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What is a cult?

History and usage of the term 'cult'

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» Positive, Negative, or Neutral?
» A Pejorative Term?
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» Cult? What Do You Mean?
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A Pejorative Term?

When it comes to discussing certain groups and movements, some experts - on all sides of the debate over cults - object to the use of the word 'cult,' considering it to be a pejorative term designed to trigger a negative response.

Cult apologists, in particular, tend to accuse their opponents of using the term 'cult' to convey negative images.

However, fact is that while a few people may indeed misuse the term that way, the vast majority of cult experts do not use 'cult' in a pejorative way - even though they may well view groups or movements thus identified in a negative light.

See, for example, this statement at the American Family Foundation (AFF) site:

Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term "cult." No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of AFF (American Family Foundation), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone). In order to help others who have asked questions about the term "cult," we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.

Even though the term "cult" has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitive manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.
Source: On Using the Term "Cult"Off-site Link. Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
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It should, of course, be noted that a primary reason why the term 'cult' has taken on a negative image is the behavior of various groups identified as 'cults.' Mass murder and/or suicide (e.g. the Peoples Temple, Solar Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven's Gate), collection of weapons (e.g. Church Universal and Triumphant), murder and terrorism (e.g. the murders and gas attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo), unethical behavior (such as the hate and harassments activities promoted and committed by the Scientology organization), coercive tactics such as those known as "brainwashing" (for which the Unification Church, among others, became known), etcetera, all have contributed to the negative image the term 'cult' conveys.

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'New Religious Movements' and other Euphemism

Certain sociologists claim that the term 'cult' has taken on too many negative connotations (for which they tend to blame anti-cult and counter-cult movements, the government, ex-cult members, parents and friend of cult-members, and the media - but seldom, if ever, the movements and cult-members themselves).

They advocate replacing the word 'cult' with what they consider to be the 'value-neutral' (or politically-correct) terms, 'New Religious Movement,' 'Alternative Religious Movement,' or 'Minority Religion.'

The late Jeffrey K. Hadden, who was a notorious cult apologist, himself illustrated why that approach has not worked:

The use of the concept "new religious movements" in public discourse is problematic for the simple reason that it has not gained currency. Speaking bluntly from personal experience, when I use the concept "new religious movements," the large majority of people I encounter don't know what I'm talking about. I am invariably queried as to what I mean. And, at some point in the course of my explanation, the inquirer unfailing responds, "oh, you mean you study cults!"
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Other scholars argue for the continued use of the term 'cult,' at least by scholars of religion. See, for example, this article by Michael York, of the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, Bath Spa University College, Bath, UK:

This paper traces the use of the term 'cult' by academics, the public and the mass media, from its early academic use in the sociology of religion to recent calls for the term to be abandoned by scholars of religion because it is now so overladen with negative connotations. But scholars of religion have a duty not to capitulate to popular opinion, media and governments in the arena of the 'politics of representation'. The author argues that we should continue using the term 'cult' as a descriptive technical term. It has considerable educational value in the study of religions.
Source: Abstract, Defending the Cult in the Politics of
Off-site Link, DISKUS Vol.4 No.2 (1996)
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It is, in fact, useless to abandon (and to advocate against the use of) the term 'cult.' After all, if deservedly controversial groups and movements like Aum Shinrikyo, the Church of Scientology, and the Unification Church were identified as, say, 'pineapples,' the term 'pineapple' would take on a negative connotation the moment people realize that you are using the term as a euphemism for 'cult.'

A better solution to the problems surrounding the use of the term 'cult,' is to make sure people know what you mean.

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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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