Cult or Not? Hearing Your Religious Beliefs for the First Time

Stone circles mystery cult

I did not grow up in a religious cult. That is, most people around me didn't consider it to be a cult. No, the religion of my childhood was "normal." But what does that even mean? It was common enough that lots of people lived inside it. They never bothered themselves with thoughts of how others might view it. They had no reason to do so. It was normal to them.

Many religious beliefs seem quite strange to those outside the religion. I remember the first time I encountered Catholic beliefs about transubstantiation. They believe what? If they think the wafers turn into flesh, why would they eat them? Are they cannibals?

I was aware that my Mormon friend wasn't supposed to drink anything containing caffeine. This didn't make much of an impression on me. He never explained why, and I didn't ask. But I remember when he told me some of what he believed would happen after he died. He expected to inherit a planet. I found it puzzling how anyone could believe much of it.

In hindsight, my mistakes were obvious. Without realizing it, I was comparing their beliefs to my own. The problem was that I'd defined my beliefs as normal. Their beliefs sounded strange in comparison. It didn't occur to me how strange my beliefs might sound to them. Why? Because mine were normal.

By the time I had the chance to meet Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims, I knew better. It helped that I was an ex-Christian by this point. As an ex-Christian, I found that much of what I used to believe now seemed anything but normal. People from other religious traditions might find it strange. I did too.

Can we define what counts as a religious cult and what doesn't without referring to "normal?" I'm not sure we can. I've known Catholics who refer to all Protestant denominations as false religions. Most didn't use the "cult" label, but some did. I've known Protestants who insisted that Catholicism is a cult. Many fundamentalist Christians regard Mormonism as a cult. Most are quick to label all non-Christian religions as "Satanic."

How about Jehovah's Witnesses? Are they a cult? And more to the point, what would most practicing Jehovah's Witnesses say? Would they describe themselves as a cult? I doubt it.

It is clear that some people raised in religious cults know that they were growing up in a cult. Did they know this when they were still inside, or did this insight come later?

From what I know of religious cults, I'm fortunate not to have grown up in one. They don't sound like anything I would have liked. The mainline Protestant Christianity of my childhood was bad enough. If I had grown up in a religious cult, when I would have realized that it was a cult?

For many of us, growing up in a religious tradition was bigger than a set of beliefs. It was a lifestyle. It affected who we interacted with and how we spent our time. It shaped our worldview without us realizing it was doing so. I'd assume that much of this is also true for people who grew up in religious cults.

If we want to be honest about our beliefs, it is helpful to step outside them once in a while. Consider how they'd sound to someone who was hearing them for the first time. Many cult beliefs sound pretty strange. So do many mainstream religious beliefs.

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