A group that many consider a religious cult infiltrates a community event. Event organizers figure out what's going on and tell the group to beat it. What most irked the organizers was that the alleged cult misrepresented itself in order to gain access to an unsuspecting audience.
No, this is not about the dispute between the Falun Gong and the Canadian Tulip Festival. It's about an incident at Seattle's Fremont Market. As the U.S. journalist Dan Savage tells it, shoppers at the popular outdoor market were surprised to discover a booth sponsored by the Church of Scientology. The Scientologists obtained the booth under the pretense of being ordinary 'booksellers', according to a market spokesman.
To be sure, there are echoes here of the Falun Gong dust-up in Ottawa. The Chinese government says Falun Gong is a cult, which is why Falun Gong hold anti-China protests. A Falun Gong marching band was set to perform at the opening ceremony of the Tulip Festival when, at the last minute, the festival cancelled the appearance. The tulip organizers said they weren't told the band was Falun Gong, and when they found out they feared the band would turn the festival into a political protest.
The festival has since apologized to the band. But if there wasn't a whole lot of sympathy for the Falun Gong in some quarters, it's because many people likely shared the view that it's a weird cult. Same with scientologists, to whom the Fremont Market was only too happy to give the boot.
We should be careful about the word cult, though. Any religion other than one's own looks bizarre and silly. In the movie Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen goes into a Pentecostal church and makes fun of worshippers for speaking in tongues. Borat fans loved laughing at the freaky Christians. Mr. Cohen, meanwhile, is Jewish. Take a video camera into an Orthodox synagogue and film the men rocking back and forth in their ecstatic prayer, and you'll get plenty of snickers in movie theatres from El Paso to Saskatoon.
The threat of militant Islam is real, but more than one documentary filmmaker has overreached by showing moody video of Muslims at prayer, as though such footage itself is sufficient to suggest foreboding. To non-Muslims, images from Mecca of thousands of men pressing their foreheads to the floor are creepy and foreign, perhaps even cultish. But invite a Muslim to witness a Buddhist ceremony and see who's calling whom a cult member.
A defining mark of cults, supposedly, is that new recruits experience a personality change and become alienated from the communities they grew up in. But this is often the case whenever someone converts to a new religion. Criminals who find Jesus in prison experience the most radical of personality change, which profoundly alienates them from the communities to which they once belonged (street gangs, say). Seems unfair to write off born again Christians as cult followers.
Cults are accused of using fear and guilt to secure obedience. That pretty much takes care of all the Roman Catholics I know. The sermon on hell in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, delivered by an old school Irish priest, is scarier than anything you'll hear from Tom Cruise or other Scientologist theologian.
Expectations of purity, the presence of charismatic leaders, a sense of exclusivity or chosenness, an "us vs. them" world view -- all these criteria assigned to cults are also central to many respectable religions. As some scholars have argued, even Alcoholics Anonymous can be made to fit definitions of a cult organization.
Yet for all the overlap between established religions and alleged cults, there is one trait that appears to be more common among the latter than the former: the use of deception. I don't believe Falun Gong is either dangerous or a cult, but its members do have a history of misrepresenting themselves. A few months ago I was approached in Westboro by a man giving away tickets to a Chinese cultural performance. Bring the kids, he insisted. After chatting for five minutes something clicked and I asked if the show was Falun Gong; it was, and his friendly manner vanished.
The Seattle journalist Dan Savage has noted that the Church of Scientology is increasingly using the cross as a symbol, even though the group is in no way Christian. Appropriating symbols is a form of deception.
Messianic Christian sects will go onto university campuses and distribute recruitment literature with symbols like the menorah, in an effort to lure naive Jewish students who think they have been invited to a "Jewish" event.
This may itself not make a group a cult, but any movement that feels it has to disguise its real agenda is not one that I'd recommend joining.
(The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, May 17, 2008)