What is a Cult?

What is a Cult?

Brooks Alexander

This article is reprinted by permission of © 1979 Spiritual Counterfeits Project, Inc., P.O. Box 4308, Berkley, CA 94704.

What is a “Cult”? Ten or twenty years ago this would have been an easy question to answer; today the guidelines have become somewhat muddled.

The origin of the word is the Latin cultus, which is a perfectly ordinary term meaning any kind of ritual, ceremony, or liturgy. Our English version of the term still carries this same meaning today. A secondary meaning which has developed in recent times designates a teaching, group, or movement which deviates from orthodoxy while claiming to represent the true faith. In this sense, a cult can be recognized by defining it in relation to some standard of orthodox belief. In the Western world, that standard has usually been one of orthodox Christianity, though in principle it could be a standard of orthodox Islam, Judaism, Zen, or witchcraft. In fact, there are “cults” within all of these groups, and more. It is worth observing that when the Christian Church first appeared as such on this planet, it was technically a “cult” of Judaism insofar as it differed from the dominant “orthodoxy” of its day. In any event, this concept of “cult” as an unorthodox deviation has prevailed until recently.

Within the last decade or so, however, sociologists, popular authors, and the secular press have begun to use the word in new and often poorly defined ways. Today controversy seethes in the academic world as to what (if anything) the term “cult” does mean. One school of sociological thought accepts the definition of a cult as “a deviation from orthodoxy”; however, the concept of “orthodoxy” is changed by broadening

it from a strictly religious standard to a social and cultural one. In this view, cults are groups which break off from the “conventional consensus and espouse very different views of the real, the possible and the moral.”1 Other authorities dissent, however, and put forward alternative definitions as the fruit of their own studies. A survey of the literature of sociology reveals that there is a great deal of disagreement among scholars. The popular press has added to this conceptual turbulence by applying the label “cult” to almost any movement that is weird, sinister, authoritarian, or incomprehensible to the writer.

Such confusion is perhaps inevitable when a term that is essentially religious in derivation is appropriated by analysts who have no religious stance or standard of their own. Under the circumstances, we are entitled to ask if the word has not lost its usefulenss and usability altogether. Even if the expression had an agreed-upon meaning, its usefulness would be limited by the fact that dividing the religious and quasi-religious phenomena of the world into cult versus noncult categories does not greatly advance our understanding or aid our wise behavior. Even after such a label is applied, all of the toughest questions still hang around waiting to be answered. Despite this fact, it is still worth trying to get a handle on whatever descriptive quality or value the word may have, simply because it is so widely used.

Perhaps we should begin by eliminating some bogus definitions. We can at least identify and exclude uses of the term that are plainly inaccurate, inadequate, or misleading. In the first place the concept of “cult” should not be equated with the intensity of commitment or involvement which is characteristic of the so-called high-demand groups, religious or secular. Nor is an aggressiveness of proselytizing cultish in itself. Both of these qualities —in one form or another — are basic to authentic Christianity, for example. Jesus’ call to discipleship is nothing if not “high demand,” and his command to “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) certainly proposes an ambitious scheme of evangelism.

These two elements in particular are worth singling out because they have apparently been the basis for mislabeling some groups as cults. Two groups which have occasionally been the target for such mistaken identification are “Jews for Jesus” and “Campus Crusade for Christ.” A recent article in People magazine (December 4, 1978) implied that Campus Crusade staffers were at least semicultish because of their complete commitment to the goals and activities of the group. Jews for Jesus, on the other hand, tend to ruffle the feathers of many people because they evangelize intensely —though politely — in many of the same locations frequented by the Moonie and Hare Krishna recruiters: street corners, airports, and college campuses. In a recent article on the “Peoples Temple” (Oakland Tribune, November 23, 1978) Senator Hayakawa mentioned “Jews for Jesus” by name in tandem with Moonies, Scientiologists, and Hare Krishnas as being among those who “give up their families, their homes, their entire previous background, even their moral standards — to follow a new messiah of dubious credentials.” The fact is that none of the above accurately describes the policy of “Jews for Jesus.” Senator Hayakawa has since graciously retracted his statement in a letter which says, “It appears now that I was mistaken in naming the Jews for Jesus as a cult, and I apologize. The error was one of association.”

In dealing with the characteristics which positively mark a group as cultish, the picture becomes less clear. The problem is that neither a definition based on a standard of techniques of behavioral manipulation and conditioning, is comprehensive enough to cover all the ground. As Christians, we are of course particularly concerned with those seductive false prophets who use the name of God and Jesus Christ to “lead astray, if it were possible even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). At the same time we need to cultivate insight into cultic groups which apparently have little relationship to “religion” as it is commonly understood, and even less to Christianity perse. Perhaps the best approach is one which combines the two different standards without confusing them. (One book which has successfully done this is Know the Marks of Cults, by Dave Breese).2

Qualities which can be recognized as cultic in terms of a theological definition (i.e., constituting deviations from orthodoxy) would include the following:

1. A false or inadequate basis of salvation. The Apostle Paul drew a distinction that is utterly basic to our understanding of truth when he said, “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Inasmuch as the central doctrine of biblical Christianity is the sacrificial death of Christ for our sin, all cultic deviations tend to downplay the finished work of Christ and emphasize the importance of earning moral acceptance before God through our own righteous works as a basis of salvation.

2. A false basis of authority. Biblical Christianity by definition takes the Bible as its yardstick of the true, the false, the necessary, the permitted, the forbidden, and the irrelevant. Cults, on the other hand, commonly resort to extrabiblical documents or contemporary “evelation” as the substantial basis of their theology (e.g., Mormons). While some cult groups go through the motions of accepting the authority of Scripture, they actually honor the group’s or leader’s novel interpretation of Scripture as normative (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Way International). Many groups use biblical scriptures to validate their claims, but plainly jettison any concept of biblical authority in favor of the pronouncements of a charismatic leader (e.g., Transcendental Meditation, Divine Light Mission, Peoples Temple). In authentic Christianity, at least, there is no prophet or guru who does not stand under the judgment of Scripture, as do the rest of us.

Non-theological standards will also be helpful in identifying cults. Most such guidelines concern techniques of acquiring and training converts, and include (among others) the following:

1. Isolation or “involvement” of the recruit to the point that the group controls all incoming information. One of the most critical stages of cultic conditioning requires that the new member be insulated from any opinion, data, or interpretation that does not conform to the group’s purposes and understanding. It is one thing to withdraw from the world’s turmoil for a period of reflection or training. It is an insidiously different matter to create fortified boundaries against the outside world which confine members and attack or threaten those who would leave.

2. Economic exploitation or an enslaving organizational structure. This factor is both obvious and self-explanatory. Ordinary gumption ought to steer one clear of a group in which the leaders live in luxury while the “lay” members toil to support the organization; likewise beware of arrangements which bind the convert to serve the group in return for “training” or other forms of advancement through the ranks.

3. Esotericism. This quality may well be the most damning evidence of all; unfortunately, it is the most difficult to document. The concept of the “esoteric” simply refers to a deliberately created gap between the truth about the cult which is given to the “inner circle” and a misleading image which is projected to the public at large. In cult evangelism, recruiters usually conceal either the identity of the group or its real purpose until the convert has become vulnerable or has already established a preliminary commitment. One legal scholar has referred to this factor as a “segmentation of the joining process,” and notes that “what is distinctive about this process is that, although the potential convert may be given a general idea of the activities and teachings that will be offered at the next stage, at no point early in the process is he given an opportunity to elect to embark on the entire journey.”3

To bring the discussion around once more to the theological question, the element of “esotericism” is perhaps the clearest distinction between Christianity and cultism. There is nothing in the beliefs and practices of authentic Christianity that is not — in principle — discoverable to a modestly diligent inquirer through any public library. In contrast, the central core of cultic belief is — as a matter of principle — commonly hidden from the eyes of outsiders.

It should be understood, of course, that the above discussion does not pretend to be either exhaustive or conclusive. At best it is a tentative and preliminary effort to define an amorphous and marginally useful term. In the context of those reservations, we hope that this article might help to clarify the thinking, talking, and writing of our brothers and sisters.

1 John Lofland, Doomsday Cult (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 1.

2 Dave Breese, Know the Marks of Cults (Wheaton, Ill.; Victor Books, 1975).

3 Richard Delgado, “Religious Totalism: Gentle and Ungentle Persuasion under the First Amendment,” Southern California Law Review 51, No. 1 (Nov. 1977):55.