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The word "cult" gets bandied about quite a bit, but is there an official definition or some kind of formula which can be used to consistently identify whether a group is a cult or not? Baring an absolute standard, what are the various usages and who tends to use each possible meaning?

In particular, I am interested in focusing on the sense in which the word is able to adapt to apply to both one man whack jobs such as David Koresh as well as larger stable groups such as Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses but not for the major traditions such as Catholics or Protestants? What definition is used in Christian circles that makes this usages make sense?

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According to what i've seen of recent usage, a "cult" is just a religion you don't approve of. :P –  cHao Nov 8 '12 at 18:41
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Cult is not an easy word to define.

In popular culture usage, it is often used to refer to any "group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre"1. This easily explains the bulk of the general usage, particularly by media. It is an easy label to slap on any group small enough if their practices are abnormal or bizarre enough to attract attention.

However I would argue that this definition is roughly meaningless in the context of Christianity.

During the period the term was first established in English, it often carried the connotation of being "new". Any new religious movement, whatever their beliefs were, could be labeled as a cult. This partially explains why faiths new to the world scene (such as Mormonism) were easily qualified as Cults at first, but that label is disputed today. In popular usage, there seems to be some expectation that cults would eventually self-destruct (e.g. Waco, Jonestown, Heaven's Gate) whereas any set of beliefs that survived the second generation should be considered a religion (or sect of a religion as appropriate) as opposed to a cult.

In the context of established religions it can have a much more specific and meaningful connotation. This definition is based on the relationship of the Cult to some other religion. The term is used this way to describe cults of other religions as well. The definition I'd suggest as most meaningful goes something like this:

A group of people who claim identity/membership with an established religion but who, because of their beliefs, are rejected by the members of that religion as being unorthodox.2

In this sense, the term is only useful when combined in reference to what religion they were originally related to. An Islamic Cult would be a group that claimed affiliation with Islam (or even claimed to be true Islam) who's views are divergent enough that are rejected by the larger main body of Islamic teaching. The same would be true for a Buddhist Cult.

Applied to Christianity, this definition would encompass any group of any size smaller than the whole who claimed to be "Christian" but were identified by more established or larger bodies as being divergent on enough core beliefs to actually make them a different religion. What beliefs qualify as core does vary depending on who you talk to, but not so much as to make it impossible to use this label in a general and meaningful way. The standard issues would be the nature of God, particularly in relation to the Trinity, and the fundamental nature of man and how salvation is accomplished.

Using this definition, it is usually accepted that the major branches that comprise mainline Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) each share enough common ground to be called sects or traditions (even if we massively disagree on important issues) while many other groups get labeled as cults by having divergent views such as:

  • denying the trinity (e.g. Oneness Pentecostals)
  • having a radically different view of heaven and hell where a limited number of human souls have eternal existence (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses)
  • or ascribing to God a physical body and making Jesus and Satan out to be brothers (e.g. Mormons)

In this definition, it is also necessary to distinguish between a full blown Cult of another religion and just a "cult" in a generic sense. For example, Heaven's Gate mixed some aspects of Christian doctrine in the formulation of their beliefs, but they did not claim to be Christian and therefore are not properly a "Christian cult", just a "cult". On the other hand, Westboro Baptist Church could easily qualify as a Christian Cult.

Using this definition, it is also possible to note that other religions are not "cults", they are other religions. For example, even if Islam borrowed from both Judaism and Christianity, today it makes no claims of belonging to those religions. Instead it claims to be a true religion in it's own right and should be identified as such. On the other hand, even very large groups (e.g. Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses) that could easily claim independence as a unique religions choose not to do so and continue to be labeled as Christian Cults because they continue to claim affiliation but are rejected because of their beliefs. In fact some of these cults have cults of there own. There are several LDS Cults that claim to be the true LDS church but are rejected by it because of errant beliefs.

Interestingly, Christianity was originally considered to be a cult of Judaism by the Roman Empire. The earliest people to bear the name "Christian" were a sect or subset of Jews whose beliefs were rejected as being unorthodox by the Jewish religious leaders. In time, as the movement grew and the disparity between the beliefs became more pronounced as Jews rejected the more and more established Christian beliefs, Christianity came to be recognized as an independent religion.

There are of course alternate definitions. It is not uncommon to see Christians (particularly Fundamentalists) who use the term Cult to describe any and every religion apart from their own sect. There are reams of articles on the web expounding on how Islam is a cult, Protestantism is a cult, etc. Other definitions provide long lists of attributes, suggesting that you might be a cult if you match enough of them. These list usually include things like dominating leadership, strict adherence to rules, abuse of dropouts, pressure on members to conform, the existence of secret rituals, etc. While many of these are helpful things to understand about cults they are really not a good way to identify them. Everybody has a different list and these are really more of common factors than defining factors.

TL;DR: While it is possible to be used in a meaningful way, the variety of uses mean you should always check what the speakers definition is. The usage of the term will often tell you more about the beliefs of the person using it than those being described by it.

It might be worth mentioning that the scope of this particular site is Christianity and all its heresies, so heterodox teaching is just as much on topic as orthodox, meaning Christian Cults have just as much place here as Christianity itself. Generic cults that do not identify as primarily Christian or other religions maybe off topic.


Footnotes:

  1. See Wikipedia on Cults.

  2. I got this from student handout notes from an Apologetics class by a seminary professor, which I think he in turn had based on The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin.

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Nice answer. I suspect that the word "sect" is a better fit for what you're mostly describing. One thing I didn't see in your answer. A cult becomes a sect or a religion when it lives on after the founder passes. To take a contemporary example, Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church, but Brigham Young shaped it into a sect. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Nov 8 '12 at 14:07
    
@GilbertLeBlanc: I actually touched on that in that "cult" was used to describe one man shows and was a label that sometimes got dropped when it survived a second generation of leadership. However I would argue the best way to define the difference between a sect and a cult is that a cult is entirely rejected as entirely heterodox while a sect may be accepted as being related to the whole but disagree on some/many issues. However I agree usage is not consistent and "sect" is often used in the places I would use "cult" and vise versa. –  Caleb Nov 8 '12 at 14:11
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I disagree, @Caleb. It has to do with techniques to keep one within the group, rather than religious teaching. I would contend that the Exclusive Brethern, while having a rather orthodox Christian theology, is a cult because of how it controls its members. –  thursdaysgeek Nov 9 '12 at 0:44
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There are two senses

In the benign sense, a cult is any minority group with shared beliefs or practices that intentionally deviate from the majority. The connotation is one of foreignness and friction with a larger group.

In the malignant sense, the psychological perspective is generally applied, and there actually is set of criteria (a "formula") for determine whether a group is using dishonest (brain-washing) practices to recruit and retain members. A pretty well-accepted list of criteria is summarized on wikipedia:

  1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
  2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
  3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group;
  4. They get a new identity based on the group;
  5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.

Groups that follow the pattern above are very dangerous. Variations of this checklists have been published by various PhD's and psychological groups. One example:

http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm

And an example of how to start a cult, used to illustrate similar criteria:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/look-it-way/200906/how-start-cult

Common to both senses

A "cult" is a deviation from some norm. And, the label can be accurately applied to any type of group, whether the group's focus is on art, film, history, science, religion, etc.. Thus, in both senses, it's clear that a "cult" does not accurately represent the beliefs or practices of the contextual group (the contrasted norm).

There may be "sub-senses" to each sense of the word. But, I believe the two "primary" senses, as I understand them, are sufficient in most cases. And in all cases, it's important to be clear as the speaker/author and request clarification as the listener/reader when the sense is not abundantly obvious.

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Thanks. This is all true but it doesn't present an possible Christian specific way to define a cult. In fact it doesn't answer my question, but I blame that on the question. As often happens when you do the research to answer before asking, the question suffers for not being well developed. I'll try to fix it but it might be a couple days... –  Caleb Nov 8 '12 at 22:18
    
I'll wait to see the reformulation of the question. But, I'm not sure a question about cult categorization can be formulated as a strictly religious manner. Religious doctrines themselves (as far as I know) don't pronounce on this matter, which is rooted is psychology and sociology. So, while the categorization can be applied to a religious group, it's not defined by religion. –  svidgen Nov 8 '12 at 22:26
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Or more to your point, there's not criteria a Christian would use, other than the psychological criteria, to determine whether a group is a cult. In my Catholic education, the criteria listed above were used in class to examine our own Catholic practices in contrast to professionally acknowledged "Christian" cults. –  svidgen Nov 8 '12 at 22:30
    
I've seen the word cult used with point 5 when the person is subjected to isolation from friends and family still in the group if they leave the group. –  thursdaysgeek Nov 9 '12 at 0:39
    
I just attempted to edit the question. I guess I'm looking a way to explain what could make something "professionally acknowledged Christian cult". –  Caleb Nov 13 '12 at 13:32
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Like so many ordinary and common words, cult has a specific meaning in the Catholic Church which sounds weird from the outside.

When a saint is declared a Servant of God by a Bishop, it gives the ok for a local cult to rise up around that holy person. This cult can extend to the entire world once the person is declared venerable.

So, in this case, the cult is the group of people who is asking for the intercession of a particular would-be saint.

If a saint's origin is declared dubious, as some have been in the last century, we say their cult has been supressed.

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(Note, I could be wrong about a number of things here so I'm making this CW if anyone wants to help me source this) –  Peter Turner Nov 9 '12 at 5:51
    
Also, I know this doesn't answer the question in any meaningful way, but it is an example of a positive use of the word cult. –  Peter Turner Nov 9 '12 at 5:53
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There is no single definition of "cult". There are several definitions of which I am aware, and I can't say any of them are necessarily more right than any others. Words only have meanings insofar as people agree to give them the meanings that they do. So we can't say one of these definitions is right and the other is wrong. We can just say they are different.

  1. Original: in the original sense, "cult" means worship. This sense is sometimes still used, e.g. one speaks of the Roman Catholic "cult of the Virgin Mary". This sense is neither positive or negative in itself, it's neutral.
  2. Sociological: a cult is a religious group with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society, and beliefs that are novel for that society. By contrast, a sect has the high tension, but has traditional rather than novel beliefs, and a denomination has neither high tension nor novel beliefs. What is a cult in one society might be a sect in another - thus Hare Krishna are a cult in traditionally Christian countries, but a sect in India. This sense is meant to be neutral - to call something a cult is not to cast judgement on it. According to this sense, Christianity was originally a cult, but is not a cult any longer.
  3. Psychological: a cult is a destructive, authoritarian group, e.g. one that uses brainwashing, one that threatens to result in violent acts or mass suicide or so on. This is a negative sense - by calling something a cult, one is suggesting it is wrong, dangerous, and maybe even ought to be prohibited. Maybe sometimes it is justified, but I feel often this is just a way of smearing religious minorities.
  4. Theological: in Christianity, "cult" is used to refer to groups that present themselves as having orthodox Christian theology, but in fact are heterodox. So this excludes groups that make no claim to be Christian (e.g. Hare Krishna, Wicca, Satanism, Scientology, Buddhism, etc), but includes groups which claim to be Christian but the user of the term considers to be outside of normative Christianity. So LDS, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc., are commonly included in this group; and some will even add more mainstream groups to this label, such as Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. This is a negative sense. It only really makes sense in the context of intra-Christian discussions; it doesn't make any sense to people who don't identify as Christian.
  5. Popular: a "cult" is any purely secular object of adoration and obsession. So Apple is a cult, and Elvis too. This is not necessarily a negative sense, but often is.
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I really like this answer but would like to see some sources/references –  Waggers Nov 23 '12 at 14:09
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Speaking from experience; in general use I would advise against it. It's used more as a curse than a description, as such it does not achieve anything other than anger, seperation, contention and hate.

As a technical description all abrahamic religions (IE christians, jews, and muslims) would fall under the term cult.

People generally associate a negative context with the term cult due to various historical extreme individuals and groups that were cults. Due to this cultural context, the term cult is often used to belittle others rather than to provide an accurate and informative description of them.

IF you think something is evil and needs to be avoided, I would advise to be more specific than just using the term cult.

Dictionary.com - Cult

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I'm sorry my original wording of the question was not clear, but I am not really looking for advice on whether or not I should use the word so much as an explanation of why it gets used the way(s) it does. Please see my edited question for more clarity. –  Caleb Nov 13 '12 at 13:30
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