When I started the Foundation Year (essentially it could be called Introduction to Anthroposophy Year) at Rudolf Steiner College, I was very excited by all the fascinating new things I was reading and learning and doing. I remember calling my mother, as I have done more or less every week since I went off to college in 1988, and telling her about my excitement. She asked me, is this a cult? Am I going to need to have you deprogrammed?
She was, I think, joking at least a little bit. I’m sure it all came across rather strangely, because anthroposophy is strange.
But, it’s not a cult. There are “secular humanists” and others out there who have leveled that charge. But I think they’re just trying to be inflammatory. I’ll explain why, first by defining what a cult is. As with much of my informal research, I started this by checking out Wikipedia. It may not be the perfect source, but it usually provides me with a place to start. The article there on cults states that there are no widely agreed-upon parameters to identify cults, but they do list some dictionary definitions as well as common aspects of the behavior and structures of cults. First some definitions:
- 1. a system of beliefs and ritual connected with the worship of a deity, a spirit, or a group of deities or spirits;
- 2. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc;
- 3. a religion or minority religious group (sect) regarded as unorthodox or spurious;
- 4. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader;
- 5. a system for the cure of disease based on the dogma, tenets, or principles set forth by its promulgator that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific;
And some common behaviors and structures:
- 6. indoctrination and suppression of the individual’s critical thinking through manipulation and mind control;
- 7. physical isolation from the mainstream world;
- 8. a lack of personal control over one’s money;
- 9. the promotion of total dependency on the group.
Well. Let’s go through the list.
1. Much of anthroposophy centers on Steiner’s beliefs about Christ. And that informs many of what could be called “rituals”: Michaelmas festivals and the Shepherds’ Play at Christmas come to mind. However, in no way are any people calling themselves anthroposophists required to attend any ritual or religious services, nor are they required to worship anything or anyone. The Christian Community is a church founded on anthroposophical ideas, but it is in no way required. I know Jewish, Muslim, Rosicrucian, and Zen Buddhist anthroposophists, in addition to many Catholics and Protestants that do not attend the Christian Community. And these people are not the exceptions to the rule. I have been studying anthroposophy for close to ten years, and have been to a grand total of two Christian Community services. NOT A CULT.
2. Some people do seem to venerate Rudolf Steiner, much as he himself spurned that behavior. However I would not say that veneration of anything has much to do with Steiner’s vision of human freedom, unless you are freely choosing to venerate! NOT A CULT.
3. Anthroposophy is definitely seen as unorthodox or spurious by its critics. Heck, I think some of this stuff is spurious and unorthodox. COULD BE A CULT.
4. Again, critics sometimes state anthroposophy is false, unorthodox, or extremist in its views and practices. And some anthros live “outside of conventional society” in communities such as Camphill centers or the Fellowship Community. But the vast majority of self-declared anthroposophists live in the “real” world. They are doctors, teachers, lawyers, gardeners, corporate executives, musicians, and financiers. There are prisoners reading Steiner’s books. There are anthros in Manhattan and in the favelas in Brazil. True, Steiner was a charismatic leader; however, he died in 1925. He’s not leading anyone right now, to my knowledge. NOT A CULT.
5. Anthroposophical medicine is unorthodox, and would be seen as unscientific by the mainstream. Therapeutic eurythmy and nutritional baths are not coming to your general practitioner’s office any time soon. Even the homeopathic remedies are odd: meteoric iron? mistletoe? COULD BE A CULT.
6. Mind control and suppression of critical thinking are the exact opposite of what Steiner believed and promoted. At every juncture he took pains to exhort his students to think freely for themselves, to develop their powers of cognition. His seminal work is The Philosophy of Freedom after all! If anyone expects me to believe something because Steiner said so or because it’s an anthro. tradition, they’re not really getting anthroposophy, in my opinion. NOT A CULT.
7. See #4. There is no anthro. compound or armed fortress behind which we eat our biodynamic vegetables and do our will exercises under the beneficent eye of Steiner. NOT A CULT.
8. Unless you consider the woefully underpaid status of most people involved in anthroposophical endeavors, this one does not apply either. Many cults require members to give up all their worldly possessions to the group or charismatic leader. Aside from the nominal membership fee to the Anthroposophical Society (which is, again, completely optional — I was a member for one year, and have let that lapse. I can still call myself an anthroposophist), there is no transfer of funds to any centralized entity (because there isn’t one). I might need to donate a kidney to afford Waldorf school, but that’s another story. NOT A CULTl
9. Hmmm. If I want anthroposophical medicine, I see an anthro. physician and buy remedies from Weleda. Or I could choose an allopathic physician. If I want my children taught using Waldorf methods, I can choose a Waldorf school, a Waldorf-based homeschool curriculum, or in some states a Waldorf-based public charter school. Or I could choose public school. But I could also be an anthroposophist who simply studies Steiner’s works that are available on the internet, while I work in a factory all week and go clubbing every Saturday night. NOT A CULT.
The final count?
COULD BE A CULT: 2
NOT A CULT: 7
And here’s the kicker: there’s no group! No actual physical group!
If I want to be an anthroposophist, I could attend a study group, I could attend an anthroposophical college, or I could simply buy Steiner’s books and read them in bed at night. I could live at a Camphill community, I could live in a community centered on a Waldorf School, or I could live in Antarctica. I could believe in Jesus as my personal savior, or I could believe in Buddha, or Mohammed, or Brahma. I could be one in a box, I could be one with a fox.
I think some anthroposophical groups suffer from a lack of freedom of thinking, and an overly dogmatic view of Steiner. I have met many anthroposophists who love to quote Steiner directly and celebrate his birthday every year! And I will not deny that the anthroposophical world contains some odd behaviors and beliefs.
But you could just as easily substitute “Christian” for anthroposophical and “Jesus” for Steiner in those last three sentences, and they’d still sound correct. So for all you critics out there, please go easy on throwing the cult word around. It’s just silly.
Perhaps next time I get inspired to get on this particular bandwagon, I’ll try to respond to specific allegations and criticisms. There are so many juicy ones to choose from.