Define “cult” — give three examples

19b 01Long ago, during my days in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University, I took a course on contemporary religious movements and “cults.”

The word “cult” is much like the word “fundamentalist.” One person’s cult is another person’s “sect” or another’s freethinking religious movement. And, you know what? That’s absolutely correct.

In that class, the veteran researcher on this topic stressed that there are sociological definitions of the word “cult” — often dealing with the role of prophetic figures who claim radical new revelations. Then there are theological definitions, in which the leaders of a religion use the word to describe those who have surrendered or radically altered major, historic doctrines in the faith.

There was a time when mainstream Christians used to pin the “c” word on Mormons, using both sociological and theological definitions. Hardly anyone does that, anymore, on the sociology side of the divide. Yet there are traditional Christian thinkers who continue to use the word “cult” to describe Mormons, due to the latter faith’s radically different doctrines about the nature of God. Click here for a column I once wrote on the struggles to understand why some people use the word “cult” in this context and others do not.

But the key is that you have to define this word, one way or another, if you are going to use it with any sense of integrity. This word demands a sense of perspective. Which is precisely what is missing in the recent Los Angeles Times piece that ran with the headline: “Radical Shiite cults draw concern in southern Iraq.” Here is the opening of the story:

NAJAF, IRAQ – Security official Abu Ali has reviewed hundreds of documents about the obscure messianic cult that incited deadly clashes last weekend at the height of Shiite Islam’s most important holiday.

The group, Abu Ali and other security and government officials say, wants to spark a war among Shiite Muslims.

Officials said the so-called Supporters of the Mahdi disrupted Shiite worshipers last weekend in Basra and Nasiriya and fought security forces, leaving as many as 80 people dead. In similar battles in January 2007, hundreds of members of another cult, Heaven’s Army, were killed.

Later in the story, we are given a tiny slice of information about the meaning of that crucial phrase “Supporters of the Mahdi.”

The Supporters of the Mahdi group is named after a figure Muslims believe will appear with Jesus to establish peace. Most Shiites believe the Mahdi is their 12th imam and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad who they say went into hiding in 878 and will return. Some cults believe they can hasten his return by spreading chaos.

There are several problems here. First of all, I do not believe that it is accurate to say that “Muslims believe” that the Mahdi will return at the end of all things. This doctrine has not — please correct me if I am wrong — been formalized as a Sunni teaching. Meanwhile, it is one of the defining characteristics of Shia faith and practice.

Thus, there is nothing particularly alarming in the name “Supporters of the Mahdi.” That’s like a Catholic group calling itself, “We Love the Pope.”

The question, of course, is, “What makes this group a ‘cult’ in comparison with traditional forms of the Shiite faith?” And that is where the story does not give us a single clue as to what is going on.

Are there Shiites who are NOT supporters, quote-unquote, of the Mahdi? What are the doctrinal differences between this group that is being hit with the “cult” word, as opposed to the more mainstream Shiite leaders they are trying to kill or drive out of power? If it is simply a matter of clashing tactics in the battlefield that is the alleged nation of Iraq, then why use a religious word — “cult”?

Or, is the newspaper using “cult” in some other way? Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Carl

    According to Wickerpedjer:

    Twelver Shi’ism (اثنا عشرية Ithnāˤashariyyah), is the largest denomination within the Shi’ite sect of the Islamic faith. An adherent of Twelver Shi’ism is most commonly referred to as a Twelver, which has been derived from their belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders, or Imams. Approximately 80% of Shi’a are Twelvers, representing the largest school of thought in Shi’a Islam.

    So, that still leaves a solid 20% of Shiites who are “non-Twelver,” I guess. Maybe they think that the Imams stopped at 11 or they support someone else as having been/being #12.

    In any event, saying that, “This doctrine has not… been formalized as a Sunni teaching,” is certainly understating the case, since, as you’re no doubt aware, if you believe in any of those Imams as having been divinely inspired, you are by definition Shia not Sunni.

  • Jerry

    I went to my favorite ‘fatwa’ bank to search on the Mahdi and found the following: so from a Sunni Islamic perspective there are strong,ie, recognized as authentic by many, Hadiths about the Mahdi. But I think you’re perspective about “formalized as a Sunni teaching” sounds like a teaching someone like a Pope, Bishop or Church council would officially approve. Islam is not supposed to have any of these. So I think it’s better to say something like generally recognized. I do believe it’s accurate to say that the figure of the Mahdi is not generally recognized by Sunnis in spite of the Hadiths referenced in my cite.

    My definition of cult would include a leader who is motivated by power, greed and/or lust to accumulate followers, no matter what the outward teaching appears to be. Often the followers are isolated from normal society ostensibly to preserve purity but really to preserve the leader’s power. There’s a classic Simpson’s episode which illustrates my perhaps idiosyncratic definition.

  • Mike Perry

    There’s a distinction between a cult and religion that isn’t related to following one particular doctrine or another. Making the difference doctrinal results in every point of view pointlessly calling every other view a “cult”, reducing the word to a meaningless sneer like “fundamentalism” has become in recent years.

    A better distinction lies in the breadth and depth of answers that a group offers to life’s question. Cults are small and often petty, focused almost exclusively on themselves. Religions, whether true or false, are broad and deep, paying attention to everything in heaven and earth.

    A cult provides a limited set of answers for an equally small set of questions. The focus is generally on the events and issues that immediately impact upon the group itself. It views the world viewed through its eyes exclusively. Take an example from the late 19th century America. A cult would have no answers to a nation’s financial policies, particularly the controversy over whether those policies ought to favor East coast bankers or Midwestern farmers. To the extent that the world was seen as an unpleasant place burdened with problems, it would either withdraw from the world, living as invisibly as possible and having no answers, or it would reduce all the problems of the world to a single, cataclysmic catastrophe, out of which only the select few would be saved, perhaps on some mountain top on a predicted date.

    On the other hand, a genuine religion attempts to provide answers to a wide array of questions. When William Jennings Bryan gave his “Cross of Gold” speech, advocating a monetary policy favoring the farmers, he was practicing religion. When an Episcopalian bishop in NYC gave a contrary point of view, he was also practicing religion. For both, their “God” was intelligent enough and their religion comprehensive enough to include economic policy. Read the Mosaic law and you read about crime and punishment. Read the Jewish prophets, and you hear about foreign policy. Read in the gospels, and you discover that lawyers and judges ought to be bound by an ethical code. Each is expressing a religion. The Pharisees, with their obsession about little things such as food, washing and Sabbeth-keeping, were a cult.

    Note an important point. The distinction between a cult and a religion doesn’t lie in the answers themselves. A religion can have answers that may, as time passes, be proven wrong, but it is still a religion. The distinction lies in the fact that there are answers, perhaps even complex, multi-faceted ones to both eternal questions, such as the nature of God and the image of God in man, as well as to important temporal questions, such as our policies about Iraq or capital punishment. Big answers to many important questions make a religion. Few answers, and most of those to personal questions, constitute a cult.

    By that standard, much of the religious activity in this country falls closer to a cult than to a religion. The Billy Graham articles posted each day in the Seattle PI where I live have almost invariably the “Me Feel Now” flavor of a cult. You can read them in vain, trying to find answers to questions that impact, for good or ill, the lives of millions.

    And many evangelical, sad to say, try very hard to remain cults, having no views or, worse yet, denying that they should have views on a wide array of issues whose importance would seem obvious. What happens in Iraq, for instance, impacts almost 30 million people in that country and tens of millions more in the countries around it. A cult, you might say, will bring a meal to a recent refugee from a war-torn country, but it won’t have any opinion about that war or, at best, it will defer to some authority figure for an opinion, almost indifferent to what that decision is. But isn’t the fate in war of almost 30 million more a matter of love than bringing a meal to one?

    Of course, the liberal denominations fare no better. Yes, they have answers to domestic and foreign policies, but their “god” bears more resemblance to a here-and-now politician than the God of the Bible. They offer little hope of a God who works in this world and no hope for the world to come. The humanity they serve is little more than a hairless ape, a depressingly tiny dogma they hold to with particular vehemence and one that makes critically important answers to the eternal human questions almost impossible. It would almost be true to say that many liberal religious groups are neither cult nor religion, but simply political groups clinging to outmoded religious language.

    One added remark. One reason I suspect Evangelicals shy away from the big questions is their “God talks to me” doctrine. That lends an absoluteness to answers that doesn’t fit well with life’s complexities. Better to have a little god who advises you as to what car or house to buy. even though he has no views about the Iraqi war. Believers in “God talks” can finesse the results of petty things, whatever they are. If the car proves reliable, God is a good mechanic. If it falls apart a month later, “God is trying to teach me patience.” Big issues of domestic or foreign policy don’t allow that sort of ambiguity. They force us to look for, find, and advocate answers that may prove wrong in ways that can’t be covered by platitudes. If you believe in “God talks to me,” that’s unsettling. If you believe that God expects us to do a bit of less-than-perfect thinking for ourselves, it’s simply one of the unfortunate facts of life that we see “in a glass darkly.” The fact that we can’t give the sorts of answers to questions with the same sort of certainty that the Old Testament prophets had, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to have answers.

  • Julia

    Actually, you won’t find the current disparaging use of “cult” before the Hare Krishnas, Moonies and Charles Manson in the ’60s were scaring the bejesus out of people.

    The Catholic Church still uses the word to mean a style of worship or adoration or veneration. There was a term I learned about in school in the early ’60s called “disparity of cult” and it referred to prospective marriage partners of various kinds that inolved a baptized Catholic and an unbaptized person, a Protestant, etc.

    Here’s a list of definitions put together by Wikipedia. In view of the still-existing traditional meaning of the word, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with describing various types of religious rites and ceremonies as cults.

    The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists five different definitions of the word “cult.”[15]

    1. Formal religious veneration
    2. A system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents;
    3. A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents;
    4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator;
    5. Great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book).
    The Random House Unabridged Dictionary’s eight definitions of “cult” are:

    1. A particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies;
    2. An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers;
    3. The object of such devotion;
    4. A group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc;
    5. Group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols;
    6. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader;
    7. The members of such a religion or sect;
    8. Any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
    Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines “cult” as:

    1a. a system of religious worship or ritual
    1b. a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices or beliefs
    2a. devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle or lifestyle, especially when regarded as a fad [the cult of nudism]
    2b. the object of such attachment
    3. a group of followers, sect
    For authoritative British usage, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English definitions of “cult” and “sect” are:

    1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object.
    2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
    3 something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.
    1 a group of people with different religious beliefs (typically regarded as heretical) from those of a larger group to which they belong.
    2 a group with extreme or dangerous philosophical or political ideas.

  • Sandra

    Usage of the term ‘cult’ is confusing, but it does not have to be that way. All you need to do is to define the term if and when you use it, precisely because the term means different things to different people.

    I use the information at as a handy guideline. The site explains the terminology and such things as the difference between theological and sociological definitions of the term

  • rw

    On the subject of the Mahdi and Muslim thought on End Times issues…

    Just as Harun Yahya borrows from Christian young-earth creationism, there are a number of Sunni authors who write about scenarios mirroring the popular eschatology bandied about in conservative Christian churches.

    Their books may not have a stamp of endorsement from the ulema, but they are absorbed by plenty of non-Shiite Muslims. Without a doubt, there is a big difference in who Shi’a and Sunni Muslims believe the Mahdi might be, but the general idea seems to be resonating across the Muslim world.

    In Sunni circles, a top down analysis of Mahdi belief might show doubt and disdain about the concept from religious leaders. However, looking at what’s selling on the streets of Cairo and other Sunni strongholds, the idea seems to have popular support.

    For a good book outlining this literature, check out “Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature” by David Cook (Syracuse University Press, 2005).

  • Kearns

    First up I should say IANAIS (I Am Not An Islamic Scholar), but in the process of learning about my chosen religion over the past 14 years or so, the Sunni sources that I used certainly did mention the Mahdi, and gave me the impression that he was to come at some future date and help to get Islam back online in the right direction. Nothing lead me to belive that he would be immediately recognizable, and I don’t remember anything about it having to be the “end of times” when he arrived. I also remember nothing about his appearance and the appearance of Jesus needing to conincide, and I certainly saw nothing about the 12 Imams or anything that would lead me to belive that the Mahdi was born hundreds of years ago and is in some sort of stasis awaiting the ends of times.

  • Wendy J Duncan

    Dr. Margaret Singer in her book, Cults in Our Midst, defines cults in terms which make it clear that this issue is relevant to all of us:

    “There are many definitions and views of what a cult is, and sometimes writers, scholars and even former members avoid the term altogether. The term cult tends to imply something weird, something other than normal, something that is not us. But as Cults In Our Midst will show, cults are far from marginal, and those who join them are no different from you or me. The issues they represent are basic to our society, to our understanding of each other, and to our accepting our vulnerabilities and the potential for abuse within our world.

    “In this book I will use cult and cultic group to refer to any one of a large number of groups that have sprung up in our society and that are similar in the way they originate, their power structure, and their governance. Cults range from relatively benign to those that exercise extraordinary control over members’ lives and use thought reform processes to influence and control members. While the conduct of certain cults causes nonmembers to criticize them, the term cult is not in itself pejorative but simply descriptive. It denotes a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-appointed leader.”

    I took a course on cults during my years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The belief that a cult is only defined doctrinally is erroneous as I found out after I became involved in a Bible-based cult.

    Wendy Duncan, Author, I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult

  • Julia

    When did “cult” take on this negative meaning, anyway?

  • Umm Yasmin

    Belief in the appearance of the Mahdi (and the return of Jesus) at the end days is indeed part of Sunni belief. The main difference is that Shi’i Muslims (of the Twelver variety) believe that the Mahdi refers to the twelfth imam (son of Hasan al-Askari) who is currently in occultation, whereas mainstream Sunni orthodoxy holds the Mahdi to be another person – a rightly-guided caliph.

    There have been a number of Shi`i and Sunni claimants including Sayyid ‘Ali Muhammad the Bab (Shi`i) and the Sudanese Muhammad Ahmed Al Mahdi (Sunni) but of course these claims have not be accepted by the wide majority of Muslims.