In exchange for her cooperation, Maryland prosecutors have offered Ria Ramkissoon a reduced charge in the case against Queen Antoinette who leads a West Baltimore cult known as One Mind Ministries. Ria, and other members of the group, starved Ria’s son to death because he did not say ‘Amen’ when he was directed to do so. It’s troubling, but probably no worse than similar deals made in courtrooms across the nation every day.
What’s really troubling, at least initially, is the story of a woman willing to sacrifice her son because her faith demanded it. But is Ria Ramkissoon’s story any worse than the story of a man who waits his whole life to have a child, and then, when he finally does, he carries that child to a mountain top where he prepares him as an offering to the god who tells him to do so? Is her story worse than that of another father who sends his only son into the world just so he can watch him suffer and die an agonizing death?
There “must” be a difference though, because the Ria is a member of a cult and the other stories are those of Abraham’s binding of Isaac in the Hebrew Bible, and Jesus’ sojourn on Earth as recorded in the New Testament. And those are the founding stories not of cults, but of religions, right? Well, let’s see.
While the passage of time is probably the only way to distinguish between extreme religious conviction and delusion, the same modest claim need not be made for the distinction between a religion and a cult. That line can be demarcated with relative ease, but not in the ways that it usually is.
It’s not a function of the too often proffered liberal twaddle that cults are mean and harsh, while real religion is gentle and sweet. It’s not, as theological conservatives are want to argue, that their faith is true because “God really said what we believe but not that other stuff.” And it’s not about it all being the same as the rabid secularists love to claim.
The distinction between cults and religions cannot be based on age, with the new kids on the block labeled cults and the old ones, religions. After all every religion has a starting point and each tradition was once considered an innovation. For example, when early Jews proclaimed their faith in one God, and later on early Christians claimed that Jesus was that god’s only begotten son, their contemporaries considered each group to be lunatic cultists.
Nor can the distinction between cult and religion be a matter of popular acceptance. Both history and the contemporary world are filled with cult-like practices that are adopted by millions. And many small groups pursue spiritual fulfillment in ways that are not likely to ever gain mass acceptance. So where is the bright line which marks the divide between cults and religions?
Cults are typically defined by five characteristics. First, cults tend to centralize power in the hands of a single individual or small group that is considered beyond questions. Second, they treat all questions about the group and its beliefs as intolerable challenges to the group’s authority and authenticity. Third, they demean all those who do not share their beliefs and sow fear and mistrust amongst their believers about all such people. Fourth, they typically cut off all or most opportunities for members to interact freely with those outside the group. And finally, they take revenge upon those who choose to leave the group, in ways which include, cutting them off from all relationships with those who remain inside, confiscation of material goods and even physical harm.
The fact that pretty much every religion has done all of these things at some point in history of the group means the while the line between cults and religions is clear, it is not fixed or static. In fact, most cults have the capacity to move past the kind of ugly behavior which defines them as a cult. And more importantly, most religions can and do slip into cult-like behavior from time to time. When they remain steadfast in such behavior, however old their tradition, or however popular, they become a cult.
Cult or religion? To paraphrase Forrest Gump’s mother, cults are as the cultists do. And the same can be said for religions and their followers. Cult and religion are labels that swings like a saloon door and the trick is to know on which side any of us stands.