DEFINFIONS OF +quot;CULT' ARTICULATION REQUIRED Today, because the term+quot;cult+quot; is
DEFINFIONS OF "CULT'
Today, because the term"cult" is fraught with assorted shades of
connotations as well as denotations, confusion is rampant over its
meaning. Its use ranges from a neutral descriptive term to a pejo-
rative one bent on condemning a particular lifestyle. In any
discussion of contemporary religions, an articulate definition of
the word "cult"' becomes essential.
DICTIONARIES DO NOT SOLVE THE PROBLEM
Some people mistakenly turn to the dictionary as the "final au-
thority" when defining words. However, the job of lexicographers,
those people who produce dictionaries, is not to 'tell' us, from an
authoritarian position, the 'only correct' definition of any
particular word. Rather, their job is to merely report how any
individual word 1) has been used and 2) is currently being used.
If we assume that a dictionary gives only one 'right' definition,
we misunderstand the function of dictionaries.
For instance, a short etymology of the word "cult" can be found in
the Oxford English Dictionary. The word was first used in 1617 to
mean reverential homage rendered to a divine being. The next
distinct way the word "cult'" was employed began about 1679. It now
meant a particular form or system of religious worship. In 1711
'cult" took on a new and different meaning; devotion or homage to
a particular person or thing paid by a body of professed adherents
or admirers. Clearly, this smorgasbord of dictionary definitions
does not remove our confusion.
Hence, to use a word correctly means to use it the same way ev-
eryone else is currently using it. But our problem is that
everyone is not using the word "cult"' in the same manner. Instead
of resorting to the dictionary as the final arbiter of truth,
which it does not claim to be, it seems that a better approach
would be to sort out the various definitions in use today and be
aware of their distinctive meanings in our conversation and
In the broadest sense, the word "cult" approaches the 1711 defi-
nition. We may correctly speak of a Bob Dylan cult;i.e., there is
a body of people who admire Bob Dylan. However, this definition is
so general that it loses all practical function. Under this mean-
ing there would be as many cults as there are popular people.
THREE WAYS "CULT" IS USED
By far, the most common use of 'cult" today is the 1679 definition:
a particular system of worship. Howwer, this too is a very broad
definition and becomes identical to the word "religion, making
Islam, Buddhism, and every Christian denomination a cult. Upon
further examination, within this religious frame of reference, we
find that the word "cult" has taken on three distinct denotations
in 20th.century North American culture.
The first sense is a socioloical one. From a sociological point of
view, a cult is a group of people with some particular system of
worship in common. A sociologist or a cultural anthropologist
will only describe lifestylr, extrnal rites and ceremonies. He
might compare the diet of 'an'Australian Aborigine with that of the
Alaskan Eskimo. Please note, however, that neither the sociologist
nor the cultural anthropologist will make any value judgment
concerning the group being studied.
The second sense is a philosophical/religous one. A philosopher
would not be interested in the external lifestyle and rites in
which a particular religion is pressed. Instead, he is interested
in the belief system or world-view. Therefore, a philosophical or
religious use of the word cult would entail not only a description
of the belief system but also an analysis of it. A philosopher
might ask, "is this particular belief system logical, consistent,
conformed to reality as we understand it?" A theologian might ask,
"does it conform to religious dogma?" In other words, both would
make a value judgment concerning this particular belief system.
The third sense, which has come into vogue only in the past few
years, is the media definition. The media, in describing a cult,
will describe the lifestyle or external rites of that religion.
The Hare Krishna are considered a cult by the media because they
forfeit sexual pleasure outside of procreation. The Family of Love
(formerly called the Children of God) are considered a cult by the
media fuse they give their money to Moses David. And the
Unification Church (deridinggly called,moonies. by the press) are
considered a cult because they will obey Sun Myung Moon to the
death. However, in addition to describing the lifestyle, the media
will also add a value judgement when reporting or writing on cults.
The impression projected via voice inflections, format, and visual
presentations creates an image not far different from the boogey
man. The clear message conveyed by the media is 'you would
certainly not want your children to join one." In fact, the
coverage is so blatantly negative, that there are several
defamation of character lawsuits pending against the media at this
With the powerful influence of the media, this definition has
gained wide currency while escaping critial analysis. This deiini-
tion must be #mined. The
Sociological definition of cult:
press, after all, is not above
a. describe iifestyle
scrutiny. Please note what
b. no value judgment added
has happened here. The
media has taken one aspect
a. describe the belief system
ftom the sociological defini-
b. value judgment added
tion and one aspect ftom the
Media definition of cult
a. describe lifestyle
inition and mixed the two:
b. value judgment added
The media definition lacks objectivity, consistency and abrogates
religious liberty. First, the press is not objective. They are
not in business to inform you, although you may become informed.
They are not in business to educate you, although you may become
educated. Newspapers, magazines, and television are in business to
be in business. The newspapers' motive in selling you and me
subscriptions is not benevolence, but rather, the proverbial
"bottom line.' When a newspaper increases its circulation they can
charge their advertisers more money for the
same advertising space. This fact, in and of itself, points up the
media's tendency to sensationalize "cult" stories.
In addition, the press should not be considered totally objective
simply because it enters into the news-making process. Who can
deny the influence of the 'coverage' during the 1988 GOP
presidential nomination in Atlanta? Millions of viewers across the
nation made their election decision based on the coverage of that
covention. It is naive to believe the media is totally objective.
Second, the media definition is inconsistent. Why is it that when
the Hare Krishna, Children of God, and the Unification Church
relinquish sex, money, and self determination, they are Iabeled as
a "cult" by the media, yet when Roman Catholic priests live the
same way, the media does not consider them cultists?(1) Virtually
every Catholic priest must take three vows: the vow of poverty, the
vow of chastity, and the vow of obedience - the exact same
practices by which the media identifies others as "cultists." We
never see the media referring to the Roman Catholic Church as a
cult. Why? (Obviously, they wish to remain in business.) The
media can attack a particular group as "cultic" only as long as it
is small and is not an economic threat-witness the history of the
Mormon church. Certainly, the media originally treated Mormonism as
a cult. But now that the Mormons have grown numerically,
poetically and eeonomically, they have somehow lost their dubious
distinction as a "cult" in the secular media.
Third, not only does the media definition lack objectivity and
consistency, it also abrogates religious liberty. It is precisely
this media defnition which is used by secular anti-cult
organizations which support 'deprogaming.' Deprograming is the
unlawful kidnapping of a grown adult, restraining him against his
will and assaulting his personality until he returns to a previous
pattern perhaps a better term would be 'reprograming' rather than
'deprograming.' After all, the whole idea of 'deprograming' is to
return someone to his 'old self,' good or bad.
All the various implications of deprograming must be considered.
Some people do not mind if a Krishna, Unification, or Children of
God member is deprogramed. After all, "they are a cult." But what
happens when a fellow evangelical Christian is deprogramed? You
might reply, "but this has not happened."
Recently, two Assemblies of God women from Virginia, while on a
visit to Detroit, were kidnapped, restrained against their will,
and suffered personality assaults ftom professional 'deprogramers'
for four days and nights. The deprograming was unsuccessful only
because the FBI was tipped off from one of the participating
deprogramers. It is no longer hypothetical. It is a real and
present danger. An unofficial 'hit list' used by some secular
anti-cult organizations for identif#ing cults includes several
Christian churches and para-church organizations. Many secular
anti.cult organizations are so bent on deprograming that they are
lobbying city, state, and Federal governments for legislation to
We must realize that if we restrict the religious liberty of a
cultist, we also necessarily restrict our own religious liberty.
The fonding fathers of our social contract, the U.S. Constitution,
uderstood that a simple majority could lead to a 'tyranny of the
majority.' To prevent this from happening they drew up the Bill
rights, which insures the inalienable human rights, given by .
God. Deprograming abrogates the first article of the Bill of its
as it prohibits the free exercise of religion, abridges freedom of
speech and the right of people to peaceably assemble.
For these reasons, lack of objectivity, inconsistency and
abrogation religious liberty, we cannot suhscribe to the media
definition of the word,"cult". As a matter of fact, I do not know
of one scholar who utilizes this type of definition. It is great
for selling papers, but is found wanting for any serious
The sociological definition is used today by both sociologists and
tral anthropologists. There is nothing inherently wrong with '
definition of the word "cult" as it is routinely employed in
Humanities. We just need to understand that all they are doing is
describing the lifestyle and external rites of a particular group
of religious people and that they make no value judgments it those
practices. In fact, the extent to which a sociologist makes a
value judgment is the extent to which he/she is no longer
practicing sociology, but rather, entering into the arena of either
philosophy or religion.
The pilosophical/religious definition describes the belief system
world.view of the group in question and then makes a value
judgment. For instance, does the belief system in question conform
to the religion of which it claims to be a member? If so, then it
may be what it claims to be; if not, then it must be some
preversion of that religion. Clearly, the Hare Krishna are not a
Chritian cult, they are a Hindu cult. Likewise, Zen Buddhism is
not Christian cult, but a Buddhist cult.
Therefor, in describing the belief system of a 'Christian' cult, it
necessarily pervert some basic principle of the Christian of the
Christian belief system.
That is to say, it must reject either the Biblical God, or Jesus
or salvation, without which you do not have Christianity. (2)
I am not challenging the right of any group of people to practice
religion as they see fit. I am only enunciating a clear value
of Judgment; if a group of people deny the central Christian
docstrines, they should not claim to be Christians. And, if they
continue to claim to be Christian, they are guilty of blatant
deception need to be exposed as a "cult;". i.e., heresy, or
THe media definition, owing to its lack of objectivity, inconsis-
tency and disregard for religious liberty, is clearly not an option
in any serious discussion of comparative religions. Therefore, if
ire a person who is interested in simply examining the lifestyle of
a group ofpeople,you would opt for the sociological definnition.
However, if you are thinking in terms of good/bad, shoulf
join/should not join, then you must necessarily utilize a
philosophical/religious definition such as the one detailed above.
(1) Note I am merely addressing the inconsistency of the media's
use of word "cult," nor the nature of the Catholic church
(2) Two indicators are also present with vritually every Christaian
cult: 1) they utilize extra-Bibical revelation 2) they are based on
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank