- a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
- an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers…
For as long as I can remember, and I’ve seen some evidence that this debate dates to the earliest days of Christian Science, there has been a lingering accusation that Christian Science is a cult. Christian Scientists, and even some former Christian Scientists, will adamantly deny that it is, but is it? I’ll let evidence form my opinion on the subject. As someone who spent 41 years in Christian Science, much of the evidence I rely on for this post is my own personal experience and observations.
What is a cult?
- formal religious veneration: worship.
- a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents.
- a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious…
- a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator (health cults).
This is the first, and most important, question to answer. This is also the point where the debate gets clouded, no matter whether you’re religious or not. The definition of what exactly a cult is has always been a somewhat subjective one. Broad definitions like the one at the top of this post, or some parts of the one at the top of this section, would define almost all world religions as cults. Maybe they are. In this post, I’ll just stick with Christian Science. Since most people conventionally view cults through the lens of definition #3 in the Merriam-Webster definition and #2 in the Dictionary.com definition, I’ll look to those as my definition of what a cult is. Otherwise, I could just paint all religions, including Christian Science, as cults right now and be done with it.
Is Christian Science a cult?
There are some mainstream Christians who view any sort of Christian sect that deviates from their orthodox interpretation of the Bible or the divinity of Jesus as a cult. On that basis, many mainstream Christians assert that Christian Science is a cult. However, this would broadly include groups like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other sects under a definition that most people would not accept, although many evangelical Christians do view these groups as cults as well. Most of us, when we think of cults, think of groups like the Branch Davidians, the People’s Temple (Jim Jones), or Heaven’s Gate, which are often referred to as “destructive cults”. These tend to be more what I think of when I think of cults.
“An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing…”
There can be no doubt, to anyone who was ever a Christian Scientist, that Mary Baker Eddy, who is credited with the “discovery” of Christian Science, is deeply venerated. In my own primary class instruction in Christian Science, teachings were shared in which she was considered to be almost co-equal with Jesus–he as a “masculine” she as the “feminine”, and that she was the so-called “woman in the Apocalypse” (see Revelation 12). There is a stained glass window in the original edifice of The Mother Church that depicts this “woman in the Apocalypse”. Although the depiction isn’t necessarily meant to portray Eddy in this role, there is a view among some that this is something one could infer. Eddy’s portrait is found in most Christian Science churches and Reading Rooms, and when I worked at The Mother Church in Boston, I often saw her portrait in offices, and at some people’s desks. Whenever her writings are read aloud in church services or at meetings, her name is always announced prominently, and with a sometimes extreme air of reverence. Most Christian Scientists consider Mary Baker Eddy to have a unique place not only in history, but in biblical prophecy as well (this was an integral part of my own primary class instruction). In this respect, Christian Science does display cult-like qualities.
“a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious…”
Christian Science is certainly viewed by most mainstream Christians, as well as non-religious people, as unorthodox. For one, most Christian Scientists eschew conventional medical treatment. That in and of itself, sets them apart from most of the general population. In the context of orthodox Christian doctrine, the belief that Jesus is not God is a big one, as is the Christian Science view that Heaven and Hell are states of mind rather than localities.
Another aspect of cults that I’ve read about in the past is that they tend to have their own lingo, or they tend to add their own definitions to everyday words or terms. Christian Science does this. There is an entire chapter in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures that offers Mary Baker Eddy’s definitions of various everyday words, terms, and biblical terms. Still other aspects include unquestioning adherence to the authority in the church or group. Many dedicated Christian Scientists believe loyalty to The Mother Church and its Board of Directors is of paramount importance.
Some of you may ask why I’m not measuring Christian Science against definition #4 from Merriam-Webster. Simple reason is that as I read it, that definition refers more to “health cults” revolving around various ideas of healthy living and that sort of thing, which is not really what Christian Science is all about.
Christian Science, in many ways, displays the attributes of a cult. There is a strong veneration of its founder (Mary Baker Eddy), it does have its own “lingo” (see my Glossary of Terms page), and it is definitely an unorthodox religion. But, is it a cult? I’d say yes. Is it a “destructive cult” like the ones I’ve mentioned? Ask anyone who grew up in Christian Science who was refused medical treatment as a child, and suffers lasting effects as a result, and they’ll say “yes”. A fellow ex-Christian Scientist friend, who lost her leg due to lack of medical care as a child, has protested in front of The Mother Church during its annual meeting, carrying a sign saying, “Christian Science: Jonestown in slow motion.” My own father professed unquestioning support to The Mother Church and its Board of Directors, as did many other Christian Scientists I knew. I swear some of them would follow the Board of Directors off a cliff like lemmings if the Board chose to. Like many destructive cults, Christian Science has effects on one’s psyche that take a long time to heal.
When I questioned Board of Directors decisions, I may as well asked when North [Korea -ed] China was going to launch their Mother.
I think that when you look at the cultural group of particular Christian Science communities, from group to group there may be looser and stricter versions of social shunning, shaming, thought stopping and other forms of control. This makes it difficult to make an all or nothing statement of the Christian Science movement in total.
For a long time, I had a hard time understanding why so many religious scholars seem to bend over backwards to explain and accommodate really severe practices.. such as those in Scientology or TFI. To me, clearly the anti-cult movement was onto something.
Then after hearing more stories of the excesses of deprogramming, I think I begin to understand the backlash against anti-cult organizations and concepts. Because of those excesses, many are reluctant to even use the word “cult” at all. Yet, we can point to the extremes like Jim Jones and see how people can be influenced into actions they later regret.
So, the dialogue goes on. We use new words. What is a ‘high demand group’? Or, what is ‘mind control’, ‘thought reform’ or an ‘unsafe group’?
Using lists of criteria for these various kinds of control, Christian Science in general may not be at the highest level of control, but many individuals have still found freedom and benefit from looking clearly at what the levels of control they personally experienced, and reasserting their own freedom and responsibility.
Thank you so much for writing this. It’s eloquent and gentle, as far as a discussion about this topic can go. The discussion, as I have had it in the past, always turns into a plain argument based solely on a preconceived notion of the word “cult.” Rather than referring to the dictionary definition and really examining it and analyzing it.
In the CS culture where I grew up, the christian science belief system was absolutely as a health system. “Science and Health” has it in the title. So, I grew up absolutely seeing it as a method of health care primarily. I heard the arguments that it was really a “worship God” system, but I saw with my eyes that it was used primarily as a health care system. I have also made “2nd Aid” kits. Because “First Aid should be God.”
Also, Amen to this sentence: “Many dedicated Christian Scientists believe loyalty to The Mother Church and its Board of Directors is of paramount importance.”
Thank you again for writing this post.
Thank you for your work to end CS and bless you. After 65 years in CS I need to tell the world that CS is evil.. It killed my sister and excused and hid years of violent child abuse from our mother and indifference from our father. There are great evils in the world and CS is definitely one of them.