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.” Continue reading