What is a cult?
Sometimes it seems that question has as many answers as there are, well, cults.
Yet the term ‘cult’ has a precise definition — or rather, several precise definitions. Which definition is the right one largely depends on the context in which the term ‘cult’ is applied.
A ‘cult wine’ is, after all, something different than a ‘religious cult.’ A rock band with a ‘cult following’ differs greatly from a ‘suicide cult.’ And a ‘cult following’ is not necessarily the same thing as ‘following a cult.’
Cult: Dictionary Definition
The definition of the term ‘cult’ as provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary covers a variety meanings:
1 : formal religious veneration : worship
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b : the object of such devotion
c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
The dictionary also explains the term’s etymology: French & Latin; French culte, from Latin cultus care, adoration, from colere to cultivate. See this article for a closer look at the history of the term cult and its usage.
Cult: Meanings Vary
The term is confusing because it is ambiguous — infused with a variety of meanings depending on who uses it — and for which purpose it is used.
For example, the term ‘cult’ can be used in a theological and/or a sociological sense. The word takes on different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
The theological sense is used when discussing religious differences: a group or movement is theologically a cult if it identifies itself as belonging to a mainstream, recognized religion — and yet rejects or otherwise violates one or more of the central, essential teachings of that religion.
Essential teachings are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence.
A silly example, but one that illustrates this concept: you cannot call something a tomato sauce if it does not include tomatoes — because tomatoes are a central, essential ingredient (‘teaching’ or ‘doctrine’) of tomato sauce. A sauce that is made with apples instead of tomatoes but is sold as ‘tomato sauce’ is a ‘cult of tomato sauce’, because it rejects one of the essential ingredients of tomato sauce, and thus misrepresents itself as something it is not.
The sociological sense is used when discussing behavior or other sociological aspects: a group or movement may be a cult if it acts in ways that are illegal or otherwise unacceptable in a civilized society.
Silly example: a restaurant that serves a perfectly acceptable, genuine tomato soup by pouring it into your lap is sociologically a cult restaurant.
An Example from religion
That is true because compared with historic, Bible-based Christianity, the Mormon Church rejects, changes or adds to the essential doctrines of the Christian faith to such an extend that Mormonism must be regarded as having separated itself from the faith it claims to represent, and instead having established a new religion that is not compatible with historic, Bible-based Christianity.
Yet the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) — the official name of the Mormon Church — claims to be not only a) Christian in nature, but also b) the only true expression of historical Christianity. Mormonism in reality has usurped and plagiarized Christian terminology and scriptures, creating a new religion.
Not a sect or denomination
That means the Mormon Church can also not be considered a Christian denomination — nor a sect of Christianity
The term sect is often used to indicate a group or movement that — while still part of the faith it identifies with — has doctrines or practices not in line with those of historical Christianity, but usually not to such an extend that it must be considered a different religion altogether.
From a Christian perspective that religion fits meaning #2 in the dictionary definition quoted above, since it is a “religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”
In its turn, the Mormon Church likewise does its best to distinguish itself from groups that it considers to be separate religious movements — even while those movement claim to represent historical Mormonism.
[Important: note that the term 'sect' itself is also ambiguous, and -- to make things even more confusing -- is often used instead of the term 'cult.']
Yet those who deal primarily with the sociological characteristics of groups and movements usually find little to nothing in Mormonism and the Mormon Church that would cause them to apply the term ‘cult’ — because their evaluation is based largely on how the group or movement acts, rather than what it beliefs.
When people use the term cult without qualifying what they mean by that word, their statements tend to cause confusion.
The term should be placed in context: “XYZ is a cult in the theological sense, because…”. “123 is a cult in the sociological sense, because…”
Cult experts come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
While some experts who approach cults from a sociological view generally do not address theological issues, those who deal with cults from a theological perspective often also address sociological issues.
The latter is a better approach, since people’s actions are informed by their beliefs.
Cults both theologically and sociologically
A prime example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a full-blown cult (as defined sociologically) is the Children of God, now called The Family International.
Another example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a cult (as defined sociologically) is the International Churches of Christ — a notorious example of an abusive church.
The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, whose members are referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses, theologically is a cult of Christianity, and sociologically has countless cult-like elements as well.
Cults in other religions
Cults — as defined theologically — also exist in other religions. The definition holds, as long as a certain group claims to be part of, or representative of, a religion while at the same time violating that religion’s essential doctrines.
Essential doctrines are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence. Much the same way, say, a tuna salad must include tuna, religions have basic, essential ingredients (doctrines).
Variety of Cults
Groups said to be ‘cults’ are not necessarily religious.
Such is the case with, for instance, political cults (e.g. Lyndon LaRouche), psycho-spiritual or self-improvement workshops (LGAT, Large Group Awareness Training), and hate groups (e.g. Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacists).
Cults are not always destructive
Not all groups that could in one way or another be defined, sociologically, as cults are necessarily destructive. For instance, not every high-demand group requires its members to cut off normal contact with friends and family.
A good initial check is to ask, how does this group impact a person’s health, wealth, and/or personal relationships?
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This article was first posted on August 22, 2009. It was last updated on Dec. 16, 2013.