Part III: Religion. Social Movement. Pyramid Scheme. Cult.

The Church of Scientology uses all its resources to present a world of possibilities that no other religion can compare to. Their website shows off their various programs that help the unfortunate while candid photos of their aid to disaster areas are humbly plastered across the pages. They promise a better universe, salvation from evil. At first glance, they are just a religion trying to make the world a better place. Maybe that is all they are.

Maybe that’s all they want us to see.

While you are reading, it is recommended you listen to the album Caeli by Kai Engel.

Cult vs. Religion

Cults are not strictly based on religious ideologies; they are eclectic and can have a number of belief systems ranging from political, apocalyptic or even extraterrestrial. Because Scientology is legally a religion, I will be focusing on the relationships between cults and religions. There are myriads of explanations for what a cult is. The terms “cult” and “religion” are often separated, one socially accepted (religion) while the other carries demeaning and vile undertones (cult). Perpetuating the binary of cults and religions creates the illusion that the two are different, but is there much of a distinction?

When they legally become a religion, organizations have the privileges of tax exempts and anti-discrimination legislation. As mentioned in Part II, money plays a significant role in the Church and hefty tax exempts will be beneficial with increasing revenue. The Church of Scientology officially became a religion in the United States in 1993 and has since been persistent in being recognized as a religion around the world. According to the American IRS, some of the attributes necessary to be legally identified as a religion are:

  • Distinct legal existence
  • Distinct religious history
  • Regular religious services
  • Established places of worship
  • Literature of its owned
  • Organization of ordained ministers

New Religions like Scientology have difficulty acquiring legal status because they are so frequently dismissed as cults; the younger the religion, the less clout they have compared to their elder counterparts.

A significant factor our society uses to separate a cult from a religion is age. There are the old religions, e.g. Catholicism, Bhuddism and Hinduism, that have existed for millennia and are universally understood as religions. Then there are the newer ones: Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oahspe Faithists, etc. that were created in the recent centuries and commonly recognized as cults.

Other cult researchers say legal religions are not cults; rather, cults can be formed from religious doctrines. For example the Branch Davidians is largely based off the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was founded on Catholic beliefs.

Whether the size of an organization determines if a group is a cult is also up for debate. I have heard the claim that Heaven’s Gate was not a cult because there were few members (keep in mind the organization still exists and has practicing members). Others will say the Catholic Church is not a cult because of how big it is. Does size even matter when defining a cult?

In retrospect, no. The Manson Family is widely known to be cult despite it only having about 12 members, and Peoples Temple is also a recognized cult with its thousands of followers. Organizations do not grow overnight – they all start small and some have success in numbers while others do not. Scientology began with only L. Ron Hubbard and now there are about 25,000 members (the total number is unknown; the Church has once declared there to be millions of Scientologists, but the American Religious Identification Survey have debunked the claim).

Scientology is a religion, but it is not confined as just that. The Church’s website declares it to be the most important movement on the planet; there are claims that it as all a massive pyramid scheme, due to the high prices the Church requires for people to move up in levels that do not exist.

Then we see those, especially ex-Scientologists, who know the Church of Scientology as only one thing: a destructive cult.

Cults 101

Cults are some of the most complex human creations on earth, consisting of various practices, members, beliefs and locations. Yet we still find ways to define them with limiting definitions including but not limited to:

  • Religious
  • Doomsday
  • Political
  • Polygamist
  • New Age
  • Occult, Satanic or Black-Magic
  • One-on-One or Family
  • Cults of Personality
  • Commercial, Multi-marketing
  • Psychotherapy, Human Potential, Mass Transformational
  • Racist/Terrorist
  • Destructive

Before continuing, I would like to state that not all cults are harmful or destructive. There are many organizations that fall under the following and aforementioned guidelines that define a cult, but that doesn’t not mean we should view them all through a single lense. They are deeper than we can possibly understand at first glance and can be positively beneficial for people and the world. 

The types of cults can intersect (i.e. racist cults are always destructive cults, but they can also have religious ideologies). According to Cult Research, cults are defined by various traits, some of which are listed below:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader (whether they are dead or alive) and the leader’s belief system is practiced as Truth/law.
  • The group has an us-versus-them mentality
  • Leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members
  • The group is preoccupied with making money
  • There is no other way to be; there is no other belief system

Though there is no legal definition, “cults” are generally recognized as a “group of individuals with some common religious or metaphysical-philosophical ideology”. The First Amendment decriminalizes cults, and they are only deemed illegal if they partake in criminal activity and/or their belief system is centered around committing crimes. In this case, they would be considered a criminal organization. You can look here to see which groups the FBI identifies as criminal organizations.

Cults and Violence

The public doesn’t not necessarily need to scrutinize cult-like organizations unless the leaders and/or members are violent to those inside and/or outside the community, and vice-versa. Violence is not always warfare and militarized weapons and mass murder-suicides; it comes in all shapes and sizes. It is manipulation, gaslighting, control, oppression. It seeks to destroy and deconstruct, to break you down until you are what they want.

Those true crime documentaries you watch on Investigation Discovery and the books you read by former members whom experienced trauma that will affect their lives forever exemplify destructive cults. They are the tragedies of Jonestown, the Tokyo Subway Attacks, Waco, the Kanungu murders. The public ignores them at all the wrong times and stops them when it is already too late.

The signs of a destructive cult are:

  • Prioritizes recruiting followers
  • Intimidating indoctrination procedures to psychologically harm a person
  • Expensive fees/initiations
  • Trapping members, restricting them from leaving or threatening them to keep them from leaving
  • Cutting off members from their family, friends and anyone else who is not a part of the cult
  • Thought control
  • Humiliating members when they do anything the leaders disagree with
  • Hoarding of money or power by anyone
  • Double standards for leaders (i.e. members cannot have sex, but leaders can)
  • Severe us-versus-them mentality

Control is the foundation of a destructive cult. These organizations will take you slowly, piece by piece, eliminating all fragments of your life until you have nothing left. It is easy for us to place judgement on people who join these cults. We ask the questions: “How do they do that to themselves?” “Why would they bring their children into it?” “Why didn’t they just leave?”  “It’s their fault.” And the ever-so-lovely, “I would never be stupid enough to join a cult.”

We only see the worst of what happens, be it on the news or a headline on social media. We may not know the personal stories of the members of destructive cults, we may never fully understand their stories, but we can listen. Anyone is susceptible; we are all the “type of people who would join a cult”. We are humans and we are vulnerable.

Whether you are learning about a destructive cult or reading the headlines of a cult’s catastrophe, empathy is vital. Many of these movements will latch onto specific targets, often times people who are at a vulnerable place in their life and/or have money to give to organizations that promise a better world in exchange for meaning. We spend our lives searching for opportunities and chasing our dreams. When the once-in-a-lifetime chances fall into our hands, it is only natural we take them. We do not realize we are the ones falling into the wrong hands.

The truth begins to unravel when someone finds a loose thread and pulls, uncovering the mysteries and endless holes beneath each seam. In November 2006, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, both wealthy celebrities and Scientologist, married in Italy. All the biggest names in Scientology and Hollywood were there, David Miscavige was Cruise’s best man, the paparazzi appeared at every turn. Everyone who was anyone was celebrating.

It was finally when Leah Remini asked why Shelly Miscavige, the beloved mother of Scientology, was missing from the event that the threads turned into holes.

Cover photo:

All other sources are linked in the text.