America has a very distinct religious identity in that it almost defies a religious identity. If you compare the religious landscape of the USA against other English-speaking countries (say, for the past 100 years) you’ll find the secular nature of America has made religion not so much a national treasure, but a hodge-podge of compartmentalized spiritual identities, each of them sometimes ridiculing and standing in opposition of the others (for instance, calling each other cults). It is as if America has never ceased in-fighting itself a civil war of the mind which is evident in both Her spiritual makeup and politics.
For instance, Britain has a head of state which is still the head of its own church (Anglicanism or the Church of England). Despite taking part in secular affairs such as the opening of parliament, the Church of England still appoints bishops and approves doctrine. By contrast, the American president being the head of any religious body is anathema to the very makeup of the American ideal. Despite this experiment into eclecticism and secularism, oddly enough Americans are at times more violently against certain religious identities than you would expect them to be. We Americans have even come up with a term for religions we have decided are damaging or evil: cult.
Merriam Webster defines a cult in two primary ways: The first is simply, and fits with the premise of this essay, “A religion regarded as unorthodox.” It is the second definition, however, that strikes the sociologist as odder, “A great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.”
If you used this secondary definition, you would find that almost every religion on the planet fits into it. We can think about Siddhartha in Buddhism, Jesus of Nazareth in Christianity, and still others besides. If one were to adhere to this definition then, one would easily find that any accusation says, by a Christian, against a Muslim person of being in a cult, would be one member of a large cult accusing another member of a slightly less large cult of somehow being wrong, evil, or damaging to society. In a lot of ways, one can see that this is simply the pot calling the kettle.
If one seeks a cultural explanation for this odd sociological occurrence, one needs to look no further than Webster’s previous definition, which is the non-profit’s first definition, because that is how it is more widely used. This too, however, is seen as odd when viewed from historical context. For if you examine the roots of America’s dominant religion, Christianity, you will find that it, too, once fit into this definition. A small band of Jews in first-century Galilee developed a strong religious devotion to a singular living person who himself taught unorthodox ideals by the religious standards of the time and place.
Despite this seeming hypocrisy, we should not anticipate some cultural shift or positional transformation on the part of conservative accusing religious devotees. We know that people make decisions, especially religious ones, based primarily on emotion which helps to form their cultural identity, and ground them in a community or a family. So, the point of this essay is not to lead to some mass conversion of perspective, our goal is more pointed, and can be described as follows. There can be many victims of this us versus them mentality in America, but one of the biggest victim groups is the occult community.
The occult and pagan community have been with us historically since the beginning of time in one form or another. American occultism found its stride beginning in the early 1900’s spiritualist movement, experienced another rise in the 1960s, and is on the rise again slowly today. This group, vastly diverse as it may be, has perhaps found more pain at the point of the traditional American religious establishment than any other group. This, despite the fact that most cults in the past 100 years, which has caused real damage to society and families by way of committing crimes, have not been occult in nature, but offshoots of Christianity. We can think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and the Manson family.
This misunderstanding can be seen to come from two primary sociological locations. The first was already explained at some length above, the American propensity for sub-culturalization and segmentation. The other has to do with America’s answer to that segmentation: apathy.
Americans, as said before, are in a never-ending cold war of the mind with themselves. But given that this war is cold, in order to function as a society and nation-state, we needed to come up with an emotional mechanism by which to live and work together despite our diverse and sometimes opposing identities. The way that was found and accepted as normal is religious apathy. In not changing others’ minds about their religious ideals, we simply assert that all have a right to their ideal and refuse to talk about it. This is summed up in that age-old axiom of polite society: “One should never talk about politics or religion in the company of others.”
This means that the common American, while perhaps being somewhat knowledgeable about their own religious ideals, are all but totally ignorant of other major religious traditions. Like all prejudice, which is always based in ignorance of the other, this compounds the problem, leading to fear and hate. What’s worse, is that it’s difficult to even broach this topic because it is now considered impolite to discuss spiritual matters. Consider again the above statement. Why wouldn’t we want to discuss politics and religion if we are reasonable people? One determines how you live on earth, and the other will determine how you live in eternity.
In exchange for everyday pleasantries, our society has, by and large, advocated our ability to discuss the things which are most relevant to our society and our own lives. Into the vacuum of this ignorance flows the various voices which dominate the many echo chambers of our segmented life in America. They create myths, which in turn create stereotypes. And these misconceptions are adopted by adherents who have no educational basis to form a defense. This is the reason why many Christians believe that to be occult is to be in a cult.
Occultism, however, is not that strange when you think about it, so long as you can understand what it really is. The word occult in modern English descends from its Latin root occultus which simply means hidden, concealed, or secret. Occultists then believe that there is hidden knowledge in the world which, through their religious texts, rituals, and various spiritual activities they hope to discover the answers to.
The reader may be somewhat resistant to this first foray into cross-religious dialogue by thinking “but all these strange secrets, we all know they don’t exist.” But they do, if even on an individual level. When a Christian reads the Bible to understand salvation history, it is implicit in that act that they did not understand it prior to reading the Bible. And at that moment, then, salvation history was occult to that individual. They simply did not understand it. It was hidden from them. This did not mean that the knowledge was not in the world. It only meant that they needed to seek it.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be open to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
Occultists, like all academics, and people in general to some extent seek the same thing. Awakening, a revelation of the hidden things of the world. Often this awakening is pointed inward. Occultists often seek to understand their own place in the world, and their mission in life, which for other religious traditions is grounded implicitly in the idea of being part of some elect group.
We can think of saints in Christianity, or those who believe in Islam. One criticism of occultists, however, is that they are always going on about the end of the world. Too many of them are apocalyptic. This propensity for thinking about the final things can give the occultist an air of one of those funny people who wear foil hats, but this too is based on a misunderstanding. Apocalypse also has its root in the Latin word ‘apocalypsis’ which simply means “revelation.” Or, in simpler terms, to have an apocalypse is simply to have something revealed.
Christianity itself seeks apocalypse as its end goal. Think about the end times, and Christ’s promise that He is coming soon. In the ancient sense of the word, all scientists also seek occult knowledge, for which they hope to achieve an apocalypse. Anyone who wants truth hopes for these two things. Occultists are no different, and therefore not so strange after all.
“See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the word of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:7).
At this point, I think it’d be appropriate to begin to sum up the question which prompted this essay which was “what is the difference between the occult and a cult?” After the above examination, I think we can put it succinctly. An occultist can be from any tradition or religion. They can even be sitting in the pew next to you on Sunday, and at some point or another (at any point that you sought a piece of knowledge you did not have), you were an occultist.
A cult is a group that possesses a particular religious identity. A cultist, then, is an adherent of one of these groups. Which, if you are a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or most any other religious persuasion on the planet, also includes you.
Yes, some religious groups have in the past and will in the future preach painful and damaging messages of hate, and twisted devotion, but the truth is these people are in the minority. We cannot judge the whole of a religious tradition on the basis of its abuses. You cannot hate all Christians because some Christians once conducted an inquisition. You cannot reject all Muslims because some have run themselves into buildings. Instead, you must make a separation and ground yourself in holistic understanding, rather than the echo chamber of your own sub-culture. Like Christianity as a whole, most cults are harmless and seek the same things you do: spiritual understanding, and purpose-driven life.
It is good to be on the lookout for false teachers, and abusive teachings. But we must always proceed in doing that with a thought in the back of our head, that occult is mutually exclusive from a cult, as every cult is mutually exclusive from each other, and therefore must be judged on an individual basis, and not lumped together as a whole. Only then, will we stop seeing each other as a cult, and experience the apocalypse of brotherhood and understanding.