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Church or Cult?

The question of whether a religious organisation is a church or a cult often arises. In fact I heard two news items this morning where this was an issue. The first was regarding a New Zealand fundamentalist church called the Destiny Church and the second was regarding Scientology in France. To me the difference between the two isn’t that great because all churches have elements of cults and vice versa, so the dividing line is very much a matter of subjective opinion.

According to the dictionary a church is “a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines” and “the hierarchy of clergy of such an organization”. I’m a bit surprised that this definition specifies a church must be Christian so I’m going to ignore that aspect of the definition (that may seem arbitrary but only real Christian bigots would say a church has to be Christian surely).

The same dictionary (the New Oxford American) defines a cult as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object” or “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister”. So a cult either venerates a particular object or figure (I’m sure most people would say religions do this as well) or are relatively small and considered strange or sinister.

Some people (myself included) consider a lot of Christian beliefs strange and sinister so that isn’t necessarily a good indicator of a cult. That leaves the size of the organisation as a significant factor which means all current religions were cults when they started and were relatively small.

So it seems to me that, at the very least, the line between the two is blurred and in many ways a church is just a big, established cult and a cult is a church which isn’t well accepted or very big yet. Those don’t seem like very important distinctions to me.

This should in no way be construed as meaning I support the existence of the Destiny Church or Scientology. I think in general these are cults (in the sense most people use the word) and need to be controlled although I certainly wouldn’t make them illegal because people should have the choice to believe stupid and ridiculous things if they really want to.

The leader of Destiny is either a nutter who is totally out of touch with reality or a very clever, scheming politician intent on using religion for his own personal gain and power. I’m honestly not sure which he is but either way its concerning. A good example of his paranoia or duplicity is a speech at a recent meeting where he likened himself to King David and said: “Who is going to touch my people? Who is going to steer your children? Who is going to try and put a disease upon you if I already pre-programmed, pre-designed it? God. I am God, I am not just some man or spirit, I am god.”

He is God? Really? When people start indulging in this sort of rhetoric, or worst still, have delusions of grandeur to this extent, its time to be worried!

At the same meeting he told the men (not the women, which sounds like classic Christian misogyny) to swear an oath which included: “Always speak of Bishop Brian in a favourable and positive light. Protect him from outsiders who try and get in his face. Tactfully move in on people who do this. When Bishop Tamaki is speaking all others stop. Never openly disagree with Bishop Tamaki in front of others. If seated with Bishop Tamaki at a table wait until he has started eating before you do. In a sign of love and respect for Bishop Tamaki surprise him with gifts.”

So this really shows the requirement of unthinking support for a leader which is clearly cult-like, but is it that much different from the requirement of Catholics to respect the Pope and not question his decisions? I don’t think so, although there are so many Catholics that the Church can’t monitor them all for compliance where the meeting mentioned above only included 700 people.

In just 15 years (from 1991 to 2006) the percentage of New Zealanders identifying themselves as Christian has dropped from 75 to 55 while those saying they have no religion has gone from just over 20% to almost 40% (Wikipedia: Religion in New Zealand). By the time the next census is held in 2011 I would expect that non-believers will be the close to being the biggest group in New Zealand.

This is clearly what extremists like Tamaki fear. In 2003 he predicted that “we will be ruling the Nation” in 5 years. The church’s main attempt at political power was a pathetic failure when the Destiny New Zealand political party gained just 0.6% of the total vote. Why even that number of people would vote for a bunch or corrupt nutters I cannot imagine!

As religion gradually disappears from western society we should expect churches to become more desperate to survive. Maybe that’s all we are seeing with the latest chicanery from Destiny.

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