The Words of the Carlson Family

Spiritual Matters

Paul Carlson
January, 2001

An earlier version of this article appeared in 1993.

This month we’re going to look at religious organizations and the people who join them. America hosts a profusion of groups, and allows them unprecedented freedom. However, some people claim that’s not a good thing.

There are new and old groups; and good and not-so-good ones; each with its own style and leadership. Despite this tremendous variety, we can discern some basic patterns. The Divine Principle provides a clear map of human nature, and of the characteristics of groups.

Cain and Abel

The Bible divides people into ‘sheep and goats,’ and the Divine Principle extends this into two archetypes: Cain and Abel. One tends toward selfishness; the other, toward altruism. Individuals and groups will combine these traits, and they also evolve over time.

Cain type religious groups often enjoy initial popularity, but sometimes meet terrible (and well-publicized) ends. The Abel types are usually persecuted at first, and are only appreciated after decades of ministry.

The Cains range from the medieval John of Leyden to the modern People’s Temple. Opposite this, the Salvation Army is an example of a once reviled, now highly respected ministry.

In visiting many congregations, this author has encountered both sorts. Cain types are elitist, as certain of their own salvation as they are that just about everyone else is damned. There are a surprising number of Only True Faiths out there!

In a milder version, I’ve seen a mainstream Pastor nod with suspicion toward the church down the road, grumbling about "all the manmade doctrines cluttering it up." And (surprise!) the Pastor down the road returned the sentiment—in spades.

Cain type Pastors are tearing at Christianity’s hide, searching for heresies and cults everywhere, and emphasizing differences.

Abel type Pastors work hard for their flock, on call 24 hours a day, all year long. Handling the many crises that arise, and sharing some hard-won wisdom. Reaching out to the less fortunate, locally and abroad, without boasting about it much. They worry more about people’s hearts than doctrinal hair-splitting.


Which is which? There are clear distinctions.

Capitalizing on the indulgent 1960s and materialistic yuppie decades, Cain spiritual groups have a self-centered orientation. "You are God," the New Agers say. "Make your reality, with your own rules."

I call this ‘hi-tech Hinduism,’ though they lack the self-discipline of traditional Hindus. I’m all too familiar with their epitome, Werner Erhard’s once-popular ‘est.’

Abel groups focus on other people, providing material necessities and Divine truth. They persevere even though God’s Will is difficult.

Cain teachings are often couched in mystery, or even plain ignorance; reserving hidden teachings for their ‘inner circle.’ Sometimes this is harmless, but often it’s arrogant and clannish.

Even Christians can fall prey. Decades ago, I heard a sermon about God’s Greatness. The speaker, a widely respected clergyman, said, "We just don’t understand, and that proves how great God is. We’re so small, and He’s so big. It’s wonderful—we’ll never understand." I thought, "God gave us brains for a reason."

Abel teachings are clear, clean, and sensible. The truth may hurt sometimes, but there’s nothing secret about it. It may require time to learn, and to gain the proper perspective, but it’s proudly offered to all. The truth inspires, and informs about God’s Heart and Will.

Past and Future

Each religion began with a founder, and that person’s character and teaching set their organization on its course. Each congregation has a Pastor, and each Faith, a leadership structure. Are they Cain or Abel types?

This question of ‘character’ is a broad one, affecting anyone who becomes a leader, or a celebrity. In secular society, Abels will be charitable and mature. They’re well regarded, and leave a good legacy. Cains give way to free sex, illicit drugs, bribery, etc. Often, they meet a tragic end.

Cain religious leaders are proud, and sometimes immoral. They’ll distort the truth for their own convenience. Fortunately, despite the hype they generate, they’re actually few in number.

Abel leaders have (or finally gain) maturity. They work harder than their followers do, and understand the balance of Heavenly and secular authority. They stick with the truth, even at great cost. As Jesus said, you can "know them by their fruits."

A Cain leader might tell a buxom woman follower, "I missed a few details in my sermon on immorality last Sunday. If you love God, love me His servant. Let’s retire to my inner chamber and explore this further, shall we?"

An Abel leader will say, "Be moral, as God’s written Word instructs. Be as strict, under all circumstances, as I have been myself." Every individual is held responsible to God.

Cain prophecies are elitist, envisioning a future dominated by a handful of ‘chosen ones.’ Without any real sacrifice or merit, they’ll become top dogs, while sinners are vanquished or destroyed. Many envision a deadly Tribulation and fiery Armageddon.

Abel prophecies embrace everyone, and leave room for as many as possible (if not all) people to be saved. The chosen people must sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, working to heal, physically and spiritually. Many envision a quiet ‘Kingdom amongst you.’


No leader amounts to anything without followers. In recent decades, there has been much talk about ‘who joins cults.’ The anti-cultists warn college students, "Any time you’re feeling a bit off, a cult awaits to snatch you up!" It reminds one of the wicked wolf in children’s fairy tale books. Supposedly, people have such weak minds that any charismatic person can just suck them in.

In fact, at least four kinds of people join religious groups.

* Dependents. They want to be carried along, told what to do, and comforted. They can provide something to their group—but not much. They aren’t reliable, and unless they grow up, they usually don’t stay long.

Sometimes, charismatic individuals can hold onto a small following of dependents. The foreign missionary’s "rice Christian" converts are a well-known parallel.

* Proud Saved. These doctrinal hair-splitters are obsessed with ‘making it in.’ Were you Baptized properly? Trinity doctrine correct? Using musical instruments in your church, or not? Often, they’re pleased with the thought of all ‘those people’ going to Hell, where they ‘obviously belong.’

Imagine St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, going through such a detailed checklist! Unless they gain a larger perspective, they’re going to end up exactly as lonely as they make themselves . . .

* Seekers. California is full of them, though not quite the hoards of the 1970s. A local cartoon once depicted a couple on a date. The woman was saying, "It’s so refreshing to be with someone who isn’t on a spiritual quest."

Most of them seek Nirvana: a New Age of freedom and relaxation. Release from the guilt and burdens of this lifetime and, supposedly, past ones also. They might want to share their ‘enlightenment,’ but that would just be a bonus. Few seekers leave an enduring legacy. Unless, somewhere along the way, they learn to really love.

* Resolute Idealists. They become the founders and leaders; the movers and shakers. The greater their ideal, the larger their effect upon society.

If they go into politics instead, they become profound reformers, or revolutionaries. If they err somehow, and become Cain types, they can cause great disasters.

Abel type idealists can accomplish truly wonderful things. God calls them at the appointed time, and they might eventually be recognized as Saints.


Do the anti-cultists have any legitimacy? No one should ignore genuine tragedies, such as the awful mass suicides which sometimes occur. Yet, we must not tar every new religion with a broad brush.

Some dangerous groups aren’t even perceived as religious, though they share many characteristics. There are clannish, semi-mystical groups, such as the Chinese Triads. Also, revolutionary groups with a zealous ideology, like the former Symbionese Liberation Army.

There are apocalyptic groups, such as the survivalists holed up in America’s remote areas. I have an old friend, a US Park Ranger, who was wounded by one of these outfits.

There are racial supremacy groups (from every race) which proclaim that they are the "only pure, truly human Race."

Genuine religious groups that really are dangerous are very rare indeed! How can we tell?

Do they have a lot of guns? That isn’t always illegal, but it gives caution.

Are they literally isolated? So are some of the most gentle Catholic Orders, but they might be paranoid types.

Do they have an ‘End Is Near’ apocalyptic belief? So do half the churches in America, but it might get them stirred up.

Is there illegal activity going on? That’s hardly unique to religion, but it shouldn’t be excused.


How should society deal with religions? Better to take the Bible’s advise, from Acts 5:33-39. If it’s of God, it will not be overthrown! But if wrong is being done, that’s what secular laws are for.

As President Bush says, faith-based organizations can do far more good than any bureaucracy ever will. Besides, the much-ballyhooed ‘separation of Church and State’ appears nowhere in America’s founding documents.

I suspect that (except for strident atheists) when Americans oppose ‘the involvement of religion,’ it’s Cain types they’re really worried about.

This nation enjoys freedom of religion. Let’s keep it that way! Someday soon, America really will become a shining City on a Hill.

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