Whenever someone uses the word “cult,” we know they’re talking about bad religion. We don’t describe Baptists or Catholics as cultists. And we usually don’t call Hinduism or Islam cults—unless we consider Christianity the only legitimate religion, the viewpoint of those in the Christian Countercult Movement.
Cult is an expression reserved for those religions of which we disapprove. It is loaded with value judgments. The word cult, along with other terms utilized to describe minority or emergent religions, instantly stigmatizes the group under consideration.
Even the expression “destructive cult,” which attempts to differentiate between good cults and bad cults, fails to convince us that cults are anything more than money-making machines designed to manipulate gullible people into giving their lives, their souls, and their fortunes to sophisticated con artists.
Cult is an expression reserved for those religions of which we disapprove. It is loaded with value judgments.
These groups do not offer teachings or instruction, but rather brainwash their followers. Because participants must have been programmed in the first place, they must be deprogrammed in order to return to “normal.” Moreover, members of these religions do not live in communities, but rather in compounds.
Because these rhetorical devices evoke strong negative feelings, most sociologists and historians of religion have tried to find alternative language. Although cult once had a legitimate and useful meaning—a system of religious veneration and devotion, according to Merriam-Webster.com—its first meaning today is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”
Thus, a host of euphemisms has arisen: new religious movement (or NRM), alternative religion, minority religion, unconventional religion, marginal religion, and so on. But we have to ask ourselves alternative to what? marginal for whom? new on what continent? Islam in the United States is a minority religion in terms of the number of adherents, but in the Arabic-speaking world, it is the faith of the majority. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishnas) was new in the United States in the 1960s, but had a venerable tradition on the Indian subcontinent.
Despite decades of effort spent utilizing unbiased vocabulary, and attempting to encourage journalists to use neutral terms, scholars who research alternative religious groups have failed to dislodge cult from popular nomenclature. This is evident in the surfeit of television series devoted this year to depicting sensationalistic groups: A&E’s Cults and Extreme Belief; People Magazine Investigates: Cults; Reelz TV’s Murder Made Me Famous; and Leah Remini’s series on Scientology, now in its second season.
In fact, research-oriented scholars who attempt to understand, rather than simply condemn, new religious movements are called “cult apologists” in an effort to undermine their legitimacy. The Apologetics Index—a Christian Countercult website—also calls such researchers “cult defenders” and “cult sympathizers.” (Full disclosure here: if you search online for “Rebecca Moore” + “cult apologist” you will find several entries.)
The cult apologist label is virtually bullet-proof, begging the question of how anyone can possibly defend a cult. It demonizes those investigating new religions. Much preferable to be a “cult critic” or “cult expert” than a researcher trying to understand how groups function and why people join.
Despite decades of effort spent utilizing unbiased vocabulary, and attempting to encourage journalists to use neutral terms, scholars who research alternative religious groups have failed to dislodge cult from popular nomenclature.
Scholars of new religious movements have responded by outlining the contours of an “anti-cult movement” or ACM. This movement once employed coercive techniques that included kidnapping, physical violence, and emotional abuse to force people to abandon their religious commitments.
Those in the field of cultic studies—who identify themselves as part of a Cult Awareness Movement—have repudiated these techniques. Deprogramming has become “exit counseling,” while brainwashing has become “coercive persuasion.” Some cultic studies scholars even use the expression “new religious movements” to describe benign groups, as opposed to cults, which always denotes malignant groups.
These rhetorical flourishes indicate a deeper divide. On the one hand, those in the field of cultic studies tend to look at individuals. They come from the helping professions—psychology, social work, counseling—and see first-hand the harm that some people experience as a result of their participation in particular groups.
Those in the field of new religions studies, on the other hand, consider groups in the aggregate, either historically or sociologically. They look at large numbers rather than individual cases.
To put it another way, if we ask the victim of a pedophile priest what he thinks about the Catholic Church, we will get a vastly different answer than if we ask an entire congregation of Catholics for their opinion. Someone emerging from a very messy divorce will have a decidedly different opinion about marriage than a happily married couple.
I am not suggesting that there are not harmful groups out there—they do, in fact, exist. I prefer to say, however, that some institutions exhibit “cult-like behavior,” rather than dismissing them simply as cults. This descriptor can characterize a multitude of groups, from college fraternities, to megachurches, to sales teams, to secret societies. And even some religions.
This leaves us with several dilemmas: What do we call the dozens, or hundreds, of harmless religious groups that seem to pop up every other day? What do we call the dangerous organizations that operate under the guise (and tax exemption) of religion? And how can we tell the difference?
I am not suggesting that there are not harmful groups out there—they do, in fact, exist. I prefer to say, however, that some institutions exhibit “cult-like behavior,” rather than dismissing them simply as cults.
Because cult is an inherently pejorative phrase, expressions like non-destructive cult do not adequately solve the problem of stigmatization. The term new religion is equally problematic in that it may erroneously be applied to mainstream groups, like Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism, which aren’t really new. My own preference is to identify a group by its designated name, whether that’s Eastern Lightning in China or the Ibandla lamaNazaretha in South Africa, and call it a religion or a religious group.
I also tend to assume a group is innocent until proven guilty. If we learn about alleged criminal activity—child abuse, sexual exploitation, fraud, or other offenses—we should report it to appropriate law enforcement agencies for investigation. If leaders or members are then convicted of crimes, we know exactly what to call their group: criminal. Until then, however, painting any or all alternative groups as cults is unwarranted at least, and deliberately dehumanizing at worst.
Rebecca is Emerita Professor of Religious Studies at San Diego State University. She has a specialization in American religions with a focus on new religious movements. She co-edited Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (Indiana 2004) and authored Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple (Praeger 2009, paperback edition 2018). Her
most recent book is Beyond Brainwashing: Perspectives on Cultic Violence (Cambridge University Press 2018). She is currently Reviews Editor for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, published by University of California Press.