What is the correct definition of the word “cult”? —GetReligion
The Guy offers this definition: a fringe religious group that we are not supposed to like very much or not at all, that deviate from accepted practices or long-familiar beliefs, usually controlled by one or more dictatorial rulers and often isolated from the dominant society.
Likewise, J. Gordon Melton of Baylor University, author of the essential “Encyclopedia of American Religions”, who is not only an expert but very tolerant of America’s countless offbeat religions. He remarked that a cult is “a group that someone doesn’t like. It’s a pejorative term.”
In fact, it is pejorative. Undoubtedly, some – but not all – of the groups considered cults have sinister histories; deceive strangers; abuse their subscribers physically, psychologically, sexually and/or financially; harming family and other relationships; and even resort to violence. The Guy says such allegations should be prosecuted fairly on the basis of secular criminal or civil law without judging whether a group’s teachings live up to a cultural norm. After all, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights enshrines a guarantee of religious freedom.
The Supreme Court of the United States rendered this famous regulation in its United States vs. Ballard 1944 decision. The case involved fraud convictions based on the unconventional New Age beliefs of the (still extant) “I Am” movement and associates of its founder, the late Guy Ballard. He taught that the “ascended masters” only allowed him to impart divine truth and perform healings. In a 5-4 decision, the Court said, “Religious views espoused by respondents may seem unbelievable, even absurd, to most people,” but the “truth or falsity” of a religion does not belong not for the US government or the courts to decide. .
Merriam-Webster’s phrase on separation from a “wider and more accepted” faith explains why a “sect” differs from the definition of a “sect,” which is a direct offshoot of an established religion. Examples would be “Mormon” polygamous cells or snake-handling churches as opposed to mainstream Pentecostalism. “Sect” is not appropriate if the escape is large, for example 16th century Protestantism when it left the Roman Catholic Church.
Because of religious rivalry and line drawing, Protestant evangelicals often apply the “cult” label to, for example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not over questionable practices but because that its scriptures and beliefs as proclaimed in 19th century America disagree with long centuries of traditional Trinitarian Christian teaching. Again, there are sectarian churches that teach perfectly orthodox Christian doctrines.
Journalists as old as The Guy will well remember covering the great American cult scare of the 1970s, when emotions ranged from hostility to hysteria toward new foreign and unknown faiths such as the Children of God, the Universal and Triumphant Church, Hare Krishna, Love Family of Israel, Disciples of Rajneesh or Unification Church (aka “Moonies”).
The era was somehow personified by Ted Patrick, a high school dropout hired by anxious families and friends to kidnap young converts and administer “deprogramming” to break the spiritual spell. Author Diane Benscoter, who was deprogrammed from the Unification Church and worked as a deprogrammer herself, later founded antidote.ngo to replace these coercive tactics with advice, education and awareness to counter the groups reputed to practice “psychological manipulation”.
Anti-cult fear peaked in 1978 in Jonestown, a remote jungle compound in Guyana, when 642 adult and 276 child followers of Reverend Jim Jones died in a murderous orgy/suicide. This atrocity mutilated the usual criteria of “worship” because Jones and his People’s Temple, originally from California, were accredited and in good standing as affiliates of the “mainstream” Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), itself even member of the completely respectable National Church. Council of Churches.
A subsequent upsurge in sectarian alarm was triggered by tragedies such as the federal raid in Texas in which 80 Branch Davidians were burned alive (1993), 48 suicides in the Swiss Solar Temple (1994), the three attacks on Aum Shinriko’s sarin gas in Tokyo subways that indiscriminately murdered 13 travelers and injured thousands (1995), and the mass suicide of 39 worshipers at Heaven’s Gate near San Diego (1997).
Precisely because fears about groups being considered cults have been amply justified in this way, scholars and journalists should be very careful before labeling a group with such an insult.
Over the past four years, the cult sensation has taken a deeply secular turn with Keith Raniere’s publicity about God’s hold on followers of his alleged self-help (yes, “cult”) sex cult NXIVM and of the evil DOS faction that scarred its women. Fifteen victims testified when he was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison for racketeering and sex trafficking involving an underage girl. Among other places, the incredible story is told in Sarah Berman’s “Don’t Call It a Cult” paperback and audiobook.
A five-age New Yorker article on this book last July by novelist Zoe Heller observed that even psychiatrists like Robert Lifton, a pioneer in the study of mind control, downplay “brainwashing” as if converts to sinister groups were automatons.
CONTINUE READING: “What is a religious cult? by Richard Ostling.
FIRST IMAGE : Illustration for “What is a cult?” feature on the Inspired Walk website.