What is a Cult?

I finished reading a book I had been working on for a while: Escape by Carolyn Jessop. It is the true life experiences of a woman, raised FLDS(married at 18 to a much older man[8 kids by the time she was 34]), who escaped the polygamous cult with her kids. It was a very interesting perspective of life among the Mormon Fundamentalists. She only escaped a few years ago and lives in a Salt Lake City suburb. She and her kids are thriving, with the exception of one who chose to return to the cult.

Having been raised in a religion referred to by many as a cult, I have always found that word offensive and disliked using it. However, not too long ago, I decided to look up the meaning of it. My understanding of the definition of cult is similar to that of Newsweek “normally small, fringe groups whose members derive their identity and purpose from a single, charismatic individual.” Asiaweek has a similar definition: “the term [cult] itself is vague, but it usually denotes a new religious creed built around a charismatic leader, who often proclaims himself to be the personification of God.”

One day I was watching a program on TLC re: cults and was angered to hear my religion referred to as such. I decided to prove them wrong and look up the word “cult”. I was already aware of how my faith defined the term (see above) but I wanted to see if there were other definitions that made people label us as such. I tried my old dictionaries and encyclopedias and found a very generic definition:

1-worship; reverential honor; religious devotion

2-the system of outward forms and ceremonies used in worship;                             religious rites and formalities

3-devoted attachment to, or extravagent admiration for, a person,                         principle, etc., especially when regarded as a fad; as, the cult of                           nudism

Those definitions didn’t seem to cover it and I thought the word might have evolved, so I needed a more current definition. I  tried the internet. Wikipedia defines the word cult as “a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.” I thought that  definition equally vague as most religions have teachings or traditions others might find strange. Wikipedia’s definition was obviously longer than those nine words, but I wanted other sources.

I found other sites and definitions and most agreed with Wikipedia’s overall summary:

  1. People are put in physical or emotionally distressing situations;
  2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
  3. They receive 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.

I thought some of the things could apply to my religion (i.e unconditional attention, isolation, and information control). But still believed most religions could meet some of those requirements.

I quickly learned that the word “cult” had evolved over time and, thanks to groups such as The Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate, had taken on a sinister meaning. In fact, many sociologists and theologists choose not to use the word at all because of its negative connotation.

That being said, I did come across some very interesting explanations for “cult”:

  • www.cultfaq.orgA cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrine system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian Faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.   I imagine they are referring to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity (i.e. trinity, immortal soul, rapture, etc.)
  • Rich McGee, a theological scholar, wrote a paper  on cults that can be found atwww.leaderu.com. He narrowed it down to:
  1. Cut-off: isolated from family and friends
  2. Undernourished: deprivation creates followers with low resistance
  3. Leadership: absolute and unquestionable
  4. Theology/truth: the faith claims sole possession of truth and has an”us vs. them” concept

McGee goes on to define a difference in religious cults: Western Cults,               Eastern Cults, and New Age Cults. Notice what he says about Western               Cults:


  • Western Cults. These have their roots in Christianity, usually claiming to be the true church. They use the Bible as one of their sources and Jesus Christ as a central figure. These are groups such as the Mormons, Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science. The People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians would also be in this category. (Hmmm, there it is again. Only now I don’t feel quite so defensive. Could it be they are right about the whole cult thing?)

  • My third and final source comes from www.howcultswork.com and is extremely interesting. This site begins by breaking down misconceptions many have regarding cults:
  1. Easy to spot because they dress weird
  2. Full of weak-willed and emotionally unstable people
  3. Just a bunch of religious nut cases
  4. Such groups not only don’t think they are cults but call all other groups cults

The site then went on to explain all the things that characterize a cult:

  • Single charismatic leader.
  • People always seeming constantly happy and enthusiastic. Especially if you discover that they have been told to act that way for the potential new recruits.
  • Instant friends.
  • If you are told who you can or cannot talk to or associate with.
  • They hide what they teach.
  • Say they are the only true group, or the best so why go anywhere else.
  • Hyped meetings, get you to meetings rather than share with you.
  • Experiential rather than logical.
  • Asking for money for the next level.
  • Some cults travel door to door during times when women are home alone. They, and this is rather sexist, think that women are easier to recruit and once they have the woman then it will be easier to snare the husband or partner.
  • Saying that they have to make people pay for it because otherwise they will not appreciate it. This is of course a very silly reason, plenty of people are able to appreciate things which they did not pay for.
  • Old publications by the group. Often the older cults have predicted the end of the world or changed their beliefs significantly, hence their older publications become a danger to them. For some of the older cults people have produced books of photo copies of these changes.

All very thought-provoking ideas. So, the final analysis? Yes, I do think my religion could qualify as a cult, but I agree with theologians who claim the word has taken on way too much negative baggage to be tosses around freely. When examining the history of the word (pre-20th century) it didn’t have the sinister meaning it does now. Is it wrong to belong to a group widely characterized as a cult? If that group brings happiness to someone and they are not expected to commit suicide, or, if they are in it with their eyes wide open, then no. A member of my family recently posted something on Facebook which I found interesting, and though I don’t agree with it, find it illustrates this point quite nicely:  “I would rather walk with God in the dark than go alone in the light.”


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