Religious Cults

General Information

There is no definition of cult that is universally accepted by sociologists and psychologists of religion. The term cult is popularly applied to groups characterized by some kind of faddish devotion to a person or practice that is significantly apart from the cultural mainstream. For example, certain kinds of activities may take on cultlike ritualistic characteristics (recent widespread interest in intense physical exercise has been termed the physical fitness cult).

Movie stars, entertainers, and other public figures sometimes generate passionate bands of followers that are called cults (the Elvis Presley cult, to cite one). Groups that form around a set of esoteric beliefs - not necessarily religious - may also be termed cults (for example, flying saucer cults). When applied to religious groups, cult retains much of this popular usage but takes on more specific meaning, especially when contrasted with other kinds of religious organizations.

Cults and Other Forms of Religious Organization

The most commonly used classification of religious organizations is as churches or sects. Although there have been numerous modifications of the original distinction, the following points are generally retained.

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Church refers to a religious organization claiming a monopoly on knowledge of the sacred, having a highly structured or formalized dogma and hierarchy, but also being flexible about membership requirements as the organization attempts to minister to the secular society of which it is a part.

Sects, on the other hand, are protests against church attempts to accommodate to secular society. A sect views itself as a defender of doctrinal purity, protesting what it interprets as ecclesiastical laxity and excesses. As protectors of the true faith, sects tend to withdraw from the mainstream of worldly activities, to stress strict behavior codes, and to demand proof of commitment.

Cults have some of the same characteristics as sects. In fact, some scholars prefer not to make a distinction. There are, however, some noteworthy differences. Cults do not, at least initially, view themselves as rebelling against established churches. Actually, the practices of cults are often considered to enrich the life of the parent church of which they may be a part. Cults do not ordinarily stress doctrinal issues or theological argument and refinement as much as they emphasize the individual's experience of a more personal and intense relationship with the divine. Most of these groups are ephemeral, seldom lasting beyond a single generation; transient; and with fluctuating membership.

Mysticism is frequently a strong element in cult groups. Religious orders such as the Franciscans began as cults built around the presence of a charismatic leader who emphasized a life style dedicated to attaining high levels of spirituality. Mormonism began as a cult, became a sect, and eventually evolved into a church. All the great world religions followed this same pattern of development as they accumulated members and formalized hierarchy and dogma.

Contemporary Cults

Cults are as old as recorded history, but contemporary interest in cults became amplified during the late 1960s and early 1970s as numbers of educated middle class youths abandoned traditional religions and embraced beliefs and practices that were either culturally unprecedented (Eastern religions) or seemed to be throwbacks to an earlier era (Fundamentalist Christianity). During this period, young people were increasingly found living in various types of religious communes and engaging in unconventional behavior, such as speaking in tongues (glossolalia), faith healing, meditating (often under the tutelage of a spiritual leader or guru), and following leaders that conventional society tended to look upon with suspicion and distaste. Interest in cults turned to a combination of fascination and revulsion upon the mass suicide of the Jones cult in November 1978.

Modern cults come in a bewildering variety of ideologies, practices, and forms of leadership. They range from those adhering to a sort of biblical Christianity to those seeking satori (sudden enlightenment) via the pursuits of Zen Buddhism. Some cults have a flexible, functional leadership, such as many groups in the Charismatic Movement emanating from the mainline Christian religions, and others have mentors who control and orchestrate cult events, such as the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification church. Some Hindu gurus, such as Bhagwan Shree Rajineesh of the Rajineeshee sect have been believed by their followers to be living embodiments of God.

The common denominator of all the modern cults is an emphasis on community and on direct experience of the divine. In a cult, participants often find a level of social support and acceptance that rivals what may be found in a nuclear family. Cult activity, which is often esoteric and defined as direct contact with the divine, generates a sense of belonging to something profound and of being a somebody. The modern cult may be viewed as a cultural island that gives adherents an identity and a sense of meaning in a world that has somehow failed to provide them these things.

Several factors have been suggested as contributing to the quests of modern youths for meaning and identity via cults. Each of these factors relates to a disenchantment with, or loss of meaning of, traditional ways of viewing reality. A list of these contributing elements would include the following: the turmoil of the 1960s, including the unpopular Vietnam War, the assassinations of several popular national leaders, and growing evidence of top level political incompetence and corruption; continued widespread drug use among youths, which tends to disrupt family relations and fosters the formation of drug subcultures stressing esoteric experience; the rapid expansion of technological innovations such as computers, and social organizations, such as bureaucracies, that tend to erode the individual's sense of being in control of his or her own destiny; the apparent failure of traditional religions to solve problems of war, hunger, and alienation; the growth of humanistic education that tends to discredit traditional ways of believing and behaving; the threat of ecological and nuclear disaster; and finally, affluence, which provides the means to pursue alternative life styles.

Cults are challenges to conventional society. As such, they engender intense questions concerning their possible impact. The modern cults have clearly raised anew the legal issue of how far a society is willing to go to guarantee religious freedom. Some of the cults have been accused of brainwashing members and thereby violating the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Court cases involving young people who were forcefully removed from cults by parents are still being decided. Future court decisions could significantly modify traditional protection of religious diversity in the United States. Some cults, Hare Krishna being one, have established a legal defense and public education organization to fight for their rights to exist and practice what they believe.

Other impacts are less clear. This wave of cults could crumble into the dust of history as so many others have. Conversely, this age could also be one of those historical junctures that produces an enduring change in theories of human nature and in the structure of social organizations. If so, the new cults provide some idea of the nature of that change. Almost all of them represent an emotional and personal approach to religious experience; they emphasize continued adaptation in a changing world; they stress the attainment of individual power and excellence via the pursuit of cult practices; and they often stress the necessity of harmony between humankind and other aspects of nature. As such, contemporary cults reinforce many traditional American values, such as independence, achievement, self mastery, and conservation or ecology, that have lost ground in the face of affluence and self seeking. Just as the Protestant Ethic supported early capitalism, the general ethic of the cults may be the stabilizing element in future society. If so, cult members may well be the leaders of that new age. Clearly, however, an historical verdict must be awaited.

Richard J Bord

W Appel, Cults in America (1983); J A Beckford, Cult Controversies (1985); J E Biersdorf, Hunger for Experience (1975); H Bridges, American Mysticism (1970); C Edwards, Crazy for God: The Nightmare of Cult Life (1979); J Ellul, The New Demons (1975); R S Ellwood and H Partin, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (1988); F Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill (1986); H Gardner, The Children of Prosperity (1978); C Y Glock and R N Bellah, eds., The New Religious Consciousness (1976); I Hexham and K Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (1986); J G Melton, The Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (1986); J Needleman, The New Religions (1970); R Quebedeaux, The New Charismatics (1976); T Robbins, ed., Cults, Culture and the Law (1985).


Advanced Information

Defining a cult is far more difficult than is often appreciated. Many evangelical Christians support the activities of Jews for Jesus and see them as a legitimate missionary group. But members of the Jewish community regard them as an evil and deceptive cult, a fact that well illustrates the problems surrounding the word. In its modern form the word "cult" was originally used by Ernst Troeltsch in his classic work, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912), where he classifies religious groups in terms of church, sect, and cult.

For Troeltsch the cult represents a mystical or spiritual form of religion that appeals to intellectuals and the educated classes. At the heart of the cult is a spirituality which seeks to enliven a dead orthodoxy. Thus for Troeltsch the early Luther, many Puritans, and pietism can be seen as examples of cultic religion. Although Troeltsch's ideas about the distinction between church and sect generated a vigorous debate, little attention has been paid to his views on the cult. However, several liberal writers influenced by Troeltsch have seen evangelical Christianity in terms of a cult.

More important for the modern usage of the word "cult" has been the development of evangelical polemics against groups which they have seen as heretical. The classic work on this subject, which probably gave the word its modern usage, is Jan van Baalen's The Chaos of Cults (1938). In this work van Baalen expounds the beliefs of various religious groups such as theosophy, Christian Science, Mormonism, and Jehovah's Witnesses and subjects them to a rigorous theological critique from an evangelical perspective. In the last twenty years a large number of evangelical books dealing with cults have appeared. Over the course of time these have increasingly concentrated on the allegedly fraudulent claims of the cults, the immoralities of their leaders, and the ways in which their followers are deceived. As a result, in many cases a transition has occurred from a theological argument refuting the claims of various religious groups to a reliance upon psychological arguments which suggest that members of these groups are in some way brainwashed.

This development poses a great danger for evangelical Christianity as can be seen from William Sargent's The Battle for the Mind (1957). In this book Sargent takes evangelical conversion as a classic example of brainwashing. More recently this argument has been developed by Jim Siegelman and Flo Conway in their popular book Snapping (1979), where the experience of born again Christians is compared to the process by which people join groups like the Moonies. Such books as these and stories in the media about brainwashing have led to considerable pressure on governments in various American states, Canada, Britain, and Germany for anticonversion laws. These laws are supposedly aimed at groups like the Moonies. But because of their lack of definition (cf. the Lasher Amendment, State of New York in Assembly, March 25, 1980) they are in practice aimed at any form of change of life style brought about by a religious conversion.

Today the real problem of cults is the propaganda value of the word "cult" in a secular society. Although there are reliable statistics to show that the total membership of groups like the Children of God, the Unification Church (Moonies), and Hare Krishna is less than 35,000 in the United States and even fewer in other Western countries, these groups are presented as a major threat to society. As a result secularists are able to urge the acceptance of laws which replace religious freedom by a grudgingly granted religious toleration. Rather than persisting with the use of a word which has now become a propaganda weapon, the academic practice of calling such groups "new religious movements" should be followed. An alternative to this neutral terminology available for Christians who oppose such groups on theological grounds would be to revive the usage of "heretic" or simply call such groups "spiritual counterfeits." Such a procedure would move the debate away from psychological theories that can be used by secularists against Christianity to the arena of theological discussion and religious argument.

I Hexham
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

M Hill, Sociology of Religion; W R Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults; H W Richardson, ed., New Religions and Mental Health; C Y Glock and R N Bellah, eds., The New Religious Consciousness; I I Zaretzky and M P Leone, eds., Religious Movements in Contemporary America; T Robbins and D Anthony, eds., In Gods We Trust; R S Ellwood, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America; J Needleman and G Baker, eds., Understanding the New Religions.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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