am their Mother. How can I enjoy a delicious meal when my poor children are starving?”
This is, indeed, the heart and life of Mother Teresa.
— Sri Chinmoy
Source: The mind-jungles and the heart-gardens of life, Agni Press, 2001