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Is Christianity a cult?

By Peter Bowden - posted Thursday, 10 June 2021


Is Christianity a cult? The answer is maybe yes, maybe no, depending on how one defines a cult. One dictionary definition is a cult is a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. Some sociologists have argued for the definition should differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. If we use Christ as the cult object, however there is little doubt that Christianity is a cult. Christ must have been a magnetic figure, able to draw several hundreds to listen to him. There are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, making Christianity the largest religion on the planet. Roman Catholicism is the most prominent denomination (although not in the US).

If we compare Christianity to cults started in the United States, such as the Branch Dravidians, the Jonestown compound in Guyana where over 900 people died, Heaven's Gate, the religious group that organized their own mass suicide in 1997, Christianity is not an evil cult. The US is the most religious of all developed countries, with a widespread belief in the existence of god, yet it has created these crazy cults. US appears to generate more cults than the rest of the world combined.

In fact, if we use the teachings of Christ as a guideline, particularly the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount, then it is a good, even beneficial cult. These two teachings echo a moral guideline that we have heard for thousands of years – King Solomon (Proverbs 3:27 and 3:29), and the major Asian philosophies: "Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you cannot help them, at least don't hurt them," from the Dalai Lama. In the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophies, this concept is that of Ahimsa, "Do no harm". Several modern philosophers who also embrace this concept are John Stuart Mill, William Frankena, Bernard Gert, Thomas Beauchamp and James Childress.

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Christianity has not been without its evils, - the inquisitions, the crusades, the warring and whoring popes, the selling of indulgences, the abuse by the clergy. The support of Donald Trump by the evangelical right might be included. It certainly was misguided. But they may explain some of the inconsistencies in religious behaviour in the US.

A global Gallup Poll in 2009 asked "Is religion important in your daily life?". Percentages for "yes" and "no" answers are listed below. They often do not add up to 100% because some answered "don't know" or did not answer

United Kingdom 27% Yes 73% No

Australia 32% 68%

United States 69% 31%

Sweden 17% 82%

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France 30% 69%

The figures on France are surprising to this observer, who long thought of France as a strongly religious country.

Not only does the US have more Christians, it has a greater belief in God. Research by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago shows that 60% of people in the United States believed in god. This compared with 18% in France,17 % in Great Britain and 25% in Australia. The highest beliefs were 62% in Poland (which is 90% Catholic), and 84% in the Philippines (86% Catholic).

On the other side of the picture, atheistic beliefs (do not believe in a god) are 3% in the US as against 18 % in Great Britain and 23 % in France. 25% of Australians do not believe in any god.

The opposite exists in the US,. The official motto of the United States of America, established in a 1956 law signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is "In God We Trust. The phrase first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864.

Yet that is the enigma. The United States treats more of its people, and of the world, in an unchristian like manner that any other country – It kills more of them, in mass murders and individual homicides, it executes more of its own people than any other Christian nation, and it causes more wars. The US has invaded nearly half the world's countries and been militarily involved with nearly all. And the great majority of the 'murderous' cults were created in America.

According to Jimmy Carter, former US President, the US has only enjoyed 16 years of peace in its 242-year history, making the country "the most warlike nation in the history of the world," This is, he said, because of Washington's tendency to force other nations to "adopt our American principles."

This narrative, however, concentrates on inconsistencies which are peculiar to the United States, in comparison with other developed nations.

The US, for instance, has one of the developed world's worst health care systems with a comparatively low life expectancy and poor health achievements on several statistics. Yet its political parties have consistently battled over a national health scheme.

It also until recently, had a President who lied constantly.

Then there have been its policies towards blacks. As legal scholar James Whitman has demonstrated, Nazi policy was shaped in part by American race laws. American anti-miscegenation statutes provided models for the 1935 second Nuremberg Law, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which prohibited Jews from marrying or engaging in sexual relations with persons of 'German or related blood'.

Then there is the death penalty. No other western country has the death penalty, a form of state sanctioned violence that is near inconceivable in the 21st century.

The question arises then that if the US has generated a high percentage of the world's cults why has it done so, and is this the reason why a very religious country has such inadequate social practices- more killings, more public executions, inadequate health systems?

Two possible explanations are put forward, but commenters are urged to put their own explanations forward. One is the founding of the United States. The first permanent British colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. On August 15, 1620 - the Mayflower set sail from Southampton with 102 settlers on board, known as the Pilgrims. The settlers that founded Boston were Puritans - members of the Church of England who believed that the Church retained too much of its Roman Catholic roots. They opposed England's ecclesiastical policy under Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. They also created the birthplace of the American revolution

Later came the Quakers. The colony of Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn in 1682, as a safe place for Quakers to practice their faith. Quakers had been a significant part in the movement for the abolition of slavery, to promote equal rights for women, and peace. The Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers, began as a movement in England in the mid-17th century.

The Quakers and the Puritans as original settlers, generated a long standing commitment to religion. But they did not get on well together. One of the differences was on slavery, which the Quakers tried to abolish. The United States subsequently fought a very bitter civil war over this issue. The result is still a very divided country.

The second explanation came out of the first. The commitment to Christian beliefs created the commitment to cults – a strong US practice. The writer has a strong belief that the history of a country forms a basic underpinning to its national characteristics. That US characteristic is not only to religion, but a commitment to controversial cult like behaviours. In short, Christianity in the United States is just another cult.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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