Cults: No Need to Worry and No Need to Think

For a number of readers, last week’s reflection about authoritarianism raised questions about cults.  Cults are dangerous.

They are closely related of course.

According to Hebrew tradition, when the legendary Moses went up into Mount Sinai, in the 13th century BCE, to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, and led by Aaron the brother of Moses, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking. An early cult.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders shun and ostracize people who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media. Cult leaders are false prophets.

The American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton (born 1926), known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of political violence, delineates three common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and who becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Take care,


A Reflection About Contemporary Authoritarianism

Around the globe today, authoritarian regimes have become more effective at circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic human liberties. Even in countries with long-established democracies, authoritarian forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems. They are distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power.

According to a recent report from Freedom House in Washington DC,           countries that have been struggling between democracy and authoritarianism are increasingly turning toward authoritarianism. (Freedom House is a U.S. American organization devoted to the support and defense of democracy around the world. It was formally established in New York in 1941 to promote the struggle against fascism. Currently, Freedom House publishes an annual report on new media freedom, Freedom on the Net, which reaches critical audiences in the tech world and in policy circles. Freedom House analysts regularly issue interpretive assessments on repressive techniques employed by leading autocracies, including China, Turkey, and Russia.)

Authoritarianism uses and abuses people. It destroys human freedom to think, to act, and tolive. It manipulates people and often destroys the “undesirables.”

The historical Jesus stressed that human greatness is based on compassion and service. His authority was used to motivate and guide people, to heal, support, and call to conversion. Some “Christian leaders” still don’t get the message.

In the United States, “Trumpism” has become an authoritarian cult based on DJT’s persona. Contemporary Republican extremists have paralyzed the government in the midst of an unusually dangerous time. The 2024 U.S. presidential election will be significant to the the least. 

Contemporary cultural change and human migration make some observers anxious and fearful. They feel threatened. They neither hear nor understand the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Instead they prefer to circle their wagons, or build their walls, to protect “us against them.” In ignorance, fear, and anxiety they surrender to the exaggerated rhetoric and growing influence of authoritarian leaders. This is becoming a contemporary leadership problem. “Leaders” who should be be trusted for wisdom, intelligence, and humanitarian service are becoming hard-nosed autocrats, surrendering to the psychological and mental disorder of authoritarianism.

Honesty and integrity are replaced by self-promoting deceit and dishonesty. Self-centered authoritarians are self-stroking and need to feel good. Life for them boils down to what one can get and what one can get away with. Life is jungle warfare in a world of lazy and evil “losers.”

Creeping authoritarianism is becoming a destructive and sinister social virus that shows itself in increased racial violence, increased anti-Semitism, extreme political and social polarization, and the rise of militant Neo-Nazi groups.

Authoritarian “leaders” can only succeed because because authoritarian followers applaud and support them. 

Much more so than the average person, authoritarian followers go through life with impaired thinking. Their reasoning is often sloppy and based on prejudiced beliefs and a fierce dogmatism, that rejects evidence and logic. 

Cognitive defects in authoritarian followers enable them to follow any would-be dictator. As Hitler reportedly said,“What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”

So what does one do?

  • Well, we must first of all acknowledge that authoritarian followers are extremely resistant to change. The more one learns about authoritarianism, the more one realizes how difficult it will be to reach people who are so ferociously aggressive and fiercely defensive. Polarization is now extreme and deeply rooted.
  • We need to educate and promote, starting at home with little children, a balanced education: (1) handing on authentic information, (2) teaching people where to find correct information, and (3) giving people the skills to be well-informed critical thinkers.
  • Our Christian communities, more than ever, must become, in the Spirit of Christ, compassionate gatherings of multicultural, multi-ethnic, and all-gender, supportive friends.
  • We need to courageously speak out and we need to help other people courageously speak out.
  • If something is wrong or something is untrue, people need to strongly and clearly state that it is wrong or untrue. 
  • Those who courageously speak out need the strong support of friends gathered around them. Going alone is increasingly difficult if not impossible in our cyber-linked world.
  • We need to be on guard, as well, that we do not become promoters of polarization and vicious partisanship. We need to learn how to work together for the common good. 
  • As Jesus said in Matthew (chapter 12): “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”


PS  A helpful book is The Global Rise of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century, edited by Berch Berberoglu, Copyright 2021.

Belief and Critical Thinking

Last week I was thinking about aggiornamento the Italian word meaning “bringing up to date.” It was made famous by Pope John XXIII (1881 – 1963) and was one of the key words at the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965).

As we go through life, we adjust our vision and beliefs. We re-shape our Christian faith understandings as we go along life’s road and as our world changes. And of course,as we confront our own ups and downs.

There is much to be learned and appreciated from opening the doors to one’s mind and “bringing up to date” by letting new ideas and beliefs come in. St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Religiously, it took me a long time to become an adult. Growing up I always had lots of questions but falsely believed it was wrong to ask questions about church teachings. (Some “conservative” bishops and their followers still think that way.)

Fortunately, in my case, one of my college philosophy professors, a priest, helped me grow up. He reminded me that Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE) — the founder of Western philosophy and among the first moral philosophers of the ethical tradition of thought — had famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” 

By questioning and keeping a sense of wonder alive, my philosophy teacher – my trustworthy guide – said we remain engaged in the search for truth and the pursuit of what makes life worth living. Over the years I have tried to help my students become informed and open-minded critical believers, hoping to be a trustworthy guide for them. I have always stressed that being an open-minded critical believer greatly enriches a person’s life. 

I see seven important elements in being an open-minded critical believer:

(1) Being an open-minded critical believer enables one to experience new ideas and fresh thoughts that stimulate personal growth as they challenge old visions, old understandings, and old beliefs. It can be very liberating to look at one’s contemporary world through an open mind. I once thought that only Catholics had “the truth.”  But then I began to observe and question and came to realization that ALL Christian churches are moving toward the truth and no single church has all the truth.

(2) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes personal change, growth, and transformation. Opening up our minds to new ideas enables us to change what we think as well as expand our view of the world. It enables one to adjust beliefs, as one begins to think with a more open mind. I once thought it impossible for women to be ordained. I once thought that Jesus’ disciples were all only men. Now I know that both understandings are pure nonsense. Historical reality is broader and richer than I originally thought. Today I understand, as well, that all official church teachings and dogmas – even those proclaimed “infallible” – are time-bound, culture-bound, and provisional. Perhaps they made sense yesterday but just don’t work today. Institutions need to grow and change as well. Of course, institutions don’t change unless the leaders change.

(3) Being an open-minded critical believer also makes a person vulnerable.  In agreeing to have an open-minded view of the world, we acknowledge we don’t know everything. We are open to criticism. We accept that there are possibilities we may not have considered. For some this vulnerability can be terrifying. But it can also be tremendously exhilarating. The jar is half full or half empty. It depends on one’s perspective. Here I would stress as well that we need to be supportive of those people who now think that all the things they had ever believed have turned out to be wrong and that they have nothing to take their place. We need to be compassionate guides, like my college professor mentioned above.

(4)  Being an open-minded critical believer helps one see and acknowledge personal shortcomings and mistakes. With an open mind one begins to see things from other people’s  perspectives; and one can recognize the mistakes one has made. From time to time, we all fail and fall. The challenge is to acknowledge it and then get back up again and continue the journey. That is the virtue of Christian humility and courage!

(5) Being an open-minded critical believer strengthens oneself and gives stability. Open-mindedness presents a platform upon which a person can build, putting one idea on top of another. With an open mind, one learns about new things; and one uses new ideas to build on old ideas. In my field we call this ongoing theological development. Dangerous stuff for fundamentalists, who are more comfortable living in the past. 

(6) Being an open-minded critical believer helps one gain confidence. When a person really lives with an open mind, one develops a stronger sense of self. One can respect and appreciate, but is no longer confined by the beliefs of others. Then the respectful and humble dialogue can and should begin.

(7) Being an open-minded critical believer promotes self-honesty. Being open-minded means admitting that one is not all-knowing. Even if one is an older theologian! Whatever “truth” one holds, each person must realize that the underlying reality in its depth has more to it than anyone realizes. This understanding creates a sense of honesty that characterizes anyone who lives with an open mind.

For anyone who wants to safely travel the road of life, being an open-minded critical believer is absolutely essential. As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel According to John: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”


Reshaping the Roman Catholic Church 

I wrote a few weeks ago about the synodality movement. This week the Synod on Synodality is getting started in Rome. This is a major and very significant event in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. I hope it will be successful, which means that it will lead to a genuine transformation of Roman Catholic structure and pastoral practice.

Certainly, as journalist Robert Mickens observed, last week, in La Croix International:“Both fans and foes of the Synod are campaigning and lobbying hard to pressure the assembly’s participants and Church officials to adopt their respective views. A number of Catholic reform groups, almost entirely made up of lay people, have even come to Rome to push for changes such as the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, Church blessings for same-sex couples, a greater lay participation in the exercise of ecclesial governance, and a whole-scale reform of the way candidates are selected and prepared for ministry, as well as how bishops are chosen… The list goes on.”

I am not a pessimist but a cautiously optimistic realist. I remember my great excitement about the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, held in Rome in October 2019. 

The Amazon Synod’s agenda, expressing the feelings and desires of many representatives of the Amazon people, had called for ordained married clergy, a reexamination of the role of women in the church, and a number of liturgical and pastoral change’s reflecting the local culture of indigenous peoples rather than the traditional Roman Catholic Western European culture. In the end, it was mostly a lot of nice talk. It is often easier to be talking about change than to be making change happpen.

If this October 2023 Synod on Synodality follows the path of the Amazon Synodwith minimal pastoral implementation, I suspect it will lead to widespread Catholic dissatisfaction. And more people will be leaving the Catholic Church. I truly hope the current Synod succeeds. We need a Roman Catholic restructuring and an energetic pastoral transformation.

As Robert Mickens observed, people pro and con the Synod have been streaming to Rome. Two significant former Vatican “leaders” who are now highly critical of the Synod on Synodality are the German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the U.S. American Cardinal Raymond Burke.

Müller was appointed head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and held that position until 2017, when he was removed by Pope Francis. During an interview on the conservative Catholic news network EWTN in October last year, he warned that the current synodal process could result in a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church.” He had called the proposed introduction of indigenous culture elements into the liturgy at the Amazon Synod held in 2019: “The paganization of the Catholic liturgy.” 

Cardinal Burke sees the synod process underway around the world inflicting “evident and grave harm” on the Catholic Church, as he wrote in the foreword to a book published in August The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box, by José Antonio Ureta and Julio Loredo de Izcu. Burke is considered the voice of Catholic traditionalism and is a major proponent of the Tridentine Mass: the traditional Latin Mass, going back to 1570 CE and celebrated with the priest’s back to the congregation. Cardinal Burke is the former head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church.

In the United States, a bishop who is a major critic of the Synod is Bishop Joseph Strickland, Bishop of the Diocese of Tyler, Texas. As the New York Times reported on October 2nd, Bishop Strickland has accused Pope Francis of undermining the Catholic faith. Strickland has suggested that other Vatican officials, as well, have veered so far from church teaching that they are no longer Catholic, and has warned that the global Synodal gathering that opens this week at the Vatican could threaten “basic truths” of Catholic doctrine. Bishop Strickland has great popularity among conservative U.S. Catholics. He has has a weekly radio show, and more than 145,000 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

In any event, a good friend asked what I think a successful post-synodal implementation of changes would mean.

  • I want to see a church that is not a strongly doctrinaire, authoritarian institutionbut a truly  supportive community of friends: people truly striving to live in the spirit of Christ. The innate danger in all institutions is that, if left unchecked, they cease being service-oriented structures and become hard-nosed self-serving institutions demanding unquestioned loyalty. That leads to a kind of institutional idolatry.
  • I want to see a church that affirms the dignity and equality of ALL people — regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I don’t want to read just a lot of official institutional rhetoric. I want to see changed institutional behavior. Talk is easy. We need male and female ordained ministers. IGBTQ+ people should be accepted and welcomed in church ministries and employment. For too long church leaders have patronized, insulted, or simply removed people who do not fit their mold. And it still happens.
  • I want to see an honest and humble church that realizes it does not possess all the truth and that it has to collaborate with a variety of people in pursuit of the truth. It has to acknowledge as well that all church doctrines are time and culture bound. Official doctrines are provisional and changeable. Some doctrines may have been meaningful in the past but just don’t work today. Others have evolved more from religious fantasy and folklore. Like, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Peter was the first pope. That he was the first pope is pure fantasy from the fifth century. He was never a bishop of Rome.
  • I want to see a church that asks questions and welcomes the questioner. Asking questions brings greater self-knowledge and a more realistic life understanding. All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” And of course, Jesus of Nazareth asks in the synoptic gospels: “Who do people say that I am?” In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
  • I want a church in which the higher-up ordained leaders dress and act like normal contemporary leadership people not museum-piece Renaissance princes. I often think about Jesus’ observation in Mark 12:38: “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes…”
  • I want a church in which leadership people are elected by the community for set terms of office, like five or ten years. This applies to the bishop of Rome as well. 
  • Last but certainly not least, I want a church that promotes personal and community spirituality and encourages and promotes their growth in the stages of faith development.

We live in the present. God is alive and closely with us right now. Not as a controlling authority but as a loving companion. But for many people today the old anthropomorphisms just don’t work. God is just as much Mother as Father, but much more than that. Why don’t Christian religious leaders sit down with, pray, and meditate with leaders of non-Christian religions? Jesus was not a Christian and God is much more than a Christian. As a very good priest friend wrote to me last week: “Jesus didn’t start an institution or teach law, he formed a small community and taught the Gospel.” 

We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived. The Spirit us with us. And a healthy Christian community is our GPS.


PS — I will now refrain from comments about the October Synod until it is over.