Cult pejoratively refers to a religious group whose beliefs or practices could be considered strange or sinister. The term was originally used to denote a system of ritual practices. The narrower, derogatory sense of the word is a product of the 20th century, especially since the 1980s, and is a result of the anti-cult movement, which uses the term in reference to groups seen as authoritarian, exploitative and possibly dangerous.
The popular, derogatory sense of the term has no currency in academic studies of religions, where "cults" are subsumed under the neutral label of "new religious movement", while academic sociology has partly adopted the popular meaning of the term.
The concept of "cult" was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker as an expansion of Ernst Troeltsch's church-sect typology. Troeltsch's aim was to distinguish between three main types of religious behavior: churchly, sectarian and mystical. Becker created four categories out of Troeltsch's first two by splitting church into "ecclesia" and "denomination", and sect into "sect" and "cult". Like Troeltsch's "mystical religion" Becker's cults were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Later formulations built on these characteristics while placing an additional emphasis on cults as deviant religious groups "deriving their inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture". This deviation is often thought to lead to a high degree of tension between the group and the more mainstream culture surrounding it, a characteristic shared with religious sects. Yet sociologists maintain that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism and therefore maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, "cults" arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.
By the 1940s the long held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions and supposedly heretical Christian sects crystallized into a more organized "Christian countercult movement" in the United States. For those belonging to the movement all new religious groups deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy were considered "cults". As more foreign religious traditions found their way into the United States the religious movements they brought with them or gave birth to attracted even fiercer resistance. This was especially true for movements incorporating mystical or exotic new beliefs and those with charismatic, authoritarian leaders.
By the early 1970s a secular opposition movement to "cult" groups had taken shape. The organizations that formed the secular "Anti-cult movement" (ACM) often acted on behalf of relatives of "cult" converts who did not believe their loved ones could have altered their lives so drastically by their own free will. A few psychologists and sociologists working in this field lent credibility to their disbelief by suggesting that "brainwashing techniques" were used to maintain the loyalty of "cult" members. The belief that cults "brainwashed" their members became a unifying theme among cult critics and in the more extreme corners of the Anti-cult movement techniques like the sometimes forceful "deprogramming" of "cult members" became standard practice.
In the meantime a handful of high profile crimes were committed by groups identified as cults, or by the groups' leaders. The mass suicides committed by members of the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana are perhaps the most prominent example in American popular culture. The publicity of these crimes, as amplified by the Anti-cult movement, influenced the popular perception of new religious movements. In the mass media, and among average citizens "cult" gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant however peaceful or law abiding it may in fact be.
In the late 1980s psychologists and sociologists started to abandon theories like brainwashing and mind-control. While scholars may believe that various less dramatic coercive psychological mechanisms could influence group members, they came to see conversion to new religious movements principally as an act of rational choice. Most sociologists and scholars of religion also began to reject the term "cult" altogether because of its negative connotations in mass culture. Some began to advocate the use of new terms like "new religious movement", "alternative religion" or "novel religion" to describe most of the groups that had come to be referred to as "cults", yet none of these terms have had much success in popular culture or in the media. Other scholars have pushed to redeem the term as one fit for neutral academic discourse, while researchers aligned with the Anti-cult movement have attempted to reduce the negative connotations being associated with all such groups by classifying only some as "destructive cults".
The difference between the negative and the neutral definition of the word cult has also had political implications. In the 1970s the scientific status of the "brainwashing theory" became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was instrumental in justifying the use of the forceful "deprogramming" of cult members. Meanwhile sociologists critical of these theories assisted advocates of religious freedom in defending the legitimacy of new religious movements in court. While the official response to new religious groups has been mixed across the globe some governments aligned more with the critics of these groups to the extent of distinguishing between "legitimate" religion and "dangerous", "unwanted" cults in public policy. France and Belgium have taken policy positions which accept "brainwashing" theories uncritically, while other European nations, like Sweden and Italy are cautious about brainwashing and have adopted more neutral responses to new religions. Scholars have suggested that outrage following the mass murder/suicides perpetuated by the Solar Temple as well as more latent xenophobic and anti-American attitudes have contributed significantly to the extremity of European anti-cult positions.
Since 1949 the Peoples Republic of China has been classifying dissenting groups as xiejiao, normally translated into English as "evil cults". In recent years the Chinese Government has allied with western anti-cult scholars in order to lend legitimacy to its crackdown on practitioners of Falun Gong. Scientology has also been the target of anti-cult legislation in several countries. This negative politicized use of the term "cult" provides sociologists critical of it with yet another reason to abandon it because, according to them, it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members. Of course, for cult critics the creation of legislation restricting the religious freedom of cults is an objective in itself, since in they view "cults" as harmful or potentially harmful to their members and to society at large.
While most scholars no longer refer to any new religious movements as "cults" some sociologists still favor retaining the term as it was used in church-sect typologies. For this value neutral use of the term please refer to new religious movements. Other scholars and non-academic researchers who use the term do so from explicitly critical perspectives which focus on the relationship between cult groups and the individual people who join them. These perspectives share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used to recruit and maintain members by suppressing their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest. However, most social scientists believe that mind control theories have no scientific merit in relation to religious movements.
Studies performed by those who believe that some religious groups do practice mind control have identified a number of key steps in coercive persuasion:
This view is disputed by scholars such as James Gene  and Bette Nove Evans , among others, while the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion stated in 1990 that there was not sufficient research to permit a consensus on the matter and that "one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control".
In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, groups that have been characterized as cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. Zablocki defines a cult here as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and that demands total commitment. According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against groups referred to as cults is sexual abuse. See some allegations made by former members. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.
Michael Langone gives three different models for conversion. Under the "deliberative model," people are said to join cults primarily because of how they view a particular group. Langone notes that this view is most favored among sociologists and religious scholars. Under the "psychodynamic model," popular with some mental health professionals, individuals choose to join for fulfillment of subconscious psychological needs. Finally, the "thought reform model" posits that people join not because of their own psychological needs, but because of the group's influence through forms of psychological manipulation. Langone claims that those mental health experts who have more direct experience with large number of "cultists" tend to favor this latter view.
Some scholars favor one particular view, or combine elements of each. According to Marc Gallanter, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
There are at least three ways people leave a cult: 1) by one's own decision, 2) through expulsion and 3) or through intervention (Exit counseling, deprogramming).,
Popular authors Conway and Siegelman conducted a survey and published it in the book Snapping regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had fewer problems than people not deprogrammed. The BBC writes that in a survey done by Jill Mytton on 200 former cult members most of them reported problems adjusting to society and about a third would benefit from some counseling.
Ronald Burks, in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of thought reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a "cult" or sect, and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave do so of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."
According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
The Report of the "Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements" (1998) states that the great majority of members of new religious movements derive positive experiences from their subscription to ideas or doctrines which correspond to their personal needs, and that withdrawal from these movements is usually quite undramatic, as these persons leave feeling enriched by a predominantly positive experience. Although the report describes that there are a small number of withdrawals that require support (100 out of 50,000+ people), the report did not recommend that any special resources be established for their rehabilitation, as these cases are very rare.
Stuart A. Wright explores the distinction between the apostate narrative and the role of the apostate, asserting that the former follows a predictable pattern, in which the apostate utilizes a "captivity narrative" that emphasizes manipulation, entrapment and being victims of "sinister cult practices". These narratives provide a rationale for a "hostage-rescue" motif, in which cults are likened to POW camps and deprogramming as heroic hostage rescue efforts. He also makes a distinction between "leavetakers" and "apostates", asserting that despite the popular literature and lurid media accounts of stories of "rescued or recovering 'ex-cultists'", empirical studies of defectors from NRMs "generally indicate favorable, sympathetic or at the very least mixed responses toward their former group."
Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a "cult" as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities.
While acknowledging the issue of multiple definitions of "cult", Michael Langone states that "Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders." A similar definition is given by Louis Jolyon West:
In each, the focus tends to be on the specific tactics of conversion, the negative impact on individual members, and the difficulty in leaving once indoctrination has occurred.
Some critics of media sensationalism argue that the stigma surrounding the classification of a group as a cult results largely from exaggerated portrayals of weirdness in media stories. The narratives of ill effects include perceived threats presented by a cult to its members, and risks to the physical safety of its members and to their mental and spiritual growth.
The role of former members, or "apostates," has been widely studied by social scientists. At times these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial. Some scholars like David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Brian R. Wilson have challenged the validity of the testimonies presented by critical former members. Wilson discusses the use of the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns. and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents. Bromley and Shupe similarly discuss "captivity narratives" that depict the time in the group as involuntary and point out that apostate is likely to present a caricature of his former group. Introvigne found in his study of the New Acropolis in France, that public negative testimonies and attitudes were only voiced by a minority of the ex-members, who he describes as becoming "professional enemies" of the group they leave. Scholars who tend to side more with critical former members are usually critical of cults themselves and include Margaret Singer, Benjamin Zablocki and Philip Lucas. Zablocki performed an empirical study that concludes that the reliability of former members was equal to that of those who stayed in one particular group. Lucas found the same empirical results.
See also Apostasy in new religious movements, and Apostates and Apologists.
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the terms "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some scholars and groups referred to as cults argue that these are terms to be avoided.
Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the term "cult" represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanises the group's members and their children. Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it. At the same time, she adds, labeling a group a "cult" makes people feel safe, because the "violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups." This fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative "cult" stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.
The concept of "cult" as an epithet was legally tested in the United Kingdom when a protester refused to put down a sign that read, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult", citing a 1984 high court judgment describing the organization as a cult. The London police issued a summons to the protester for violating the Public Order Act by displaying a "threatening, abusive or insulting" sign. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word "cult" on a sign, "...is not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression." There was no action taken against the protester, and police would allow future such demonstrations. In Scotland, an official of the Edinburgh City Council told inquiring regular protesters, "I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word 'cult' and there is no objection to this."
Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate.
These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, Bruce J. Casino presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups "a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations."
Some authors in the cult opposition dislike the word cult to the extent it implies that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating "cult" from "noncult" which they do not see. Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan, differentiate by using terms like "Destructive cult," or "Cult" (totalitarian type) vs. "benign cult."
In many countries there exists a separation of church and state and freedom of religion. Governments of some of these countries, concerned with possible abuses by groups they deem cults, have taken restrictive measures against some of their activities. Critics of such measures claim that the counter-cult movement and the anti-cult movement have succeeded in influencing governments in transferring the public's abhorrence of doomsday cults and make the generalization that it is directed against all small or new religious movements without discrimination. The critique is countered by stressing that the measures are directed not against any religious beliefs, but specifically against groups whom they see as inimical to the public order due to their totalitarianism, violations of fundamental liberties, inordinate emphasis on finances, and/or disregard for appropriate medical care.
Cults have been a subject or theme in literature and popular culture since ancient times. There are many references to it in the 20th century.
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