A word about that awful word "cult"

Some here and elsewhere have tossed around the word “cult” as if it were not a dangerous label to slap on others.  The fact of the matter is that today it is dangerous.  Calling a group a “cult” is like putting a target on them.  It used to be the case that “cult” designated any seriously aberrant religious group in terms of beliefs.  Thus, in the distant past, evangelical Christians calling certain other religious movements and sects “cults” meant only that they were outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy.  After Jonestown and “Waco” (really Elk, Texas where David Koresh’s group lived) and the Solar Temple, etc., etc., “cult” now has taken on a much more sinister meaning.  It’s simply too late to use it and expect everyone to understand it according to the old meaning.

Due to the pervasive use of “cult” by the media and by sociologists and even by government officials to label groups that are dangerous to people’s physical well being (e.g., by stockpiling weapons or physically abusing children or by threatening mass suicide) the word is now generally understood that way.  If you go around calling a group a “cult” you are inviting people to think of it as dangerous to society (and not just in some spiritual sense). 

Also, what constitutes a “cult” even in terms of doctrines is relative.  I have in my library a book by a Lutheran theologian called “Christian Truth and Religious Delusions.”  Although it doesn’t use the word “cult,” it does label as “religious delusions” most mainline evangelical denominations including Baptists.  I lived in Minnesota for 15 years and came across lots of Catholics and Lutherans who viewed Baptists as some kind of aberrant Southern fanatical sect.  (My daughter’s teacher called her a “holy roller” because she like going to church on Wednesday evenings!) 

I propose we drop the label “cult” altogether except for those few religious groups that are probably committing crimes (not just civil disobedience) against women and children and/or threatening the peace with violence and/or advocating mass suicide, etc., etc.

  • http://fromdamascustoemmaus.com/ Randy Olds

    Dr. Olson,

    I am probably one of those you are referring to. I have used the term \cult\ in describing the now defunct \Worldwide Church of God\ led by the last Herbert W. Armstrong, and still occasionally use it with regard to it’s splinters. I do not consider Grace Communion International, which is what Worldwide has morphed into, as being a cult. Likewise, I really do not consider Mormonism or the Jehovah’s Witnesses as cults proper, although I do not agree with them theologically.

    Would you not consider a group such as those who hold or held to Armstrongism as being called a cult? The practices of the group were very abusive, i.e. denying health-care, and many of those who are in some of the smaller splinters are strongly millenarian, to the point of stockpiling food and weapons. I have kept in touch with many of those who grew up in this group and a lot of them are still quite damaged by their experiences there.

    While The Worldwide Church of God was pretty large so far as most \cults\ go and probably do not fall into the same classification as a group such as the Branch Davidians, I am at a loss for coming up with a better word to call them.

    How familiar are you with Armstrongism, and what would you call them if not a \cult\?

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      I already said that the word “cult” rightly applies to any group that stockpiles weapons with the intent of possibly using them against human beings. If that’s what a group is doing, then I would say the word “cult” applies to it. But I have no direct knowledge of that being the case with the groups you mention.

      • http://fromdamascustoemmaus.com/ Randy Olds

        The original Worldwide Church of God did not advocate violence in the sense of stockpiling weapons as they were preparing for a rapture of sorts, and the larger splinter groups likewise are not violent per se. I do have direct knowledge of some of the smaller splinter groups who still venerate the theology of Herbert Armstrong who have compounds here in Texas and would indeed resemble a David Koresh type group.

        I may have to rethink the terms I use for Armstrongism in general and perhaps steer away from the “C” word whenever possible, although the vast majority of former adherents still prefer to use the pejorative term.

  • http://travelah.blogspot.com/ A.M. Mallett

    My use of the term “cult” was to repeat what former adherents of a particular sect described their experience as being. In that particular case, the term is so consistently used by former adherents that I think there is probably a sizable flame roaring under all the smoke. Perhaps their experience might have been described as a cult of personalities rather than one associated with the socio-pathological tendencies of what we might consider public menances. In any event, perhaps it is better to substitute terms that draw less lightening e.g. “aberrant sect or doctrines”.

  • Josh

    The term usually used in sociology of religion is “New Religious Movement”, and I think this was adopted precisely because of the bad connotations that the word ‘cult’ is burdened with.

    • http://RogerEOlson.com Roger

      Yes. And “alternative religious movement.” Some time ago an evangelical “cult watcher” coined the label “T.A.C.O.”–totalistic, aberrational Christian organization”–to describe Christian churches and organizations that thrive on enforced conformity to what are traditionally considered heretical doctrines. I’m not sure that’s a whole lot better than “cult” but at least it avoids the violent connotations of the “c” word. I believe that evangelical sociologist was thinking of groups like “The Way, International” which, If I’m not mistaken, is now defunct.

  • JB

    Can Texas high school football fans still be considered a cult? ; )

  • http://jeffkclarke.com Jeff

    Some groups (and individuals) hold to certain beliefs that, when compared to Orthodoxy, are either theological aberrations (only slightly off course), while others maintain more distant ideas that are unfaithful to the witness of Scripture and in need of more serious correction. Some label the latter beliefs as heretical (i.e., Arianism, Gnosticism). Either way, we have to be careful about what, if any, designation we give to beliefs, and do so always with grace. Our goal should not be to alienate, but by speaking the truth in love, woo them to a place of greater fidelity to the Scriptural witness.

  • Doug

    I would used the word as Walter Martin defined it: “A group of people gathered around a specific person’s interpretation of the bible claiming historic Christianity but specifically denying doctrines essential to Christianity. The concern here is for the perversion of Christianity under the name of Christianity.” We should point out that there are different ways to define a cult: (1) Theological (Walter’s definition); (2) Psychological; and (3) Sociological. As long as we make clear which meaning we’re referring to, I see no good reason to abandon the word itself.


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