Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cult and religion? "Original sin" of a religion?

As a follow up of my previous post, I'll trace back a bit and look at how a religion is formed. By looking into the difference between a religion and a cult, we see a critical problem of a religion.

Religion and Cult

[On March 26, 1997, in a period that Comet Hale-Bopp was at its brightest, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed suicide.] From Wikipedia

The group, Heaven's Gate, believed that the Comet Hale-Bopp was a vehicle sent by God to transport their souls to a higher level of existence.

Is Heaven's Gate a religion? Most would say that it's a cult. But then what separates a cult and a religion?

Numbers of followers? How many Christians were there in the beginning?

Lack of rationality? Many so called "religious" people are irrational too; there I said it (don't ask me to give examples; it would be horrific).

Scripture? I'm sure cults will write some if they don't already have one.

Okay here is the answer: the difference between a cult and a religion is that a religion is officially recognized by the government whereas a cult is not.

A religion is socially sanctioned and officially recognized by the government.  There cannot be a religion or church without the state.

The "Original Sin" of a Religion

A religion as an institution can only survive as long as the government allows it; meaning that at its birth, a religion is being confined by the public and the government.  But a religion is established for inquiry of the ultimate truth, the basic needs of every single human being.  Do you see the contradiction?  For its survival, a religion has to do something apart from its original intent.  As time goes by, the survival of its institution becomes the essential part of the religion; becoming socially and politically driven like anything else in the society.  At a religion's birth, it becomes what it's not.  That's its "original sin".

We need to make a distinction between what's essential and what's not in a religion if we are to learn anything from it.

See Culture as Culture, See Representation as Representation

Let's say a religion called Senseism is created in 2011.  Senseism is for attaining intangible truth.  But as it's established, a tangible institution is built to allow more people to participate.  As an institution, it has to adapt to the economic system of the society.  In a capitalist society, naturally it needs capital to operate.  And to get the capital it needs, naturally it needs some promotion so people would donate.  And then the authorities of the Senseism start setting up rules based on their holy text for the masses to follow.  Their holy text may say that 'you shall not extend your middle finger of the hand upwards while bending the other fingers down into the palm.'  The authorities have made it a rule that 'the finger' should not be shown to others and everyone agrees as 'the finger' is indeed an offense in the society.  A thousand years have passed and 'the finger' is no longer an offense to anyone in the society except the Senseists.  While the Senseists hold that the 'the finger' is disrespectful to God according to their holy text, "atheists" laugh at the superstition and show their middle fingers to disconcert them.

We have to understand the cultural meaning of 'the finger' and at the same time understand that in the end, it's still just a finger.  We neither attach to them like some "religious" people nor do we mock them like some "atheists".  By doing so, we come to understand different traditions and rituals as what they are, merely culture and representation of the divine.  No more, no less.  And whether it's 'the finger' or 'showing the sole of your shoe', we follow these cultural rules based on the occasion much like how we follow dress code of a restaurant if we've decided to enter; just for the sake of socialization.

Separating What's Essential and What's Not (Incomplete)

It seems this chart summarizes what we want to do so far:

'Theology' corresponds to what I said in the previous post: "thinking about reality via religious texts across different religions philosophically, rationally". However, what if things that we think of as cultural and social suddenly become universal?  We've heard it from time to time again, religious people claiming the divinity they've felt from crosses, paintings, statues, rituals, costumes, etc.

People across different religions are having vastly similar spiritual experiences via various religious traditions, icons, arts, music, etc.   How could that be?  For those of you that don't have any religious belief, it's the powerful sensation you feel from listening to a very good song.  There seems to be something universal here.  Using spiritual experience as a measuring stick, no particular religion can claim its superiority.  Therefore, we can say that:

It isn't the statue or cross or song that causes us to have that experience.  What's the common factor in all those experiences?

It's us.

Next post: Beyond thinking


  1. Hi Ho
    I love what you are talking about :-)
    Well done ... Keep up the great work.

    I look at life like you but from a different perspective. I want people to wake up too :-)
    come have a look ...

    I will add a link to your blog.

  2. This is a very interesting interpretation of original sin that I've not come across before. I agree with the ideas you present of spiritual experience being the same but with different icons and such in different religions. In fact, having read this post, my view of different religions is a bit clearer in that they share common spiritual experiences.

    I had lumped religions and philosophies as being reflections of truth/reality up to this point. At this point, I experience the spiritual for the most part apart from religion, but my path happens to be mainly influenced by the ways of Taoism.

    I like your blog, and I'm following. :)