Author’s Note: This post is part of an earlier outline I’m working on for people who doubt their Christian faith and are looking for alternative answers. If you’re happy with your Christian faith, this series isn’t probably for you. Since this is an outline, I probably won’t have all the citations and sources I’d like yet.
Despite the few times I’ve used the word, I’ve not been incredibly comfortable with calling Christianity a cult. Primarily it’s because I remember being on the receiving end of that label, and I know how it’s often levied as a quick jab with nothing more to it than a mere attempt to offend. It gets used frequently online, and without full weight as to the actual implications of what it might mean.
The second reason is that I’d have to admit that I was a member of a cult. Normally cults are those things you see on TV after they perpetuate some sort of mass tragedy. They’re hidden centers of abuse and shame, where charismatic leaders keep hostages under the umbrage of religious freedom. When I was a Christian, they were also places of nefarious influences – either from dark forces or generic sinful nature.
Nowadays, I can find less separation between fundagelical Christianity and the cults they rail against. People outside the belief structure are the Enemy. Fringe beliefs gain more traction, like regulating what people wear or who they do business with. Dependence upon the church and faith are encouraged to a fault, to the point where a person cannot think of themselves as being outside it.
This post was supposed to be about how this went on in the past.
I wanted to illustrate how Christianity – even on its own terms in the New Testament – began like any other cult we see today. Instead of being able to spread it online, people just had to manually walk from town to town and meet face to face. Still, there was a new message by a single charismatic leader (Jesus and Paul both count), persecution by orthodox forces, and the establishment of communities set apart from the rest of the world.
While mainline Christians are more of an open book, fundagelical Christianity still follows this paradigm. When you go to a church that’s either evangelical or fundamentalist, there’s a message that this congregation is set apart, that it has the right message which is better than anyone else’s. Ridicule and criticism of that message is treated as persecution of earlier years. It’s better to keep following the pastor and not be “of this world.”
I discovered while trying to write about the Christianity that might have existed, I was staring at the Christianity that does exist. The manual was written almost 1700 years ago. People are still using it today.
What are the implications?
At this point, I have to note that I’m not talking about cults in the ordinary pejorative sense of the word. Rather, I’m using it in the sense of the community it forms. Cults at their core are communities centered around an ideological purpose – from beliefs about life after death to watching bad movies.
In a sense, the cult of Christianity only cares about the community. Members are safe people who can be tolerated along further lines than non-members. Those outside the community are seen as potential members, enemies, and any permutation in between. Sometimes people can be viewed as enemies while being viewed as a notch on the spiritual bedpost.
All of that development influences behavior. Deconverts know this particularly well, since people who used to be nice are now the most hateful and spiteful people once you tell them you don’t share their beliefs. A single perspective changed, and now I have to get treated as if I never cracked open my Bible. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known them for months or even years.
One can also see this influence in how many fundagelical churches target children. Prayer in schools is a big issue, so children can be pressured at home to pressure their schoolmates into joining the community. There’s a giant market for children’s ministries. Kids get targeted in ways that subvert their ability to decide what’s real and what’s not.
This doesn’t just happen to those outside the Christian faith (although people who accept the label of Christian are probably more tolerated). Fundagelical Christianity can attempt to enforce its norms on more mainline Christian groups as well. It’s not enough to control just one set of churches. The community must grow if it is to survive.
Why this is a reason to leave.
The cult of Christianity only cares about membership. I used to live in denial of this very fact. More mainline Christian friends kept me thinking that it wouldn’t matter if I carried the label so much as I really believed. It’s something I had to tell myself to go through the motions of faith.
Now on the outside, I can see how little my beliefs mattered. It was a glorified social club that used my emotions against me. Every time someone tries getting on their holier-than-thou kick about how righteous they are, I get reminded that they’re just trying to give out Jesus tattoos. That community takes from people until they can no longer give, and then it discards them like trash, treating them like they never belonged in the first place.
No healthy person needs that kind of abuse. Realizing that the community only gets the power one gives it is its own special brand of freedom. It paints every behavior at perpetuating the club in an honest light. Members can do a lot to make themselves miserable, but nobody has to join them. They will have to find their own way out, if and when they are willing.