What is a Cult?

Despite the negative image displayed in the media as a brainwashing, blood-drinking, money-mongering group, a cult is defined benignly in religious studies as simply a new religious movement. Since the term cult has such pejorative connotations in the public's mind, some scholars consciously shy away from utilizing the term cult in their writings, opting instead for the more neutral term "new religion." While synonymous words, somehow "new religion" or "alternative religion" is more palatable than cult, bringing to mind touchy-feely Shirley McLaine type groups and not suicidal Jim Jones'.

While some cults may be harmful or problematic (one has to only think of the Japanese Aum group which released sarin nerve gas on Japan subways in hope to initiate the New Age) certainly not all are. Thus, using the term cult to imply a deviant religious aberration is altogether a misnomer. When my students learn that the term cult really means the common reaction is at first one of surprise and then a sort of empowerment with the realization that they know something that the so-called public does not. Now they can snicker at news anchors as uninformed when they report on cults in such a demonic light.

The horrible depiction of a cult most likely represents society's bias against new or different ideas. But it is important to remember that all religions at some time began as a cult (unless they started as a break off group, otherwise known as a sect, from a parent religion). Even Christianity, the largest religion on earth and certainly the dominant religion in the Western world, began two thousand years ago as a cult. And when Christianity enters foreign soil, such as India, it is again of cult status for that particular society. In its initial stages a cult generally is at odds with the mainstream ideas of society offering a radical shift from cultural trends and hence may experience a poor reception. Labeled as weird and sometimes eccentric, cult members often face ridicule and discrimination. Yet, as the cult grows in size and gains acceptance it seems to shed its "cult" title and is welcomed into the social arena. This occurs as the cult accommodates, even ever so slightly, its philosophy and perhaps activities to fit more succinctly with social norms. The contentious history of Mormonism is a classic case in point of how a one-time cult evolves to gain acceptance.

The first generation is usually the most radical and with each generation the faith alters more and more to fit the times. If the group remains in contradiction to such normative values it will find it more difficult to survive. All too often new religious movements spring up and die out even before being documented by religious scholars. As with any new organization, success depends upon the group's ability to appeal to a larger audience. Sticking to non-flexible rules and ideology may limit its attraction. To illustrate how accommodation occurs let us take a look at Buddhism's entry into China. Instead of maintaining the atheistic philosophy espoused by Buddha, Buddhism took on Chinese mythology as Chinese gods were understood as celestial forms of the Buddha. Thus, those Chinese interested in Buddhist philosophy need not abandon their religious heritage as the Buddhist cult in China was now part of the mainstream. When a new religious movement loses its status as "new" it is thus viewed as an "established religion." Break-off groups or sects may develop in reaction to the liberalization of the group with the goal to return to a time of religious "purity." The dynamic nature of religion becomes apparent: new religious movements pop up, accommodation occurs, sects develop in reaction, and the whole process reinvigorates the religious scene once again.

A Brief History of Cults:

Many cults today are described as "old shamanism in modern dress." In other words, new religions are really not that new at all but a re-working of classic religious ideas popular throughout history. The reference to the shaman works since, like shamanism, new religions generally have an interest in healing, in charging the world with wonder and in a paradise time. Simply think of the New Age Movement with its spirit (and sometimes dolphin) channellers, astrologers, healers, and the apocalyptic age on its way. But unlike shamans who seem to fit as part of culture, cults are often placed outside of the mainstream.

To illustrate the popularity of cult type ideas in history let us examine a few examples: in the Hellenistic times there was an interest in meditation, Platonic wonder, and exemplary figures such as Pythagoras. Throughout the Middle Ages Jewish Kabhalah was established and there was an interest in alchemy and magic. In the Renaissance period the popular micro/macro concept was espoused by Paracelsus and Pico. The 18th century was a time of Freemasonry which combined rational science, Rosicrucian occultism, and biblical literalism, Swedenborgianism which spoke of a monistic god, the second coming of Jesus in the New Age and mystical travels, St. Germain of the I AM movement, and Mesmerism. In the 19th century idealism (the mind is all) was predominant and certainly Emerson fits here. This period was most known for Spiritualism, Theosophy, New Thought, and Christian Science. Eastern religions were also making their way to America at this time. And, finally, in the 20th century we find a proliferation of new religious traditions, from New Age type groups, to new Hindu guru movements, to new Christian religions, to religions which offer an interesting mix of many religious ideas. Today there is no stopping the onslaught of new religions as ideas circulate around the globe with the help of computers and modern travel.

Cults Numbers in America:

In The Cult Experience J. Gordon Melton, a leading expert on cults, argues that there are approximately nine hundred different mainline denominations in the West (namely of Christian origin) and approximately six hundred alternative religions (or cults) here. These include: theosophical/spiritualists groups, Latter-Day Saints, ancient wisdom schools, magical/occult groups, middle eastern religious organizations, and eastern religions, such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (I.S.K.CON). Altogether there are about three hundred thousand members in new religious movements in America. Melton points out that while the membership numbers are small the significance of them is not to be underplayed. The impact of new religions on the religious milieu in America, especially the influence of Eastern religions, indeed will continue to be noticeable.

Members Who Join Cults:

The members who join these groups do not necessarily have a greater risk of personal crises than non-members. In fact, many are educated, middle to upper class urbanites, who, argues Melton, may be seeking to assert adulthood, to experience group fellowship, to re-invigorate a sense of self, to re-mythologize their worldview, and to enliven spiritual intensity. Many Americans are attracted to Eastern religions since these traditions tend to be non-dogmatic, emphasize individual spiritual development, abandon dualism, see all religions as a valid path, etc. Most learn of new religions on University campuses as literature is passed out and recruiting events scheduled. About ten percent join an alternative religion after a recruiting event and those that do stay on average two years or less (most return to the religion they were raised in). Interestingly, there are a predominant number of Jews and Catholics who join a non-conventional religion. Since many Jews are raised in a secular environment an alternative religion may actually fill some void (personal or religious) in their life. As for the attraction for Catholics, perhaps (and this is purely speculation) the rigid ceremonial ritual of the mass and the sinful view of the self is eagerly replaced with a more exciting participatory group interaction and a philosophy that promotes a greater sense of self-worth and empowerment.

The claim that members are coerced or that they are subject to a pathological state is indeed unfounded. Hostile reports of cult activities generally come from parents or disillusioned ex-cult members whose anti-cult agenda is apparent. Borrowing from Victor Turner who argues that the three stages of the rites of passage are a separation, a liminal experience devoid of structure and hierarchy, and an aggregation and renewal, the cult life, claims Melton, is for many a liminal encounter. Members are given an opportunity to express their independence and to develop a new sense of self-importance, and thus the "brainwashing model" does not seem to accurately explain why people join cults. With respect to pathology, there seems to be just as many cases of it in mainline religions as there are in alternative religions. Melton, who appears to be quite sympathetic to cults, goes as far as to claim that for young members who wish to break from a strong authoritarian family joining a cult (instead of turning to drugs, prostitution, or whatever promotes an assertion of adulthood) actually may be a sensible tactic.

How to Discriminate Among New Religions:

Whether Melton is too soft in his attitude towards cults is certainly worth considering. In Spiritual Choices Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins make the argument that one needs to discriminate among new religions whether they are problematic or non-problematic groups. By problematic Anthony and Robbins mean organizations that tend to promote in-out group attitudes, to rely on charismatic leaders with potentially manipulative control over the disciples, to interpret religious text literally, to collapse the distinction between the mundane and the transcendent, and sometimes to incite millenarian ideas. With these traits greater discrimination is warranted. Anthony and Robbins place Jones' People's Temple, Scientology, Rajaneesh's group and the Unification Church, to name a few, in the questionable category. Similarly, in an article in Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements, David Lane makes the case that there are several signs of a potentially harmful religious group: the group charges a mandatory fee, membership in the group negatively affects relations with family and friends, the group leader promotes ethical standards which he/she may himself/herself not live up to, the actual history of the group is falsely documented or fabricated, and the philosophy fits pre-rational and not rational or transrational standards (in other words, critical thinking and doubting are not allowed). If the movement possesses any or all of these Lane's warning is to be weary.

According to Anthony and Robbins, non-problematic groups, on the other hand, tend to rely more on spiritual technique than a leader's personality, to be non-literalistic, to acknowledge spiritual growth as a lengthy process with multiple levels to it, and to shy away from millenarian concepts and in-out group arrogance. Altogether a legitimate group gives meaning, social stability, coherence, a workable worldview, and promotes higher spiritual/self development.


How to Professionally Study Cults:

In religious studies the overall accepted approach to study religion is phenomenology: objectively studying religious phenomena and refraining from making value judgements on what is ontologically true. Utilizing the methods of epoche (bracketing out one's prejudices) and verstehen (empathy), phenomenology allows outsiders an inside glimpse of the inner workings and logic behind a religious faith. This approach allows an air of openness between scholar and devotee and greater insight into the religion in question. Yet, when critically analyzing the data the reductive approach, grounding religion in material culture, can also play a valuable role. Instead of proposing a theological explanation for religious data, the sociologist of religion places it within a material context, although not necessarily reducing the data to simply materialistic underpinnings. It is both its objectivity and its utilization of Occam's razor that essentially classifies sociology of religion as a scientific endeavor.

However, many scholars of religion argue that in addition to phenomenology and sociology of religion we need to develop new approaches to study alternative religions. Instead of focussing on the short histories of the movement in its immediate institutional form (the synchronic model) Robert Ellwood suggests that we emphasize the philosophical continuities in new religions and their historical linkages with other religions (the diachronic approach). In fact, Ellwood contends that we call new religions "emergent religions" instead since while they appear new and sudden in reality they are filled with common symbols and often have direct historical connections. Thus, the bottom line here is that scholars need to examine the influencing factors that led to the new religion, only to discover that the religion may not be that new to begin with.

When collecting data on the new religion it is important, contends Donald Stone, to try to make our bias very explicit. The Enlightenment method of objectivity and detachment is highly suspect since when evaluating new religions personal preferences and value assumptions often enter into the study. Suggestions to study new religions include collaborative research and revealing and curbing bias by keeping an introspection journal. Also, one should ask the respondent after having read the study to make comments to increase confidence in the work; the reactions could then be printed in an appendix. Covert research sets up the wrong dynamic. Yet, while cognitive openness is important one must be careful not to engage in uncritical experiential participation, in other words going "native."


Walter Capps makes an interesting argument that the academic study of religion contributes to the rise of new religions. The way the scholar puts material together has a huge impact encouraging particular patterns and formations. Religious Studies then is a creative and constructive discipline, influencing the very subject being studied. For instance, in my dissertation I documented several new religions that had not yet been noticed by the academic community. Yet, somehow by cataloging them they earned a degree (however small) of recognition and of legitimacy. Thus, in many ways scholars can unintentionally contribute to the success (or perhaps downfall) of a group by writing about them. Since many new religions are relatively obscure movements unheard of by the larger public, any outside recognition not only gives them a certain publicity they would not otherwise have but it also may lend a credibility to their claims because now the group's name and ideas are officially documented. Simply by being acknowledged and recorded by scholars as a religious group in the spiritual marketplace in America may be the first step out of the classification of "unheard of" or "totally obscure." Indeed, scholars are not objective observers but play an interactive role whenever they investigate a guru or a group. Thus, since their research can alter the future history of the movement scholars must take seriously the powerful role they play.

Having understood what a cult is, who are its most likely candidates, and how to properly evaluate alternative groups, let us turn in the next section to my favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, to comprehend how new religions manifest in the first place.