Toxic Religion

Everyone has heard of, been warned about, avoided or escaped from a cult. Shelves of books, pamphlets and brochures are written about them. The public libraries and the bookstores have rows of these publications (last I looked, the downtown Kansas City, Missouri, library has more books on cults than on Goddess religions). So we all know cults are bad news, and we’ll never ever get caught up in or victimized by one. Right? Well….

The word cult has been rather casually tossed around. It has more than one meaning and some uses of the word don’t really mean any of them. A cult is NOT any religion that you personally don’t believe in, a popular use by fundamentalists of many religions. A cult can be a legitimate religious group or system, especially one devoted to a particular object or Deity. Archaeologists and anthropologists use this term, as when they describe a cult site or a religious focus, like the cult of Aphrodite of Ephesus. But that’s not really what we’re talking about, as I’m sure you’ve guessed.

By now nearly anyone who cares about cults has read or heard of the Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame available from various sources including his book Real Magic. This form gives criteria for figuring out whether or not the group you’re checking out is likely to be a dangerous cult. By most of the criteria listed in the frame, it could be argued that the Christian Catholic Church is a relatively dangerous cult. And while Amway may not be so dangerous, it fits many of the cult criteria. But that’s not really what I’m talking about either.

Toxic religion, a personally damaging affiliation with a religious group, may not be as clearly evident as the criteria to be checked off a list. What may be a viable and enriching religious experience for one person, or many people for that matter, may be another person’s crippling cultic entrapment. The “deprogrammers” of the Wellspring Retreat and Resources Center have had the dubious honor of helping people from nearly every imaginable religious affiliation.

Dangerous, organized cults genuinely exist. They are established, led, and perpetuated by people who want to control and use you and want to take your money, time, energy and maybe even your life. Some start out that way; some just end up that way. But cultic behavior and cultic entrapment need not be the result of a deliberate plan or a charismatic leader bent on running your life. Any group could potentially become a cult. There are instances of perfectly normal churches becoming cults with all the really bad stuff that the term can imply. The problems may arise so gradually and subtly that no one sees what’s happening until it’s too late. Consider the Baptist church where the minister’s wife was giving orders to the other women in the church on, among other things, how to dress their children. These were not guidelines, but absolute edicts. Failure to comply meant censure and ostracism. Consider a church where members turn their shopping carts around and flee down the aisle in the supermarket rather than encounter someone, perhaps even a family member, who has chosen to leave the church. Obviously the people in these groups didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll find a cult to join.”

How does it happen? How can we involve ourselves in cults and cultic behavior when we’re walking around with our eyes open and the warnings ringing in our ears? Of course if there were a simple answer, it likely wouldn’t be a problem.

At the risk of seeming to “blame the victim,” I have seen people become involved in a cult-like relationship with an otherwise uncult-like group because they are searching desperately for Something. Recognizing that their lives are missing an unknown but longed for thing, they hoped to find it by turning over the search to someone else. These people may have been victimized previously in some way and have difficulty in establishing an identity for themselves outside of a strong group. They are very vulnerable to organized cults, but may form cult-like attachments to other groups as well.

In other cases, a person may find, in a powerful way, exactly what he or she has been seeking and gifts the source of their enlightenment with undeserved adoration. Breid Foxsong, a priestess and teacher, tells the funny and tragic story of a young man who for a long time had sought the Goddess on his own. When he attended a public ritual at which Breid was the priestess, for the first time he felt that he truly had been in the presence of that Goddess. As touching as it may be to have someone kissing your dirty sneakers, the wise priestess doesn’t let this stuff go to her head. Unfortunately, worshipful adoration sometimes can make cult leaders of even strong people. This can be avoided by the clergy members being aware of the potential for this problem, especially in a religion where powerful emotional experiences are likely to occur. “Ground crew” of experienced elders, clergy, and friends can help those enjoying such an ecstatic moment to expand their knowledge to recognize the Goddess in all of us. Peer support for clergy members can aid not only in solving knotty problems of the calling but also in helping the likely objects of adoration maintain perspective.

Sometimes behavior within the group can lead to a cult-like environment. In the process of forming a strong bond and cohesion among members, a group like a coven may spend so much time together, may feel so compelled to work, play, and practice together that they begin to lose touch with other aspects of their lives. This involvement may seem great for someone who has little outside of the group to demand their time and attention, providing home and family, hobby, religion, and all good things in life. For another member of the same group who has a family that is not Pagan, a demanding job, and other responsibilities and interests, the coven schedule may become an oppressive burden. The problem arises when either of these people feels that they cannot say “no” for fear of losing love, membership, or whatever other rewards they get from being part of the coven. When they have lost power over their own lives and decisions, however subtly the power of the group or leader may be expressed, they have become involved in a toxic situation. Tragically, the group may not be aware that this is happening. Merrily setting up their schedule, they fail to notice the struggle that is being waged by one of their members. Awareness of the needs and responsibilities of all the members of the group will help to avoid this. Coveners need to feel free to say “no,” and the group must be willing and able to accept “no” without recrimination, criticism, coercion and, under some circumstances, comment.

Groups often form or are formed around a strong individual. Anyone who has ever taken on the responsibility of running a church group, coven, or other dedicated group in which cohesion, purpose and consistency are required, will understand the hard work involved. Sometimes men and women with strength and determination accomplish their goals at the cost of the welfare of their meeker members. Some strong individuals, having formed a group against tough odds, have a very difficult time letting go of control. Sometimes the power of success is too heady to relinquish. Sometimes the child so painfully delivered is not easily allowed to change and grow. Powerful priests and priestesses can run great covens. Tyrants can run cruel cults. The line may blur depending on the reactions of the members and of the leaders. Members of any group should feel they have both the right and the means to express themselves and to voice opinions, objections, ideas and alternatives. No member should ever feel isolated either from other members or from an outside support system, whether of family members, clergy outside of the group, or friends who are likewise outside of the group. Leaders should always be aware of their own motives, goals, and methods. They should ask for ideas and opinions and pay attention to them.

How do you decide if you’re in a toxic situation? My hardest and fastest rule is, “How does it feel at the gut level?” Trusting your instincts means walking away no matter how great it all looks, sounds, seems when it nevertheless sets off alarm bells in your head/heart/belly. This may not mean the group or situation is itself bad, but may indicate only that it’s not right for you and who you are at this time.

Is the leader an eye of serenity in the center of a swirling vortex of crazy people? This great guru may be the cause of all those other people’s problems. Rational people trying to deal with an irrational person will often appear pretty nuts because they’re not very good at being crazy while the one in the middle has had a lot of practice. Sane, rational and, dare I say, wise people usually like to associate with other sane people.

These ideas may help you avoid a cult-like environment, but if you are embroiled in one, it may be trickier to see, much less escape. Ask yourself, do I have friends and family outside of the group? If I chose to leave the group, as a group, would any of the people still be my friends? Would I want them to be? Who decides how my life will go and why? Do I feel free to express my opinions? What will happen if I disagree? Have I felt pressured to say, do, or believe things I disagree with? Am I happy?

What happens when you leave a cult? There may be very aggressive attempts to make you come back. In deliberate cults, this can get pretty frightening and has been known to include kidnapping and “reprogramming” (brainwash). In accidental cults this may be sincere concern on the part of the members who don’t understand that you just need to get away. A clear and honest explanation that you need to find your own path may help in easing the break for all concerned. Groups who find a member pulling away must be willing to let them go without making them feel that they have been dumped and then are being shunned.

The control over you life may have been such that you feel the loss of it as despair, desolation, mourning. You may find it difficult to make decisions for yourself because it was so often done for you. It may even seem easier to go back and be miserable than to break free. Don’t give up on yourself. Find a support system of family and friends, of other clergy, if they are available, and within yourself and between you and the Gods. Learn to listen to your heart and follow it.

The purposes of religion are many. Not one of them includes being constantly miserable, powerless.

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