This is Part 2 of a rebuttal to anti-cult activist Jayanti Tamm which I wrote in 2011 but never published. Part 1 is located here.
Just Say No To Cult Checklists — Part 2
In Part 1, I noted Jayanti Tamm’s efforts to revive a “cult checklist” to be used as a witching wand for separating good religion from bad, and began cataloguing the problems associated with her approach. According to Ontario-based ReligiousTolerance.org:
The term “cult” is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow. It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life. The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word “cult,” particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content. The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear. In reality, the only “crime” of most “cults” is that they hold different religious beliefs from whomever is doing the attacking.
The power to define is the power to control. Anti-cult groups typically use cult checklists as part of a larger effort to subject minority religions to restrictive laws. They’ve met with relatively little success getting such laws passed in the U.S., but greater success in Europe, where religious intolerance is on the rise. See this transcript of a hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee On International Operations and Human Rights, concerning “Religious Discrimination In Western Europe.” It contains many quotable quotes from a stellar panel, including this opening comment from Rep. Cynthia McKinney:
[W]ho has the right to determine for others what is a “cult,” and what is an “acceptable” religion? When the government presumes to do so, it seems that a Pandora’s Box of state interference in religious life has been opened. And furthermore, when the government becomes the arbiter of religious authenticity, which religions are likely to be targeted? Certainly not the established religions that enjoy the support of the majority in a population. Instead, the victims are going to be minority religions, the least well known and most misunderstood faiths, in short, the very groups that agreements like the Helsinki Accords were designed to protect.
Within this larger framework, it’s trivial to see how cult checklists operate: One takes a database of all known religions, applies the checklist in subjective fashion, and is left with a database of religions purported to be cults. The list is then pitched to lawmakers as accurate and unbiased, when it is in fact a species of pseudoscience. Such cult checklists are part of a conveyor belt system leading to widespread religious discrimination. As the old joke among Jews in Nazi Germany goes: “If you don’t want to end up in Dachau, avoid train travel!” The train itself may appear innocuous; the destination is anything but. Whether cult checklists are wielded by government or by private anti-cult groups, they tend to produce a chilling effect on individual freedom of conscience. When the media endorses them, it sullies its hands.
While opinions on religion abound, constructive criticism will often come from the faithful. It’s difficult for secular groups who eschew religion to understand the requirements of faith. Our nation was founded under a theory of dual spheres of influence in which religions are presumed to be competent in their own sphere to determine what practices are beneficial. When people like Ms. Tamm try to usurp that right — brandishing cult checklists which are a thinly veiled form of social control — we should not take them with perfect seriousness, except to the extent they seek to undermine Constitutional liberties. That effort we should seriously oppose, rejecting the mindset which would make “meditating while Indian” a crime on a par with “driving while Black.”
The arbitrariness of her checklist is apparent when Ms. Tamm claims that a “top ten sign” of a cult is that “members incessantly scramble with cramped schedules and activities full of largely meaningless work based on the leader’s agenda.” In a Dilbert-centric universe, this would seem to describe most office life. Carmelite nuns, Buddhist monks, and U.S. military recruits are all suspect, as are White House interns.
But again, who gets to judge meaning? There’s a circularity problem when anti-cultists (not surprisingly) fail to find meaning in the activities of spiritual groups, then try to use this as “evidence” that the groups are “cults.” In many cases, the groups themselves have answered thousands of questions explaining the meaning and significance of their spiritual practices, but this information is willfully ignored. Some of the groups Ms. Tamm attacks are practitioners of bhakti yoga, which the Gale Encyclopedia explains clearly and concisely:
Bhakti yoga is the path of love and devotion. An individual with an emotional temperament can transform those emotions, to be absorbed in spiritual service instead of being attached to physical or sensory gratification. Love can be centered on a familiar form of God, a great saint, or some great task in life. In bhakti yoga, the whole universe, whether animate or inanimate, is seen as permeated by divinity. Bhakti (meaning loving devotion) is the practice of self-surrender for the purpose of identifying with the source of love, the higher self.
A survey of world religions reveals an astonishing variety of practices, which might seem meaningless unless one strives to understand them in context. Religious scholars aim to do precisely that. In her college textbook Living Religions, Mary Pat Fisher emphasizes “the personal consciousness of believers” and includes many “teaching stories” drawn from different traditions. By contrast, the anti-cult movement typically cheats on its own checklist by assuming tasks are meaningless simply because it cannot grasp their meaning absent the spiritual context. It often subjects time-honored spiritual practices to secular deconstruction. Prayer, meditation, and spiritual singing become sinister techniques of “cult mind control.” Expulsion from a bona fide spiritual group with impeccable credentials becomes “escape from the cult.”
A student expelled from algebra class before she’s able to grasp the essentials might leave with the impression that it’s nothing but a series of meaningless squiggles on a chalkboard. The press would do better to seek out a successful student than a failed one. Not differentiating between these two very different types of commentators may itself reflect press bias.
The religions which Ms. Tamm attacks have their own authentic teaching stories. Publishers like Random House have a duty to hoist the authentic rather than profit from the bogus. Faced with a choice between The Interior Castle and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, we ought recognize the former as authentic, the latter bogus.
The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. Today, there are propagandists for hire who will readily step in to fill the market niche for convent tales, ashram tales, or what-have-you; so you will get fake memoirs targeting spiritual teachers. Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt.
In the modern media era, ideological warfare is often conducted by means of disinformation. Tyranny does not always take the form of a ruling elite, but may wear the guise of excessive populism — Gidget vs. Gandhi, if you will. Gidget wants to date and Gandhi says she should help the poor. Who do you like? Just text your answer to 12345. A $3 surcharge applies.
Our bread-and-circuses culture panders to the typical “Homer” who wants his beer and football, and whose views on most subjects are absorbed by osmosis from the mainstream media. Persuading Homer to hate “cults” seems to be part of the general rope-a-dope.
A plethora of articles portray “cults” as being against motherhood and apple pie and as seeking to enslave poor Homer. But is Homer already enslaved? His existential dilemma is that he’s come to resemble W. H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen,” whose life is planned from birth to grave by a state-corporate entity which is unable to confer any spiritual meaning; nor can he himself discover it while wearing the approved blinders. Homer’s practical problems have nothing to do with “cults,” but rather with regulatory capture and erosion of wages. When he complains that his real wages are shrinking and a loaf of bread costs $5, he’s told to celebrate the doubling of computing power. Technology can be great fun, but fails to confer spiritual meaning. You can’t pray to an iPad (though I’ve seen people try).
I don’t mean to exaggerate the problems. The secular world is filled with many extraordinary people and things. Advances in science, medicine, and industry have helped people live longer with less misery. Secular institutions try to provide for people’s health, education, welfare and entertainment. Although such efforts are often compromised by political corruption and corporate greed, they are nonetheless significant.
Life in the mainstream is beneficial for many people, but it does not satisfy everyone. While mass culture tries to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number, it can lead to commodification and to genuine feelings of alienation. To acknowledge that alienation is real is not to engage in wholesale criticism of secular society, nor to advocate revolution in the streets. It is only to gently suggest the need for spiritual alternatives, and for a tolerant attitude toward those who seek them. There are free thinkers who dare to dream, who dare to embrace the community of seekers who have gone on the spiritual quest because something told them from within that there’s more to life than giving their all to Fudge Motors Inc. (Auden again).
This longing for freedom from the mundane, conventional, and pre-programmed is not foreign to Western culture; it’s often embodied in the works of creative artists, including filmmakers. The Truman Show (from director Peter Weir, and starring Jim Carrey) can be viewed as a metaphor for the spiritual quest and the obstacles faced by spiritual seekers. When one tries to go beyond secular borders, the men (and women) in Hazmat suits appear, warning of grave danger ahead! This is the alarmist role played by anti-cult authors who use loaded language and false reports to try and frighten people back to secular confines.
On the world stage, there are some figures who try to awaken and invigorate us, while others try to lull us back to sleep. Awakening means a call to conscience, a challenge to embrace a more enlightened vision of the world, of our fellow human beings, and of our own true capacity. Spiritual visionaries often emit a clarion call to conscience — whether a literal call, as of a conch shell being blown — or a figurative call, by offering spiritual alternatives to a pleasure-loving society in the grips of conformist culture. Despite posing no threat, this call to conscience may provoke a reactionary response from entrenched interests. To those interests, the possibility that someone found peace of mind, spiritual joy, or good fellowship by sailing an alternative path is seen as heresy.
We teach Frost to schoolchildren, but when someone actually takes the road less traveled by, they’re subjected to name-calling and hatred. Anti-cult groups feed the media disinformation about minority spiritual figures. This material is not fact-checked the way a piece about a Senator or corporate head would be. Such disparate treatment is the hallmark of discrimination.
Spiritual groups are often portrayed as gated communities; yet they may be far more open and far more diverse than mainstream culture, and may provide a richer variety of experiences. Veteran media watchers complain of de facto integration between government, corporations, and media, with information being filtered and only a narrow range of world views allowed to pass. It’s common for disenfranchised minorities — whether ethnic or spiritual — to find that their indigenous voices are silenced and replaced with voice-overs from media spokespeople who substitute their own opinions.
I have this recurring fantasy… It’s Christmas Eve and I tune in to see services from the Vatican, but instead I see a reporter hogging the screen giving a play-by-play, followed by an interview with a psychologist who claims that Catholicism is a “cult,” cutting to an interview with Lady Gaga’s hairdresser asking what he thinks about “cults,” ending with a fashion correspondent who itemizes the clothing worn by the Pope, with cutaways to the Home Shopping Network which is featuring a 24-hour sale on red satin mitres… We’re not quite there yet, but almost!
The solution to biased or nonsensical coverage of religion is greater respect for indigenous voices, with fewer “cult experts” hogging the mic. Editors need to learn to differentiate between indigenous voices and interposed opinions, and to strive to present indigenous voices with integrity. This is difficult when the anti-cult movement — often represented by apostates like Ms. Tamm — is barking at the door, saying: “Let me in! Let me in! Publish my opinions about this or that religious movement.”
Of course, society’s process of consensus-building can benefit from hearing many opinions; but when interposed opinions or secondary constructions greatly outnumber indigenous voices — when the noise overpowers the underlying signal — it becomes difficult to reach honest conclusions. The sacred space is lost somewhere in the 24-hour news cycle.
Cult checklists are part of the noise, not part of the solution. They’re used as a technique of propaganda by those intent on waging a needless war against religion. The solution is religious tolerance, and the pathway to achieving it is higher quality information about religions. A textbook like Living Religions is a good starting point for editors who recognize the problem and want to be more sensitive to the needs of religious minorities, while also being less of a rubber stamp for intolerant views. It’s helpful to recognize that a power differential exists. Ensuring that minority voices are heard is an aspect of practicing social compassion.
Cults checklists are part of the dumbing down of America, in which labeling comes to replace civil discourse. This is emblematic of the failures discussed by actor Richard Dreyfuss in his recent campaign to raise awareness about the need for improved education in civics. See Mike Smith, “Richard Dreyfuss Holds Media Accountable,” Huffington Post, Jan-22-2011.
It’s easy to see why education in civics is a precursor to meaningful change. A public uninformed about techniques of propaganda can be diverted from discussion of genuine issues into obsession with non-issues. The birthers have hardly cornered the market on bigoted campaigns at odds with reality, and on appealing to the lowest common denominator. Jayanti Tamm gives them a run for their money.
Most editors want to be unbiased, but they can only avoid bias if they’re conscious of it. Editors who rarely deal with the subject of minority religions may not recognize stereotypes when they’re fed them, and might benefit from having a spotlight shone.
Religious vilification material may begin by reciting a list of groups which have received negative publicity, describing them in the starkest emotional terms; then proceed to finger some benign group as being merely a variation on those already mentioned. This technique should be familiar to editors who’ve encountered racist material. If someone mentions Willie Horton, O.J. Simpson, and Barack Obama in the same breath, and tries to portray them as variations on a single entity, this is obviously racist stereotyping. Similarly, the claim that “all cults and cult leaders are alike” — while a central tenet of anti-cult polemics — is utterly rejected by scholars of religion. Sociologist Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes:
Lumping disparate groups together serves the purpose of creating the specter of conspiracy and of a stereotypical enemy. All of these elements — organized opposition, brainwashing theories, atrocity stories, calls for governmental action, combining of unrelated groups with an overarching xenophobia and religious bigotry — are a part of the anti-cult movement that appeared in the 1970s … Furthermore, with the establishment of formal anti-cult organizations, publishing enterprises, and educational programs, … the anti-cult movement now has a considerable stake in keeping the cult scare alive.
Dr. Eileen Barker, a sociologist with the London School of Economics, writes that anti-cultists typically portray groups they oppose as “brainwashing, exploitative, potentially violent cults under the control of a ruthless, pathologically unstable leadership whose real purpose is not religious or spiritual, but [rather] financial gain, sexual perversion and/or political and personal power.” Where editors encounter minor variations on this stereotype, they should not consider it newsworthy. Such material may be customized to fit a particular teacher and faith, but is nonetheless a familiar type of genre writing which is deprecated by scholars.
There is a meaningful, substantive test which editors can perform when evaluating submissions which seek to demonize a religion or spiritual figure. First, consider that demonization is rarely helpful or ethical. Second, check with religious scholars, or with scholarly resources such as bona fide encyclopedias of religion. Where there’s a pronounced cognitive dissonance between the known teachings, practices and reputation of the religion or spiritual figure in question and the negative material being pitched, this should raise concerns about cult-baiting, if not libel.
Editors have a duty to reject the bogus and stick up for the factually accurate and intellectually honest. A submitter may have a Master’s Degree in comparative folk-dancing and a well-funded publicist ready to tout her as a “cult expert,” but when the underlying product is religious intolerance, the best policy for editors is caveat emptor.
If the Holy Grail of public life is political integrity, the Holy Grail of literary life is imaginative honesty. We would all like to think of ourselves as observing the highest principles; yet somebody must be writing those articles like “Top 10 Reasons Why XYZ Company’s Stock Price Can Only Go Up,” or “Top 10 Reasons Why You Must Upgrade To Windows Ultimate Deluxe Home Premium Bloatware Edition,” or even “Top 10 Reasons Why XYZ Company Only Accepts Articles With ‘Top 10 Reasons’ In The Title.” Perhaps we’ve all been watching too much Letterman.
Imaginative honesty is the quality which distinguishes us from mere ciphers or robots. Today, even machines can write intelligent-sounding prose. Practicing imaginative honesty may not buy you a ride on the subway, but it might earn you a place in history as someone who stuck up for truth, and tried to help people hear it even if it was hard to hear through all the noise. By contrast, I often think that facile opportunists who fictionalize the lives of genuinely important people in order to make a quick buck, for revenge, or both, are consigned to a circle of Dante’s Inferno where they’re forced to recycle crumbling editions of Jacqueline Susann novels, transcribing them into the medium of hot lead using only their bare fingers to fashion crude letters. (I’m joking, of course.)
Our political leaders are often men and women of great integrity; yet it’s not uncommon to find those who showed little integrity later lecturing on the subject to young, impressionable minds. I similarly question how writers who fail to practice imaginative honesty in their own writing can possibly teach it to the next generation. Welcome to the Valley of the Literary Mannequins. Your tour guide: Jayanti Tamm. If you’ll just fill out this little checklist, we’ll be happy to see to your permanent accommodations.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
End Part 2. See Part 1 here. See also:
Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence
The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk
Know your meme: Since I view the ideological conflict between Jayanti Tamm and her late spiritual mentor as a Gidget vs. Gandhi fight, I created a graphic for this series based on that concept. Maybe you have to be a certain age to remember that the 1975 Ali-Frazier fight was billed as the “Thrilla in Manila.” So I call Gidget vs. Gandhi the “Thrilla in Calcutta.” 😉
Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy and a Spiritual Path Chosen Freely
by Dr. Kusumita P. Pedersen
Source: The Washington Post Opinions/Letters
I am a child of the ’60s, graduating from college in the iconic year 1968. I met Jayanti Tamm, then a toddler, and her parents in 1971, when, after two years of practicing Zen Buddhism, I found in Sri Chinmoy the teacher I had been looking for. Like Jayanti’s parents, I embraced a life of meditation and service as a path of awakening. I still embrace it wholeheartedly. After almost 40 years, I remain deeply committed to my path, my spiritual community and my teacher. Meditation does not lead to separation but to greater involvement in the world. I have led a rewarding professional life as an academic and in the worldwide interfaith movement.
As someone for whom meditation and a productive outer life are fused, I am typical of members of my own spiritual community and other children of the ’60s (and later) who longed for, and found, a spiritual dimension in their lives and practical ways to connect to it. The old label “cult” does not stick to us, nor does the negative language in the piece apply to what we have experienced. In my entire life no one has ever accused me of not having a critical intellect. I chose my path freely, and I have followed it freely.
KUSUMITA P. PEDERSEN