Why Anthroposophy is Not a Cult

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.

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16 Comments

Filed under Anthroposophy

16 responses to “Why Anthroposophy is Not a Cult

  1. Hopewaits

    Hmmmmmmmm……….I find 7 to 2 in favor of being a cult. Perhaps it is just perspective .
    Jesus and christianity could not be interchanged in those 3 sentences. That is just plain silly.

  2. Hopewaits: Well, I’m not sure how you’re doing your math. But part of my point is that defining a “cult” is all a matter of perspective. People use that word to create suspicion, because it has such negative connotations. But one could call many relatively innocuous or even beneficial groups a cult, as has been done with Alcoholics Anonymous.

    As for the other:
    “I think some Christian groups suffer from a lack of freedom of thinking, and an overly dogmatic view of Jesus.” This is my perception of those Christian groups who cannot see any validity in any other way than their own, and cannot be flexible in their beliefs. “I have met many Christians who love to quote Jesus directly and celebrate his birthday every year!” This seems self-explanatory. “And I will not deny that the Christian world contains some odd behaviors and beliefs.” I think one could say that the concept of the immaculate conception is odd, or that believing that communion wafers become the actual flesh of Christ is odd.

    • Paul

      “I think one could say that the concept of the immaculate conception is odd, or that believing that communion wafers become the actual flesh of Christ is odd.”
      Many of Steiners statements are even more “odd” in the sense you describe. I don’t consider odd to be a bad word its just your counter reaction. The fact is what you don’t understand you call “odd” is basically the point I’m making henitsirk.
      The best way to test things is to ask what is the best that all these traditions have to offer and how do they match up. I find that in many incidences my anthroposophical training, my Rosicrucian affiliations, and my Church have many things in common and all put together help in some way.
      What pieves me about some of today’s spiritual science is that Jesus is made transparent and Steiner old hat. Eastern Religion has taken its place.

  3. cathy Balme

    One of the things in my opinion , which moves anthroposophy into the realm of a cult, is their concerted effort at secrecy.
    The Waldorf Steiner teachers are taught not to tell about anthroposophy, soul/spirit/reincarnation/and occult stuff to the parents.
    They are told this, as part of their training.
    All anthroposophists follow the work of one man- Steiner- like a guru, as does the curriculum at vschools, rigidly.

    At the school and Camphill were our kids were, there was talk like “what do you expect if you mix with outsiders”.

    Indoctrination is covert, in the fact that all decisions and choices are informed by anthroposophy.

    The manic fundraising, physical work, cleaning, gardening,etc, encourages dependence on the group, praise for doing it, less time for other life activity, and is a form of control.

    Sorry- but I think it shows many signs of being a cult!

  4. Cathy: I’m interested to hear about your experiences. I have had a different experience, in that the teacher training I have been involved with did not include telling future teachers not to speak to parents about the esoteric side. While I don’t necessarily doubt that it happens, I think that kind of instruction is misinformed. Parents should be told at least some of the esoteric background, and if they want more, it should be available to them.

    There is still a remnant of what I could call a 1960’s-style guru and secrecy element in the working of some anthroposophists. However, Steiner himself was against that kind of action and thought. He specifically brought these esoteric things to light. Sure, he sometimes said that it would be difficult for someone not familiar with these things (i.e., not anthroposophists) to understand what he was saying, and therefore in some cases he only intended his lectures for anthroposophists, but I don’t believe he ever intended for there to be secrecy. He wanted everyone to know about anthroposophy! Of course, Steiner also said that anthroposophy should not be taught to students, and that the students should not be told the reasons behind the curriculum and practices — perhaps that is erroneously extended to the parents as well.

    **All** anthros. do not follow Steiner rigidly–I consider myself an anthro., and I am not rigid at all.

    I have been told that there are unhealthy elements of what is done at some Camphills, in regard to being overly dogmatic and insular. I can’t speak directly to that as I have no experience there, but I can say again that I think that thinking is against the principles of anthroposophy. Perhaps it could be a misguided manifestation of the desire to provide the most healthy and curative environments for the children.

    If anything, I think there are people working with Waldorf and anthroposophy who are misguided or misinformed. There is a certain attraction for some people to esotericism that creates a need in them for it to be special or secret. There certainly is still a “guru” gesture in many people. It’s something in anthro. culture that I hope will change as the 60s generation moves on.

  5. Cathy

    “Parents should be told at least some of the esoteric background, and if they want more, it should be available to them.”

    Parents should be told ALL.
    It’s morally wrong to purport to be one thing and turn out to be quite another.
    It’s patronising to say only a little bit for the parents and let them find out the rest, if indeed they bother.
    There’s a prospectus for a big Steiner school here in UK- it says this
    “Many different paths lead children and their parents to Michael Hall. From the moment of their arrival the new family will notice the friendly, relaxed approach – and soon, after more involvement, they may realise that ideals of a far-reaching nature and a complex picture of the human being – Anthroposophy – lie at the heart of it all. This is seen in many areas – in the curriculum, the approach to each child, the teachers’ training, the organisational form of the school, the approach to food, clothing, play and even medical treatment.All this is very different – but why?The ideals underlying Michael Hall were established by Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of this century, yet they are still new, astonishing and invigorating. Though these concepts may seem strange, confusing or even uncomfortable to some, working with them is a challenging task for teachers and parents alike”
    This is saying, parents MAY realise that anthroposophy lies at the heart of it all, that it is strange and confusing, central to everything in the school, including their clothes and medicine.

    We all know this now, but imagine a new parent, who knows nothing.
    What this says is, you may notice when you’re actually here( i .e you aren’t told before hand) and how strange it is.
    Dig themselves into a hole I think.
    But this is in VERY small print, hard to find amongst all the head heart hands, creative craft watery stuff.

    Of course, Steiner waldorf believed parents weren’t important, the teacher has a sacred task etc karmic destiny to be together… So the goalposts at the start are some what skewed if you don’t believe in anthroposophy .

    Wrong also on the fact Steiner intended things to be secret- it is well documented in several lectures that he often said words to that effect. I’ll try to find them if you’re sceptical- but you could find them yourself if you look. I have no reason to dupe you!

    “He wanted everyone to know about anthroposophy!”

    I differ in that- he wanted people to be indoctrinated whether they knew or understood about it was irrelevant to him. There’s plenty of documented stuff that he says things to this effect.
    Anthroposophy will be in the schools he also said.

    His mission though, was for what he believed to be the greater good of mankind; reincarnating to higher spiritual planes for transition to the next epoch.
    The theory being that the anthroposophists and people who have incarnated to the highest point sprituallycan lead
    the spiritually retarded, those stuck rigid by Arhiman etc. Those stuck in bad evilraces.

    Is this what you understand by the anthroposophic Michaelian task?

    Cathy

  6. I have found a basic underlaying problem here in Sweden at the Rudolf Steiner College, and that is this:

    An incompetent leadership, with no experience in education, or, a history of cooperation with students.

    A total lack of a democratic structure, no regard to Steiners Social Threefolding, and obsesion with money, spiritual dogmatism (they are unaware of Tsarion, Jordan Maxwell, Icke etc..) which is tuck in the 1920’s all the while using Steiner as some sort of be-all end-all while the man himself was very distinct about AVOIDING this very situation.

    In terms of CHRIST or Jesus?

    I have yet to hear a serious debate in regards to Astro-Theology (google video…) Zeitgeist the movie dispells that myth once and for all.

    the school is supposed to be a modern education place for helping interested people become more aware, and explore int the context of art.

    Our 3 year old Student Union (created to help, cooperate to bring, at least a democratic form of communication and responsibility) has been met at most with indifference, and at worst with closedness, deception and lies.

    WHY are a few individuals with records of bad management allowed to continue?

    Why are teachers, who are in the dis-favour of a majority of students asked to come back?

    Why are most people employed here either good friends or family, ie NEPOTISM?

    A cult?

    I dont see the competence to run one, but I do see a Feudalistic dictatorial materialistic fear-based situation that is anti-student, and essentially living and dying in the past.

    The ship is sinking… Welcome aboard!

  7. Currently Studying: While I can’t really speak to your specific experiences, I have experienced poor management at colleges here in the US. I think it may be because people are drawn to anthroposophy before having a real grounding in “real world” business. So you have people who are committed to anthroposophy and Waldorf education, who don’t know how to run a business. I don’t know how it is in Sweden, but in the US there are not enough qualified people willing or able to teach adults or work in adult education, so it is not always possible to be too choosy. There is also (at least in the US) what I perceive as a “guru” mentality–the faculty are there to impart wisdom and guide students through an initiatory experience–which detracts from the practicalities of learning to be a teacher!

  8. Sally

    I think it’s interesting how many Anthroposophists use the cliche that Steiner spoke against being followed like a guru. That statement in itself is aggrandizing him as being somewhat morally superior to others. That, to me, is the grand problem with Anthroposophy as it is manifested.

    Whether you define it as a cult, it is a belief system that is all encompassing and effects lifestyle wholly, whether it works within/along side mainstream societies or not. Similar to any organized religion. In this sense, it alienates believers from non-believers, and caters to a sense of moral/spiritual superiority, and, in my opinion, is based on pseudo-science and irrational leaps in logic.

    Steiner may have had a lot of interesting thoughts and philosophies, a lot of practical ideas for application of these thoughts/beliefs, but the mere fact that so many people follow his ideas as though they are an answer with the name “Steiner” attached all the while, shows to me that either Steiner himself was not such a modest, humble person as people claim, or that he had some unhealthy friends who put way too much faith in one Anglo male’s dogmatic (even if highly creative and prolific – there are plenty of highly creative and prolific philosophers in this world – they just don’t have the interest or privilege (meaning money, gender, race, social status, education, the appearance of sanity) to reach the status of Steiner) views of the world.

    My personal belief is not to trust in idols, and I have the gut feeling to not seek male role models in a world that is over-inundated with them. But I don’t think Steiner is perceived by any anthroposophists as just a “role model”. Anthroposophy is following Steiner’s personal, complicated system of belief. It is idol-worship.

    • Tricia

      This “cult or no cult” issue has been analysed to death! I’ve been on the anthroposophical path of knowledge for over 20 years now. I was brought up as a Catholic and stumbled upon anthroposophy via my brother who had taken an interest in the philosophy. I happened to start reading one of his books and found that it struck a cord. The fact that there are many paths one can take to study anthroposophy – I am a busy wife and grandmother who has only ever managed to study the subject by reading when time permits – rules out the idea of it being a cult. It’s not a religion either because there is no dogma. I alone decide what to take out of it by way of self development and I’ve found that it helps me make sense of the chaos that is my family and our world! I hope it’s made me a more open minded, rounded person and what I’ve learned so far has strengthened my christian beliefs. I’m extremely grateful to Rudolph Steiner for making this knowledge available to all and believe this was his mission. There is no question of any secrecy as everything to do with anthroposophical knowledge is accessable. It’s really up to individuals to either accept of reject anything studied (or even to study at all) by using their own instincts.

  9. Zelakon

    AT THE END OF THE DAY:

    It all depends on your response. Some people believe and don’t study. Others believe, study for a while and then disbelieve. Some believe, study throughout their lives and then die. Others don’t believe, study out of curiosity and retain disbelief. Some don’t believe and remain adamant not to study at all. Now I have no intention of posting the obvious, yet it is precisely what matters here.

    I am an atheist, strong in the belief that death is an integral part of life. For me, there is nothing after death; so the prospect of anthroposophical study would lead me nowhere.

    Anthroposophy’s complete lack of dogma and evangelism appears to me as a classic case of reverse psychology, yet I simply don’t have the right to brand it as such. The rules inherent within Anthroposophy itself ironically prevent it from being correctly classed as a cult.

    People need to learn to let other people believe what they want to believe, regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong. If someone studies something for their entire life and realises at the end that it’s all been a lie, then that’s their mistake and nobody can take that away from them.

  10. I have had some involvement with Camphill and I never got the impression that it was cult like. Same for the only anthroposophist I know personally these days. He has a very rounded life and is involved in wider society. I suspect it can become cult like, but the lack of an actual organisation (at least in this area) would make that very unlikely to happen.

  11. I myself live and work in mostly non-anthroposophical contexts. It can be a bit lonely. I have lived in anthroposophical communities, and tend to shy away from the tendencies to dogma that often can be found there. I think the key to living anthroposophy is balance: living and working in mainstream society, while finding some sort of connection with like-minded individuals, for example via a study group.
    When we registered our oldest child in Waldorf school we were invited to an introduction to Waldorf Education given in a series of lectures. One of these evenings was devoted to the question: What is anthroposophy? Anthroposophy, the lecturer said, is really just a path of inner developement.
    My experience is that it does not require practice in a community setting, it does however require committed study and work on oneself. Therefore it cannot be called a cult, even though, as has been mentioned it often is treated as such.

  12. Wade

    Most parents of Waldorf students know very little about anthroposophy. However, the reason they choose to have their children attend a Waldorf school is because Waldorf schools have a reputation of developing remarkable students, and even more remarkable human beings.
    Of all the many world-class wine-makers who use the Bio-dynamic agricultural method, most are not anthroposophists, and in truth, many who use the method do not publicize the fact that they use this approach. However, the reason they use this highly esoteric approach is simply because it tends to produce extremely healthy vines and very balanced grapes.
    Iscador treatment (mistletoe therapy) is the most widely used alternative approach to treating cancer in Europe not because the people who choose this approach are anthroposophists, but because it has actual (documented) benefit for many cancer patients.
    My point is this: as esoteric as the work of Rudolf Steiner is, the reason his various works are still around (and growing) are because they tend to produce positive results! And, for the most part, the people who are reaping the benefits of Steiner’s work, are not anthroposophists, and certainly do not belong to any so-called Steiner-cult.

  13. Lynn Mcnair

    Thank you so much for this. I have just discovered Anthroposophy and am reading The Philosophy of Freedom. I could not imagine how this book and the amazing work done via Camphill could be construed as anything even remotely cultlike. This article is exactly what I needed to read.
    It’s not Anthroposophy that’s disturbing, it’s the mentality of many of the posters on the internet!

  14. Tiffany

    I think that if parents don’t believe in anthroposophy, then they shouldn’t send their children to a school built solely upon its principles. Waldorf education should not be a trendy school for rich people to send their children to, just so it looks good on them and they hope that their children will turn out really smart. That is all very egotistical thinking. Waldorf education is based on educating the human being according to the developmental stages they are going through as children. And if you observe a child, really observe them, you can detect exactly what Steiner was referring to.

    Yes, there are some “weird” or “scary” things in Steiner’s lectures snd books, but it is only “weird” or “scary” because it stretches us past what we believe to be true and real. It helps us to become more free in our thinking.

    I fell in love with Steiner’s work and came to it consciously as my own free choice. I also choose to homeschool my children based on his indications, freely. We all have our own freewill and Steiner was all about freedom. If there are organizations impeding on that freedom then they are going against Steiner’s anthroposophical ideals.

    If people do not want anything to do with anthroposophy that is one thing, but to go around slandering it and saying false things against it is another, especially if they don’t really know anything about it or have read any of his works for themselves.

    Just my two cents.

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