After decades of negative news stories, cults have developed a reputation for oppressing and manipulating their members. From claims of brainwashing in the Unification Church, to allegations of sexual abuse in The Family International, you don't have to look far to find horror stories surrounding these movements—some of which are downright apocalyptic, destructive and dangerous.
But sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Puttick, author of the recently re-issued book Women in New Religions: In Search of Community, Sexuality and Spiritual Power, says some women are actually empowered by cults. Broadly spoke to Dr. Puttick to find out how.
(Note: Dr. Puttick uses the term "new religious movement", NRM for short, rather than "cult". The term is preferred by many sociologists of religion for its neutrality.)
BROADLY: What made you decide to research women's roles in new religious movements (NRMs)?
Elizabeth Puttick: I had a very positive personal experience of living in an NRM which offered women a lot of spiritual empowerment: the Osho movement. I wanted to explore how my experience compared with women in other religions, old and new.
Why did you decide to join an NRM?
I was exploring the human-potential movement. I was interested in meditation. I wanted something more actively spiritual, and joined more psychotherapy-type groups. Quite a few people I knew were going out to India, discovering Osho and joining up. He was a very intelligent guru; a philosopher by training. Some movements were very devotional, but the Osho movement had this philosophical side to it as well. It was an adventure.
How long were you part of the movement?
I lived in India for five years. We left when [Osho] left India, and after a while I drifted away.
What roles do women have in NRMs?
There's a great variety: In more conservative movements, such as the Unification Church ("Moonies") and conservative Christian movements, women are often expected to serve men domestically, sometimes with restricted access to the teachings and practices.
In more progressive movements, such as the Brahma Kumaris and the Osho movement, women are treated as equal or even superior to men, allowed full spiritual and social participation and encouraged to teach and lead.
What types of people join NRMs?
There used to be a view in the anti-cult movement that people who joined these movements were young, naïve, weak—even damaged. Although there was a small minority who fit this stereotype, especially in more traditional NRMs, most people who joined were "active seekers".
In most organized religions, women couldn't become priests because they were seen as inferior. [But] some NRMs were founded or run by women.
An active seeker was somebody who was looking for an alternative to what was on offer, at a time when organised religion was very stuck in its ways and not offering much in the way of spirituality and meditation. Many people were typically [in their] late-20s to mid-30s, well-educated and well-balanced.
They were disillusioned with the ideologies offered by mainstream society, which was much less liberal in the 1970s, the heyday of NRMs. They were also looking for community, a group of kindred spirits with similar values and outlook.
What do you think women are seeking when they join NRMs, and what do NRMs provide them?
In the past, women have been badly treated in the old religions, despised as the weaker sex morally and physically. Misogyny is also found in some of the more traditional NRMs. Women who join these either leave—or stay, because they accept traditional gender roles.
Other NRMs, like the Osho movement, the more progressive Buddhist movements, Pagan and shamanic groups, offered women spiritual power and status, including a path to becoming enlightened in the Eastern-based movements.
How can NRMs fulfil and empower women?
Until very recently, in most organized religions women couldn't become priests because they were seen as essentially inferior. On the other hand, some NRMs were founded or run by women, including the Brahma Kumaris and Sahaja Yoga.
Mother Meera and Ammachi (pictured below) are Indian women who, despite the restricted opportunities for women in their society, have become powerful and inspirational role models for their female and male disciples.
The Osho movement encouraged women to rise above their social conditioning and promoted them into leadership positions. Osho saw women as spiritually superior to male disciples and better equipped for becoming enlightened. This was radical at that time, immensely liberating and empowering. Paganism has also been a very empowering path for women, especially with its rediscovery and honouring of the Goddess.
So do you believe there a basis to the belief that women are exploited in NRMs?
Before the internet, it was much harder to get objective information about closed groups like NRMs, so most people joined on first impressions. The majority had positive experiences, but there are examples of abuses of power. In newer religions, abuse happens mostly within the more fundamentalist NRMs like the Children of God, the Branch Davidians, and the Unification Church.
Sometimes there was intense rivalry to become the guru's favourite. Being his lover could be a fast track to enlightenment.
Many male gurus are known to have exploited their female disciples, encouraging the belief that you have to surrender to your master in order to progress spiritually. A lot of women enthusiastically participated in these relationships. Sometimes there was intense rivalry to become the guru's favourite. Being his lover could be a fast track to high status as well as enlightenment. Some women felt they benefited from these relationships, but others felt abused and damaged, especially if they were later rejected.
What are the differences between an NRM that exploits women, and one that empowers women?
This question is trickier than it sounds because there is a culture of surrender to the guru. It is believed that total trust is a prerequisite for enlightenment. This can make it really hard to set up boundaries if things get out of hand.
Is the guru testing you, is this good for your spiritual growth? Or is it exploitation and abuse? Perhaps the most important test is whether it's as easy to leave the movement as it is to join. If you're confused about what's going on, trust your instincts. Ask yourself honestly if these methods are working for you. Are you becoming happier, more awake and integrated, or whatever the aims of your practice are? If this isn't happening, it's better to leave. A spiritual path should improve your life.
What are the modern trends in NRMs?
NRMs were a phenomenon of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, a response to a society that offered far fewer opportunities for spiritual growth. Most of the best ideas and practices of the NRMs have been adopted both within mainstream society and, to some extent, organized religion.
Women now have many more opportunities to grow spiritually and play leadership roles in all religions, apart from the more fundamentalist groups. This means there is far less motivation to join an NRM fulltime. Perhaps the most positive development is the growth of the women's spirituality movement, which arose partly out of feminist theology, and partly out of neo-pagan Goddess worship.
The biggest change for the worse is the rise of fundamentalism within the old religions. This is bad news for women. The message for women is that we have to be ever-vigilant to safeguard our newly won freedoms; not take them for granted or allow them to be abused in any way—within religion as much as within the wider society.