Experiences with the Church of Religious Science?
November 25, 2007 9:42 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine has joined a Religious Science congregation. No, not Scientology -- Religious Science is the theology underlying The Secret. For those with friends or family in the church, is this merely an atypical religion, or is it at all cult-like?

Unfortunately, since the church seems to be fairly small, it seems like there's not a whole lot of information out there on the group other than the official web sites of the various churches and Wikipedia articles on Religious Science and New Thought. I'm hoping to get a better impression through those who may have encountered the church, both out of curiosity and concern.

I'm happy to politely differ from friends who have alternative beliefs, but I feel a vague sense of unease about the organization based on the marketing and content of The Secret. The heavy marketing and the "get rich without working" focus of The Secret, along with the vague descriptions of the philosophies and community services on the Religious Science web sites, make it seem like the church may operate more as a marketing tool and profit center than a community. Also, while I have no problem with theologies that encourage positive thinking, I'm very uncomfortable (especially being an individual with a chronic genetic disorder) with their belief that sickness is caused and can be cured exclusively through thought, especially if church members are discouraged from obtaining medical treatment.

Specifically, I have these questions:

1) Are the notions of donation, gifting or tithing in Religious Science in line with the mainstream religions?
2) How dogmatic is Religious Science about curing disease through thought? The web site says that they believe doctors have a place, and other materials indicate that they aren't as extreme as the Christian Scientists, but it's difficult to tell exactly where the demarcation falls between illness treated by conventional medicine and illness that would be solely treated by their beliefs.
3) Does the church have any focus on philanthropy or community assistance, as many mainstream religions do?
4) Does the church exhibit any other cultlike characteristics that may be of concern?

I really appreciate your input. I set up a sock puppet account for private responses: rsaskmequestion@hotmail.com
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Color me skeptical (not of your question, I don't think there's anything wrong with asking, but of the "religion" itself). It seems like a very slick pseudo-spiritualist/self-help pyramid scheme, run by an Australian TV producer with messianic delusions. Compared to some of the other...organizations...in that vein, it seems less overtly evil or exploitative, but IMO for-profit religions are always bad news.

It seems like you're leaning towards this view as well, which brings us to the real dilemma. It's not about the religion/cult itself, it's about your friend, and how hard you try to dissuade them from getting involved. That depends a lot on them: are they they sort of person who just likes to dabble in things? A little of this, a little of that? In that case, maybe just let them go, it'll be a learning experience.

But if they're the kind of person who really drinks the Kool-Aid, and might get caught up and get start writing big checks, then I don't think it really matters about the specifics of the group. It's going to end badly.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:31 PM on November 25, 2007

Does your friend have to pay to attend classes, workshops, retreats, etc in order to join or advance to "higher levels" of the organization?

Is there heavy pressure put on congregants to recruit others, maybe as a requirement before they can rise to higher levels in the organization?

Is there pressure put on congregants to break off friendship/family relationships with people outside the church?

Are any of the sessions held when the congregants are sleep-deprived or otherwise forced to stay alert for long periods with no break?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:33 PM on November 25, 2007

You might also look at info about Landmark Forum (another self-help quasi religious group extensively discussed here in the past), and multilevel marketing schemes (also discussed here extensively because so many people get sucked into them). MLM's are a form of pyramid scheme. If your friend is pressured to recruit others and sell them introductory materials, which s/he must first buy to have on hand, and if s/he gets points for how many people s/he recruits, that suggests this is a fundamentally a pyramid scheme.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:42 PM on November 25, 2007

One more link: cults. Those are previous questions here tagged with "cult"; you may find it useful looking at them to get a sense of common tactics of cults (to decide if you think this qualifies as one), and common advice about how to help friends who are involved in them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:45 PM on November 25, 2007

When I was little, my parents were involved in Religious Science. I even attended a few Religious Science Sunday school classes. It didn't seem more cult-like or fraudulent than any other religion I'm familiar with. In fact, it seemed to be a relatively open-minded church. I was, however, a little kid, and this was all in the 1980's, so I haven't a clue as to what Religious Science is like now, or what your friend's particular church is like.

I will say that my parents did eventually leave the church when we'd moved to an area without a chapter nearby, but they have always been very (and to my mind dangerously) skeptical of doctors. Whether that was caused by their interaction with Religious Science or simply drew them to it I don't know. If you have any other questions email me. I would be happy to forward any of the questions to my parents, if you're interested.
posted by Doug at 11:13 PM on November 25, 2007

I am not an expert on Religious Science. However, my mom is involved in RS and has been for as long as I have known her. I used to go church as a kid, but only b/c she made me. (I was and still am an athiest.) As far as I can tell, RS is an atypical religion and it's not cult like.

Technically, there's not one RS church just like there is not one Christian church or one Jewish church. There's two main groups: Religious Science International and United Centers for Spiritual Living. The two groups are currently separate although they may join again in the future. If your friend's church is a member of one of those groups they are most likely kosher. Also, in both organizations local churches are pretty much allowed to do their own thing. There is not a lot of heirarchy or attempts to enforce orthodoxy like you see in other religions.

Q1) Yes.
Q2) Neither one of the two main religious science organizations encourages people not to go to doctors. I think you're supposed to use doctors and the "healing power of thought". Some individuals may decide not to go and depend on prayer, but that's incredibly atypical. My mom and everyone in her church goes to the doctor.
Q3) Depends on the church.
Q4) No. I looked at this checklist and neither of the churches my mom went to have any of those characteristics.

But really, the best way to find out about your friend's church is to actually go to it.
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:54 PM on November 25, 2007

All of you, especially anonymous, are totally wrong about the Church of Religious Science. Actually, it is part of the Religious Science movement but has roots in two groups that you would not bash and eyelash at today: The Christian Scientists and the Unity Church. I realized the connection when I noticed the Religious Science Church's annual convention is in Kansas City, the spiritual home of the Unity Church (Unity Village, KS). The Unity Church is a large, thriving church with a mixed population leaning towards African Americans who have left both the Christian Tradition and were not caught up or interested in the strange social weaving of the Nation of Islam. I actually attended a meeting about study of New Religious Movements at the 2006 American Academy of Religion conference in Washington, DC when I was the producer of the public radio show "Interfaith Voices".

Anonymous' questions were: (my responses are in Italics)

1) Are the notions of donation, gifting or tithing in Religious Science in line with the mainstream religions?

No, many churches including the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (often erroneously called the Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, many Mennonite communities including the Amish, some affiliated Catholic churches, and many churches part of the African Methodist Episcopal and Southern Baptist Convention have tithing. I doubt you would question either the faith nor the devotion of a follower of one of these churches, as they are for the most part familiar to you.

2) How dogmatic is Religious Science about curing disease through thought? The web site says that they believe doctors have a place, and other materials indicate that they aren't as extreme as the Christian Scientists, but it's difficult to tell exactly where the demarcation falls between illness treated by conventional medicine and illness that would be solely treated by their beliefs.

The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded on this philosophy. But it was not a philosophy invented by its founder, Mary Baker Eddy. The laying on of hands is part of the traditions of thousands of faiths and societies. Running out of this forum online into a physical argument with a lame excuse like "They pray over the sick and the ill in their community. Jesus fucking Christ, don't you see how dangerous these people are to you?!!" will not help you.

3) Does the church have any focus on philanthropy or community assistance, as many mainstream religions do?

That is a very broad question. Too broad in fact. Have you ever heard of Emanuel Swedenborg? He was a Swedish politician and patrician who wrote about his physical visit to heaven. The Swedenborg church spread far and wide based on his visions and liberal views on sexuality and personal expression. But has stopped growth as the first founding communities have died off. But through charity and philanthropy, the church is resurgent in one place: the Ivory Coast. Does that kind of philanthropy worry you?

4) Does the church exhibit any other cultlike characteristics that may be of concern?

Cult-like is a really hollow word and defies everything except personal definition.
posted by parmanparman at 12:00 AM on November 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

As someone who's practiced RS, or Science of Mind for over 15 years, please do NOT confuse it with that hype machine known as The Secret.
There are better and older books on abundance and law of attraction - anything by Catherine Ponder, Joseph Murphy or Ernest Holmes, for instance.
The Secret skeeves me out so bad, I refuse to have anything to do with it or any of the people who appeared in it.
posted by willmize at 1:14 AM on November 26, 2007

Parman: you seem to be very deliberately not answering the questions that you highlighted. Or maybe it's just too early.

How much income is suggested? Is it suggested, expected, or required?

How dogmatic are they? Do they refuse medical care? For their dependents? Are people who don't get better from prayer "bad people"?

Is that the same church? What kind of philanthropy do they do in the Ivory Coast? Do non-african communities send missionaries or assistants or aid to the Ivory Coast? If so, in what amount?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:59 AM on November 26, 2007

I just want to say that I agree with a robot made out of meat about parmanparman's reply. I am all for an opposing voice in this conversation, one that supports the religion, but those answers ring of redirection and attacking the questioner (which conveniently are common tactics for those who do support cult-style operations). "You're a bad person for asking this here"? How is that an appropriate position?

parmanparman, I highly think of you as a journalistic voice on this site, one with a commitment to integrity on controversial topics. If you have a personal connection to the Religious Science movement in some way, I think it's probably the right thing to do to acknowledge that openly here and get that conflict of interest out of the way.
posted by pineapple at 6:30 AM on November 26, 2007

anonymous, parmanparman's personal agenda is clouding things more than helping; his answer is so far off-base in its outrage at your asking this question it's not funny. There is a clear difference between the faith tradition of "laying on of hands" and a strict religious injunction against going to the doctor; parmanparman is deliberately trying to blur that line simply to attack you. And there *are* clear characteristics of "cult"-like behavior - isolation from friends and family is a big one - and it is perfectly acceptable to wonder and ask about a religion you've never heard of in that regard.
posted by mediareport at 6:40 AM on November 26, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed - keep this out of the personal attack range and answer the question being asked. Thanks!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:28 AM on November 26, 2007

Another vote for atypical religion and not a cult. I was raised in the Unity Church, attended a few services at the local religious science church through my childhood.

My mom was really big into alternative medicine, but I definitely went to the doctor--I never met people through those churches who discouraged going to the doctor when needed. The attitude was more like, visualizations / affirmations + doctor is better than doctor alone, or more accurately, visualizations/affirmations will prevent needing a doctor in the first place. As I understand it, the major difference between Christian Scientist and the various New Thought churches is that Christian Scientists believe that God will heal (and thus there's perhaps some pressure to not go to the doctor in order to show your faith in God), whereas in New Thought churches the belief is that your own mind will heal you or prevent illness--it's about pragmatism (as weird as that sounds!) rather than faith. So if it's not working, there's not really any shame in going to the doctor.

In my experience, it's not an evangelical religion, so there wasn't really any pressure to recruit other people like I associate with cult-like religions. I'd be about as worried as you would be if your friend converted to Wicca--perhaps a bit strange, but likely not dangerous. They might talk your ear off about how Totally! Awesome! this new thing they are involved with is, but they don't achieve salvation or anything by bringing new people into the fold.

Personally, I felt that many of the mainstream churches (and particularly evangelical churches) that I occasionally attended with friends in high school were MUCH more cult-like, with the pressure to convert and bear witness to unconverted family members, so I suppose it's all a matter of perspective. I don't consider myself a member of the Unity Church any longer--I'm not really a member of any church--but of all the churches I could have grown up in, I consider it a pretty benevolent (if slightly kooky) one. I mean, in what other sunday school would you learn to dowse for water rather than sit through a bible lesson?
posted by iminurmefi at 9:24 AM on November 26, 2007

Oh, and in response to your questions #1 and #3 (think I covered #2 and #4 above):

1. Recognizing that I was under 18, so I might not be totally aware of everything that was expected with respect to donations, I'd say yes, attitudes were pretty much in line with other religious denominations (or maybe even less pressure, certainly less compared to the more mainstream evangelical churches I visited as a teen). This may also vary regionally; the Unity and other New Thought churches in the area I grew up in were mostly populated with hippies and other refugees of the 70s counterculture. Donating money to help the church pay its bills, if you were able, yes; giving money to build a huge ___ for the glory of the church, hell no.

3. In my experience, there's two types of community outreach that mainline religions tend to do: many evangelical churches do outreach (soup kitchens, going to 3rd world countries, etc) with an eye towards spreading the gospel to those they serve, and some non-evangelical churches (I'm thinking primarily of Catholicism and UU here, although I'm sure there are others) focus on doing good works as a concrete manifestation of their religion without the focus on conversion or spreading the word. The New Thought churches that I was in contact with as a kid did neither--they are not evangelical, and there isn't any religious imperative in their theology that requires doing good works, so this just kind of wasn't on the radar.

Feel free to memail me if you have specific questions. I think some of this stuff likely varies regionally or even congregation to congregation, so I don't want to say that there's no way a conman is trying to bilk everyone in your friend's church out of their life savings, but--well, I suppose I think that can (and indeed does) happen in almost any denomination, and there's no particular reason to worry about religious science churches.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:53 AM on November 26, 2007

I am continuously perplexed by this line that people who support interfaith cooperation are somehow "letting cults be". The big issue here is that the poster has somehow decided that The Secret has its foundation and so is somehow inextricably tied to Religious Science, when that idea is not based on reality. I have no ties to any church or religious organization.
posted by parmanparman at 11:16 AM on November 26, 2007

I think that the lesson Anon should extract from the above is that specifics need to be extracted from whomever is leading the local group that you're worried about. The people can call themselves whatever and be teaching something very different from what we (or anyone) would normally associate with that name. Is there a cult of personality about the leader? Do they expect lots of personal and financial sacrifice from their followers?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:23 PM on November 26, 2007

I was completely perplexed by your answer, parmanparman. You didn't seem to be promoting interfaith cooperation or even really answering the poster's question, while at the same time I did get the sense that you had some information that would be helpful for answering. You frankly seemed so upset by the question as to be irrational about trying to answer, and I think you can see this a bit if you read your response to the tithing question, in which you say "no" when you mean "yes."

I agree that the question seemed based on some assumptions about what RS is, but it didn't seem rabidly infected beyond reason and the poster probably could have been convinced by rational argument.
posted by OmieWise at 5:06 PM on November 26, 2007

I reread the question and my answer and I agree. It was totally an off-base answer and I apologize. I don't really know where I have been for the last three days. I thought I had a handle on this, frankly. I think I am going to take a time off from religion threads for a while. Sorry everybody, especially Mediareport, who seemed especially outraged.
posted by parmanparman at 1:09 PM on November 27, 2007

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