Is this website a cult?

TOPICS: Not the purpose of this website to tear down people’s support network or provide another one – there is no organization behind this website – balance versus extremism – the word ‘cult” is often misused to stereotype people – people made money on deprogramming – was Jesus a cult leader? – Jesus would be labeled as a dangerous cult leader today – organizations who labels others as cults often act as cults – characteristics of a cult – balance versus extremism –

Question: Hi Kim. I’ve been reading your website for a few months now and find it very interesting and also a well of useful knowledge. I posted a link to the “The Four Deadly Christian Assumptions” page on a forum that i go to and got this response from one of the posters.

“Long ago, I was once a member of a Christian group that practiced cult-like brainwashing techniques. Although the group’s theology was Christian, its practices certainly weren’t.
With that experience behind me, the aim of this website is as plain as day. It’s designed to suck in people who already have Christian sympathies. The cult initiation technique is a two-step process:
Tear down the subject’s current support network. Convince them that their family, or the local community of Christian believers, is somehow ignorant, or corrupt, or not holy enough. When the subject is convinced of this, move on to step 2.
Give the subject a new support network. Provide love and affirmation. And reveal special “true revelations”, available only to those in the group. Encourage a feeling of pride in these new revelations. After all, the subject is “special” now.

That’s exactly what this website is doing. They’re attempting to separate people from the community of believers because they’re not good enough, and then substituting the actual, present-day words of Jesus himself! And so they quote some verses? So what? Even Satan quoted scripture to Jesus. If someone really wants to learn Christianity from the internet, I’d suggest the Christian Apologetics Resource Network. I consider it a good introduction to Christianity. And they won’t attempt to separate you from your local churches. Or your family.
I’m sorry to be a downer about this, but that web site clearly practices cult-like techniques.”

I’m curious to know what kind of response you would give to this. If you can’t respond on your site then i would be grateful if you can personally respond to me on this matter. Thank you very much.

Answer from Kim Michaels:

Dear GS, I wouldn’t say anything directly to the person because he/she obviously isn’t open to finding spiritual teachings beyond his/her present beliefs. I don’t see it as my calling to work with people who are not open to new teachings; I see it as my job to provide information for people with open minds. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me or the information I bring forth. If someone doesn’t find this website useful or disagrees with it, then I respect that person’s free will and hope we can simply part in peace.

In other words, it is not my job to pull people out of their present “support network;” it is my job to give information to those who feel that their current support network no longer meets their spiritual needs. Also, it is not my job to give people a new support network that I am controlling. I do not even run an organization but leave it up to visitors what they do with the teachings.

I have studied the topic of cults for many years, and my personal conclusion is that the central issue is balance versus extremism. An organization that exhibits cult-like characteristics is usually one in which the members have become spiritually unbalanced, so they take extremist viewpoints (black-and-white thinking) and a somewhat fanatical approach. This website continually stresses the need to stay out of the relative extremes of the dualistic mind and to take a balanced approach to everything. Obviously, the person could not see that and you might consider why not?

When talking about cults, I think you need to be aware how the word “cult” has been used and misused over the past several decades. You need to know that there is not one single, official, definition of the word, and a number of organizations have their own definitions that are often used to stereotype the members of other organizations. So when someone uses the word cult, you always need to take a careful look at the person’s background and motivation. I think anyone who will do a bit of research and look at some of the organizations that used the word cult during the 1980’s and 1990’s will find that at least some of them used the word in a way that was hateful toward others and therefore showed a clear lack of religious tolerance and a clear tendency toward extremism. For more on this, see the following website.

As an example of how the word has been used, some fundamentalist and evangelical Christian churches have used it to label any church that does not agree with their literal interpretation of the Bible. Some such groups have publicly labeled the Catholic Church and more mainstream Lutheran churches as cults. Likewise, some consider Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism as cults. Of course, anything labeled as New Age is automatically seen as a destructive cult.

You also need to know that during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were several groups of people who used the media frenzy about cults (spurred by Jonestown, heaven’s Gate and the Branch Davidians) to get paid to forcefully kidnap and “deprogram” a number of alleged cult members. The idea was that since cults supposedly use brainwashing, it was justified to kidnap the cult members and brainwash them in reverse to help them out of the mental prison of the cults. Some people allegedly made big money on this, but the practice was eventually stopped by a number of lawsuits that convicted some of the deprogrammers for kidnapping.

I personally know a person who grew up in a Jewish family, and his parents hired some deprogrammers to get him out of a Christian religion he had joined. Needless to say this deprogramming frenzy created deep scars in many of the involved families. How would you feel if your parents had you kidnapped by people who aggressively tried to destroy your religious beliefs?

The next thing I would say is that you might take the person’s description of cult practices and apply them to Jesus. These are the definitions:

Tear down the subject’s current support network. Convince them that their family, or the local community of Christian believers, is somehow ignorant, or corrupt, or not holy enough. When the subject is convinced of this, move on to step 2.

Give the subject a new support network. Provide love and affirmation. And reveal special “true revelations”, available only to those in the group. Encourage a feeling of pride in these new revelations. After all, the subject is “special” now.

Jesus met all of these criteria. He told people to leave behind everything to follow him and he clearly gave special revelations to his disciples. I could give you numerous Bible quotes to support this, but here are just a couple.

Tearing down people’s support network: If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26)

Giving special revelation to the followers: But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples (Mark 4:34).

My point is that this is a very general definition of a cult that you can apply to any new religion. Jesus’ mission was to draw people away from the corrupt practices of the scribes and Pharisees, and he also came to give people new spiritual teachings. So, yes he had to appeal to those who were willing to consider leaving their “support network” and become part of a new spiritual movement. Just look at how Jesus was treated by the orthodox/fundamentalist people of his time. Do you have any doubt that they would have labeled him as an extremely dangerous cult leader if the terminology had been in use back then?

So we might consider what happens to people who believe in the above definition of a cult. They will obviously be afraid to leave their present religion. Yet what if that religion has been corrupted – as most religions of the past – and is now promoting a man-made interpretation that will not help people win their salvation. Don’t forget that Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we cannot enter heaven (Matthew 5:20). Would not the modern-day scribes and Pharisees attempt to scare people into staying in the religion they are controlling, as Jesus explains in this discourse?

I has been my observation that if you look at some of the groups that use the term cult, you will see that they generally fit the profile of a cult even better than the organizations they accuse. For example, many fundamentalist churches believe it is their duty to save people from false religions, which they truly see as anything but a fundamentalist church. So they evangelize very aggressively, seek to tear down people’s current support network and give them a new support network of true believers.

They also fit two of the characteristics of cults not mentioned by the person, namely that they encourage their members to isolate themselves from others and they strongly discourage their members from leaving. Most cults have a very clear barrier against people leaving, and the person here even mentions, “And they won’t attempt to separate you from your local churches. Or your family.” He/she also talks about the importance of not leaving the “community of believers.”

I found a list of the most common characteristics of cults and applied it to this website:

Apocalyptic Beliefs: Teachings focus heavily on the impending end of the world, and a great battle between good and evil.

This website makes it very clear that the world will not end. It does talk about the battle between good and evil, but it then teaches people to transcend the dualistic mindset and the epic mindset. This website is very clear about the need to avoid fear and imbalance, and it focuses on how we can bring about a better age here on earth.

Elitism: The group is expected to play a major, elite role at the end time.

This website doesn’t talk about an end time. It doesn’t have a clearly defined group of believers. It says that all spiritual people – from a variety of traditional and new religions – will play a role in bringing about a better age. It does not claim that this website will save the world.

Charismatic Leadership: They are led by a single male charismatic leader.

I am male, but I don’t see myself as a leader and think I generally keep a low profile. Besides, who would I be leading; where is the “membership” for this website?

Control: The leader dominates the membership, closely controlling them physically, sexually and emotionally.

Again, you can’t really dominate a membership that doesn’t exist.

Social Encapsulation: They are a small religious group, not an established denomination.

This does apply to the website—and to any new spiritual movement, including early Christianity. However, do the visitor’s to this website actually form an organized or coherent group?

Isolated community: The group (or at least the core members) lives together in an intentional community which is isolated from the rest of society.

Don’t see the community, nor the isolation. Instead, this website clearly states that people need to follow their inner direction over the teachings on this website or the leader of any organization. It does not encourage people to isolate themselves but to study whatever they feel moved to study from within. It also talks about the importance of people taking active part in society and bringing their spirituality into all aspects of their lives.

Paranoia: There is often extreme paranoia within the group; they believe that they are in danger and that they are being closely monitored and heavily persecuted by governments or people outside the group.

I personally don’t feel persecuted, even though I do get a lot of negative e-mails from certain Christians. Again, I have no group of members.

Us versus them: People on “the outside” are demonized. Information and contacts from outside the group are severely curtailed.

I don’t see an us-versus-them mentality on this website. I don’t see any attempt to prevent people from going to other websites, and I sincerely doubt you could ever control people through a website.

Weapons: The group assembles guns, poison, or weapons of mass destruction. They may prepare defensive structures.

I don’t own any guns.

Theology: They follow a form of Christian theology (or a blend of Christianity with another religion), with major and unique deviations from traditional beliefs in the area of end-time prophecy.

I guess one could say this website has a Christian theology. It does blend Christianity with other religions. There are major deviations with traditional beliefs. Yet there is no end-time prophecy.

As I said above, I think the central issue is balance. Some spiritual/religious organizations clearly have a fear-based us-versus-them culture that makes it very traumatic for people to leave. This website doesn’t have an organization, and there is no clearly defined membership. The teachings on the site talk a lot about transcending fear and achieving balance, they encourage people to treat others with love and I don’t see any way in which people are discouraged from leaving the site to study other teachings.

I have a hard time seeing how offering information on a website – that people must choose to visit, can visit anonymously and can leave any time – can be labeled as creating a cult, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised any accusation.

Finally, let me give my personal definition of a cult. It is an organization that causes its members to focus so much attention on the motes in the eyes of the members of other organizations that they completely overlook the beams in their own eyes. So, no I am not trying to start a cult.



Copyright © 2005 by Kim Michaels