The word ‘cult’ is never benign in religious terminology as it is in the world of art, where Johnny Stonenoggin filmster extraordinaire may cult-ivate a cult following for his eccentricity in artistry.
Eccentricity in religion, if recent, is rarely welcomed with approving nods. And when eccentricity is welcomed by followers of a novel religion, those followers never designate the new religion as a cult.
Such is the denigrating power of the word cult for religion.
Oddness in an ancient religion is no longer perceived as eccentric. No matter how implausible and bizarre a religious idea might be, if its pedigree is old, if generations are raised with a weird idea from youth, that bizarre idea will become as believable, as commonplace, and as immune to critical thought, as a simple statement of fact about the color of summer grass.
If the idea had been taught and practiced for a thousand years that we inhale the actual aroma of our God through a ritual of setting clover alight, we would accept that idea and practice it without scruple.
In the late twentieth century some scholars of religion offered the phrase ‘new religions’ as a benign substitute for cults. These scholars had grown weary of encountering a bias found in every stratum of society from nickel-plated broom pushers to copper-plated Ivy League Ph.Ds.
Prejudice against idea innovation, although the common coin of all conservative religiosity, should not be found in the higher arts of intellect, said these scholars who offered the fresh and unharmful term ‘new religions.’
After some decades, ‘new religions’ caught on in higher education and doctorates were granted in the study of such things, and academic journals were established and entitled with that name. As the new term gained acceptance, there was an attending decrease in bias against novel religions among academics. However, the term ‘cult’ got mislaid in the shakeup, as all new religions were deemed as worthy as any other religion.
Hold your ponies! Are some new religions harmful, hateful, distasteful, and downright wacky? Yes. And cult is yet a needful term.
There are cults out there, and they do not deserve benign inclusion in the ‘new religions’ taxonomy. If a new religion resorts to coercion, to adoration of human personalities,to sexual favors for its leaders, to isolation from family and friends, to money-making schemes, call a pickax a pickax: the new religion is a cult.
Trouble is, a few of the older religions may meet the cult criteria, and very few people would dare to call these pickaxes pickaxes.
Featured image ‘Sheep’ by David Sykes via Flickr