General story

Why the label ‘cult’ gets in the way of understanding new religions

In this 1979 image disciples of Guru Rajneesh Chandra Mohan lie on the ground, in meditatation, wearing garnments in various shade of orange at the mystic's cult headquarters in Poona, India. In this setting Rajneesh offers encouter groups that "go beyond boundaries of sex, violence, anger and rage", and lead, he claims to greater self-awareness. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

(The Conversation) — “Cults” are back in the news.

The Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” has revived interest in the “free-love cult” founded by Indian guru Rajneesh, or “Osho,” that in 1984 launched a “bioterror attack,” spreading salmonella in restaurants near the group’s Oregon headquarters.

Then there’s NXIVM, a “sex cult” based in Albany, New York. Media reports state that NXIVM’s female members recruited “slaves,” who were branded with the initials of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere. Raniere, also called the “Vanguard,” has been arrested for sex trafficking.

Scholars sometimes use the term “cult” to describe groups that have distinctive beliefs and strong levels of commitment. The problem comes with the popular use of the word “cult,” often used to describe authoritarian groups that induce beliefs or actions through “mind control” or “brainwashing.”

As an academic, who teaches and writes about religion, I believe that the label “cult” gets in the way of understanding new or alternative religions.

Here’s why

First, “cult” is a vague category.

Authoritarian leaders and structures can easily be found in groups that have clear missions. From the Catholic Church to the U.S. Marine Corps, many organizations rely on strict discipline and obedience. Using the word “cult” is an easy way to criticize a group, but a poor way to describe one.

Second, “mind control” or “brainwashing” theories have problems.

In popular understanding, the leaders of cults use mind control or brainwashing to permanently remake the personalities of recruits by forcing them to do and believe things that they normally wouldn’t accept. If that’s true, as some scholars have pointed out, there would be measurable impacts at “the biochemical level of the brain.” For now, there’s no proof that brain cells can be automatically changed by religious means.

“Brainwashing” was associated with the Unification Church, or “The Moonies,” founded by South Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Moonies would isolate new recruits and shower them with attention, a process called “love bombing.”

But, as sociologist Eileen Barker showed in her research on the Unification Church, recruitment rates were still very low. Whether it’s “love bombing,” “mind control” or “brainwashing,” the results aren’t very impressive.

Third, the label “cult” is negative.

As British sociologist James Beckford has observed, “cults” are usually associated with beliefs and practices considered to be “unhealthy.” But what is seen as healthy in one culture may be seen as unhealthy in another.

In fact, early Christianity could be called a “cult” because Christian beliefs and practices – such as not publicly worshipping the emperor – were considered strange and dangerous in ancient Rome.

Fourth, the term “cult” does not engage with key parts of a group’s belief system.

For example, religion scholars James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher argue that the 1993 “Waco siege” ended in tragedy, in part, because the FBI ignored the Bible-based beliefs of the Branch Davidians, a millenarian Christian sect.

Four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were killed trying to arrest “cult leader” David Koresh. After a 51-day standoff, the FBI injected tear gas into the group’s compound. Seventy-five people, including children, lost their lives when the compound burned to the ground. If the FBI had dialogued with Branch Davidians by taking their beliefs seriously – instead of seeing members as brainwashed followers of a mad cult leader – deaths could perhaps have been avoided.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. It takes careful study to understand whether a religious group is simply “strange” or dangerous.

The ConversationBut the term “cult” lumps together all new or alternative religions. And when people hear the word “cult,” discussions end before any study has even begun.

(Mathew Schmalz is an associate professor of religion at the College of the Holy Cross. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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Mathew Schmalz


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  • cult – a pseudo “religious” entity attempting to draw people from the reality of Who Christ is and His reason for coming – always counterfeited by satan and his.

  • Cult— people who believe different ridiculous stuff than we do, but…

    don’t have the numbers to qualify as a religion.

    Have even less evidence, until they have more.

    Are rivals for power, obey, influence, dominion.

    Can’t convince the far right that they have as much validity.

  • So, what are the opportunists over at The Conversation driving at now? That “all new or alternative religions” aren’t “cults”? That “groups that have distinctive beliefs and strong levels of commitment” aren’t “cults”?

    Oh I get it. You guys want to ban or censor or ridicule the term or “label … ‘cult'” altogether? In the interest of what – or whom – though, is what I don’t get.


  • Yet it’s popular to use the phrase “cult following” to mean something cool. Like Nirvana or Radiohead or Fleetwood Mac enjoyed a “cult following” for years. Obama too. Myself I have a “cult following” of 1 – my beloved!

  • The SBC has degenerated into a cult since the coup by the hard line Calvinists took place about 40 years ago. Instead of worshiping God they worship the KJV of the Bible calling it “inerrant” or “inspired” ignoring passages which are not true such as those that define the Earth as a disk in the center of the universe.

    Their twisted worship of the Bible is nothing more than idolatry and their false claim that they know who is and is not going to heaven is blasphemy as they are placing themselves above God. This doesn’t even include their sacrilege of referring to mainline orthodox Christian churches as “social clubs” and conducting altar calls at funerals. If one claims these never take place I can attest that they do as my so called SBC “preacher” brother did all of these things and more before, during and after my father’s funeral.

    The Southern Baptist Cult is now primarily a political organization focused on overthrowing the US government replacing it with a theocracy reminiscent of the government in colonial Salem. Anyone who would oppose the hardliners would be risking their lives just like the so called “witches” in Salem.

    So, in many cases the use of the word cult is not misplaced and instead is highly accurate.

  • Why do you assume everyone has an agenda? Can’t people just have a conversation? You seem a little tense. Maybe a little less caffeine is in order. Your heart will thank you.

  • “Cult” as used presently = any religion the speaker disagrees with.
    In 1926’s Nancy Drew book 6, “The Secret at Red Gate Farm,” the blonde teenaged gumshoe infiltrated a “nature cult” that held ceremonies dressed in robes like the Ku Klux Klan by donning a white robe like the rest of them. In the end she found out it was a front for organized crime – you know, just like Focus on the Family, Faux News, and The Rethuglican Party.

  • And this coming from a girl who ran away mid-sentence from a losing debate with me 6 months ago, after spraying this – OMG sacrilegious! – graffiti banned by the Pope-Who-Denies-Tormenting-Hell-Exists:


  • The family name of my “‘cult following’ of 1 – my beloved”, is KORESH, actually. No relation, though.

    NoMoreBadTown, however, sounds very cultic to me. What happened to you at the previous BadTown? You’re not atheistic enough for them on account of you being a Lazy Aimless Scavenger trolling at Non-Atheistic sites for, hmmm, I don’t know but let me guess – for Non-Atheists? Must be so self-authenticating that way, right? Needing theists as a crutch for atheism?


  • My bad, NoMoreBadTown. My apologies. Lots I don’t know about. Like, “The lyrics and tone of Operation Ivy’s music portray a vociferous desire for social justice and a strong distrust of mainstream conformist culture.” Quite a calling to live up to. I know you’re serious, so more (ska punk) power to you. Your avatar makes sense to me now. Better late than never.

    I take back what I said yesterday.

  • The writer states that ‘cult’ as a term is too vague to define, and then goes about defining it, and pretty accurately at times. From Aristotle to Wittgenstein class/group ids are often commonsensical. We are in an era when relationships of power are being examined. Cults, in part, are based on unequal relationships, and the leaders(s) exert power and control over those they lead beyond the general persuasion of words delivered by a politician, professor, TED talk. Second, if the org points toward death, I have no problem w/’cult,’ nor if it demonizes others.