Experts point to poverty, illiteracy, injustice as keys to cults' ongoing attraction

People's Daily, China/October 13, 2014

The recent national crackdown on Church of Almighty God, or Eastern Lightning, the cult behind a brutal murder in a McDonald's in Zhaoyuan, East China's Shandong Province, has rekindled public attention on the growing number of cults in China.

The rapid growth of pseudo-Christian cults in China, and the fact that most of them are homegrown, has sparked discussions on the reasons why.

In July 2009, the government put 14 cults on its watch list, including the 'Shouters', 'Mentuhui' (the Apostles' Congregation) and the 'Double Spirit' cult.

Twelve of these cults were related to Christianity in some way. Among them, apart from three that originated in South Korea, and one founded by a Hong Kong native, all were homegrown.

Some experts think that the low education levels of Christians in rural areas is one reason why they are so easily drawn to cult activities. Many Christians in the countryside are illiterate, some unable to read the Bible. The lack of teaching and trained leadership in the churches can also make it easy for Christians to slip into heresy.

Christianity in China grew rapidly after reform and opening up. Many peasant Christians, for practical reasons, converted to Christianity from other folk religions. Their understanding of religions, however, remain unchanged, and many look on Christianity as just another folk religion.

Superstition is still rife, with many people worshiping the Christian God in order to receive blessings and to prevent disaster, not because of piety.

Song Jun, a former scholar of Chinese folk religion at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said, "People only care about if the religion can help them practically. For example, if it can help them cure illness, or fend off demons or bad luck."

Pragmatic beliefs

The religious simplemindedness of some Chinese farmers can be shown from a saying popular in some rural areas of East China's Zhejiang Province that goes, "We only believe in Christianity because there are no temples around."

"For many farmers, Jesus is just another god. He's not very different from the Jade Emperor, a Bodhisattva, or the Monkey King," Lin Qing, a Christian preacher, said.

Therefore, when they are told that a cult can better satisfy their needs, farmers are easily converted.

Most homegrown cults, despite their pseudo-Christian nature, are very aware of the psychological needs of the farmers. Many draw ideas from China's folk religions.

"China's folk religions tend to give direct answers, instead of having a complicated religious explanations," Song said.

"Chinese believers crave answers, and they hope that God can answer their questions directly, because what God says can't fail," he said.

Eastern Lightning, for example, fulfills part of farmers' needs by creating an omnipotent second Jesus who is a woman. "One of the tactics Eastern Lightning adopts is to let 'God' communicate with believers through an oracle, deviating from the Bible, which is a text. This is very appealing to the Chinese because this is the way China's folk religions traditionally answers people's questions and even prescribe medicines," Song said.

In the book Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion, by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, the authors propose that confidence in religious explanations will increase to the degree that miracles are credited to the religion and that people have mystical experiences. Thus false miracles and secrecy are key ways for cults to boost the confidence of their believers.

Christian Times, a Chinese Christian website, recorded cases of how Eastern Lightning tried to exert influence in rural China with tricks. For example, followers painted the words "Jesus is coming" on the walls of villagers' homes with phosphor powder and on eggs, so as to make villagers believe.

In other cases, Eastern Lightning preachers planted people in Christian congregations who pretended to go mad during sermons. The preachers would then pray for them to show how the cult could cure illnesses. Many Christians were thus converted to the cult.

(Editor:Ma Xiaochun、Gao Yinan)

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