Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a “Cult”

Note: If you are pressed for time and cannot read the whole essay below, feel free to skip to the end where I list 10 criteria. The essay describes my own history of interest in and research about “cults” and new/alternative religious groups.

Developing Criteria for Recognizing a Religious Sect as a “Cult”

Many religious scholars eschew the word “cult” or, if they use it at all, relegate it to extreme cases of religious groups that practice or threaten to practice violence. “Extreme tension with the surrounding culture” is one way sociologists of religion identify a religious group as a cult. By that definition there are few cults in America. No doubt they still exist, but when one narrows the category “cult” so severely it tends to empty the category.

In the past, “cult” was used by theologians (professional or otherwise) to describe groups that considered themselves either Christian or compatible with Christianity but held as central tenets beliefs radically contrary to Christian orthodoxy as defined by the early Christian creeds (and for some the Reformation statements of faith). Given the diversity of Protestantism, of course, that was problematic because it opened the Pandora’s Box of deciding what is “orthodoxy.”

A Supreme Court justice once said that he couldn’t define “pornography” but he knew it when he saw it. Many evangelical Christian writers of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, couldn’t quite define a “cult” but clearly thought they knew one when they saw (or read about) one. One evangelical radio preacher published a book on the “marks of a cult.” He was not the only one, however, to attempt to help people, in his case evangelical Christians, identify groups that deserve the label “cult.” Many have made the attempt. In the 1950s and 1960s (and no doubt for a long time afterwards) “cult” tended to mean any heretical sect—judged so by some standard of orthodoxy. That standard often seemed to be little more than a perceived “evangelical tradition.” Some anti-cult writers called the Roman Catholic Church a “cult.” Many labeled the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints a cult. One controversy erupted among fundamentalists and evangelicals when a noted evangelical anti-cult writer published an article arguing that Seventh Day Adventists are not a cult. Most Protestants had long considered Adventism a cult—theologically. (Just to be clear: I do not.)

Still today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a difference exists about the word “cult.” It is used in many different ways. Following the trend among sociologists of religion most journalists tend to use the label only of groups they consider potentially dangerous to the peace of community. Theology rarely enters that discussion. Still today, many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals use the label “cult” to warn fellow believers away from religious (and some non-religious) groups that espouse doctrines they consider heretical—even if the groups pose no danger to the peace of the communities in which they exist.

Psychologists often regard any group as a cult insofar as it uses so-called “mind control techniques” to recruit and keep members. Sociologists of religion quickly point out that most religious groups could be accused of that depending on how thin one wishes to stretch the category of “mind control.” Would any religious group that claims members who leave are automatically destined for hell using “mind control?” Some psychologists have said yes to that question. Sociologists of religion point out that would make many peace-loving groups cults.

The debate over the meaning of “cult” has gone on in scholarly societies for a long time. Now it has settled into an uneasy acknowledgement that there is no universally applicable, standard definition. But there is a general agreement among scholars, anyway, that “cult” is a problematic word to be used with great caution. Calling a religious group a “cult” can mean putting a target on it and inviting discrimination if not violence against it. For that reason many religious scholars prefer the label “alternative religion” for all non-mainstream religious groups. My own opinion is that has its merits, especially where there is no agreed upon prescriptive standards or criteria for determining religious validity, where no idea of normal or orthodox is workable—as in a diverse context such as a scholarly society. Even that label, however, assumes a kind of norm—“mainstream.” If postmodernity means anything it means there is no “mainstream” anymore. But religion scholars cannot seem to abandon that concept.

I have more than a scholarly interest in the concept “cult.” For me it is personal as well as professional. It’s professional because, over the thirty-plus years of my career as a theologian and religion scholar I have taught numerous classes on “cults and new religions” in universities and churches. I’ve spoken on the subject to radio interviewers—especially back when “cults” were all the rage in the media (after the “Jonestown” and “Branch Davidian” and similar events happened). I’ve published articles about certain “alternative religious movements” in scholarly magazines and books. While rejecting so-called “deprogramming” practices, I have engaged in sustained discussions with members of groups about their participation, even membership, in groups their families and friends considered cults—to help them discern whether their participation was helpful to them as Christians and as persons.

It’s personal because I grew up in a religious form of life many others considered a cult. And I had close relatives who belonged to religious groups my own family considered cults.

The professional and the personal came together recently—again. I became acquainted with a man who grew up in (but has left) a religious group to which one of my uncle’s belonged. My uncle’s religious affiliation was always a bit of a sore spot in my large and mostly evangelical family. (I say large because when they were all alive I had sixty-five first cousins. That’s a large family by most standards. I remember family reunions where over a hundred people attended and they were all fairly closely related. And that was only one side of my family!) Among my close relatives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins) were members and ministers of many relatively non-mainstream religious groups. But my uncle stood out as especially curious to me and to my parents (and, no doubt, many of his siblings). At family reunions, when prayer was said over the meal, he would get up and walk away and turn his back on us. My father explained that his brother believed praying with unbelievers was wrong. So I set out to discover more about my uncle’s and cousins’ religion. My uncle would not talk about his religious affiliation with anyone in our family, so he was not a source of information about it. (My father knew some about it because he was “there” when his brother converted to the group.) Over a period of years I discovered some fairly reliable information about the group even though it is somewhat secretive. The group exists “off the radar” of most people including many religion scholars, but researchers have labeled it the largest house church movement in America and possibly the world. Some have called it the “church without a name” because its adherents and leaders give it no name but only call themselves “Christians,” “the Truth,” and “the Brethren.” (It has some similarities and possible historical connections with the Plymouth Brethren but is not part of that movement.) They have no buildings, no schools, no publisher, no headquarters. They believe they are the only true Christians, but they live peacefully among us and pose no physical threat to anyone. They do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ or the Trinity, but they use the King James Version of the Bible only.

My acquaintance who grew up in the group asked me if he grew up in a cult. (His parents still belong to it.) I found that difficult to answer because of the many definitions of “cult.” Which definition should I pull out of my religion scholar’s/theologian’s grab bag of labels? I couldn’t give him a clear answer. “It depends on how one defines ‘cult’” is pretty much all I could say. I don’t think that satisfied him. It doesn’t satisfy me.

Certainly my family thought my uncle belonged to a cult, but that started me thinking, even as a teenager, what “cult” meant. At school I had been told by friends who were fundamentalist Baptists that my church was a cult. I began to conduct what research I could into the concept of “cult” and found two radically different but contemporary treatments of the concept. One was Marcus Bach, a well-known and highly respected scholar of religion who taught religious studies for many years at the University of Iowa. (I think he founded the university’s School of Religion.) I read every book by him I could get my hands on and they were many. Eventually I had the privilege of meeting him in person and having a brief conversation with him. Bach grew up Reformed, became Pentecostal, and eventually ended up in the Unity movement. His book The Inner Ecstasy tells about his religious pilgrimage in vivid detail. He wrote many books especially about what scholars now call “alternative religions” in America and it was from him that I first learned about most of them—everything from New Mexico “Penitentes” to The Church of Christ, Scientist. I was especially fascinated by his descriptions of Spiritualism—the religion focused on séances as the central sacrament. He claimed that at one séance he did actually have a conversation with his deceased sister and asked the medium questions that only his sister would be able to answer—from their childhood. The apparition answered his questions correctly. He drew no metaphysical conclusions about that, which was typical of Bach. He was interested in, fascinated by, alternative religious movements and groups but held back from prescriptive judgments of any kind.

The opposite book was by a Lutheran pastor named Casper Nervig and the title tells much about his approach to this subject: Christian Truth and Religious Delusions. In it I discovered that the Evangelical Lutheran Church was the “church of truth” and that both my uncle’s religion and my family’s were “religious delusions”—tantamount to “cults.”

This launched me on a lifelong search to understand so-called “cults” and “alternative religious movements.” Had I grown up in a cult? Was the faith of my childhood and youth an alternative to some mainstream religion of America? We considered ourselves evangelical Protestants, but I discovered many religion scholars (including Bach) considered us “alternative” and even some evangelicals (to say nothing of mainline Protestants and Catholics) considered us a cult. As a passionate Pentecostal Christian in junior high school and high school I was relentless teased, even sometimes bullied, by schoolmates who belonged to many different religious traditions. I was called a “holy roller” and “fanatic.”

So my acquaintance’s question has often been my own: Did I grow up in a cult? Apparently it depends on what “cult” means.

When I taught courses on cults and new religions in universities and churches I often began by telling my students and listeners that “nobody thinks they belong to a cult.” I also pointed out that if the concept “cult” (in our modern sense) had existed in the second century Roman Empire Christians would have been called “cultists.” (Of course the word “cultus” did exist but simply meant “worship.”) We should be very careful not to label a group a “cult” just because it’s different from what we consider “normal.”

My preference has become to not speak of “cults” but of “cultic characteristics.” In other words, religious groups are, in my taxonomy, “more or less cultic.” I reserve the word “cult” as a label (especially in public) for those few groups that are clearly a threat to their adherents’ and/or public physical safety. In other words, given the evolution of the term “cult” in public discourse, I only label a religious group a cult publicly insofar as I am convinced it poses a danger to people—beyond their spiritual well-being from my own religious-spiritual-theological perspective. To label a religious group (or any group) a “cult” is to put a target on its back; many anti-cult apologists still do not get that.

On the other hand, at least privately and in classroom settings (whether in the university or the church) I still use the label “cult” for religious groups that display a critical mass of “cultic characteristics.” Of many non-traditional groups, however, I prefer simply to say they have certain “cultic characteristics” rather than label them cults. And, in any case, I make abundantly clear to my listeners that if I call a group a cult, I am not advocating discrimination, let alone violence, against them. In the case of those groups I label cults publicly I am advocating vigilance toward them.

So what are my “cultic characteristics”—beyond the obvious ones almost everyone would agree about (viz., stockpiling weapons with intent to use them against members or outsiders in some kind of eschatological conflict, physically preventing members from leaving, harassing or threatening critics or members who leave the group, etc.)? Based on my own long-term study of “alternative religious groups,” here are some of the key characteristics which, when known, point toward the “cultic character” (more or less) of some of them:

1. Belief that only members of the group are true Christians to the exclusion of all others, or (in the case of non-Christian religious groups) that their spiritual technology (whatever that may be) is the singular path to spiritual fulfillment to the exclusion of all others.

2. Aggressive proselytizing of people from other religious traditions and groups implying that those other traditions and groups are totally false if not evil.

3. Teaching as core “truths” necessary for salvation (however defined) doctrines radically contrary to their host religion’s (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) orthodoxy broadly defined.

4. Use of conscious, intentional deception toward adherents and/or outsiders about the group’s history, doctrines, leadership, etc.

5. Authoritarian, controlling leadership above question or challenge to the degree that adherents who question or challenge are subjected to harsh discipline if not expulsion.

6. Esoteric beliefs known only to core members; levels of initiation and membership with new members required to go through initiations in order to know the higher-order beliefs.

7. Extreme boundaries between the group and the “outside world” to the extent that adherents are required to sever ties with non-adherent family members and stay within the group most of the time.

8. Teaching that adherents who leave the group automatically thereby become outcasts with all fraternal ties with members of the group severed and enter a state of spiritual destruction.

9. High demand on adherents’ time and resources such that they have little or no “free time” for self-enrichment (to say nothing of entertainment), relaxation or amusement.

10. Details of life controlled by the group’s leaders in order to demonstrate the leaders’ authority.

By these criteria I suspect that I have been involved in religious organizations with cultic characteristics in the past. The college I attended displayed some of them some of the time (depending on who was president which changed often). The first university where I taught displayed some of the characteristics. I remember a faculty meeting where the founder-president (after whom the school was named) called on individual faculty members by name to come forward to the microphone and confess “disloyalty” to him. I would not say, however, that the religious form of life of my childhood and youth was or is a cult or overall has cultic characteristics. There are specific organizations within it that do. My recommendation to people caught in such abusive religious environments is to leave as quickly as possible.