Since its foundation 48 years ago, Damanhur has been branded ‘a cult’ more than a few times. Although this perception shifted dramatically to a more positive and embracing perception of our local neighbors, we still sometimes face those accusations online, mainly from people who never visited Damanhur.

Handling this negativity has never been easy. Damanhur’s established presence has convinced many locals of our positive intentions, and our organic food store, café, and medical facility are now frequented by those who used to oppose us. Still, as our name has expanded beyond the valley – the ‘they are a cult!’ verdict continues to arrive from around the world in comments, blogs, and reviews. A practical question therefore arises: should we even be trying to fight off this label?

Taking a step back, my sentiment (no doubt shared by many) is that we as a humanity are living through times of profound loss of meaning. Looking at the statistical facts, the mainstream religion(s) based on Holy Books are not constituting the base of our society anymore, nor seem to be providing enough answers for the times we are living in today, and the same goes for the old ideologies, and many traditional worldviews are challenged as well. This void has attracted fundamentalism and nihilism, which are signs of the decadence of reason but are not the only options we have. Building new storylines of the ‘new us,’ updated mythology that reflects the current choices of people today can help tackle the existential questions and maybe discover new answers and meanings together.

How is this related to the topic of cults, however? Many movements are created due to the attempts to fill the void with new storytelling. Some (let’s call them “culty cults”) tend to be less positive than others. This, however, is not necessarily the reason to cancel the concept of a cult altogether. 

What is a cult?

Let’s examine the mainstream definitions of the word:

Wikipedia: “…a cult is a social group defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs and rituals.” 

Or Cambridge dictionary: “…a cult is a particular system of (religious) belief or worship”.

important note: For Damanhur, it has always been very important to define itself as a philosophical school, and our very strong spiritual foundation has sometimes created confusion: To discover more, you can read this article.

While the concept has acquired rather negative connotations in the colloquial language, the word’s etymology points to Latin cultus, meaning to cultivate, take care, to respect, to worship.

One of the humans’ base needs is to create connections with others; we are essentially programmed by nature to be community beings. Communal structures are historically formed not just for security reasons or to improve chances of physical survival but also to affirm the people’s identity—their need to identify common dreams and work together to realize them.

People have joined into groups and communities since the dawn of time. Some remained small, and others became bigger and went mainstream, creating peoples and nations, like the ‘cult of Jesus’ that, over time, became an organized religion or philosophical school that grew all the way to global movements or ideologies. Learn more on the difference between philosophy and religion here. The ‘worship’ keyword leads to the accurate description of a cult noted above, and the sole fact of having an international following does not make it any less ‘culty.’

One may agree that not all cults (including mainstream religions and ideologies) positively impact individuals. We must be conscious of our choices; still, the opposite is true: care is needed when one is tempted to label things because we don’t understand or fear them. The two dynamics—protection from potentially harmful experiences and the destruction of alternatives to the mainstream—must be a path paved with lucidity and discernment.

Introduce the term ‘ethical philosophical cult’?

Here’s a proposal: rather than fighting being labeled as a cult, let’s embrace it, adding the term ‘ethical,’ as in ‘Damanhurians are building a philosophical ethical cult.’

When defining the instances of modern cults, I subscribe to the excellent work done by the author Jamie Wheal (I will link his excellent book below). He proposes three categories of cults:

  1. The ‘institutional cults’ (a.k.a. prominent religions) are akin to classical music orchestras, where a director tells the members what, when, and how to play. If the music resonates with us – it fills us with joy and positive vibes; if (or when) it does not – it creates frustration. 
  2. ‘Culty cults,’ or marching bands, where the leader plays the tune and the others march behind them blindly, not knowing direction or meaning. 
  3. ‘Ethical cults,’ like freestyling jazz bands, where participants play the music together while listening to the others create something no one knew at the beginning. The sense of co-creation and profound exchange converts to life’s flowing and exciting rhythms.

So, can we all agree that Damanhur is building a philosophical Ethical Cult?

Many years ago, it was easy to label Damanhur as a ‘culty cult,’ especially when looking at the surface. I came to Damanhur after the founder’s departure, and today, nine years after his death and with the community still thriving, I beg the differ. There is no more leader to follow.

I would argue that it was never that type of structure at all. Why? Well, the founder always underlined the importance of choice! He said that free will is our last divine power, and no one can take it from us, not even Gods.

Let’s see through a few typical ‘cult’ accusations we hear about.

Damanhur takes all your money.

In the Damanhur I live in today, there is nothing of the sort; there is a clearly defined concept of individual ownership, where everyone chooses the level they want to be economically involved in joint projects. Moreover, I would argue that it was so even before. In the beginning, the community practiced ‘full sharing’ where all members pooled all their earnings, and the proceeds were distributed based on the necessity of the community. However, two aspects were present even then:

  • Many young people without money joined Damanhur and were fully immersed in the creative endeavors of building the Temples and other artistic projects, happily participating in the community that embraced them as equals. 
  • Those who worked outside the community willingly continued to share their earnings with those who worked inside the community. That allowed us to make giant steps forward in building the community, the unity amongst community members, and strengthening dedication to common goals.

Falco hypnotized and manipulated people.

Falco was a keen hypnotizer and considered hypnosis a valuable facility for communicating, healing, and inspiring people. It is not possible to operate hypnosis if the person involved is not consenting, it is not possible to make the person do anything that the person does not want to do, and there is a precise code of ethics to be respected for the protection of the person. But the argument runs short of substance: Falco passed away over nine years ago, and it is rather evident that nobody took over the ‘hypnotizer role.’ The community thrives and is moving forward with its goals; new members who have never met Falco join almost every month. Unless someone would argue that hypnosis can last that long or somehow continues to permeate the air Damanhurians breathe… we can consider this point dead in the water.

Falco had sexual experiences with women in the community.

Probably yes, just as you and I have sexual experiences in our respective circles, very possibly with more than a single person over the course of our lives. In contrast to the common promiscuous trends in everyday life, sexual encounters in this community are always consensual. There has not been a single accusation of any abuse (something often found in ‘culty cults’). Hence, let’s put this one to rest.

Once you enter, you cannot leave the community.

Anyone is free to leave at any moment, and many did so in the past and continue to do so today; in fact, we consider it a healthy evolutionary process. Of course, the community always invites those considering moving away to find solutions together, for example, to try and work out the factors that may have created difficulties, still, everything in Damanhur continues to operate on a free-will basis.

They manipulate you.

Damanhur is not an isolated reality and is constantly researched by local sociologists from the University in Tourin and the most authoritative private research center in the field of spiritual movements and minority religions – the Study Center on New Religions (CESNUR), based in Italy. The CESNUR has been a fundamental global reference for years on these issues and collaborates with the leading universities of many countries, and they always talk positively about Damanhur. You can learn more here.

Critical thinking. Free choice. Discernment. Call it as you will, but this is what no divine power or person can ever take away from you, and it should be present in our life, whether we choose to live in or create a community or to live a ‘normal’ life.

We are hunting for new meanings as humankind, and we need the freedom to create cults in this pursuit. Ethical cults. In Damanhur, we bet on the future based on small intentional communities, where people make their storytelling, community living, and healing in ways that best suit those single individuals. The times we face as humans are complex, so we need to be strong and learn from each other (our project of the Parliament of the Peoples aims to materialize and empower this process).

The alternative to finding new meaning for these times, as Jamie calls it in his book Recapturing the Rapture, is to be swallowed by the dustbin of history, as did civilizations older and fancier than ours. Although this seems like a probable scenario, I would bet that we can find new, more positive, scenario together. And you?

We invite you to visit Damanhur and discover it for yourself to get your own idea, outside labels.

p.s. Here are a couple of not-so-serious takeaways to close this serious article, as per Damanhurian tradition of using humor as a crucial ingredient in life:

  • Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree. [Hugh Rawson, “Wicked Words,” 1993]
  • Cult is a term which, as we value exactness, we can ill do without, seeing how completely religion has lost its original signification. Fitzedward Hall, “Modern English,” 1873]

Written by Bertuccia Bietola


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