The Scarlet Letter
Volume IV, Number 1 | March 1997
From the Camel's Back
By Sr. N.V. Continuity P., Oasis Master

Watching the news news week has been a revelation. Even whilst we Thelemites are in the middle of our Holy Days, various other religions large and small are practicing their observances. Easter in Austin is an experience not unlike going to another planet for a brief visit. The supermarkets are closed. The gyms are closed. Visit a ghost town, except for the families parked on the side of the highway taking pictures of their kids in their Sunday best, posed in the abundant banks of bluebonnets. Christian churches are full, and the newspaper reflects that fact on the front page with a bias that suggests that this is a good and hopeful thing. I would have to agree, at least in so much as I absolutely support the right to practice religion in a public and unfettered manner. I'm sure I have to have to belabor the fact that this is deeply important to me, because I am a clerical member of a small, young religion; by definition, a cult. The definition is a matter of fact, even if you don't like the word cult and even if it makes your knee jerk hard.

The etymology of the word suggests that it derives from the French, culte, and the Latin, cultus, both of which mean “care, or adoration” and also, from colere which means, “to cultivate.” Websters 7th defines it as “formal religious veneration: Worship”; and also as “a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also, its body of adherants.” Further definition suggests “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” To be honest, I can apply all of these definitions to my religion, although I have little opportunity for discourse with people who find my religion 'spurious'. But then, I've always had an aptitude for choosing smart friends and I appear to have incarnated into the right family.

In any case, if someone described me as “a member of a cult,” I really wouldn't argue the point based on strict definition of terms. Up until recently, I would have been tempted to disavow the association based on the negative popular perception of cults, cultishness, and cult members, and my lack of desire to associate my religion with same. I'm afraid that no longer works for me. I have no intention of acting as an apologist for Thelema, as Thelema requires no apology. All major world religions have gone through their “cult” phase, which could be described as the period after the Word and Law have been delivered and accepted by some, but before the mass saturation of social culture with said Word and Law occurs. There is no major world religion extant that was not heavily questioned as “unorthodox and spurious” at its inception, and that does not continue to be 'regarded' in that manner by some non-adherants, regardless of the apparent legitimacy of said religion.

Heaven's Gate is a cult that has gotten a lot of attention in the news this week. Unless they circle back on their spaceship and drop us a press release, we won't be hearing a lot about them in the future. Their theology suggests that the Earth is about to be destroyed, wiped clean of life by advanced beings who want to recycle the planet for a new civilization. Cult members looked forward to safe passage aboard a spacecraft heading for the Next Level, also referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven. Based on their beliefs, the 39 core members that lived at Rancho Santa Fe in California quietly terminated their lives at the end of March, 1997. They did this in an orderly and business-like way, over the course of three days. Their leader was one of the first to die. Actually, they were remarkably considerate, and went out of their way to explain their actions, even leaving video tapes for the purpose. No one was coerced or murdered. Sure, their theology and practices were bizarre by my standards, and probably yours too, but happily, we are not their judge and jury. No crime was committed. It was their will to die. So they did.

Janet Reno is the Attorney General of the United States. To put it mildly, she doesn't exactly see it my way. She went on CNN last week and made a statement that suggested that cults are dangerous and need to be “stamped out” in order to protect the American public. I didn't hear her give her press conference, although I certainly heard about it. I've been trying to chase down a print version of this story to give an actual quote, but I haven't found much reportage. I wonder why It's certainly news when a high government official states plainly that religious practice that is not mainstream must be irradicated. Hitler “stamped out” the Jews. I don't care what her excuse is. I do care about my right and your right and the right of the woman across the street to believe whatever we want to believe and act accordingly.

We have a broad and complex legal code which has specific penalties for crimes against person and property, and as long as your freedom of expression doesn't intersect with my freedom of movement, I fail to see the problem. It makes you wonder exactly what form new laws restricting “cult membership” might include, eh? Benjamin Franklin said a mouthful when he stated that “Those who sacrifice a little freedom for a little liberty deserve neither.” This is why, at this juncture, I'm happy to associate myself with the word cult, popular conception be damned and accursed! It's a matter of principle.

Let me state this plainly: In no way do I endorse or support the beliefs of Heaven's Gate. I simply endorse their right to believe them and live by them. According to the print media the upshot of the investigation of the “mass suicide” is this: no crime was committed. There is no basis for a criminal investigation. There is no basis for a “cult investigation.” So, Janet Reno's opinion not withstanding, it looks like there is not going to be one, and that is good news for everyone who believes that “Man has the right to die when and how he will.”

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