From the “Scottish Bahá’í”, July 1999 (based on an original article by Stephen Vaccaro, 1996).
The word ‘cult’ can have many different meanings. For example, for many evangelical or fundamentalist groups, the word ‘cult’ is used to describe any group that does not accept a fundamentalist interpretation of Christian doctrine. In the popular media, however, ‘cult’ usually refers to a new, destructive, small religious group that practices ‘brain washing’ techniques and harmful rituals. It is this definition that will be addressed here.
Five common characteristics can be identified:
1. A charismatic leader demanding total authority over members. The leader is usually self-appointed and has prestige and power. Members are encouraged to surrender their lives to his will. In addition, the cult leader often commits serious ethical violations – he preaches against wealth and yet buys expensive cars etc.
The Bahá’í Faith has no single living leader, nor does it have a clergy. The affairs of the Bahá’í Faith are conducted by democratically elected bodies whose job is to serve the community. No power to make decisions rests with the individuals on any of these bodies. Decisions are reached through group consultation.
2. The use of ‘controlling’ techniques to enlist and keep members. Fear or guilt-based ‘mind control’ techniques are used to manipulate and shame members. Excessive confession of previous faults is encouraged. Followers may lose the ability to think and act independently, developing a harmful dependency on the group.
The Bahá’í teachings forbid confession to another human being. Fear based images of the devil or heaven and hell, so often used to control cult members, are absent from the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh encourages the asking of questions. Bahá’ís have a duty to investigate the truth for themselves and not blindly follow anyone else.
3. Social and physical isolation of the group. Members are encouraged to break ties with their families and friends. They may be physically isolated in a commune. Bahá’ís are encouraged to show fellowship to all and become active members of their local communities. Asceticism is forbidden. Family unity is of the highest importance for a Bahá’í regardless of whether or not the person’s family are Bahá’ís.
4. Extreme of fanatical behaviour. Excessive sleep deprivation, chanting, praying, and aggressive high- pressure proselytizing are all examples.
The Bahá’í teachings stress the importance of moderation in all things, and ritual is reduced to an absolute minimum. Bahá’ís are not allowed to proselytize nor are they allowed to use force, violence or coercion in any of their dealings.
5. Secrecy and deception. Destructive cults are often characterized by financial secrecy and deception.
Only Bahá’ís are allowed to give to the Bahá’í funds, all contributions being confidential. A yearly audit is carried our by the Charities Commission to ensure proper and ethical book keeping of the Bahá’í funds in Britain. There are no secret teachings in the Bahá’í Faith. Many of the original writings are on display at the Bahá’í World Centre and can be down-loaded from the Internet.