A word about that awful word "cult"

A word about that awful word "cult" October 20, 2010

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.

Browse Our Archives