Author’s Note: As these are just notes for a memoir, they are bound to be pretty disjointed. But before I really dive into what it was like growing up Unity, I want to just make sure that everyone knows what I’m talking about. 🙂
Glossary of Terms:
When two people use the same word to mean very different things, a misunderstanding is inevitable. This was a hard lesson of my own childhood—one person can say “energy” and mean electricity, while another person says “energy” and means the Force from the Star Wars movies!
If word definitions cannot be agreed upon, then people might as well be saying, “How long until bleen? I said bleen, weren’t you listening? Damn it!” At each other until they just give up!
But if people can agree, for the purposes of this conversation at least, that “bleen” is the fourth day of the week (also known as Wednesday), then communication can take place at last.
I would not presume to place myself in the class of writers with Richard Dawkins, but reading his work has taught me a few useful tricks at least. He simply devotes a paragraph to redefining a word, and then he proceeds to use that word with his new definition.
He doesn’t suggest that the definition be adopted for everyone; it’s just a writer’s convention that one can redefine words like “brittle” or “islands” from time to time for metaphorical purposes. “The Sabbath was made for man,” Dawkins has said with a characteristic hint of irony, “Not man for the Sabbath.” This goes for the word Sabbath as much as the actual day! Just as long as one is clear, one is permitted to be quirky I think.
So, I’m going to err on the side of the caution and be clear. These are my terms alone; like in the glossary to Frank Herbert’s Dune. So let us cut through confusion with a crysknife!
Cult: Any organization that isolates its members to an unusual degree; this can be a religious organization but does not have to be. Better people than me have devoted longer books than this to exploring the finer distinctions. [I will include references to their works in later revisions, if needed. I have them lying around.]
In a cult, one’s whole identity is wrapped up in the group, and the group presents a skewed standard by which to judge the world. Without a person’s identity as a cult member…they fear no identity at all; as if they honestly wouldn’t know which way was up!
Cults keep their leadership in charge through promoting unquestioning authority, in-group loyalty and out-group hostility. So many things are to be questioned if they don’t fit the cult’s ideology; from the fundamental laws of nature to whether or not the leaders are molesting all of the children! That’s the heart of a cult, for present purposes.
Brainwashing: In this context, I am using the term as a close cousin of gas lighting—using some form of classical conditioning to make a person doubt reality as they perceive it and accept the leader’s version of events. This may or may not be intentional on the leader’s (or parent’s) part! Intention, in this case, is irrelevant to outcome.
A healthy, independent adult will be walking to a café on a sunny day in very gentle, mild weather, and then suddenly see an orange mass before their eyes. Only for an instant, then it’s gone. So of course they won’t know what to make of it.
If they mention it later, they might say, “Hey, I think I saw some orange blurry thing earlier.” If it becomes a recurring problem, they will discuss it with their doctor, because it could be anything! Too much vitamin D, age-related vision issues, a neurological symptom of something, synaesthesia, you name it.
But if either a child or a cult member is walking down that same street and they see an orange mass before their eyes, they will immediately run to whomever they perceive as an authority—a parent, “spiritual adviser,” cult leader, “life coach,” even someone who calls themselves the leader of a “Survivor Support Group!” Or they’ll just run to the group and everyone within it, because they are that dependant on other people to perceive reality for them. And they’ll say, “What was that? What did I just see? Please, tell me!”
It’s a very subtle process, and the language to describe it is very crude. But I would draw the line here, so to speak, and say that anyone who chooses the latter course of action is brainwashed.
Non-theist:Now this is a thorny one! There’s a lot to clear up, I think.
People will talk online until their fingers get sore, or talk aloud until I start to nod off, and rehash the same old arguments about what is an agnostic, what is an atheist, or even what qualifies as a religion. But I was once a polytheist, so I come from a unique perspective on such things…in that I could not possibly care less.
If you believe that zero gods exist in reality, you’re a non-theist. I’ll also use the term atheist, but that’s a matter of convenience, not an attempt to get involved in the absurd debates about epistemology, absolute certainty, doubt, and history that some people of a religious background will side track you with. Because that’s pretty much the intellectual equivalent of, “Hey, look over there!”
If you believe in a single god, you’re a monotheist. The most famous monotheistic religions at the moment are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but there are many others and have been throughout history.
If you believe in multiple gods, you are a polytheist. This is a harder label to pin on some people than you’d think. Just as an example, some Buddhists regard Kuan Yin as a saint, others as a goddess. Hindus give all the appearance of believing in multiple gods, but if you ask them they’ll say that these are all faces of a single supreme being. A lot of Wiccans in America do the same.
If you believe that all living things possess a “life essence” of some sort that you can’t really define, you may be a vitalist. “The Force” and “Jedi” may ring a few bells here, but most people in the West don’t know that George Lucas actually based that entire concept on Taoism! Which is a religion defined primarily by vitalism.
Perhaps you don’t believe that a plant has a full-blown soul, but you might think that a sprig of mugwort can actually “like” something or “hate” something, or experience the world around it in some way. This also goes by names such as “primary perception,” or at least this was the case for a few decades after a brief media sensation that made its mark on pop culture in the late 1970s. [Should I go into this in more detail? Probably doesn’t matter.]
It’s called vitalism if you see some sort of supernatural force in the world that comes from things and people, rather than being granted to things and people by a supernatural being that is in some way higher in the supernatural pecking order. You know the Jewish legends about golems made from clay; only the world of God could bring them to life? Vitalism is the exact reverse. It’s also possible that you may be an animist if any aspect of this description rings true; the distinction is blurry and not worth getting into at this juncture.
Ghost: The umbrella term under which I place anything resembling a person or animal who has survived death in some incorporeal form. Some people prefer spirit or something else, but I see this as largely a marketing issue! They may go on to another place or lifetime sooner or later; but ghost is the label I’m sticking with.
Whether the person is terrified of the ghost or not is secondary—you may see wind in the curtains at night at age seven and call it a ghost, or you may just have a vague feeling that your deceased parents were looking after you and that was the only reason you survived that car accident. Either way, if you believe that anyone survives their own death (including you), then I would say that you believe in ghosts.
New Age: An exceedingly wide canopy of a term that goes by no end of names and perpetuates confusion by its very nature.
Is meditation a New Age practice? I would say no; it’s just a way to relax when you need to relax for whatever reason. I’ve been there; relaxation can be quite an achievement at times.
But if you believe that you can actually meditate really hard and find out the secrets to the universe like the Buddha, then mediation just becomes another form of “personal revelation” like in any other religion! At this point, mediation crosses the line into a New Age practice.
Is it called “spiritual, not religious?” Does Scientology qualify? Christian Science? Unity, Unitarian, Center for Spiritual Inquiry….I cannot keep track it all by myself, so I can’t answer this question. I can only tell my own story.
Is Oprah still infallible? Deepak Chopra still fashionable? Wayne Dyer is dying; Dr. Oz is going strong last I checked. Do you have to reject science or can you embrace parts of it? Is Jesus a huge part of the picture or just kind of a minor character in your internal decision-making process?
The line around New Age shifts constantly…even growing up in it didn’t give me a perfect picture of where this movement is going.
Certain places on the West Coast could not do a better job of blurring the line between what is valued because of its Chinese antiquity, its “herbal” nature, its homeopathic benefits, or whether it’s just something that West Coast Boomers like because it’s counterculture. I knew people who wore purple-tinted sunglasses because they were cute, and people who wore purple-tinted sunglasses because the local Co-Op sold them as a “natural” remedy for depression.
Well, they hung themselves anyway.
Guru—My personal term, used solely out of convenience, for anybody who talks about bullshit for a living.
Some people advocate things that genuinely need to be advocated for—clean energy, economic issues, and so on. But there’s a certain type of person who makes a living out of selling quackery to anyone who will buy it. A more familiar term might be “snake oil salesman,” though many gurus sell their performances/speeches/inspirational talks rather than any physical products. Although they can also profit from book sales.
In the West Coast world of my origin, men who sold quackery tended to wear the same white shirts.
They resembled this one. The pattern on the chest was usually more colourful, or varied, or was absent; but the cut was the same. Occasionally they would wear simple business suits, but these white shirts were the norm. I call them guru shirts.
I have seen women in similar shirts, but this was an exception to the rule. Dress code for women varied, but the following outfit would not have been out of place in the West Coast environment of my origin:
The cut would at times have been more conservative for an older woman, but the style would be more similar than different. It was usually cotton, linen, or silk. Jewelry would include things like this:
And that would be a much bigger giveaway than the dress! Crystals, pendulums, peace signs of some kind, esoteric symbols…it was all part of the package. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just call the whole thing a guru dress.
Within Unity a parishioner may or may not dress this way; it varied from person to person. But almost anyone who ever took a place at the front of the congregation did. As did the musicians and “Youth Leaders” and such, most of the time.
That’s why I call them guru clothes. When I saw someone dressed in such a way, I knew that they fancied themselves a spiritual leader of some sort!
“This outfit really brings out my omniscience, doesn’t it?”