Cults 101: If it chants like a duck, it’s a duck

When it comes to cults, I believe in the duck theory.  You know, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, chants like a duck, then it’s a duck.  Of course not all of us have personal experience with cult members, but I propose that every family has some religious zealot of one persuasion or another.  It matters  when zeal turns into obsession and religion (or politics) turns into a cult.  People
get blown up, drink Kool-Aid, lie, cheat, and steal out of so-called religious
devotion, so none of us are immunized against the potential harmful effects of

Cult is one of those words that is more potent in its connotation.  A simple semantic definition is insufficient because defining a cult is a subjective process.  Merriam
first definition is “religious veneration” and the third definition refers to groups regarded as “spurious.”  (The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions description is so broad that I found it to be no definition at all.)

How about an inside look at a real cult in a newly published book?  It is written by someone who was in Ananda Marga for nearly 20 years before leaving disillusioned.  And if you’re thinking this could never happen to you or anyone in your family, I beg to differ.  Author Marsha Goluboff Low is a nice Jewish
girl from the Philadelphia suburbs who was attracted to Ananda Marga just
before graduating from the University of Pennsylvania.  The Orange Robe: My Eighteen Years as a Yogic Nun, is a page-turner with life lessons for all.

Goluboff Low grew up in a harsh, cold household which nurtured low self-esteem and loneliness.  See what I mean?  There are a lot of people who can relate to
that kind of childhood.  She was at Penn at the end of the sex-drugs-rock’n’roll sixties, and found herself “longing for God” (p.5).  She was attracted to what
she saw as the peace and joy of the Ananda Marga devotees with whom she met and
started to meditate.

Ananda Marga was founded in India in 1955 by a railroad worker with spiritual gifts
and a vision of service to humanity.  Goluboff Low described him in the introduction as having a “magnetic and spiritual presence.”  Over the years she
met with him on several occasions and has accounts in her book of her own mystical experiences which she attributes to him.

There is no question that the author worked tirelessly to serve humanity, making
great personal sacrifices.  She had significant spiritual experiences giving her periods of bliss.  For many years she felt Ananda Marga offered her what her birth family did not.  As a student of religion, I would say the single most compelling issue that is woven throughout the book is this: how can a spiritually inspired and gifted guru tolerate an organization lacking in compassion for its members and who engage in ethically compromising actions?  I choose to believe that the Ananda Marga Guru was gifted and started with admirable goals.  However, when his ego merged with his spiritual potency and personal charisma, it created a dangerous

Many cults start as a religious sect.  By sect I mean a small, non-traditional religious group.  Sects perform a service by challenging the
status quo of mainstream religions and their inevitable inconsistencies and
corruptions. The difficulty comes with growth and what happens next to the sect.  Often it stagnates or in-breeds to become a cult.  I give you the Amish.  Originally championing pacifism and simplicity, the Amish got stuck.  If you
picture them as some quaint group leading a pastoral life you are naive.  Their costumes reflect being stuck in time, not a theological imperative.  Can you
really believe that God thinks buttons are sinful?  The Amish are strictly patriarchal with the local bishops having unquestioned power and influence.  Education after eighth grade is not allowed.  If a member of an Amish family chooses not to be Amish, they are no longer considered family.  And then there is their reputation for animal cruelty, which I have observed to be well-deserved.  It’s not all barn-raising and pie-baking.

Here are some considerations I would like to suggest are taken into account when
trying to make a distinction between religious groups, religious sects, and
religious cults.  This is my Red Flag or Chants Like A Duck List.

  1. Size doesn’t matter.  Whether large, like
    the Mormon Church, or small like the Branch Davidians, what goes on inside is what makes a cult.
  2. Yes I am God.  Personally, I think we should question anyone
    who says they speak for God, but when the veneration is of the individual then the practice is human and not divine.
  3. Give me all your money and go get some more.  If financial
    surrender is a condition of participation, you should worry.  If ethics are compromised to keep the organization funded, run the opposite direction.
  4. We’ll tell you when you can have sex, with whom, and if you can procreate.  There is a place for government or religion stating
    ethics or making laws on sexually aggressive behavior, for example.  It makes sense for the government to outlaw rape and religious organizations to address mutual respect.  However, when it comes to actual consensual activity and breeding – that should only for the individual to decide.
  5. Leave your conscience at the door.  If you
    surrender your money, you conscience won’t be far behind.  If you are required to surrender either, then you are signing up for a cult.

If you think all this doesn’t matter then think about political cults I wrote
about in the Sri Lanka blog (5/7/2011) who were originating suicide bombs
before we associated that activity with the Middle East.  The Orange Robe addresses immolation (self-sacrifice, in this case burning oneself while alive).  I am unwilling to see torching oneself as an act of devotion but rather one of delusion.  Whether suicide bombers, or monks on fire, I don’t see these as mentally healthy, happy people.  Any Guru, Imam or other religious leader that allows, encourages, or endorses this behavior has left the realm of religion and crossed-over to the dark side of cults.

The Orange Robe is unafraid to address that dark side of Ananda Marga and the author owns up to her own questionable activities.  It is a story where personal
courage and conscience survive the cult’s oppression and manipulation.  Marsha Goluboff Low joined Ananda Marga for the right reasons, and left for better ones.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know the author and read an early draft of
this book several years ago which earned me a mention in the acknowledgments.  But be assured that if I didn’t like this book I might tell her a polite social lie and say I did, but I sure wouldn’t write about it here.  I know for a fact the author labored over this book for years, but it is so well-written that it seems effortless.
Her world travels and spiritual journey are truly compelling.  I encourage you to give this book a chance. – J.B.

P.S.  This is someone you want to travel with.  She can survive anywhere!

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  • Mary Kay  On July 10, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    This was a very interesting read.I think the scariest thing about a zealot is the inability to accept any other path or any other belief. This book sounds like an excellent read.

  • allthingsreligious  On July 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    MK-Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I agree with you – anyone that makes everyone different wrong is indeed scary. J.B.

  • Beki Spurrier  On August 8, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    This book is going on the list. Thanks for the insightful review.

  • allthingsreligious  On August 8, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    It’s totally worth it Bek. And I’m not just saying that because she’s a friend.

  • Andy  On January 3, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    I’m a member of Ananda Marga, and I appreciate this perspective. Spiritual groups need to be aware of and face whatever shadow side of their activities may arise. My experience has been that the practices and service in AM outweigh the negatives; however, everyone’s experience needs to be respected.

  • Fabio Venuti  On August 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    Isn’t it telling that there is no clear definition of cult? Isn’t it because, perhaps, whennever somebody tries to define it, suddenly discovers that cults are not different from mainstream religions? Mainstream religions are just big and the power they have got is unquestioned. The Catholic Church is probably the first and richest multinational in the world.

    • allthingsreligious  On August 18, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Fabio-Certainly all religions share characteristics with cults. I would still distinguish cults, largely by the results. If they limit free thinking and focus more on the dictates of one or a few individuals, then I declare them a cult. In this I would include the Amish and Mormons. But as to the Roman Catholic Church, it is large and diverse in how people practice. Within it, there is the cult of Opus Dei, however. In any case, I do appreciate your comment and I am grateful you took time to read my column. J.B.

      • Fabio Venuti  On August 29, 2014 at 8:06 pm

        Thank you for your reply! I enjoy philosophical/theological discussions. I still maintain that the difference between cult and religion is essentially a matter of size (and you seem to implicitly agree to this) and evolution. New and relatively small religious organisations are controlled by whoever founded them and by their close entourage. If they are to survive, they have to keep a tight control on the official line of thought. Especially at the death of the first spiritual leader, fragmentation is their primary concern. As they grow, fragmentation wil become almost unavoidable, and it will hardly ever be peaceful. The Roman Catholic Church did fight heresies bitterly and bloodily. If, after this troubled phase, they have survived and become large and powerful, religious organisations can afford to relax, in fact they may become even sloppy. They may tolerate all sorts of syncretisms, which will eventually cause their melt-down.

  • allthingsreligious  On September 13, 2014 at 7:23 am

    My religion professor at Penn would agree with you on the size issue. He did not like when I grouped Mormons and Amish with cults. I maintain that any religion that seeks to control and manipulate rather than guide and inspire is problematic and at best, has cult-like tendencies. Of course, Bill Maher would say that’s all religions. Thanks again, for reading and commenting. -J.B.

  • rabin bangaar  On January 31, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I will read the book

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