A friend of mine recently decided to leave conventional churches behind and begin her own worship at home, with her children. She described her first liturgy as being such a wonderful, fulfilling experience, and it got me thinking about the differences of institutions versus private gatherings, in particular with regards to religion and homeschooling. And that got me thinking about cults.
Now, of course, I don’t think my friend is about to start a cult. Here’s where I should probably go through my thought process in greater detail!
I wondered why it is that people decide to step back from institutions and mainstream organisations to create their own places of worship or learning. The main reason must surely be that they’re disaffected and disillusioned by what the organisations are offering. With both churches and schools, it is almost certainly the fact that there is too little flexibility, and/or that the needs of the individuals are not catered for. This is why people take it into their own hands, so that they can make decisions about these important parts of their lives.
However, worshipping or learning at home is still somewhat on the fringes. While there are more and more people choosing to remove themselves from mainstream organisations, especially with regards to homeschooling, it’s sill unusual enough that if you tell the average person you’re doing this, it’s met with raised eyebrows and either curiosity or dismissal.
I wonder if this is due to the idea that coming together in groups is something which is viewed as culturally ‘necessary’? So much so that if people decide not to, it’s odd or even dangerous? Certainly, there’s an element of truth in this: we need cohesiveness as a society, and organisations such as schools or churches definitely provide this. And further, there have been individuals who have taken their rejection of mainstream institutions to a new level, and gone the way of the cult.
What, then, is the difference between a cult, and someone simply rejecting the status quo? As my friend and I discussed, cult leaders are often charismatic, and see themselves as infallible – they offer a complete rejection of alternatives and insist that their way is the only way. Cults appear to have all the answers, at the beginning, but often make promises they don’t intend to fulfil, and by the time people realise how dangerous a cult is, it’s too late. Cults appeal to people’s need to belong, when their experience with mainstream society has been that they simply don’t.
Obviously most individuals who decide against mainstream institutions do not end up in cults, but they share the same disenfranchisement as those who might. And that, I believe, says more about our institutions than it does about those who would reject them.
It’s not that every school or place of worship can be all things to all people, and many organisations have evolved to be more accepting and embracing of the differences and needs of the members of the their communities. But in the case of both church and school, there is often a rigidity which can make it hard to fit in, if your needs do not coincide with their rules. When people leave, however, it’s often seen as their problem, not everyone else’s. ‘They’ couldn’t fit in with the rest of us. ‘They’ are just too different.
Of course, not everyone will fit in. You can never accommodate all needs all the time – mostly, large institutions (and even small ones) need to work on utilitarian principles. But there are often small changes we can make which will ensure that even those with special needs can be accommodated, and which will not adversely affect others. Accessible buildings, for example, or even accessible language might mean little to those who don’t need it, but make the difference between the unspoken sentiment of ‘you are welcome’ and ‘what a pain it is to have to put up with you’.
My friend is happy with her decision to worship at home. I have many other friends who choose to homeschool their children and who love it. Their choices to go it alone are due to a number of reasons, from the desire to be an integral part of their children’s daily learning, to wanting a focus which the established institutions cannot (or will not) offer. They’re not cults, but they do show us that even as they are happy with their decisions, they still wish to be part of society. I would argue that this is where we might be able to prevent alienation. It’s not that everyone should have to be a part of an organisation to fit in, but that we should realise that people can still be contributing without having to belong to them. Our society is made of of people more or less invested in it, and we must accept that some just don’t feel the need to be always in the thick of it. This doesn’t make them any less important.
And perhaps we should look at the messages our institutions are giving. Are we promoting a one-size-fits-all approach, or are we continuously assessing whom we’re welcoming into the fold? And if it’s the case that we want others to change without having to change ourselves, then perhaps the mainstream might find eventually itself on the fringes? In that case, it would be interesting to see who copes, without facing the fact that to survive, they’ll have to evolve, to change, to become more relevant.