What Makes a Religious Group a Cult? Part 3 (Final)

What Makes a Religious Group a Cult? Part 3 (Final) May 19, 2019

What Makes a Religious Group a Cult? Part 3 (Final)

Before reading this blog essay you really ought to read Parts 1 and 2. In them I lay out my credentials for explaining the contemporary meaning of “cult” in Christian theology and religious studies (apart from its technical us for any form of worship).

It is simply not possible to avoid the word “cult” altogether or even to offer a very simple definition. I am asked on a regular basis whether a certain, specified religious group is a cult. People don’t want a dictionary definition; nor do they want to hear “We don’t use that word anymore.”

On the other hand, I find it impossible, in most cases, to give a straightforward answer to their question. What I want to do is help them decide whether THEY think it is a cult or not by giving them some criteria to use in examining it.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

So, here goes…

Psychologically, a cult is any group, but especially religious ones, that use known brainwashing techniques to draw in and keep adherents and to keep them from thinking at all critically about the group’s teachings and practices. One known brainwashing technique is sleep deprivation. Another is “love bombing.” Another is spiritual abuse—of someone who is insecure about their salvation and believes it is precarious and needs affirmation by someone with special knowledge, insight and authority. All of that belongs within a certain kind of context for it to constitute a cult. That context is: relatively small group in unnecessary (manufactured) tension with the surrounding culture. Almost always the group manipulates adherents to cut off most contact with outsiders including family and friends.

Sociologically, a cult is any group, but especially religious ones, that manufacture tension with outsiders leaning toward conflict if not violence. A cult is any group, but especially religious ones, that use spiritual abuse (shame, shunning) to punish dissent on any level. Also, by this approach, a cult is a (usually) religious group that requires members to surrender personality and conform in virtually every way to the “image” of a “spiritual person” determined by the leaders. That “image” usually includes total lack of critical thinking and taking on a persona like that of the leaders.

Theologically, a cult is any group, but especially religious ones, that is/are relatively small but claim to possess the only truth to the exclusion of all others and elevate relatively minor beliefs and practices to the status of absolutely necessary for salvation or true spirituality. Such beliefs are usually strongly in conflict with the religious tradition the group emerged from and such practices are ones not shared by the religious tradition from which the group emerged but are nevertheless taught as essential for true spirituality.

One more criterion needs to be added here (for my satisfaction). Any “invented religion”—one created by a founder out of whole cloth (his or her imagination) or eclectically out of bits and pieces of other religious traditions—that claims to be “the oldest religion in the world” or “a new revelation that is necessary for spiritual fulfillment” I consider a cult unless it becomes so large that it becomes a new/alternative religion in its own right. Even then it may have “cultic features” and “cultic tendencies.”

In the vast majority of cases, I have to say about any religious group of which I am suspicious that it has “cultic features” or “cultic tendencies.” I would only label a few religious groups “cult” without some qualifications such as that. And I would rarely do so publicly (e.g., here) because most cults have lawyers on retainer that sue people who publicly call them a cult.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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