Tag Archives: Tarjei Straume

No, anthroposophy is not a cult – and here’s why.

People who are critical of anthroposophy sometimes accuse it of being a cult, or a cult-like religious sect. To determine whether there is any validity in this accusation, we need first of all to understand what these critics are likely to mean by the word “cult.”

According to Wikipedia, the word “cult” was originally used, not to describe a group of religionists, but the act of worship or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, borrowed via the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship).

Today, however – at least in English – the word “cult” is understood as a derogatory term. Wikipedia goes on to say that: “In the mass media, and among average citizens, “cult” gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.”

In such a context, to accuse anthroposophy of being a cult is to make a serious and potentially damaging allegation. So what is the reality – is anthroposophy “a cult-like religious sect following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)”, as alleged by Dan Dugan (founder of PLANS and the Waldorf Critics’ website)? Or is it neither a cult nor a religion but a path of knowledge to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe, as described by its founder, Rudolf Steiner?

Let us see if we can find a further definition of what constitutes a cult. There is a very useful organisation called the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), which provides information on cults, cultic groups, psychological manipulation, etc, and practical suggestions for those affected by or interested in these subjects. I presume that Dan Dugan approves of the work of ICSA, because he has published an article about anthroposophy on its website.

The ICSA says that cults usually display some or all of fifteen typical characteristics. These fifteen characteristics identified by the ICSA are shown below in bold while my comments on how anthroposophy compares with these are in italics.

 1. “The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. “

 Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, was undoubtedly a charismatic leader and his teachings, as set out in his lectures and books, are usually taken with great seriousness and respect by anthroposophists; but Steiner himself always insisted that no-one should take his statements as true unless they had first checked within themselves as to how they feel about such statements, eg our innate and “infallible feeling for truth must be the active principle in the verification of knowledge.” Anthroposophists who are given to quoting Steiner on all subjects rather than speaking from their own experience and knowledge are not doing what Steiner asked of them – and such behaviour does not make anthroposophy a cult, even if a few anthroposophists sometimes can give that impression.

There is an additional difficulty for anthroposophy, however, and this has been well described by Ha Vinh Tho: “On one hand everybody emphasises that it is NOT a religion but a spiritual science, but on the other hand most of the contents of anthroposophy are completely beyond any ones cognitive grasp and have to be accepted in good faith. The method presented by Steiner is indeed accessible to all, but the contents he researched are mostly far beyond anyone’s grasp who is not an initiate or a fully realised being. And there seems to be a confusion between advocating a scientific methodology of contemplative research and inquiry that includes the spiritual dimension of the human being and of the world; and upholding contents that can only be perceived by non-anthroposophists as a revelation given by an enlightened master. I have no problem with the latter, but there is no way one can present these revelations as scientific results that everyone can acknowledge.”

This is surely true. Anthroposophists (like me, for example), regard Steiner as an initiate who was able to access knowledge not available to most of us. We are willing to live with some very advanced concepts that we can’t prove, because of our sense of Steiner’s total integrity and extraordinary insight. Nevertheless, by their fruits shall ye know them; and the results of what I call “applied anthroposophy” continue to demonstrate the potential for practical solutions to current world problems that arise from the work of Steiner and many other anthroposophists in the fields of agriculture, banking, health, education and in many other areas.

2. “Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.”

Question, doubt and dissent have always been part of anthroposophy since its foundation. But since there is no set of beliefs or doctrines that members are required to adhere to, there is no possibility for any member to transgress. There are of course areas of controversy and disagreement but people are in no way prevented or discouraged from discussing their views or adopting particular positions. The word “must” does not exist in the anthroposophical vocabulary, since freedom is at the core of anthroposophy.

3. “Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).”

Meditation and the meditative path are certainly encouraged in anthroposophy, but are seen as private, individual initiatives and have nothing to do with the society. None of the other practices listed has ever had any place in anthroposophy.

4. “The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth.“

There is absolutely no dictation to members on what to wear, how to think, feel or act, who to marry etc. The concept of freedom is central to anthroposophy.

5. “The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity.”

As mentioned under (1) above, anthroposophists often regard Steiner as an initiate and anthroposophy certainly sees itself as having much to contribute towards current world problems – but there is no sense in which anthroposophists regard themselves as an elite separate from the rest of society. On the contrary, Steiner frequently made it clear how important it is for anthroposophists to be involved in the wider world, eg “Our anthroposophical movement should not be a vaguely mystical, nebulous theory-movement sought by people wishing to withdraw from life, but must be a movement by which a man {sic} introduces the spiritual with practical effect into life’s every sphere.”

6. “The group has a polarised us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.”

Anthroposophists are encouraged to ‘do’ anthroposophy, ie to be engaged and active within the world – there is no sense of us versus them.

7. “The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).”

Since Steiner’s death in 1925, there has been no ‘leader’ of anthroposophy. Each national society has a general secretary and Council who are accountable to their members and chosen by election.

8. “The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).”

Steiner was known as a man of unimpeachable moral integrity – not even his most vehement critics have ever accused him of any dishonourable behaviour. Steiner himself said that to take one step in spiritual development required three steps in moral development. To call oneself an anthroposophist while engaging in reprehensible or unethical behaviour would be simply to fail to understand anthroposophy, let alone live it. That is not to deny that some anthroposophists have failed to understand it and have fallen grievously short of what one would expect from them – one thinks for example of some individuals who were close to the Nazis in Germany or the fascists in Italy in the 1930s and 40s – but these people were notable exceptions.

 9. “The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.”

This does not happen in anthroposophy – there is no peer pressure to conform and no forms of persuasion, subtle or otherwise.

 10. “Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.”

None of these things is required or expected of anthroposophists, nor is there any kind of leader to whom one could be subservient.

11. “The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.”

 This is certainly not the case with anthroposophy.

12. “The group is preoccupied with making money. “

This is even less the case with anthroposophy, as the difficult financial state of many anthroposophical organisations can bear witness.

13. “Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.”

There are absolutely no requirements or expectations of this kind for anthroposophists.

14. “Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialise only with other group members.”

This is absolutely not the case in anthroposophy.

15. “The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.”

People who are devoted anthroposophists naturally value their membership of the society and are loyal to it – but no anthroposophist has ever feared reprisals from other members and people are entirely free to leave membership, without any fear of reprisals, whenever they wish.

I think it is clear from the ICSA list above that anthroposophy displays none of the characteristics of a typical cult. To be fair to Dan Dugan, he has himself admitted, in an exchange with Tarjei Straume, that “I agree that as cults go, Anthroposphy is a sissy; in almost all aspects not dangerous, just a huge waste of time.” That’s about as good as we’re going to get from a Waldorf critic – and if Dan Dugan goes on record to say that anthroposophy is not much of a cult, then I think the rest of us can probably agree that it is not a cult at all.


Filed under Anthroposophy, Cult, Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf critics

A tent in which to pass a summer’s night

‘Our highest truths are but half-truths;

Think not to settle down for ever in any truth.

Make use of it as a tent in which to pass a summer’s night,

But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.

When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency

And begin to descry a dim counter-truth looming up beyond,

Then weep not, but give thanks:

It is the Lord’s voice whispering,

“Take up thy bed and walk.” ‘

A.J. Balfour’s poem came to mind when, after my previous posting (“The terror of the infinite desert: atheists in the face of death”) I was challenged by one of the more prominent Waldorf critics, Alicia Hamberg, to say what kind of God I believed in; and more than that, to say what kind of God Rudolf Steiner may have believed in.

The question of what kind of God I believe in I will leave for another posting; and needless to say, I am unfitted to pronounce on Rudolf Steiner’s understanding of God, for the insights of a great initiate like Steiner are beyond anything that I could truly grasp or usefully comment on. What I will attempt to do in this posting, however, is to bring together some thoughts that may help to erect a tent of these “half-truths” to shelter us for a night or two during our journey towards understanding something of Steiner’s spiritual vision.

These half-truths are of course ones that appeal to me but may not appeal to other people. Why is it that we have so many diverging views among ourselves? In his Philosophy of Freedom, Steiner introduces us to the idea of twelve world-views:

“We must be in a position to go all round the world and accustom ourselves to the twelve different standpoints from which it can be contemplated. In terms of thought, all twelve standpoints are fully justifiable. For a thinker who can penetrate into the nature of thought, there is not one single conception of the world, but twelve that can be equally justified — so far justified as to permit of equally good reasons being thought out for each of them. There are twelve such justified conceptions of the world.”

I don’t want to go into this in any more detail now but if you want to explore it further you can of course google Philosophy of Freedom. The reason for mentioning it here is that, of the twelve world-views listed by Steiner, the one to which I am most drawn is called by him Spiritism; and the one that most atheists adhere to, I would suggest, is Materialism. According to Steiner, both viewpoints are fully justifiable, with equally good reasons being thought out for each of them; and because both are valid and rational, they satisfy us and on the whole, we don’t look beyond them. A materialist may find my approach illogical and unjustifiable and I will tend to find the materialist’s approach equally unsatisfactory. The point here is that the truth does not lie within my ‘spiritist’ world-view or your ‘materialist’ world- view but perhaps in a synthesis of the twelve different world-views, or even in a quite different place altogether. The implication is that both of us would be wrong if we were to insist that our view is the only right one. To acquire access to that synthesis, that all-round view of every aspect of the truth, is part of our journey towards wisdom.

I’ve quoted this passage from Tarjei Straume before, but it bears repeating:

“People who are influenced in their habits of thought, philosophies, historical perspectives etc. by anthroposophical studies, don’t always agree. On the contrary, they quite often collide on specific issues, concepts, and perspectives. This is inevitable, because anthroposophy is not an ideology, it’s not a religion, it’s not a lifestyle (although some lifestyles have been associated with it, perceptually), and it’s not a political agenda, the idea of the Threefold Social Order notwithstanding. It may however be classified as a doctrine, or a set of doctrines — not really comparable to religious doctrines, but more to scientific doctrines, say like the doctrine of heliocentrism that was introduced by Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th and 17th centuries — a theory that was officially prohibited by the Church in 1616 but is now so absorbed and widespread that anything that contradicts it is heresy. Thus it may be argued that the anthroposophical worldview is a relatively new heretical theory that may replace Copernicanism, Newtonianism, Darwinism, and Einsteinism in the future…

What it all boils down to, however, is that anthroposophy is nothing but a path to the Spirit available to everyone and basically compatible with any cultural or religious background, including secular humanism. As a matter of fact, humanism is the basis, the point of departure, for the epistemology that is the backdrop of anthroposophy and therefore also its backbone.”

This is clearly not the kind of humanism espoused by the British Humanist Association, whose slogan is: “For the one life we have”. How can they be so sure? Could it be that most of their members are people who take what Steiner calls the Materialist world-view? But these humanists may be surprised to read what Steiner had to say about religion in his 1899 essay on Egoism in Philosophy:

“One way man comes to terms with the outer world consists, therefore, in his regarding his inner being as something outer; he sets this inner being, which he has transferred into the outer world, both over nature and over himself as ruler and lawgiver.

This characterises the standpoint of the religious person. A divine world order is a creation of the human spirit. But the human being is not clear about the fact that the content of this world order has sprung from his own spirit. He therefore transfers it outside himself and subordinates himself to his own creation.

… This way of coming to terms with the world reveals a basic characteristic of human nature. No matter how unclear the human being might be about his relationship to the world, he nevertheless seeks within himself the yardstick by which to measure all things. Out of a kind of unconscious feeling of sovereignty he decides on the absolute value of all happenings. No matter how one studies this, one finds that there are countless people who believe themselves governed by gods; there are none who do not independently, over the heads of the gods, judge what pleases or displeases these gods. The religious person cannot set himself up as the lord of the world; but he does indeed determine, out of his own absolute power, the likes and dislikes of the ruler of the world.

One need only look at religious natures and one will find my assertions confirmed. What proclaimer of gods has not at the same time determined quite exactly what pleases these gods and what is repugnant to them? Every religion has its wise teachings about the cosmos, and each also asserts that its wisdom stems from one or more gods.

If one wants to characterise the standpoint of the religious person one must say: He seeks to judge the world out of himself, but he does not have the courage also to ascribe to himself the responsibility for this judgment; therefore he invents beings for himself in the outer world that he can saddle with this responsibility.

Such considerations seem to me to answer the question: What is religion? The content of religion springs from the human spirit. But the human spirit does not want to acknowledge this origin to itself. The human being submits himself to his own laws, but he regards these laws as foreign. He establishes himself as ruler over himself. Every religion establishes the human “I” as regent of the world. Religion’s being consists precisely in this, that it is not conscious of this fact. It regards as revelation from outside what it actually reveals to itself.

The human being wishes to stand at the topmost place in the world. But he does not dare to pronounce himself the pinnacle of creation. Therefore he invents gods in his own image and lets the world be ruled by them. When he thinks this way, he is thinking religiously.”

I doubt if there is any member of the British Humanist Association who would disagree with any of this and, indeed, it may come as a shock to some anthroposophists that Steiner held such views. The whole essay is well worth reading, as it leads on to some really insightful observations about the work of philosophers throughout the ages.

But Steiner is not content to leave things just with this piercing analysis of religious thinking – and this is where he diverges from secular humanists, who often stop at this point – because he goes on to say that active self-knowledge opens a person to the essential being of the world, with which he is inwardly then so united that he can say with equal truth, “I am” and “I am the world.” The other person’s self also is and is the world, so conflict and disagreement, belief and non-belief are simply irrelevant.

How does one acquire this active self-knowledge? In the last chapter of Steiner’s Riddles of Philosophy (1914), he refers to soul exercises given earlier in the book and elsewhere and says that these exercises can result in the soul unfolding a different consciousness than its ordinary one and thus arrive at spiritual perception. And it is only through this different spiritual perception that the soul can truly know itself and consciously experience itself in its essential being. He also realises that many people will not be able to go along with this:

“It is only too obvious that the adherents of many modern points of view will consign the world revealed here to the realm of mental aberration, of illusion, of hallucination, of auto-suggestion, and the like. One can only answer them that an earnest striving of the soul — working in the way just indicated — finds, in the inner, spiritual state which it has developed, the means to distinguish between illusion and spiritual reality; and these means are just as sure as those used in ordinary life, in a healthy state of soul, to distinguish between something imaginary and something actually perceived. One will search in vain for theoretical proof that the spiritual world characterised above is real; but such proof of the reality of the perceptual world does not exist either. In both cases it is the experience itself that determines how one is to judge.

What keeps many people from taking the step which, according to our presentation, alone offers a prospect of solving the riddles of philosophy is that they believe such a step will land them in a realm of nebulous mysticism. But anyone who has no soul predisposition toward such nebulous mysticism will, along the path just described, gain access to a world of soul experience that is just as crystal clear in itself as the structures of mathematical ideas…”

So Steiner is saying that through true perception of the nature of reality, the human ‘I’ can participate fully in the essential nature of everything – there is no longer a need to invent a God that is separate from ourselves because in fact we are ourselves, in the happy phrase of the late Sir George Trevelyan, droplets of divinity. What does this mean, both for us as human beings and in terms of Steiner’s own insights into the prime cause? There is much more to explore here!


Filed under Anthroposophy, Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy of Freedom, Rudolf Steiner