What Is The Science Of Identity Foundation?

The Science of Identity Foundation, an obscure religious organization from Hawaii (via The New Yorker), has been pilloried in the press in recent years thanks to its most famous adherent, Tulsi Gabbard (via The Economic Times). Gabbard, who is known for holding an unusually eclectic range of beliefs that are difficult to categorize, was raised on the foundation's teachings. Some have accused the group of holding abhorrent views and even of being a cult — but is it?

According to the group's website, the organization's chief aim is to teach yoga. The Foundation's founder, Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa (or Chris Butler, as he was once called), also lays out his own personal views on the site. The vast majority of the group's public content talks a great deal about the power of love and quotes quite uncontroversial material from the Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita. The Foundation claims that Butler's teachings are part of the Vaishnava tradition, one of the largest mainstream Hindu groups (via New World Encyclopedia). But in the 1970s, Butler himself split away from the mainstream Hare Krishna movement to preach his own beliefs (via The Independent).

The Foundation is particularly keen to distance itself from religious fanaticism and cults in general, and Butler has dedicated a whole section of his website to attacking charismatic religious leaders and fanatics. Does Butler protest too much? Is it possible that somebody who claims to hate cults is actually running one?

Is it and cult, and why?

The line between cults and ordinary religious organizations can appear blurry from the outside. Experts typically define cults as religious groups that revolve around the worship of a charming and authoritative individual (via The Guardian). Brainwashing is typically involved, and group members are often made to give away money or perform sex acts. While Americans may find devotion to individuals like Chris Butler slightly creepy, does his following prove that he is a cult leader? On the one hand, in India, it is entirely normal for Hindus to follow the teachings of living gurus (via the BBC), and the Foundation is keen to stress their ties to ancient Hindu teachings.

Yet testimony from ex-group members, if reliable, is extremely damning. Speaking to the British newspaper The Independent, one ex-member claimed that behind closed doors, the group venerates Butler as if he were a divinity. Members have reportedly been warned that Butler has magic powers and can read their thoughts, and new members are allegedly instructed to distance themselves from the outside world. On the other hand, despite worrying public testimony of this kind from ex-members, Tulsi Gabbard herself has publicly praised Butler as a good man — at least to the best of her knowledge (via The New Yorker).

Alleged homophobia and islamophobia

Aside from the potentially disturbing worship surrounding Chris Butler himself, the Foundation has also been accused of promoting a hateful worldview that is both homophobic and anti-Islamic (via The Independent). Whether or not it is true that Butler has a dislike of Islam, he has publicly rejected most mainstream religions on more peaceable philosophical grounds. He promotes the idea that religion is about love, and that it is not about joining a group. "God is not a God of just the Jews or the Christians or the Muslims, or whatever. God is God. All living entities are His children. Real religion means to develop your love for God," he said, per the Science of Identity Foundation.

The rumor that Butler promotes homophobic teachings has been more widely reported (via the Intelligencer). One ex-adherent has stated that members of the group are encouraged to adopt anti-LGBTQ views, claiming (per The Independent), "They told us: 'We don't associate with f**s'," using a homophobic slur."