Sects, cults and all that is really true

A 2019 anti-racial discrimination rally in Dunedin.  PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
A 2019 anti-racial discrimination rally in Dunedin. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
I find the existence of cults, especially formal cults of the Christian variety, to be a fascinatingly disturbing social phenomenon.

Typically, cults are thought of as being deviant in belief system and centralised in structure.

They can be localised to a patch of jungle, resident in a rundown ranch, even gloriously veiled by the West Coast bush.

Mysterious beliefs, embodied by peculiar people, in a particular place.

But as of late it has become relatively obvious that woven into the warp and weft of contemporary culture there exists a deceptively nebulous, decentralised and deeply gnostic cult. It has legions of initiates who are emotionally, socially, psychologically and (perhaps most importantly) morally committed to its belief system, the "communities" it fosters and the identities it promotes.

Like any formal cult, it uses emotional and psychological manipulation to attune people to its view of (social) reality and its moral vision for society.

In a manner reminiscent of that moment when paradise was lost, people are awakened into cult identification using "fruitful theory" and the deceptive promise of epistemic reform — Critically conscious; "... their eyes were opened" (Genesis 3).

Cult initiates need only know a handful of buzzwords, a couple of slogans and a reductionist maxim like "racism = prejudice + power" to become useful tools in a game crafted by bad-faith actors.

This cult knows about that place in the human heart where existential emptiness meets a gnawing sense of eternity.

Its adept at turning the general observation that injustice seems to prevail (Ecclesiastes 3) into an attitude of dissatisfaction, and a disposition towards finding oppressive systems everywhere.

This cult takes a genuine desire for social unity, uses it to collectivise loyalty to bad ideas and leads people to value things they think will produce life and human flourishing.

However, like that "way that seems right to a man" (Proverbs 14), these things tend to end in dehumanisation and despair.

Take DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — for example.

Now saddled with (radically) extended definitions, these words are employed, in service of the cult, to sell people various conscious practices: "check your privilege"; "shut up and listen"; "do the work".

In my vocation of public health, the DEI suite is constantly reinforced as being key to dismantling racism and improving health outcomes for Maori.

Great. We all want better health; we hate racism.

However, the Ministry of Health’s initiative Ao Mai te Ra (the anti-racism kaupapa) makes it frightfully obvious that equity is thought best achieved by anti-racist racial discrimination.

Come again? We are meant to better our lot, by using racism to fight racism? Fascinating.

I recently sat through te Tiriti training which argued (again, for equity’s sake) management should be considering Maori employees "out of scope" with restructure job losses.

I appreciate there may not be many of us employed in the health sector, but for those of us who are, our job security shouldn’t be determined by whakapapa and melanin concentration.

It’s not hard to imagine such an unjust equitable consideration, leaving my non-Maori team-mates feeling a tad resentful — perhaps a bit like Joseph’s older brothers did.

Uncritical acceptance of the DEI ideals proves the point that loyalty to unworthy untrue ideas is unbecoming and destructive.

So perhaps the existence of cults, both formal and informal, can serve as a good reminder that it’s not only what we think that’s important, but also how we arrive at our conclusions.

Cult thinking shows us how dangerous loyalty to poorly vetted ideas can be, and how important it is for us to pursue objective truth.

During his earthly ministry Jesus could be found rationally engaging the beliefs of religious fanaticism, with no loyalty and emotional attachment to the ideas under consideration.

He asked people to believe in him on the basis of corroborating evidence and consistent testimony.

What he didn’t want was his listeners to exhibit blind faith.

As a world view, biblical Judaeo-Christianity maintains a great affection for the truth.

It is, after all, a system bearing the name of one who claims to be, the way, the truth and the life (John 14).

In fact, at several points in John’s gospel, one can see that interactions with Jesus typically involve a person (or group of people) being confronted about their attitude towards truth, which is essentially their attitude towards him.

In the biblical world view then, we find there is the closest possible correspondence between who Jesus is and what truth is.

As Christian theologian Paul Henebury noted, "Men may call falsehood by the name of truth, but according to Jesus, all that is really true bears within it some relation to him."

 Sam Mangai is a member of the Cornerstone International Bible Church, Dunedin.