Cult and Religion

How Can We Distinguish Between Them?



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Part One

We are living in a tortuous age. As had been predicted since the end of the nineteenth century, we have been suffering from the great waves of alienation, exploitation, despot, materialism all at once, for we were suddenly thrown into the time of radical changes, turned from nostalgic easy-going lives of our ancestors.

People may seem to believe that this age has continued ceaselessly for one hundred years, but in fact it hasn't so; we have already completely been cut off from the world of 5 years before, to say nothing of 10 years before.

Just have a talk with those young people.You will only realize how disrupted the continuity of values has been and how different the system of knowledge between them and us. "Common sense" has been degenerated into something only understandable among yourself and your own generation.

People have only lost their enthusiasm to look into such disruptions. Not a few of them, idle by nature, sit comfortably in the value system they themselves have made up ,and have an easy-going life.

That's why they are forced to see how deeply stuck they are in the terrible situation when something has gone wrong with their job, educational achievement or relationship in a group. And those who are sensitive to such ups and downs start looking for something worth believing in that they can depend on.

This can be called "soul-searching", but when such lukewarm steps have not dissipated their worries, they try to find absolute being or something religious, with the expectation of getting cured of them quickly.

The darkest shadow which cast on ahead of us may be cynicism, that is, an attitude of looking everything with a kind of sneer, which have been widespread among modern people; an arrogant attitude that anyone who is addicted in religion ought to be eccentric, wimpy, unable to adapt to the real world. By taking this view, they can convince themselves that they are strong, normal, well-adapted in this competitive society.

But such a conviction are more often than not torn into pieces by the death of their relatives and friends, disaster such as an earthquake, being fired, unemployment, the decline of their social status in the hard times..

And yet some people instinctively realize that religion has saved people for centuries, and try earnestly and honestly to seek the truth in such religion. This is apparent in the proliferation of newly founded religion.

On the other hand, it is not long ago that the reputation of religions downgraded. As we see in that notorious "indulgences" which are said to have started Restoration, there are uncountable instances of religious organizations seeking power and betraying innocent people by giving them worldly advantages.

According to a book "At A Promised Place", written by Haruki Murakami, we are greatly informed by the interviews carried on between the author and members of Aum, a cult. The fact is, contrary to the images generally given to the leading faction, who murdered with cold blood, many, especially young, "laymen" see their lives seriously and try to take the the principle of Aum as the windbane of how they live.

Many intellectuals arrogantly pretend to know everything, saying "they" abducted innocent young people who don't have enough social experiences..., but the truth is, religion is not indispensable as long as you seek only money, status and fame, while it is only natural that people who are not interested in those things try to find ways other than to live "greedily" or become a "snob"

That is just the opposite of cynicism a lot of modern people embrace. As we know what Jesus said, 'Enter through a narrow gate', only a few people wish to seek after the truth, and yet they have lived in every period and have continued to torched a faint light.

Only so faint, so weak that they have been at the mercy of those who take advantage of the weakness and get something profitable. That appears in the form of shameful "business" and "politics" revealing their worldly desires.

What is "religiousness"? Very few people may have come to a conclusion concerning this. Or, they are sure to be attacked and criticized if they stand at an extreme position. In the Middles Ages they would have been burned at the stakes if they had dared to speak out. In contrast, there are too many people who proudly declare themselves men of religion are too alienated from religion to talk about religiousness.

According to the book "Paradoxical Jesus" written by Yoshimitu Kasahara, religiousness is a way of life complete opposite of what ordinary people wish to think about. Stop fighting enemies, if you want to defeat them; Throw away all the money if you save it; Give up your power if you want to stand over your subordinates, etc...This is in the center of religion, an extreme way of life which people would be aghast at. The very existence of God or the creation of the universe is not mentioned at first hand here.

That's the reason why Jesus's 'Sermon on the Mount' and Buddha's teachings are religious in the true sense of the word and accordingly, those who put them into practice, or at least agree with them are practically none. People say understandably, "Oh, yes, that's a very great idea, but,,," and what they really feel is implied in that "but..."

It is true that it was hardly an exaggeration for Jesus to say "It is much harder for the rich to get into the heaven than for camels to go through an eye of a needle. So it is easily speculated that billions of people all over the world read the Bible and when they do read this passage, they are pretending to read them, but totally neglect what it really means.

That is probably partly the reason why somewhat respected are those Yogi who wander, totally independent of this world, and Zen monks who impose strict obligation on themselves, and those who stay in the monastery all through his or her lives, because they are trying to live paradoxically in the religious sense. But greater chances are that those people forget what the truth is and fall into the prey of being indulged in self-content.

Needless to say, it is evident that people cannot put into practice what Jesus and Buddha had said as long as they live in this world, and yet so many people pretend that they behave as if they could, or try to persuade other people into doing this or impose it on others.

First of all, the great ideas religious founders had established are revised and added in less than 10 years and turned into something radically different from the original ones. The more conventional and institutionalized the religious organization is, the more radically the ideas are altered, or rather adulterated. It seems that laymen are not so much concerned about it, though.

The thought Jesus had first preached to us was later completely westernized by Paul, took in the idea of heaven and hell, similar to that of the religions such as Zoroaster, altered the principal ideas in preference to Greek ideas, and was finally reborn into an entirely new religion only after Roman empire declared Christianity as their national religion.

Take for example, Jesus used to warned, "Don't make wordy prayers as strangers habitually do" and yet this was completely ignored and the prayers have become long and complicated, a part of everyday routine. Luxurious prayer books have been compiled. A rosary is a string of beads for the purpose of recording the number of prayers correctly when people repeat the same prayer.

On the other hand, the Resurrection, the most important dogma, has become an indispensable factor in the teachings of Christianity, and without it this religion cannot exist. if the Resurrection is a historical fact, as the Christians insist it, there turns out to be great inequity in the plausibility of faith between those who witnessed it and those who was not able to be on the scene.

Many sects of the Protestants maintain that you are saved if you believe His victory over death, but too much emphasis on faith seems quite vulnerable. Can't we say,"Even if Jesus hadn't revived, I do believe in Him"? Is that an incomplete faith?

Shusaku Endo wrote "Chinmoku ( The Silence of God )", in which it was for the sake of Jesus that European missionaries sent to Japan take great pains to try to spread the gospel only to be martyred. Therefore, if the Resurrection was not a fact, it follows that their endeavor was in vain. And if ordinary laymen who are usually not so strong should abandon their faith, what horrible lives they would have led after that!

The idea that only faith is in the very center of religion can be seen all over the world. Buddhist leaders such as Honen, Shinran, Ippen suggested only repeating mantras quoted from Buddhist scripts, "Namu-amidabutsu,Namu-amidabutsu..." ,and they guaranteed laymen tickets to paradise. This simple idea is very popular among ordinary people. It offers strong weapon for propagation. But in fact you are happy by being deceived... Maybe outsiders should not worry about the validity of a religious sect.

Of course such worries are meaningless because we are not debating in the court. As long as people get comfort and peace of mind, the very goal of religion may be accomplished.

However, that does not mean that it has attained higher dimension. Even if the founder of a religious sect has thought out elaborate system of faith and enabled people to be saved, it would still be necessary for them to become aware of themselves and recognize the vastness of the world in which they live, as long as human beings are alive in this world and able to do that, even though there are only a few who could do it.

Strangely enough, there can be found great similarity among the ideas of Jesus, Buddha, Socrates and other great thinkers. As already mentioned, they are paradoxical and intuitive, and the reason for this being similar is that there is only one truth.

Since the evolution leading apes to human beings took place, our social and spiritual life has become so complicated that living only by 'greed' derived from apes is certainly not enough. It may be because we cannot go on living generation after generation with the lowly, beastly way of living that thinkers and religionists have sought the alternatives.

That's why some people consider the birth of religion as a step to higher stages of evolutionary ladder. They say new ways of living adapted to new situations necessarily appeared because the old way dependent only upon instincts had become obsolete in the intellectually developed cultures.

If what they say is right, not a few contemporary religious organizations neglect that efforts ,and are only looking the other way. Aside from only a few people seriously devoted to a religious life, the great majority of these organizations lead daily lives as usual and turn a blind eye to the small contradictions of the world: nothing evolutionary and revolutionary has happened.

Thus, leaders of a religious organization are keeping busy maintaining their present power, accumulating wealth, promoting their status and consolidating their bureaucracy. Regret to say, that makes ordinary people more cynical about these religious groups and keeps them apart from them.

Speaking of the scripts, the words of founders may be written in them, but they are largely inundated with new additions put into later, or arbitrary interpretations from quite different points of view. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to attain the genuine messages of the founders which are supposed to be contained in the book.

To appeal to ordinary people, religious groups have changed their teachings in various forms. Is the notion of heaven and hell really necessary from the standpoint of true religion? What is different from daily admonitions when they say "You'll be punished if you do something wrong." or "You'll be burned in the hell fire!"

Also, as had often been told, the popular teaching that you can go to heaven or paradise, even though you are suffering now, has been used as a pretext for neglecting our precious life in this world. In some cases, it seems they encouraged people to commit a kind of suicide as throwing your life away in a war.

A Japanese saying has it, " Religious faith could begin in worshipping the head of a small fish ", but it is nothing less than blasphemy to make miracles and magic the appealing point of religious propaganda. If you have faith by witnessing a miracle, you do not deserve to be called a believer. As the saying " Seeing is Believing " goes, anybody can be convinced if he actually say what happens. It's perfectly alright to be grateful for being cured of his disease, but if it makes him pious, it's safe to say that he has nothing to do with true religiousness.

People greatly expect the benefits brought to them by having faith in religion. This, in fact, characterizes a large part of Japanese religions, and the people are persuaded into believing that if you pray, you earn more money, escape being hit by a car, and have healthy and intelligent children, etc... But they are the examples of a cause being directly tied up with a result. What is different from the situation when you say you can become rich if you work hard? Here religion is completely confused with superstition. What is worse, far from preventing it, religious leaders tend to encourage their laymen to pray more.

There is no religion in the world which encourages hatred nor parental or fraternal murder nor retribution in answer to kindness. No wonder. That means loving each other is not monopoly of religions as long as they are neighbors. Ironically, humanism, which is non-religious, has helped achieve peace more than traditional religion. Loving your enemies is another story, though. Ethical action can be nurtured even if divorced from religion.

When some people are having a very hard time, they are tempted to kill themselves or abandon all his life, convinced that they are at the end of the world. Then, they welcome 'apocalypticism ' enthusiastically. No other dogmas have greater appeal to the followers. Strongly assured, they are no longer afraid to die.( The world is coming to an end, no matter how they die! ) They are convinced they they can do anything boldly and without any considerations, and that all they are doing is justified.

This anticipation for the end of the world strengthens the cohesion of a religious organization. One of the extreme examples of this can be seen in the form of group suicide in some place or other. Though the end means nothing more than one's own expiration, sweet music played by religious leaders, declaring that all will be saved has a decisive impact on the flock.

Religion is indispensably based on organizations. That is why it degenerates, and the most profound cause of this is 'charismatic' leaders. As history has repeatedly witnessed, they brought about countless absurdities and exactly the same situations were brought into existence under different circumstances. Even today, somewhere in the world, humankind keep worshiping someone without learning anything from past experiences.

Once an organization has been established firmly by charismatic leaders, inertia keeps it going without them; a bureaucracy is born. Thanks to the working of it, people stop worrying about their mistakes and do as they are told, and remain comfortable as long they belong to the organization.

When the number of followers increases, large amount of offerings will be donated and the organaization will become wealthier, which is equivalent to the death of a religious group, and after that it becomes a political or profit-seeking establishment. At this point, religiousness disappears completely and only a shadow of solidarity remains.

Those organization in which true religiousness are distorted and the members have lost sight of what it really is can no longer be called a religious, but a cult group. Almost all those groups may be called nothing less than cults, though they will be fumed to hear that. Under those circumstances, we cannot blame ordinary people for their cynicism towards religion.

The idea that religion has evolved from magic,exorcism and miracles sounds quite odd. The three are quite totally different from religion. Wall paintings on the caves primitive people used to live were drawn in hope for having good harvests and many children. But they just regarded gods as supernatural powers giving them helping hands, and lacked the special relationship between the gods and themselves. This is no different from depending on strong leaders and politicians in this world for direct advantage.

Religion is something that 'happened to' be discovered by someone wise or keen enough, and is your way of living itself; only doomed to be confused or mixed with cults, because it has do with something very profound and mysterious in your mind.

It is tragic enough that religion cannot answer the problems, when more and more complicated modern society has come to a dead end and we are seeking wisdom, including that of religion.

Part 2

In the first part I dealt with problems on the purposes of a religious organization, but I don't mean to say it spread only evils. However cultic a religious group may be, if I don't mention its strong influence over 'individual laymen', this story may well be prejudiced.

For, while on the side of religious establishment, there are always secular greed and corruption, individual seekers who want to have a faith have always something to worry about, and consequently have chosen religion as one of the solutions. If there is no possibility of being saved from the worries, how can they knock on the door of churches or temples?

Also, we often see roadside statues (ojizosama) as guardian angels, provided with umbrellas, flowers and offerings. It's a mistake to think of this as some kind of superstition. Isn't it an expression of gentle minds who care for them for fear that they get hungry or soaked? These are people who are distinct from those bosses who devour wealth.

In this respect, newly organized religious groups are attracting urban people who are spiritually thirsty. For, unlike traditional religions, they are on the whole small in numbers, and in many cases people can have a direct contact with the founder or his direct disciples. In a rapidly developing organization, the founder personally consult with people on an equal footing who are worried or suffering, and therefore meet the needs of them.

Religious organizations ' promise ' such people something important. Since there is no knowing if we can go to heaven or paradise unless we are actually dead, any promise can be made. No skeptics will ever join them.

Only people who are pushed to the brink will cling to scant probability or faint light of hope, and they will be greatly relieved or assured to find some promise before their eyes.

But in many cases, that stops there, and no effective solution can be found in real life. Those people will forget their suffering momentarily, but that does not mean they are cured of their diseases or the dead come to life. Not a few people may be thrown into abyss once again.

Only on this point was Marx right in pointing out that religion is opium for people. He is absolutely right so far. Actually the 'temporal ' happiness can be counted in terms of money given to the organization.

But as I have already mentioned, in Marx's words, 'religion' must be replaced by 'cult' , to put it correctly. This is because if someone is engaged in religion in the true sense of the word, he is very likely to be given a will to live on, and even genuine power to solve the problems of this world.

Of course, such people are extremely few, and most of them are buried in the organization, but it may be safe to say that countless people were saved by them in a truly religious sense.

A good example is Father who saved Jean Barjean in Vortor Hugo's "Les Miserables". He gives away the very silver candlesticks Jean stole, and we can find in him something quite different from religion's corruption and arrogance, and at the same time something representing true humanity.

This changed Jean himself and he got a power to create his own life after that. Religion must be something like that.

Only when one cuts himself from everyday routine such as saying prayers and mantras, lighting candles, can religion come to life, and it actually happens in each individual soul.

Also, there is no denying that when someone is on the verge of dying in a few month on account of a serious disease, the teaching of a religion gives a will to live, lead a meaningful life till the end of one's life. That may be a destiny both you and I are to have , possibly tomorrow. We can find there no great difference between religion and cult.

At this point, Catholic church embraces all and, while it is notorious for its bureaucracy and dictatorship, gently invites 'wandering sheep'. and so not a few who have been aware for themselves visit the church.

From the viewpoint of saving individuals, gorgeous cathedrals seems ridiculous, sucking up the people's contributions, but it is also true that they give something serene and comfortable when laymen give prayer in the quiet house.

Mosques in Islamic countries also help with comforting people. They are not always free from noises, but the people gathering there are unmistakably feeling themselves a whole being.

Tragically, religious organizations have become too secular to accept people seeking the truth and meet their need. But on the other hand, they cannot leave the people to do so by themselves.

Reformation cannot be done in a day. Not all clergymen, monks, and Fathers can be like one in 'Les Miserables', and not all the seekers are entitled to accept the truth.

There is no end in supplying those who are dying, despair of this world, lost sight of the meaning of life. As long as there is slight possibility, however incomplete, of leading those people to something better, the organizations, traditional or newly found, may have reason to exist.

Another theme concerning individual is that if 'enlightenment' or 'awareness' is only in the center of religiousness, we don't need absolute existence and, at the same time, heaven or paradise.

Extremely speaking, the teaching of Buddha can be essentially "atheism". This is also the case in other religions if ceremonies and scripts are only instrumental for propaganda.

But each layman will not be convinced. The idea that they are reduced to nothing, not embraced in the laps of God, is unacceptable to average people.

In this light, whether serious religion or cult, they will meet the expectation of the people as far as 'consolation' is concerned.

Thanks to the recent rapid development of cosmic physics,it has made it clear that this universe was born by the explosion called 'Big Bang'. People who are not interested in religious ideas will accept the idea with great ease and calmness.

But for pious believers, they will find it more and more difficult to reconcile the absolute existence which created 'Big Bang' with the affectionate absolute existence they can trust their souls on.

It's tragic that modern man has acquired too much knowledge. We are thrown into the cold, empty universe, in exchange for reaching the secret of it.

As Yanagida Kunio wrote in his books on folklore, there used be so many Kappas, gods and other fairies and monsters in a village called Tohono, Iwate prefecture, but now we can only find their 'remains'.

Who on earth is happier, those who know the realities of the universe, or those living with fairies? Too much buried in this material world, people, especially those who are non-religious and 'progressive', seem to say farewell for good to the traditional way of living in the 'world' they made up.

First Written in April 2000

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