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The Cult of Steiner

Along with the recent changes to the design of the blog comes a new strapline reading ‘for news and critical analysis of the cult of Steiner’. This is quite a change in that the blog now explicitly refers to a Steiner cult and, as the strapline appears beneath the blog title, that the cult is closely associated with Anthroposophy.

Prior to the changes, other than links to support resources, you’d have been hard pressed to find within the blog much mention of cults but now there’s no escaping it, it’s on every page, top and bottom. So why, then, has the blog taken to using the phrase ‘cult of Steiner’ or even using the word ‘cult’ at all?

Actually, I still hesitate to use the term because there are umpteen different definitions of the word, many of which have negative connotations – think Jonestown, Charles Manson, Moonies and the like. This inevitably leads to confusion as to who is saying what and why it is being said.

As I see it, what is needed for the blog’s purposes is a non-pejorative definition that still manages to capture and reflect the situation of Steiner and Anthroposophy in the modern cultural landscape. The definition that I find most fitting is this one, purloined from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

“a system of religious beliefs and ritual and its body of adherents.”

This definition goes back to basics – e.g. the Roman cult of Diana or early Christian saint cults – and it is hardly confrontational or judgemental. That is not to say or suggest in any way shape or form that I do not recognise the awful things that happen within Steiner settings, far from it! Practically speaking, the simpler definition leaves my hands free to draw attention to the cult’s harmful behaviour as and when it is uncovered, a kind of rolling news thing. In this way, rather than forever having to justify a negative characterisation of the Steiner cult, the cult’s actions will speak louder than my words ever could. The simpler ‘softer’ definition also disposes of the problems of ambiguity of meaning and has the additional advantage of reminding people of the deeply religious basis of Anthroposophy and Steiner belief, something the cult is somewhat shy about.

I could be totally wrong in my approach but the way I see the Steiner cult at the present time is akin to the established ‘churchy’ religions such as Roman Catholicism where abuse and other wrongdoings are known of but which have often been  ignored or hushed up until, sooner or later, the truth comes out. Such religions are not deemed cults in the negative sense even after horrendous wrongdoings have been uncovered.

A continuing difficulty for Steiner critics has been to show that the levels of abuse, racism, bullying (of parents and children) and other wrongdoings are more prevalent within the Steiner cult than they are in non-Steiner settings. It’s a stark way of putting it but are children in Steiner schools more likely or less likely to be abused than children in mainstream school settings? Are residents in Camphills more or less prone to abuse than residents in other social care settings?

This brings us back to the question posed earlier as to why, after shunning the word for so long, the blog is now so forthrightly using the term cult. Well, when compiling the timeline post for the Steiner schools crisis, I came across repeated examples across different schools of exactly the kind of controlling, hurtful behaviours popularly associated with cults such as Scientology and the like. People with formal or informal power within schools lied to the outside world about aspects of safety and welfare of the pupils in their care, bullied those without power, took or threatened legal action to prevent unsafe schools from closing and so on. I very much wanted to describe what we saw happening in English Steiner schools as evidence for a cult in the negative, pejorative sense of the word. However, as with church/congregational settings, not every school evidenced these hurtful behaviours. In the same way we don’t label established churches negatively as cults – even though we know of disturbingly high levels of abuse within them – I opted for a softer, religious definition of the cult of Steiner and his followers. I’m open to persuasion, though, should any of you have good reason for me to adopt a harder  definition.

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