July 12, 2012

Make sure it’s easy to leave…

The recent news of the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes has once again raised the issue of cult religiosity in American culture, especially since it’s been rumored that Cruise’s devotion to Scientology played a central role in the couple’s split.

Not only did Scientology fail to solve the couple’s problems, it may well have been one of those problems, as it’s been rumored that Holmes was never comfortable with Scientology and wanted primary custody of their daughter Suri partly to protect her from its influence.

According to several unconfirmed reports, Holmes has also wasted no time in reaffirming her historical allegiance to Roman Catholicism—which, as some wags have pointed out, could well be viewed as a much larger cult with a much longer history.

The whole scene reminds me of some advice that the philosopher Jacob Needleman once imparted in a discussion we were having about mystical spirituality. When considering the pros and cons of any esoteric path or organization, he suggested that the safest ones would be “relatively difficult to join, but easy to leave.” And he said,

 If a spiritual group makes it very easy to join but then difficult to leave, watch out.

Photo: katherinedubois

That reminded me of being accosted on the streets many years ago by abnormally friendly Moonies, who were always inviting me to free dinners and extolling the wonders of their secret society. Years later I would meet and interview at length a young woman who accepted one of those invites and became a total devotee. She would not break free of the cult until her parents, learning that she was about to be married in a mass ceremony to another Moonie she had never met, had her forcibly kidnapped and deprogrammed.

Most of us come by any religion we happen to have quite easily, as we’re born into our parents’ faith, if they have one. And turning one’s back on that native allegiance can prove quite difficult, depending on the degree of familial and cultural devotion involved.

In a culture that’s increasingly identifying itself as “spiritual but not religious,” breaking free of one’s inherited faith is becoming less of a crisis for many.

But as the Cruise/Holmes divorce reminds us, even relatively new religions can foment an obsessive and troubling degree of devotion, requiring either a real or metaphorical divorce to get free of them. The question is why—what is it about any religion that can induce emotional ties so powerful that they rival those of intimate partnerships, friendships and family?

In the next edition of Sense & Spirituality, I’ll take a look at the lures of religious devotion—and how those lures compare with the unattractive demands of spiritual discipline.

~ Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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