The Impulse to Cultism

I have heard a lot of ex-Mormons talk about their experience as children inside the "cult" of Mormonism. They talk about the way that authority figures were seen as godlike, infallible. They talk about youth trips taken where food was withheld or there was serious social pressure to voice testimony.

There are those who complain about the dress code of Mormonism, the modesty "contest" that makes women and young women in particular strive to always make sure there could never be a hint of skin showing.

And then I hear about missionaries, who spend weeks in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) being allowed outside only for a few minutes a day, "brainwashed" into preaching a gospel to others, remaining with companions 24/7 and having only twice a year contact with their parents and families.

Questions about living in a cult are among the first that I often get when I am asked to speak to book clubs or at conferences. How can I, a highly educated woman who has spent many years living outside of Utah, who has worked most of her children's growing up years as nationally published author, defend such a cult? Why do I remain an active member of such an organization? How can I encourage my own children to serve missions for the Mormon church or to pay tithing or serve in leadership positions, let alone attend meetings?

Well, because I don't believe Mormonism is a cult. Or rather, I believe it is no more of a cult than its members make it, and no more of a cult than many, many other organizations I see around me. I think that many humans have an impulse to cultism because it is this same tribalism that has for many thousands of years kept humans safe as a species.

A couple of years ago, I joined a group fitness club for about six months. The other people there were very loyal. All over the walls, there were painted various inspirational quotes about athleticism and the group's code of eating, which focused on a kind of paleo diet which I personally do not adhere to, as a vegetarian.

We were encouraged to share our private struggles with other group members and to come to the same time each week, so we could further cement our bonds. Sometimes, we were set challenges to make us compete with each other. We talked about how we were better than other fitness groups because we did things the "right way" and how when we had tried to do other fitness routines, they hadn't worked for us. And then there were the national competitions that we often heard about, incredible feats of strength and endurance from those who seemed too far above us to be real. Does any of this sound familiar?

I eventually stopped going because I once went to a workout and brought some sports drink with me and got yelled at for it, because we weren't supposed to be consuming any sugar. It made me uncomfortable and I stopped going because I didn't ultimately believe that this group was the only true way to get in shape and it seemed impossible to keep going without believing that. I've moved on to other challenges and have had my own individual successes as an All-American triathlete.

But--here's the truth--I miss it sometimes. I miss the other people I got to know, miss the sense of camaraderie in the workouts. I miss the sense of purpose and focus that I got there. I miss talking about people who did amazing things that I was trying to work at myself, and I miss the group sense of certainty. As I have talked to others about the experience, I've realized how similar my complaints about this organization are to complaints about Mormonism as a cult. And it led me to wonder--is it the organization itself that is set up to be this way or do people naturally make many things into cults because we crave certain aspects of cultism?

1. A sense of "us" and "them" that divides the world into black and white
2. An assurance that we are superior
3. The satisfaction of demonstrating an extreme level of loyalty
4. Hero worship that means we see people as more than human and create a storybook history for them with challenges but no real weaknesses.
5. A clear way into the future without having to make complex moral decisions constantly.

I remember many years ago, when talking about an atheist friend of mine, I said aloud to my husband that I couldn't understand how anyone could make moral decisions without some kind of guiding principles of right and wrong, without a religious framework, in fact. Now, I look back on that question with some irony, since I feel I have stopped letting others tell me what is right and wrong and have committed to the difficulty of choosing right and wrong in complex situations, though I am not an atheist.

Without trying to condemn anyone else's religious practice, I look back on myself and think I was doing a lot of painting by numbers. That is, I was allowing other people to tell me what was right and wrong without investigating it myself.

In a very real sense, I was creating a cult out of Mormonism by giving up my own power and by seeing my religious leaders as more than human. I now refuse to see the world in black and white, and try to understand those who are different from me, in religion and in other areas. I have shed much of the sense of superiority and certainty that my cultish religious fanaticism once gave me.

And yes, I sometimes still miss the old way I had of practicing my religion. I miss being better than everyone else, being "special" or "anointed" in some way. I miss feeling a sense of security that I and my loved ones would be protected because of our strict adherence to a set of rules that I think we mostly made up. My parents, for instance, wanted us to wear Sunday clothes all day, not just to church, to show our extreme devotion. Instead of paying the standard ten percent of tithing, I've heard Mormons say they pay "extra" for more blessings.

I hear Mormons who refuse to drink any caffeinated drinks because it's against their own personal interpretation of the Word of Wisdom. We are asked to go to the temple once a month, but some Mormons try to go every week, or twice a week, because it will bring more blessings. And so on, with prayers constantly, fasting food for longer than a single day or for more often than once a month, or other more strict rules. Is this the fault of Mormonism? I don't think it is.

Without blaming victims who have truly suffered heinous abuse in religious cults, let me say to all those who live within a religion, it is your own responsibility how you practice and the way you define your religiosity compared to others. I issue a challenge that we all strive to limit the impulse to cultism.