Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Are Quakers a cult?

posted by Kathy

I've been moved to post on this subject by a couple of recent events. I noticed a story in the news which about a 15-year-old who was arrested and may be prosecuted for holding up a placard which labelled Scientology a cult. I thought it was probably rather unpleasant for the Scientologists to face a demonstration, but I didn't think a peaceful demonstration should be against the law. I wondered how we as Quakers would feel if there were a demonstration outside our Meeting. Surprised, perhaps - even pleased that anyone thought us worth the trouble.

Then there was a comment in response to one of Rhiannon's posts about Quaker Universalism on this blog. The comment didn't quite call her Satan's spawn, but it implied as much. As a theology student, Rhiannon entered into debate with gusto.

That's a problem with Quakers. Except in Meeting, we tend to talk a lot.

I'm not quite sure how to define a cult. Looking on the web, I find that some people define any religious group as a cult if it doesn't conform with certain beliefs of religious fundamentalism. I'm quite touched by the website of a guest-house in Minehead which describes Quakers as "A non-Christian cult, but nice people." Other websites are very suspicious of silent worship and waiting on the Spirit. They reckon that all truth can be found in the Bible.

Quakers certainly inspired fear and mistrust - as well as derision - in the 17th century when they emerged among the many dissenting groups in the atmosphere of religious seeking and debate that flourished briefly and refused to die away. From the outside, Quakers must seem strange. "What do you do in Meeting?" people ask. Mostly we sit in silence. Occasionally someone speaks, usually briefly. After their words, the silence returns. After Meeting, we sometimes discuss the words and sometimes the quality of the silence.

That doesn't get very far. The next question is often, "What do Quakers believe?" All sorts of things. We share a method. We're mostly pacifists and we care about Truth. I try to explain further but I can see the doubts. A creed would be so much easier. In desperation, I sometimes say We don't believe in Creeds, and immediately begin to wonder if there are Quakers who do - Quakers in dual membership, for instance.

So I start talking about Quaker testimonies
... and find that, although they are, for me, rooted in something which is distinctively Quaker, I can't explain the distinctly Quaker approach to simplicity, equality, truth, peace and social justice without sounding ... well ... weird.

To me, a cult is the sort of body which uses underhand techniques to persuade people to join, controls their minds, limits their freedom, takes their money and hardly ever lets them go. That understanding of what cults are comes mostly from scary programmes on television and articles in newspapers.

Quakers aren't like that - or, at least, not the ones I've come across in more than thirty years of attending Meeting. When I decided I might like to join, I had to ask someone at my Meeting how I should go about it and whether it was difficult. It was a pretty slow process. I wrote a letter saying why I'd like to join, met a couple of Quakers who talked to me about it and then a business Meeting (which all local Quakers can attend) discussed my application and agreed. I was welcomed into membership. No-one asked me for money or suggested I should attend Meeting more often. There weren't special T-shirts or secret handshakes. It wasn't a big change - more like an acknowledgement of something I knew already: that I belonged among Quakers. And if one day I changed my mind, I could resign by writing another letter.

Of course, I do feel I have responsibilities to my Meeting and wider Quaker organisations. These change with what I can do. Sometimes all I can do is attend Meeting occasionally. Sometimes I've had particular roles in the local Meeting. I've organised a children's Meeting. Once - but only once - I accompanied seven teenagers to the big, week-long Yearly Meeting. Sometimes, when I can afford it and Meeting needs it, I give money. At the moment I am in charge of providing drinks and biscuits after Meeting, and I try to attend most Sundays. I blog.

And I try to listen to others, trying to bear in mind the words from the current edition of Advices and Queries: "Are you open to new light, from whatever source it might come?" (A&Q 7) That doesn't sound cultish to me.

What do you think?


bookgeek:rhiannon said...

Hmm. Complex one, Kathy! Having just done a module in sociology of religion, I'm very wary of any label like 'cult' or 'sect'--the more neutral term 'new religious movement' (NRM) is widely used, but on the other hand fails to identify those movements which are worrying from those which seem fine.

Presumably the issue in the Scientology placard case is whether or not calling a group a 'cult' is libel--which, as I understand the issue (and my understanding isn't much beyond what's provided by Adam Porter's guide for idiots) depends on whether the court decides that the allegation is true. If that case does come to court, it could be a turning point for Scientology in the UK; as an organisation they press to be taken seriously as a religion (chiefly, some say, for the tax benefits, and by some I mean people who write textbooks).

Returning to the central issue: are Quakers a cult? First define 'cult'! Of the six options given at answers.com, I think Quakers qualify for four of them (numbers 2, 3, 5, and 6). After the death of Fox, we are exempt from 1 unless 'whatever you mean by God or similar words' counts as “an authoritarian, charismatic leader”, but we definitely have a “community of religious worship and ritual” (2) and “formal means of expressing religious reverence” (3). I don't think 4 applies (except perhaps to Fox's healing miracles, but I don't know enough about them to judge), and 5 is a bit doubtful (a case could be made for our devotion to silent worship, maybe). 6, on the other hand, describes many of our meetings rather nicely (“An exclusive group of persons sharing an esoteric, usually artistic or intellectual interest”), even though we might wish that it didn't.

For the case against, though, it must be said that we display very few of the symptoms listed by the International Cultic Studies Association: we can hardly be said to be a group “claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members” let alone one in which “questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.” Furthermore, the Apologetics Index, which gives information about all sorts of religious groups, doesn't even list us.

I'm inclined to say, then, that Quakers are a cult, but not the sort that people worry about. Sounds like a typical philosopher's answer: yes and no, depending!

As for explaining that to other people, I've found that the best ways are to start from where they are--trying to listen until I can translate my experience into language they might be able to access--or, even better, to stop trying to explain and give them a taste of Meeting for Worship. I think that's one of the things which make Quaker Quest so successful as a tool for explaining Quakerism: it gives a non-threatening chance to try it out.

Kathz said...

Thanks for your comment, Rhiannon. That goes into far more detail than I could manage.

I'm not too worried by labels, though misunderstandings do worry me. And I don't think we'd want to see anyone who called us a cult prosecuted - I think people should be able to criticise Quakers - or other religions - as much as they think fit, so long as it doesn't infringe freedom to worship and doesn't incite violence. But it's a tricky area since some attacks on some religions are veiled racism. (I've always opposed blasphemy laws too.)

Note to anyone reading this: that's me as an individual, not me as a Quaker.

Anonymous said...

I think the common understanding of the word 'cult' is of something sinister and dark where people are 'brainwashed', alienated from their families, conned out of money etc. My dictionary however defines 'cult' as: system of religious worship esp. as expressed in ritual; devotion or homage to person or thing.

So, I guess one man's cult is another man's religion.

As regards to the guest house in Minehead, if you click on the button at the side of the comment about Quakers being a non-Christian cult but nice people, there is an article entitled 'The Dangerous Delusion of Quakerism Explained' There is no doubt that the author believes Quakers are a dangerous cult.

My experience as an enquirer is quite the opposite. At Quaker Quest I found warmth, welcome, stimulating discussion and people who care in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance. At Meeting for Worship I find real peace in the silence and inspiration in ministry when it happens.

Only anonymous because I can't remember my password!


Stephanie said...

Thanks to Krystina for her comment, I'm delighted to hear that she had such a good experience at Quaker Quest. It also helped me personally in that it exactly matches the welcome I have recieved from the SGI Buddhists (who are thought by many to be a cult).

‘At Quaker Quest I found warmth, welcome, stimulating discussion and people who care in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance.’

Which is exactly what I found at SGI meetings in Watford – and nobody asked me for my address or phone number, so they couldn’t hound me (in the end I resorted to giving them my contact details and one or two people have rung me in connection with local community events that I'm involved in), nobody asked me for money (not even for the hire of the room, if I try really hard I’m allowed to help with the washing up), nobody has suggested I join (though they let me join in), I am encouraged to think and speak for myself, am specifically asked to share my beliefs (which has made me far more confident in speaking about Quakers) and when I dared make a slightly disparaging remark about Jesus (which probably wouldn’t have been remarked on by Quakers!) it was rapidly contested.

On a different tack altogether I've given this 'cult' issue quite a lot of thought and have decided that early Friends were a cult in many ways. One piece of evidence for this is from QF&P 20.22 where Luke Cock reports that his wife cried 'We'se all be ruined: what is thee ganging stark mad to follow t'silly Quakers?' - she'd clearly say Quakers were a (probably dangerous) cult. QF&P 19.10 has another wife who wasn't impressed because her Quaker husband was much travelled and much imprisoned: Elizabeth Halhead says 'I would to God I had married a drunkard, I might have found him at the alehouse; but I cannot tell where to find my husband.'
The families of the disciples of Jesus may well have felt similarly to these two women about the 'cult' their husbands had run off to join.

Anonymous said...

Quakers make me sad. Quakers seem to have left the truth of the bible for emptionally inspired truth, but so often our emotions can lead us astray. I beleive Quakerism is a cult but that it is not a dangerous one, except to those who participate in it at the expense of believing in Christ.

CD_Hatton said...

Dear all,

as a convinced Quaker from North London & Leicestershire, I feel we are more of a sect than a cult, because of our membership & self-financing.

I would however say the problem is we have far too many intellectual talkers of esoteric things in our unprogrammed liberal meetings, this can frighten off the non-intellectuals and make us appear a white elitist sect.

Although I am an unprogrammed liberal you do not find as much of in the Conservative (orthodox) or Evangelical Friends meetings & churches. They are more about finding the spirit of Christ and living it and the mix of people are often better.

I do worry a little about mis-understanding and the labelling of a cult. I am far less worried about others seeing us a group of dissidents and "refugees" from other faiths and christian denominations meeting to find that which is eternal and acting on it in love.

(Hamburg & now a member of Germany Yearly Meeting).

Anonymous said...

Quakers can't be a cult. Quakers fight over so many issues, it's hard to talk about anything, without being bashed. A cult would be controlling. Quakerism is theological anarchy.

I became convinced, by God, of the same beliefs as George Fox, John Woolman, Barclay, etc... After discovering that Quaker was the name of the group, and that there were those at one time who held to the beliefs I just acquired, I went on a search.

Well, I've run into every kind of Quaker imaginable, except one who believes anything close to traditional Christian thought. Test it out for yourself and you will find that the word "sin" will have other Quakers attacking you with a vengeance. Bring up a specific sin and they want to tear you limb from limb.

There seems to be no theological roots amongst the Quakers I've talked to. A cult, at least, has specific beliefs.