A woman in Northern New South Wales, Australia, had been fighting a defamation case for three years and in October 2018 won the case against Serge Benhayon, a self-styled ‘healer’ and leader of the cult ‘Universal Medicine’. Esther Rockett had sought out the ‘healer’ in 2005 at a low point in her life. As he performed his ‘ovarian massage’ on her, she immediately knew this man was a predator. She vowed to expose Universal Medicine as a sham, after extraordinary personal sacrifice including bankruptcy, was vindicated by the court’s verdict.
So what had led her to believe this was a cult and why did she commit so diligently to exposing Universal Medicine through her blogs, ‘Universal Medicine cult exposed’ and ‘Esther Rockett Health Care Activist’?
The term ‘Cult’ has been criticised by some scholars as being too perjorative, and some even cite extremist behaviour to define what a cult is. There is no one definition for a cult or sect and even the French Government agency MIVILUDES avoids the word ‘cult’ in its mission statement and website, stating it’s purpose is to fight ‘sectarian excesses’ and defend individual freedoms. There also appears to be differing definitions depending on whether they come from sociological (authoritarian leader, social and familial isolation, abuse of children etc), or theological (beliefs are unorthodox or heretical) viewpoints.
Nonetheless, common themes do emerge when reading literature about cults:
- They are run by charismatic, narcissistic leaders, mostly men, who use psychological manipulation to ensure devotion to the leader who makes spurious claims about his own divinity and abilities.
- The leader controls rather than guides followers leading them to dependence on the group
- The leader devises strict rules and practices (creeds) for the group to adhere to
- Fear, shame and distrust are instilled through peer pressure
- Devotees denounce criticism of the cult
- Followers are made to believe they are in some way superior to those outside the cult and will become alienated and / or isolated from friends and family because of this belief
We tend to think of cults as religious or spiritual movements. Certainly one of the main reasons vulnerable people join cults is because they are seeking personal and spiritual development and have some life dissatisfaction. They stay in these situations most commonly due to romantic relationships, family still in the cult, and difficulty questioning the cult.
However, many of the characteristics listed above could be applied to the corporate workplace as well. Obsession with goal setting, relentless positivity, marketing department platitudes, healthy eating to the point of orthorexia, brutal exercise and yoga schedules to the point of body dysmorphia, and devotion to an ideal customer called Ocean are all part of the Lululemon playbook. They’re the aspirant expectations that left so many of the Lululemon flock bewildered when one of their ‘educators’ murdered a fellow worker in a store in the US in 2011.
Universal Medicine’s Benhayon believes he is the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci, that women shouldn’t play sport as it leads to thickening of the vaginal walls, and that aliens are constantly around us and can invade our bodies if we drink alcohol. Followers should not only not consume alcohol but coffee, dairy, gluten, carrots and potatoes. The ovarian massage is supposed to assist rape recovery and his ‘esoteric breast massage’ is meant to help heal some serious gynaecological problems. He is not a registered practitioner and is therefore, unaccountable to any formal board for his treatments.
Little wonder that the jury in the NSW Supreme Court trial found that it was true to describe Universal Medicine as a ‘socially harmful cult’ . In this instance, the term ‘cult’ is used perjoratively for good reason. When spiritual sects or workplaces cause psychological and sometimes physical damage to individuals and their families, pejorative terminology is entirely appropriate.
The term ‘New Religious Movement’ (NRM) came about because sociology and religious scholars found the word ‘cult’ to be too negative. NRMs are not easily defined either, but do share some characteristics:
- Charismatic leaders who have authority over their followers
- First generation converts who are younger and far more enthusiastic than members of established religions
- Have spiritual or religious beliefs at their core
This does not necessarily imply that NRMs will cause harm to the individual. That is a possibility of course, if the leader of the NRM has a personality disorder.
If there are only good intentions and no narcissistic or psychopathic leaders causing harm to followers of a NRM belief system, it does beg the question why there is a need to demonise the word ‘cult’ for being negative when cults do, in fact cause harm. It just means NRMs and cults are different. Is the push for eradicating the word ‘cult’ really about protecting older religions that have caused so much harm to their followers in the past and in many instances, continue to do so? If those particular religions were formed less than 100 years ago, would we call them cults?