Cults in the eyes of their believers

18 Oct

Religious cults that make headlines for homicide are almost always well beyond the storefront stage – there is no better example than Jim Jones and his People’s Temple in Guyana 33 years ago.
Durham is awash in an exception.Seven members of a small and heretofore unknown cult led by one Pete Lucas Moses Jr. are facing first-degree murder charges in the deaths of Antoinetta McKoy, 28, and Jadon Higganbothan, 5.
More than 1,200 religious cults of all sizes and beliefs are thought to flourish in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment and the country’s history of religious tolerance. Whatever Antoinetta McKoy was seeking in life, Pete Moses’ outfit in that cinder-block house at 2622 Ashe St. must have provided it until something went terribly awry.
From the Church of Scientology to Pete Moses Jr., religious cults have a bad odor among most Americans. Cults have a deserved reputation for creating a Stepford Wives mentality among their members, pocketing their money and alienating them from friends and family. Reasonable people regard this as a form of constitutionally protected body snatching, and it has spawned a vigorous anti-cult movement.
But what is a cult? And how is a cult different from, say, a religious denomination?
The late constitutional scholar Leo Pfeffer put it this way: If you believe in it, it’s a religion. If you don’t care one way or the other, it’s a sect. But if you fear it and hate it, it’s a cult.
Cults have been with us through the millennia. The mighty of Imperial Rome feared and persecuted the early Christians, whom they considered a subversive cult. The Christians eventually won the contest and became a mighty religion.
Cults appeared and vanished like the morning mist during the Vietnam War era and into the 1980s, attracting young Americans with the promise of finding their Bali Hai amid a fractious, militaristic and materialistic society. Most such communal cults – the bloodthirsty Manson Family was the worst of them – lasted about as long as the Summer of Love in 1967.
It is the religious cults that have always had staying power. Led by charismatic personalities, they exert a powerful sway over their adherents. Leaving such a cult is a wrenching experience akin to death – you become a nonperson, shunned and abandoned. The world you had been taught to hate is suddenly the one you must live in.
Studies of cults have shown that those attracted to them are not necessarily victims of brainwashing, as is commonly thought. New adherents enter cults on the basis of rational decisions. They see benefits and qualities in the cult that they like and want to share with others.
Predictably, the word cult is disavowed among academics, who consider it judgmental. They prefer “new religious movement.” That would have pleased the adherents of Heaven’s Gate, who believed suicide was the ticket to the celestial mother ship.
Whether we call them cults or new religious movements, the dangers can be real for young people seeking that elusive something greater than themselves. For Antoinetta McKoy and Jadon Higganbothan, that little white house on Ashe Avenue was not a home, but a horror.
Bob Wilson is a retired journalist, author and teacher who lives in southwest Durham.
text from:

%d bloggers like this: