Cult Hysteria: The Irrational Fear of Religious Minorities

cult hysteria

When I turned 30, I spent a week at an ashram.

After considering my options, retreating to an emerald-green island of lush palms to reflect on my life and the decade that stretched out before me seemed like the ideal transition to a new chapter.

The weekend before my trip, I met a friend for lunch and told her about my plans.  She regaled me with descriptions of oily purple sunsets and fresh, exotic fish meat from her own experiences in the same country.

But when I told her where I planned to stay, her smile instantly dropped.  “Isn’t that a . . . a cult?”

Her question totally blindsided me.

It’s worth noting my friend isn’t especially skittish, sheltered or without exposure to other cultures.  Worldly and well-traveled, she appreciates the pull to international adventure.  She volunteered in disaster relief efforts and her travel experiences included at least two war zones.

Yet the idea of me staying with this small group of (admittedly conservative, very devoted) religious people made even her uncomfortable.


For starters, no evidence existed to support her leap to conclusion.  The group I planned to stay with appeared on none of the lists compiled by human rights watchdog groups that routinely monitor suspicious religious organizations for abusive practices.  Established decades ago, they boasted a long history of humanitarian efforts and contributed generously to internationally recognized charities.

But many people, without realizing it, view religious minorities with suspicion—–even if they themselves subscribe to a minority religious tradition.  It seems the very idea of an esoteric-but-organized religious group inherently calls to mind a charismatic, super megalomaniac leading poor, disenfranchised souls through a monotonous life of all-encompassing personal slavery to his ego.

In other words, in the minds of many people, any spiritual tradition outside those with official ties to one of the major world religions falls squarely under their definition of “cult.”

Let’s talk about that word for a moment:  cult.

Without Googling it, or looking it up in Wikipedia, what defines that word for you?

Okay.  Go ahead.  Google it.

You’ll discover quickly that that word, and its definition, remain a subject of contention among scholars, law enforcement and in popular culture.  In short:  there is no agreed upon definition at all.

The Oxford Dictionary offers two vague, but telling, entries for the word cult

1. “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.”

2. “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”

Under the first definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit neatly.

Under the second definition, Christianity, Buddhism & Islam all technically fit at one time.

But when most people use the word cult, they mean a group that:

*Is centered around a deified leader who claims exclusive knowledge of the divine
*Abuses its members sexually, physically and/or psychologically
*Discourages dissent or healthy theological and spiritual debates among members
*Uses progressive techniques to systemically isolate members from their friends and family outside of the cult
*Harshly punishes rebellious acts among members

You notice anything about that list?  The first thing that leapt to my mind:  not one of the world’s major religions has escaped the same accusations.

Yet we assume most Christian churches are not cults.

No well-meaning friend or family member ever pulled me aside before a meditation at a Buddhist temple, solemnly warning me in hushed tones to “watch out for brainwashing!”

Let me be clear, I am not knocking the world’s major religions.  In fact, I personally benefited from all of them in unique, life-changing, powerful ways.  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judiasm & Hinduism all color my life experience richly.  I admire the charity, patience, love and tolerance promoted by the vast majority of peace-loving religious people around the globe.

I only mean to illustrate the point that minority religions are not afforded the same benefit of doubt.  But they deserve it, or at least they deserve it as much as any other religious tradition.  Thousands of minority religious groups around the world manage to live peaceful, relatively decent lives without ever harming a child or holding their wives in slavery.

Certainly, abusive groups exist among all of them.

In fact, all relationships, including marriages and family relationships, employee/employer relationships, and yes, relationships with religious communities, carry the potential to become abusive.

But most don’t, and that is no less true for smaller religious groups than larger.

I went to the ashram, by the way.  And inevitably, I turned 30.  And it was fine.  More than fine.  The powerful healing I experienced continues to carry me in subtle ways throughout my spiritual life even years later.

But the most important lesson I brought back with me: when it comes to experimenting with new spiritual practices, trust yourself.  Ultimately, seekers take grave risks in search of the truth—but the most of the time, the darkest perils in spiritual life lie within us.

Know yourself.  Know your heart.  Know your mind.  They are yours.  No one owns them but you.

Do not fear people who think and live differently than you; fear people who believe theirs is the only way to think and live.

That’s really scary.


How to Make Florida Water

how to make florida water

Wait.  What’s Florida Water?

Florida water is a traditional American cologne water recipe adopted by southern practitioners of the hoodoo and voodoo tradition to cleanse the home and use in ritual.

You can put it in a spray bottle as a spiritual “disinfectant,” anoint doors and windows with it, use it in place of holy water or pour it into a bowl and place it on the altar for offering.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of recipes for florida water.

Rather than give you a straight up recipe, I’ll show you how to customize it according to what you have on hand.

Despite the name, it is not a water-based potion.

Most people use vodka to steep the herbs and flowers.

I recommend the cheap stuff.  As cheap as you can get.  Bottom shelf.  I’ve tried top-shelf vodka to make this, and it’s just a waste of top-shelf vodka.  In my opinion, it really doesn’t make much difference in the final result.

Choose at least two items from each group:

Aromatic greens:
4 parts fresh mint
4 parts fresh basil
4 parts fresh rosemary

3 parts rose petals (fresh)
3 parts jasmine (dried or fresh)
3 parts lavender (dried)

2 parts lemon peel
2 parts orange peel
2 parts lime peel

1 part allspice berries
1 part cinnamon sticks
1 part cloves

Put the vodka on low heat.  Add the dry ingredients and allow them to simmer for 5-10 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer on low for an addition 40 minutes.

And there you have it!  Blessed be!

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An Interfaith Baby Blessing

We had a beautiful baby blessing.

I didn’t get any pictures of the actual ceremony because I wanted to focus on the moment, but I got some of the details, so I’ll share those with you.

I’m used to doing indoor rituals on the floor.  I don’t know why.  I guess because I was solitary for so many years, and I did outdoor rituals sitting on the ground.  So I wanted to create this Moroccan-inspired vibe, with the pillows and the lanterns on the floor.


I gave away blessing salts as favors, which were really easy but they smell amazing and people are always happy to get them.


I want you all to know that I DID try to bake for this event.  It . . . did not work out.  So.  Store bought cupcakes for Cakes and Ale.


But!  I did add this charming little touch with the birth date on it.


I usually substitute for the “ale” part of cakes and ale.  Champagne, wine, mead, sparkling cider.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually served real ale, but this time, I wanted the authentic deal.



So there you have it.  Blessed be!

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Shades of Hoodoo

Check out Moody Moons “Shades of Hoodoo” collection, inspired by the traditions of Louisiana voodoo and hoodoo, for magick with a West African flare.

Click on the photos for a direct link to product pages.

Moody Moons carries Hot Foot Powder, for the people in your life who need to get steppin’.

Hot Foot Powder

Try Four Thieves Vinegar, a traditional blend of herbs with a unique tale of folklore attached.  Read about it here:

Four Thieves Vinegar

Moody Moons also carries a variety of mojo bags to tweak your vibe.


Inner Peace Mojo Bag


Love Mojo

. . . . and success to you, my friends!

Money Mojo

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Shakespeare himself opens his much-loved tragedy, Julius Caesar, amidst the colorful spectacle of Lupercalia, though (not surprisingly) he only refers to it in the vaguest poetic terms.

Among the most ancient and mysterious Roman holidays, the veil of distant history cloaks this rather boisterous pagan festival.

Scholars argue about even the most fundamental elements, including which god(s) are honored, what rites are traditional (or have evolved from tradition) and whether or not it predates even Roman times.

So what do we know about it?

The ancient festivities began and ended between February 13th-15th.

Reputed as “The Original Valentine’s Day,” Lupercalia celebrates fertility, love, and sexuality, and sets the stage for springtime cleansing rites.

Although various gods have been suggested as central to the event, many believe this lively winter holiday traditionally honors the playful, lusty god, Lupercus.

Is there a myth associated with Lupercalia?

Well, of course!  This is, after all, Greco-Roman tradition we’re talking about.

Two brothers, Romulus and Remus, were abandoned to die near the  Tiber river.  Fortunately, the river carried them to safety.  But they endured several other perilous trials before becoming the mythological founders of Rome.  Along the way, a she-wolf named Lupa found them and suckled them for nourishment.  Many believe this is where the name “Lupercalia” originates.

This is interesting!  I want to play.

If you want to celebrate Lupercalia with a modern take, decorate your altar with symbols of love, fertility and romance.  Hearts, phallic symbols, the color red, and rose petals all make nice inclusions.

Many of the common Valentine’s traditions correspond nicely with Lupercalia, which makes decorating for this pagan holiday “incognito” pretty easy.

Try writing a long, sappy love letter to your significant other, or planning a romantic evening at home.

For a more ritualistic approach, make an offering of ground red meat.  I recommend burying it as opposed to the traditional burnt offering, which is . . . frankly kind of stinky.

If you would like to have some fun with the kids, visit a local farm to pick up some fresh milk and plan a morning meal around it.

Lupercalia is also one of the key times on the Wheel of the Year for early spring fertility rites.  Both Lupercalia and Ostara make nice dates for fertility casting.

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Chang’e: Chinese Goddess of the Moon

Being the last full moon of the harvest season, I thought this would be a great time to talk about Chang’e, an important Chinese moon goddess.  Chang’e is the focus of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Moon festival, which just passed in late September.  Participating in the festival is fun alternative to a typical Sabbat celebration, but just learning about different moon goddesses from around the world can be a nice way to enrich your own practice.

The Legend of Chang’e

There are many versions of the following folktale.  Below is my retelling of the most common translation, but if you know another version, by all means, share it!

Long before the oldest memory of the oldest man on earth, ten suns burned in the sky.  But the light of heaven was too powerful for life on earth, causing the plants and people to whither and die.

A masterful archer named Hou Yi was sent down to save humanity.  He heroically shot down nine of the suns, leaving one to light the world and bring the heat of life.

In reward for his courageous deed, Jade the Emperor, ruler of the sky, bestowed upon the hero an elixir of everlasting immortality.  But the archer Hou Yi loved his beautiful wife, Chang’e, too deeply to bear eternity without her.

As Yi’s fame grew like the only remaining sun that shined down, he was sought as a teacher for his wisdom and skill.

Little did he suspect that one of his students, Fengmeng, concealed a cold jealously  in his heart for Yi.

One day, Yi left his wife, Chang’e, at home while he went hunting.

His treacherous and poisoned drove Fengmeng into a rage.  He stormed into the house of Yi and demanded that his wife give up the elixir.  But in her loyalty, she refused.  Knowing she could never overpower Fengmeng, who was of strong mind and body, she knew realized that drinking the precious potion herself was the only way not to relinquish it to her kind husband’s enemy.

Rising up, up, up into the eternal sky, she finally settled on the moon, where she still looks over the Earth.

In his devastated grief at the loss of his beloved wife, Yi spent his life honoring her altar with flowers and cake.

the moon3

Moon Magic

I love the beautiful world of Chinese pagan folklore, and I am especially fond of the legend of Chang’e, who holds a special place in my heart as a moon goddess.

Chang’e is said to bestow her worshipers with charm and beauty.

Since this is “her” time of year, I thought I’d share with you an adapted beauty spell that honors this goddess.

You will need:
*1 white candle
*small bundle of flowers (any will do)
*carving knife
*lighter or matches
*a bottle of perfume (something with floral or oriental overtones is especially nice)
*print out of the traditional Chinese symbol of Chang’e, the moon or beauty (see Google Translate)
*a small cupcake (or if you really want to go all out, make a traditional moon cake)
*a lantern or tea candles for light.

1.  On the night of the full moon, go outside in the fresh air.

2.  Carve the Chinese character of your choice into the candle.  Use a lantern for practical light if you need it.

3.  Place the candle on the altar (or rock, or tree stump, or whatever).

4.  Surround the candle with the flowers and light it.

5.  Place the bottle of perfume in front of the altar.

6.  Raise power any way you feel like it, but focus on the energy of feminine beauty descending from the moon and into your bottle of perfume.

7.  Extinguish the candles and leave the cake as an offering to Chang’e.

8.  Whenever you want to enhance your feminine allure, spritz yourself with the charged perfume.  If you feel it needs a boost, light the candle and place the perfume in front for a little while.

Encyclopedia Britanica
Travel China Guide
China Highlights
Shen Yun Performing Arts

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Spiritualism, Samhain & the Other Side

If you are an interfaith pagan interested in exploring Spiritualism, the season of Samhain and its association with the dead makes this a unique time to begin your journey.

First things first.

What is Spiritualism?

Spiritualism may be described most simply as the belief that spirits or ghosts of people who have “passed on” exist on a plane that is accessible to the living through certain methods of communication, including altered states of consciousness, spirit mediums and divination tools like the Ouiji board.

The religion centered around these beliefs gained momentum in the 1840s and is still active today.

Far from existing exclusively on the fringes of society, Spiritualism has had some high-profile believers, including Abraham Lincoln, whose wife held seances in the White House!

Although spiritualists share things in common with the modern practice of ghost hunting, spiritualists are not to be confused with paranormal investigators, who sometimes, but not necessarily, identify as spiritualists.

Is Spiritualism witchcraft?

No,  And though I certainly don’t take offense to the term “witch,” a spiritualist might.  Most spiritualist do not consider communicating with the dead witchcraft, and they certainly don’t regard it is as evil or wrong, but a natural part of life experience.

What is your experience with Spiritualism?

My first experience at a spiritualist church was at the The Center for Spiritual Enlightenment in Falls Church, Virginia.  I was curious at that time in my life about the afterlife and the possibility of communicating with the departed.

Since then, Spiritualism has always been a peripheral spiritual interest of mine.

Do you “buy it”?  I mean really, do you?

As with any religion or philosophy, I believe I approached Spiritualism with a healthy sense of skepticism.

There is no way for me to know what another person’s spiritual experience is like.  I don’t know if spiritualists are able to communicate with the dead or not.  That’s the truth.

But I do believe that they believe it.  Contrary to the stereotype of fraudulent mediums prancing about in turbans, maliciously deceiving lost souls desperate to connect with their deceased loved ones, I’ve found most spiritualists to be honest people who earnestly insist they receive messages from the dead.

Why are you always writing about religions you don’t practice?!  What do you know about them?

Well, not much.

In my early 20s, I began to explore different walks of faith ranging from Buddhism to Haitian Voodoo to Hinduism to Christianity and Islam.  Any one of these religions takes a lifetime of exploration and study to fully appreciate.  I would not, nor have I ever, claimed to be an authority on anyone’s faith.

What I can tell you is that I’ve never been turned away by any religious person I’ve expressed interest in learning from, I’ve never explored a faith that hasn’t taught me something, and I always encourage others to be open to wherever their spiritual path takes them.

This sounds super interesting!  What’s the best way to explore Spiritualism?

Spiritualist churches exist all over the United States.  To find one closest to you, check out this directory.

This totally freaks me out!  I don’t want anything to do with it!

That’s fine, too.  Communication with the dead is a sensitive subject for many people—although this sensitivity is a fairly recent Western aversion.  Indigenous societies throughout the world have, and still continue, to believe in direct communication with the spirit world.

Even if participating in seance is not your deal, I still encourage you to be open and tolerant of other religious views, especially  if they are in conflict with your own.  Your measure of tolerance is not about how you regard the people you agree with, it’s about how you regard the people you don’t agree with.

ouiji board
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