The word ‘cult’ has been used in many ways. Sometimes it means, “Why aren’t you staying in university like you promised?” Or, it can refer to anything deemed Satanic by evangelical Christians. Or it can mean simply, “I can’t understand this belief system of yours, so it must be wrong.”
Oddly, people rarely look at the cult or cults they’re already in. These might include one of the more insistent corporate employers out there, or a geek community, or an online gaming group. These things are all exclusive and secretive in their different ways. And we all like to belong to an in-crowd of some kind, because it helps define our identities. It’s only when that group no longer fulfils our needs, but for some reason we can’t escape it, that the negative aspect – the ‘cult’ – comes into play.
A Hermetic fraternity has all the trappings of a classic cult. There is a secret initiation, and secret ceremonies. People adopt new names or mottoes, identities that apply within the in-group. And there is also a leader figure who is presumed to have greater power or wisdom than the average person. Or at least, than the average member of the fraternity.
To offset these problems, the best orders follow certain principles of transparency. Candidates should be able to ask probing questions about finances, or the conditions of membership – and about how they can leave if things don’t work out for them. That won’t guarantee that leaders won’t lie, or try to manipulate things if someone does want to quit, but there should be an overall impression for an outsider that the group’s foundations are sensible, and that the members are in charge of their own lives.
That said, sometimes things go wrong. Or appear to.
We learn by being taught well. Being conned, perhaps by people who have let themselves be conned and are thus all the more convincing, is a very effective means of learning. The power of discrimination, represented in Golden Dawn-style temples by the Hiereus, the sword-bearing Malkuth officer, is the most necessary of abilities. And most of us have to acquire it the hard way. The Thelemic path is one of tough love, as the second chapter of the Book of the Law makes plain.
“The Universe is not wrong,” goes the old aphorism. We find the teachers we need at any given time, not necessarily the ones we think we would like. Over time, the key thing is subjecting the bitter lessons to careful scrutiny, not just things to be rejected and forgotten.
We do learn progressively to see all our experiences as teachings, or rays of starlight within the body of Nuit. That can and should include joining a ‘bad’ order, or going through a rough phase with an existing one.
People who follow dubious ‘prophets’ have only themselves to blame. Yet the most lasting lessons I’ve ever had were from people out on the fringe, with what today I might see as crazy agendas. They had a passion that conveyed their beliefs effectively, and if I had to reject those beliefs in the end, I learned much along the way. I was compelled to learn, despite my skepticism.
In sum, the cult label is one applied mostly by people afraid to venture off the beaten path. If our aim is wisdom, then the shadow is the great teacher of the wise.