Cults, or "New Religious Movements", are as American as baseball, blues, and apple pie, going back almost to our legally tolerant Republic's founding. A slew of prominent ones come to mind: weird messianic offshoots of Christianity like Oneida or the Shakers, oddball sci-fi groups like the Scientologists or Heaven's Gate, Mormonism and Christian Science that became more or less mainstream, and several, like Trascendentalism and Ayn Randist "Objectivism", the practitioners of which insist aren't even religions. I suspect that there's something about American culture that encourages formation of cults as an expression of religiosity--and even if belonging to one is still weird, I'm confident many readers know someone who is a member of one.
This seems mostly like harmless fun. Consider Arizona's Church of Cognizance, which I first heard of due to a recent state Supreme Court decision. It seems to be a group set up so that members have an excuse for smoking cannabis. Maybe the belief is sincere and maybe it isn't--if it was a mere scheme it was clearly poorly thought out given the results in court. I have to remember to forget my Catholic upbringing and not to intellectualize it. "Pot is the key to enlightenment, and the Avesta rocks because it says so too, here and here and here..." is probably closer to the story than "let's find a religious scripture that maybe supports our smoking, so we have a better case." Cults mostly take weird people and give them a framework for their weirdness. I know a person who thinks lizard men are part of a conspiracy to dominate the government. He's also very much into neo-Vedanta.
"Mostly" is the key. Clara Rose Thornton, a Vermont freelance journalist (and former Chicago South Sider) recently went to live with a group called the Twelve Tribes to learn organic farming and reported that the group maintains that servitude is good and proper for people of African descent.. The whole article is one of the better examples of independent journalism I've seen in a long time--not the non-analytic, flaky, affectedly-breezy stuff usually found in alt-weeklies--and is worth a read from front to back.
Freedom of religion is an interesting thing in a free society. Adults converts will believe what they want to believe and it takes nothing short of psychosurgery to get them to stop. Nothing we can do about it. But teaching children things that go against the very foundations of liberty--such as that some are to be subordinate to others due to the location of their ancestors' homeland--presents a conundrum. The children get no choice in the matter, yet teaching religion to children has always been considered part of the adult's freedom of religion.
I'd like to think it doesn't matter because groups like the Tribes are small, but larger religious groups for a long time promoted the subordination of women and some reasonably socially acceptable ones would have God hating homosexuals and somehow it therefore being OK for Man to abuse them, too. And there's a continuum from harmless beliefs--God loves you and you will even get to live with him because his son, who is God too, was a Jewish man executed by the Romans, or we must all go to Mecca and walk around a big rock within our lifetime if we can, or "Mu...and at that moment grasshopper attained enlightenment--to mostly harmless beliefs--you are one of the Chosen People, or conquer the infidels and tax them if they don't convert, or smoke all the weed you like--to harmful ones like the blessing of Châmites is to be servile.
Maybe we've struck the right balance, but when I consider how many people think that scientists must be wrong about global warming because God would never let that happen I have my doubts.
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