Cultism in religion rings the alarm bells

We all need to feel like we belong. If society excludes groups there will always be movements, under a range of emblems and banners, that will emerge, orc-like, from the slime of our deepest fears to provide that sense of belonging.

As suicide bombers in the Middle East kill themselves in the name of their god, it is perhaps reassuring that similarly extreme views and conditions do not pervade our little slice of paradise.

Or do they? Last week’s march to Parliament meticulously organised by the Destiny Church suggests a religious fundamentalist cult is alive and well in our backyard.

So what? The Destiny Church does not preach murder. Everyone has the right to free speech.

But perhaps we should be concerned. That minority with intolerant homophobic views was beamed through our television sets as a few thousand people marching in step and shouting slogans of hatred. It makes great drama for television. But it has no more ramifications for society. Or does it?

Watching the Destiny Church’s march of black shirts in Wellington provoked fear in onlookers. Christians were angry at the misuse of religion to promote intolerance. Destiny’s charismatic leader, Brian Tamaki, appeared to thrive on people’s fears and prejudices.

There were large numbers of Maori and Pacific Island marchers. Is it a coincidence that the Destiny Church seems to appeal to people who are, on average, the poorest and most marginalised in our society?

The Social Report published by the Government shows differences between rich and poor are still increasing. Maori and Pacific Islanders are doing worse than Pakeha on a whole range of social indicators.

This is not new. It is well documented that the restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s exacerbated the differences between rich and poor, and differences between ethnic groups.

The Minister of Social Services and the Government are to be commended on producing the Social Report. It gives us hard data from which to develop as a nation. The Government was brave to publish it because it shows its efforts to reduce inequalities have so far been largely unsuccessful.

Perhaps this helps to explain the appeal of cults such as the Destiny Church. Some commentators even nervously raised parallels between New Zealand in the 21st century and the rise of fascism in Europe.

Looking back to the beginning of the Nazi movement in Germany, we find Hitler’s support base started with the poor and dispossessed. Hitler offered people feelings of pride, hope and glory. He gave them a target for their anger.

Against a background of high unemployment and humiliating reparations after World War II, he gave Germans a way to harness their prejudices to combat feelings of shame. It is a familiar sight throughout history.

There is evidence that participation in fundamentalist movements is growing here and elsewhere. They have in common an illusion of easy answers to complex issues.

If your life is not as you would like it to be, it is wonderful to find a strong leader who guides you to your God-given destiny. A four-week course enables you to become part of the clan, and weekly group meetings help you on your way to salvation.

A cult shelters you from other world views. Its way is truth. It offers powerful antidotes to feelings of uncertainty, shame and humiliation. It enables group members to feel good about themselves.

By simplifying the world and creating an exclusive commitment to the group, fundamentalist cults engender strong feelings of belonging and identity. This makes them particularly attractive to people who are feeling lost, lonely and angry.

All religious beliefs can help to make us feel more secure. Indeed, research suggests that participating in a religious community can protect us from what life throws at us. But surely tolerance of others is one of the fundamental values of most religions?

The fact that all of Christendom does not share Destiny’s views should alert us to be at least circumspect when considering its statements. That there seems to be a lot of judgmental behaviour coming from the “in-group” (Destiny), while the rest of us are relegated to the “out-group” is also cause for alarm.

I am reminded of a particular parable where a crowd had gathered to stone a women accused of adultery, to which Jesus replied: “Let he who is blameless cast the first stone”.

Family values are too important to be left to the likes of Destiny Church. Its interpretation of this overused term perpetuates fear of all but one family structure. What is important about families is whether they nurture all their members, not what form or structure they take. By preaching its version of the idealised family, the Destiny Church helps members to find solace in their anger at a changing world.

Meanwhile, families’ use of food banks continues. Our child poverty and child-abuse statistics are tragic. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the Western world. It is ironic that many who proclaim family values seem less interested in how we can strengthen families and communities’ ability to nurture their members and more intent on judging alternative views on how we should live.

If we do not find better ways to support families and enhance social connection in communities, we risk inadvertently strengthening organisations such as the Destiny Church.

The speedy rise of this well-organised cult over the past few years should sound alarm bells. It seems akin to the moral majority movement in the United States.

It appears well-resourced, with a combination of tithes and donations. It can afford to fund a national television programme five days a week. It is perhaps a cynical use of the Bible to ask for donations with the statement: “Sow now into this ministry … ‘He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. (2 Corinthians 9:6)”. Will sowing enough fear and hate reap any parliamentary seats?

Watching the Destiny marches in Auckland and Wellington offered us the opportunity to reflect on what we want as a nation. Our challenge is to find more constructive ways to reduce feelings of shame and hopelessness through collective efforts to reduce inequalities and social exclusion.

In the past 20 years or so, we have added fertiliser to the ground in which phenomenons such as the Destiny Church can take root. If they are growing in times of economic boom, what might happen if the economy turns sour?

Emma Davies lectures on children and families in the Auckland University of Technology’s institute of public policy.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The New Zealand Herald, New Zealand
Aug. 30, 2004 Opinion
Emma Davies
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 30, 2004.
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