In the Cape Argus for July 24, 2008, I was drawn to an article about a “cult”. The article was your typical shocking piece of journalism, where the accused are a “deranged” lot. Their beliefs most would scoff at: “How could they have done that?” “Anyone can see they were crazy to belief that nonsense!”.
Durban (in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, in my country South Africa) brother and sister Hardus and Nicolette Lotter [who are] charged with murder of their parents, had apparently belonged to a cult. They had been influenced by Nicolette’s boyfriend, Mathew Naidoo, who claimed he was “God’s messenger”.
After being called to the house, 20-year old Hardus told police he was accosted in his house and locked in his bedroom. His 26-year old sister returned from work to find both her parents slain. Their father had been strangled, their mother stabbed several times. After picking up Naidoo for questioning, all three were charged and brought before the court.
And this was not the first time.
Apparently the three had conspired previously to kill the parents, Johan and Riekie Lotter. One of the previous attempts involved poisoning Johan Lotter’s drink. The Lotter siblings retracted their statements, saying “they were under the influence of Naidoo, who told them he was ‘God’s messenger’ and the ‘third son of God’ and that he [Naidoo] had received a message from God that they should kill the [Lotter] couple.”
Which God, you might wonder? I expect all sorts of No-True-Scotsman fallacies to be quivering in most reader’s thoughts. The article ends with: “Johan and Rieikie had received several anonymous death threats with messages from the Bible.”
Let me summarise: Naidoo believed that the God from the Bible had chosen him as His third Son. The God from the Bible, as Naidoo believed, had then told him that the Lotter couple must die. The newspaper article defined them as belonging to a “cult”. But why? What is a ‘cult’? And why does the article not say “religious fanatics”?
I find this a reasonable question: What is the difference between a cult and a religion? To answer simply: not much, only in so-called mild religions, people can still live open, thriving lives. Michael Shermer gives these characteristics of one of these (I ask you whether he is talking about a cult or a religion. I will give the answer at the end):
- Veneration of a leader: Glorification of the leader [to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity].
- Inerrancy of the leader: Belief that the leader cannot be wrong.
- Omniscience of the leader: Acceptance of the leader’s beliefs and pronouncements on all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
- Persuasive techniques: Methods, from benign to coercive, used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
- Hidden Agendas: The true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans is obscured from or not fully disclosed to potential recruits and the general public.
- Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything they should know about the leader and the group’s inner-circle, and particularly disconcerting flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances are covered up.
- Absolute truth: Belief that the leader and/or the group has discovered final knowledge on any number of subjects.
- Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or group has developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code become and remain members; those who do not are dismissed or punished.
Shermer here is describing characteristics of cults. But perhaps the terrifying similarity to religion was demonstrated by a silent reading, stemming the tides of self-veneration upon contemplation. This is not a unique case, I am not claiming it as such. Call it a reminder, call it a question. Why is Naidoo and the Lotter’s grouping called a ‘cult’ and not religion?
Perhaps the question lies in: Who is the cult-leader? Is it Naidoo or the God from the Bible? I feel this is a legitimate question. I think we need to radically assess this in light of the source of Naidoo’s absolute truth, his morals and his beliefs. The source lies in the drawers of nearly all hotels around the world: a Bible. Once again, I am not attacking religion as a cult because that is an old argument. I am simply assessing the usage of the term ‘cult’.
The line of separation is as thin as dust between fanatical religious belief and cults. In Shermer’s case, he was making the claim that there is in fact a cult surrounding Ayn Rand, in the US. It fit the criteria I have highlighted above. I won’t go into detail as it does not play a part in this discussion but I urge you to read this very important book to understand why (I myself love Ayn Rand, but do not subscribe to her bizarre philosophy in any way, shape or form. Her abilities as a ficiton writer are all that fascinate me).
Let me reiterate: Why did the Argus dub these people belonging to a cult? After all, Naidoo was using the Bible, the Christian Holy Book. He claimed he was the “third son of God” – I have yet to discover who the second is if Jesus is the first (if we’re all God’s children, what use is a Son?). Unless we are speaking of Adam – but I do not think that Naidoo was being austere to technical theological obscurity. He claimed he was God’s messenger.
I just find it strange that we label him a ‘cult’ leader (or member) and not a religious one. I find it strange that because “ordinary” people branch off into violence, like a burst vessel of the body of society, and claim a religious justification they are a ‘cult’. Yet when someone who believes he is doing Allah’s work blows himself and many others to pieces, he is a ‘religious fanatic’.
Let us drop the semantics and the playground name-calling. Let us call it what it is: blind faith. This the damage that absolute faith in a personal deity can have. Sure – the Lotters and Naidoo balance on the so-called fringe of ordinary, humble religious people. But those same good people who would reply: “They are crazy to believe such nonsense”, I ask this: How can you prove Naidoo is not “God’s messenger”. Is he not a “true Christian”? A “true believer”?
A true Christian would never commit such atrocious acts you say, but that is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
You can not disprove he was God’s messenger. You can not say his God was any different from the God of Abraham (who also asked for strict obedience and no-questions when commanding Abraham to slaughter his son); the God of Deuteronomy (who commands you to kill any person who professes sympathy for other gods even if he/she is family); or the God of the New Testament. He used the same book did he not? The same book that justifies abortion, that justifies slavery, and also abolishment and so on.
I can see no way for a Christian to display Naidoo being any different in his belief. Yes, you are correct: his beliefs are bizarre. But why are they different from any religious believers’. I think we have seen that it is incorrect to label this a ‘cult’ activity because there is no difference. Why is this a ‘cult’, but not Al’Quaeda? Why is Naidoo a cult leader, but the Ayatollah Khomeini was not?
We need a radical reversal of understanding. We need to tear these veils and see them for the blind-faith that encompasses it all. As Žižek highlights, ‘With God, everything is permitted.” Even the coercion of ordinary people into murdering their parents. Why? Because God said so.
UPDATE: The replies I have received from people reading this have fairly attempted to answer the question: “Why is Mathew Naidoo considered a cult leader but not the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bin Laden, Ted Haggard, Rick Warren, Paul Hill, etc.?” The answer I predicted was going to be “Well, they had a political agenda and it’s wrong to place all those kinds of people into one category.”
1. I speak about Paull Hill a lot, but he is once again an appropriate example. His agenda was not politcal. His agenda was based on the fact that the doctor was “killing babies”. Readers are welcome to view it for themselves by looking at Rev. Spitz’s comments on my article “Belief as Poison”. You can even visit the Army of God website. There is no political agenda here, unless you want to get into the pathetic semantics of what constitutes “political”.
The opening words are from Psalms, their basis for attacking and killing doctors is based on the Bible. What does this sound like? Blind faith, yet again. There is nothing political here so this answer does not work. I ask how we define the difference between this radical right-wing Christian group that believes that “babies” are being killed by doctors and God has told them to stop this at any cost – and Naidoo being told he is God’s messenger, and being told to kill the Lotter family at any cost.
2. Sure, lots of these are political. I do not ever make the claim that religion is the source of evil or dismay in the world. In a lot of cases, people are actually made happy by it. But if you accept this, I feel that you must accept that people unconsciously separate ‘cults’ and ‘extremists’ groups. Though the one might have a political agenda, it still fits the criteria for a cult. I still think we need to radically reassess our views on cults and so-called fringe religious mindsets. Both will give their lives to the cause, both obey the leader as speaking for or from God, etc. This also raises no opposition to my point.
1. Michael Shermer (2002) Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Owl Books. Pp 119-120