What Constitutes a 'Cult'?

In reading today’s classic column, we find Cecil mildly upbraiding his correspondent for referring to a religious group as a cult, countering that the sect in question may well have been “an exceptionally enthusiastic bunch of Episcopalians.” As the story plays out, the inventor of the Slinky left his family nearly destitute after giving the lion’s share of his assets to the group, then periodically encouraged his wife to abandon their childen and join him in South America.

On the face of it, this sort of wanton disregard for the well-being of anything or anyone but one’s church is about as good an indicator of cult member behavior as anything I can think of. Perhaps I’m being closed-minded here; many conservatives would define my Unitarian Universalist church as a cult, so I shouldn’t throw stones. I’m also assuming that the church in Cecil’s column actually instructed Richard James to do this, when in fact they may have thought him as nutty as I do. Still in all, this sort of “to hell with everything else in the world as long as my church prospers” mentality is about as good a definer of cult practice as anything I can think of.

What do you all think? What are the behavioral triggers that scream “cult” to you? And was Richard James’ group a cult as you would define one?

It’s a church with eccentric beliefs and no political power.

It’s one of those words with as wide or as narrow a meaning as you want it to have. There’s a value judgement implicit in the word, so you could almost say there’s no objective definition. You can’t say “a cult is…” without somebody popping up to disagree with you.

Using the word nearly always implies some kind of agenda. A lot of people say the Catholic Church is a cult. Jack Chick calls it a cult for one set of reasons, and certain people on this board call it a cult for completely opposite reasons. But nobody without an agenda calls the Catholic Church a cult. That’s because it’s a loaded word. If you want to call something a cult, all you have to do is decide that the definition of “cult” has that thing within its parameters. Watch:

A cult is a group of people dedicated to the teachings and writings of a figurehead who may not exist, and they perform rituals and hold gatherings to celebrate their devotion and socialize with one another. And it has a hierarchy of membership, where the more advanced members can impose punishment upon lesser ones for failing to abide by an arbitrary set of rules handed down by the leader. Sometimes they make offerings of money or time to the group to show their devotion. The Straight Dope Message Board is a cult. See how easy it is?

Cults are a sociological phenomenon of interest to scientists, so there have been attempts to define them. In general, one defining feature of a cult is that it goes to great lengths to control its members – using techniques such as restricting access to outside people and information, fostering an us-vs.-them mentality (i.e., people who question our beliefs and actions are enemies), ostracizing anyone who attempts to question the doctrine, and using what might be considered psychological abuse or “brainwashing” to break down the individual identities of new recruits. There is usually also a charismatic leader.

Technically a cult is a “New Religious Movement” (NRM) which did not break off from a pre-existing group (that would be a sect). That is the academic definition. All religions technically start as either cults or sects.

In common usage, though, “cults” tend to be designated as non-mainstream groups (including sects) which exhibit a degree of social tension with the wider community, a high degree of control over members and which often (but not always) center around a charismatic leader who may be perceived as being divine or being a prophet.

These groups may sometimes become successful enough to become full fledged religions or Churches of their own (LDS is a recent example), and are not necessary dangerous. It’s really the amount of tension with the outside world, the control of membership and the investment of personal or economic involvement of membership that characterizes what we think of as the malevolent “cults” like the People’s Temple or Branch Davidian examples that we think of.

There’s no hard line, though. No categorical, defining characteristic that makes a group definitely a “cult” or not. There’s a continuum, and the dynamics of a given group’s social tension can change over time. Mormons once had a lot of tension, now they’re mainstream.

I would say the thing to watch out for is how much autonomy or freedom the members have.

In modern parlance: A group that demands utter loyalty from its members, totally cutting them off from the outside world and becoming their only support network. It nearly always has a single leader or a very small leadership group that exerts complete control over its members, well beyond what even the military (which is, ultimately, bound by laws) exercises over new recruits. Leaving voluntarily is not allowed, and is punished by other members of the group.

Notice how none of that has anything to do with what the group professes or how large the group is. (Conversely, cults don’t tend to get very large. They either die out (most common outcome), split, or change into something that is no longer a cult.)

In archaic usage: Any religious group.

While I agree with the technical definitions already given, this is IMHO, so I’ll also share my own usage. To me, something can also be a cult if it is a fairly small Chistian group that believes that every other Christian is wrong and forbids going to their church and/or practicises shunning, or any religious group where the founder or current leader is supposed to be a god or otherwise worshipped.

For example, when I refer to my cult-starting roommate from college, I’m referring to the former type. When I refer to the cult he was raised in, I’m referring to the latter, as the whole reason he left that cult was the leader saying he was Jesus’s second coming.

For my dollar, it’s all about control. There are a number of websites that list various criteria for what constitutes a cult. I’m a big fan of Steve Hassan in this area.

Here’s some links:

This is a site run by a guy named Rick Ross, who got involved in cult recovery work after his Jewish mother was targeted by Pentacostals for conversion (according to his Wikipedia page).

This is the page for the International Cultic Studies Association. Pretty much the same basic ideas in the cult checklist as everyone else.

Here is Steve Hassan’s website with information about his BITE model, which basically lays out a checklist based on Behavior control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control. Hassan is a former Moonie who works with all sorts of former cult members.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about cult checklists; this page lists a bunch of different checklists developed by different cult experts.

FACTnet has this page, “What is a destructive cult?”

Hmmm… That definition certainly would have included the earliest Christians. And that’s without even referencing what the comtemporary Jews thought of them. :slight_smile: