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.
From that perspective — the viewpoint of a Christian — that is true since 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. While the ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ claims to be not only Christian in nature but also the only true expression of historical Christianity, Mormonism in reality has usurped and plagiarized Christian terminology and scriptures, creating a new religion.
In other words, the Mormon Church is not a Christian denomination, nor it is a sect — a term 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 LDS 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.
[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.
Note that while cult experts who approach cults from a sociological view generally do not address theological issues, cult experts 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.
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 prime 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 wewll.
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?
Search Engine: Cult Information & Cult Experts
You can also use our Cult Information Search Engine to find information about cult experts, (religious) cults, cult-like organizations, — as well as paranormal-, New Age, and pseudo-scientific claims — across 260+ websites, blogs and forums dedicated to cult research, spiritual abuse, ex-cult counseling & support:
Purpose of this blog
This blog deals with definitions of the term ‘cult.’
It also keeps track of how the term ‘cult’ is used in the media: brief quotes, where necessary some brief comments, and where appropriate links to resources for further research.