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What is a cult?

Anticult, Countercult, and 'Value-Free' Perspectives

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Anticult / Countercult / 'Value-Free'

Organizations and individuals dealing with cults operate from various perspectives.

  • Anticult organizations and invididuals generally fight cults for reasons other than theological ones (i.e. their approach is sociological - they look at a group's behavior, rather than at its theology).

  • Countercult organizations and invididuals usually oppose cults for religious, doctrinal reasons. As bad doctrine leads to bad behavior, they also look at behaviorial issues.

  • Self-proclaimed "value-free," "neutral," or "non-sectarian" organizations range from, essentially, consumer protection agencies to cult apologist organizations.

Most countercult organizations operate from an orthodox, Christian perspective.(Note 1) Their intend is to

  • educate Christians and non-Christians on the dangers of heretical movements (sometimes referred to as "boundary maintenance" - the practice of defining which doctrines are central/essential to the Christian faith, and must therefore be adhered to in order for a group, movement or person to legitimately refer to itself or himself as "Christian."),

  • to help Christians counter the theological claims of such groups (for the purpose of "boundary maintenance" and/or evangelism),

  • and to provide cult-members with information that may help them leave those movements (often, but not always, including a presentation of the Christian gospel).

Since they operate from different perspectives, anticult and countercult professionals do not always agree on what constitutes a cult. The former evaluate movements using sociological criteriaOff-site Link, while the latter do so using theological standards.

Not surprisingly, this sometimes leads to different conclusions. For example, some anti-cultists see Mormonism as just another form of Christianity, while Christians consider it to be a heretical cult of Christianity.

Often, though, concerns overlap. For instance, a movement like the International Churches of Christ is considered cultic by those who evaluate it sociologially, as well as by those who consider theology only.

Note that Christian countercultists are more apt to also look at a movement's sociological aspects, whereas non-Christian anticultists are - understandably - not nearly as willing to include theological considerations.

A third group of organizations or individuals claims to provide "value-free," "neutral," or "non-sectarian" information. This is a mixed bag. It includes

  • organizations run by cult apologists, who seldom - if ever - acknowledge the sociological and/or theological problems with the movements they study. (If and when they do make note of them, those problems generally are glossed over or minimized). Often, these type of organizations appeal to "academic" standing.

  • organizations that attempt to act like "consumer information agencies." They let people know what's available, but tend to refrain from making value judgements. Thus they claim they are as likely to send someone to a cult, as they are to refer someone to an exit counselor.

  • interfaith organizations that affirm the legitimacy and equality of all religions.

  • government task forces, or organizations set up on the recommendation of such task forces. Having acknowledged and studied the cult problem, these organizations act much like "consumer protection agencies."

Cult apologist organizations divide the latter into two categories, of which they consider one to be more neutral than the other. They rail against those government task forces that include information from anticult- or countercult organizations in their evaluations, and reluctantly "praise" the ones whose evaluations are, or appear to be, more in line with those of the cult apologists themselves.

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  1. Countercult organizations are also found in other religions. For example, there are a number of Jewish organizations that actively oppose 'missionaries' (Christian or otherwise). [back]

About This Page:

• Subject: Definitions of the term 'cult'
• First posted: Dec. 9, 1996
• Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2004
• Editors: Anton and Janet Hein-Hudson
• Copyright: Apologetics Index

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