Friday, February 20, 2009

According to Law, What Is a Religion ?

An interesting, food for thought article, but one that of course is not going to resolve the question. As it rightly wrote: "It turns out the debate over the definition of religion is as old as history itself and the debate has gone on for ages." As for me, I kind of like the Leo Pfeffer's definition: "...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult."

In full:

According to Law, What Is a Religion ? - Digital Journal: Your News Network:
In preparing a story about the religions of Natchitoches, Louisiana several days ago, I checked out a book on Mormons. I told the clerk I was writing about religions. “That’s not one,” she said, “It’s a cult. They don’t believe like us."

Well, first of all the word “us” I thought interesting since the young woman neither knows me or my beliefs. But no matter, I smiled and said, “What makes you think so?” The sweet-faced femme with Southern drawl said simply, “I just know, don’t you.” “Actually,” I said, “I don’t.”

So what makes a cult these days, I wondered and decided to find out. Besides it wasn’t long ago that Mitt Romney, a Mormon who ran in the Presidential primaries, went on television to defend his faith as a viable religion.

Just about every major religion has been a cult at one time or another. Christianity was considered different enough to cause consternation to Romans and Jews alike. The divisions of Christianity have called one another cults as well, but what makes a religion legal?

The Church of Scientology is recognized over most of the world as a religion, although some may define it as cult. Believers use this fact to recruit. Others consider it a cult with a nefarious character. That’s true of other groups as well. For example, the Branch Davidians were controversial both before and after David Koresh.

The Internal Revenue Service gives this as definition :
a distinct legal existence,
a recognized creed and form of worship,
a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,
a formal code of doctrine and discipline
a distinct religious history,
a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
an organization of ordained ministers,
ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies,
a literature of its own,
established places of worship,
regular congregations,
regular religious services,
Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young,
school for the preparation of its ministers.
But some wonder if this set of criteria of the IRS is accurate and if it might just be biased and flawed. One writer observes that it distinctly favors high or formal churches with large congregations. Unitarians and Quakers often meet informally in homes or small places. Some groups use a selection from different religious literature. Some have history that is aligned with other groups, but hve such different characters that they couldn’t be associated with the same group, such as the Quakers and Baptists who left the Church of England at the same time and have a shared history in some respects and unshared in others. Lots of groups don’t have Sunday school for the young. So if it isn’t the IRS standard that is reasonable, what should be used?

It turns out the debate over the definition of religion is as old as history itself and the debate has gone on for ages. Even lawyers and nations have had trouble sorting it out. The problems involve the imposition of societal standards and judgments that can make a difference. So when it comes to protecting religion the application of the law requires a definition, but that definition brings debate. Then there is identity religion where folks subscribe to a community but not necessarily to a specific set of religious beliefs. That would include many Jews, for example.

In most places the laws that regulate religion are usually oriented towards majority practices and the promotion of specific groups to the community to be recognized. So the actual practice of faith means that in countries with large Christian populations Christmas is a holiday and in Islamic countries laws that permit the ritual slaughter of animals.

So what is a religion? The answer is really who applies and over time who is accepted after enough fuss is made and enough adherents develop to make that fuss heard by those in control and power, according to those who have reviewed this question.

I guess that means we can include Mormons as a religion. They have had two well-known Governors and a host of other people in political offices and a little over 12 million members worldwide. That’s certainly enough to make a fuss and a religion.

I Saw It, I saw It, I Saw Valkyrie!

Contrary to what some reviews have written, I found Tom Cruise excellent, beaming out confidence, authority, insight and integrity into the main character. I can hardly think of a better way to play that role.

I was surprised also to find out that the story was not just about a bomb that did not kill Hitler. The whole Operation Walkyrie was in fact more than that, it also consisted of a whole plan to take over power after Hitler's death. That was not the intention of the Operation as written but that was how it was used. Almost half of the film deals with what happens after the bomb goes off. Eventually it fails because it turns out that Hitler did not die, and was able to win back a few key allegiance that turned the situation against the plotters.

Lastly, I was wondering why people who don't really have the historical background would go and see the film. I was with my Asian girl friend (OK I was not in Belgium) and she understood little to nothing of the film, even as I tried to explain her bits of it. The cultural gap was just way too wide to cross. In this respect, it certainly is not a mass-friendly movie, and it's amazing that the movie had the success it had taken that into account. No doubt, the fact that it's Tom Cruise is for a big part in the attraction the movie has out of the US and Europe. I doubt it would be enough to make it a real success on foreign market, though.

On the whole, great realization and acting, and a very instructive movie from a historical perspective, but it's not going to be a second Top Gun.

Negative Reviews Bring Trust

To allow for negative reviews is important even for commercial products. At one points there were two web sites for Symbian softwares, One was Handango and the other was something like The later allowed for negative reviews while the former only allowed positive ones. Because of this, I could not trust Handango and ended up buying always from Sadly, it seems Handango bought :-( I guess in spite of their dishonesty they may have been better commercial managers. The good people don't always win... Nevertheless, the truth of this facts remain...

The story below reminds me of Handango, and I hope they won't go the same way.

Slashdot | Restauranteurs Say Yelp Uses Extortion To Ply Ad Sales:
"Readers Mike Van Pelt and EricThegreen point out a story in the East Bay Express alleging that online restaurant review site Yelp is doing more than providing a nice interface for foodies to share their impressions of restaurants. Instead, says the article, representatives from the site have called restaurants in the Bay area to solicit advertising, but with an interesting twist: the ad sales reps let restaurant owners know that, if they buy advertising at around $300 a month, Yelp can 'do something' about prominently displayed negative reviews of their restaurants. If the claims are true, it sure lowers my opinion of Yelp, which I'd thought of as one of the good guys (and a useful site). I wonder how many other online review sites might be doing something similar."

Microsoft Incompatible with Microsoft

(off-topic but funny)

Slashdot | Makes IE8 Incompatibility List!:
"'Microsoft is tracking incompatible Web sites for its upcoming Internet Explorer 8 browser and has posted a list that now contains about 2,400 names — including"

The Positive "Cult Experience"

Some anti-cultists like to post a list of "post-cult syndromes", the weakness of which has been discussed by Monica Pignotti and Lema Nal.

However, why not post lists of strengths too? (Bearing the same limitation that these are not necessarily caused by cult membership).

I can see a few positive aspects.

I was interested to read recently that most high profile defectors have done rather well in re-integrating society, in spite of having spent 20-35 years in Scientology and having no formal high-level education. I have seen that with myself and my friends as well. I think it has to do partly with some of the useful things we learn while in such a group, but also because of the fact that (I believe) most "cult members" are bright people who join alternative groups because they see through the limits of society and are not satisfied with it. They are idealist-oriented people who seek something better.

The "cult experience" also provides one with a feeling of "having found what I was looking for", a feeling of engagement and belonging, of dedication for the common good, responsibility for the world we live in, etc... I think these are positive and somehow stay as inner qualities after one quits the group.

One also may experience states of heightened awareness. It gives them a taste of what true spiritual experiences might be. It is similar with drugs. In spite of the negative effects of drug, it can give one an idea of higher states of beings. Often, after getting rid of the negative influence of drugs, one will seek to experience the state back, but without the dependencies this time, and I think that's a good thing too.

Ethic - one's sense of ethic is strongly reinforced while in a cultic group. This may sounds strange and I will explain later, but this is in fact what happens. One becomes more aware of the consequences of wrong doing, of the energy balance in the universe and the reaction of one's own spiritual being to ego characteristics such as greed and cheating. After exiting the group, one may retain this sense of ethic, and I believe it makes for more honest and responsible citizens. Again, you could say that the sense of honesty was already present in the 'cult member' before, but I believe it is part of what makes him attracted to the group and that the group strenghten those qualities.

Now how come, if the above is true, that cultists are being cultic? Well, that's the irony of all cults, including anti-cult cults and political parties. They just do wrong in the belief that what they do is good! It's the whole dialectic of cultism and I am not going to go into that now.

Which brings me to the next positive aspect, not linked by one's belonging to a cult but, on the contrary, the process of going out. Going out from such an high level of personal involvement requires tremendous questioning and integrity to look. When you truly realize the limitations you have fallen into, which I refer to as the cultic mindset, then you can see it in other groups, and this may help you chose better next time around. By itself, it also is enlightening and one can learn a lot through this too. You realize the importance of never assuming, keeping yourself open to self-questioning (which makes you more humble, a spiritual quality), and the importance of free speech to avoid getting trapped in a closed group/cult mentality.

Of course, as I pointed out many times, not all ex-members learn from their exit in this way, and they on the contrary become involved in the very same mentality they were trapped while in the cult but on the other side, and doing really wrong things - all the while still believing they are doing good. This is just the next trap we need to learn, and once we can see that trap too, then, again, we really gain more positive insight, beneficial to our own evolution, and beneficial to society, because it makes for a less intolerant society, where individual members gain the courage to question the majority's assumptions and stand against mob mentality.

So, on the whole, I think the cult experience can be really positive too. It strengthen the good qualities in the individual and provide him with the taste of "something" our sclerotic society and religions usually are unable to provide. It further makes the person wiser as he exists the group, in that it makes him more aware of a variety of illusion one can fall into. Again, if the person is able to avoid or exit the anti-cult trap, it makes him/her more perceptive of yet more illusions.

These are a few positive things I can see, at first sight, about the "cult experience", and things that would be fitting for a positive list.