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A cult is a religious group or other organization with deviant and novel beliefs and practices. However, whether any particular group's beliefs are sufficiently deviant or novel enough to be considered a cult is often unclear, and thus establishing a precise definition of cults is problematic.
The term 'cult' was originally used to describe a group of people who worshiped a deity. The term was first used in the early 17th century denoting homage paid to a deity and borrowed via the French culte from Latin cultus (worship), from the adjective cultus (inhabited, cultivated, worshiped), derived from the verb colere (care, cultivate). The English term often carries derogatory connotations and is used selectively by proponents of "brainwashing" theory.
In the 1930s cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. Cults have been criticized by mainstream Christians for their unorthodox beliefs. In the 1970s the Anti-cult movement arose, partly motivated by acts of violence and other crimes committed by members of some groups. Some of the claims of the anti-cult movement have been disputed by other scholars, leading to further controversies.
The concept of "cult" was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker as an expansion of German theologian 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 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. Sociologists have said 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.
In the 1940s, the long held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions or/and supposedly heretical, or counterfeit, pseudo-Christian sects crystallized into a more organized "Christian countercult movement" in the United States. For those belonging to the movement, all religious groups claiming to be Christian, but deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy, were considered "cults". Christian cults are new religious movements which have a Christian background but are considered to be theologically deviant by members of other Christian churches. In his influential book The Kingdom of the Cults (first published in the United States in 1965) Christian scholar Walter Martin defines Christian cults as groups that follow the personal interpretation of an individual, rather than the understanding of the Bible accepted by mainstream Christianity. He mentions The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christian Science, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarian Universalism, and Unity as examples.
In 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., while others rejected the idea. 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" becoming standard practice.
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 be.
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. The media was quick to follow suit, and social scientists sympathetic to the anti-cult movement, who were usually psychologists, developed more sophisticated models of brainwashing.
While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part skeptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. 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 a rational choice.
Most sociologists and scholars of religion also began to reject the word "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 word "cult" as one fit for neutral academic discourse.
Using the term new religious movement instead of cult does not remove all negative perceptions. In a survey study containing 258 participants negative perceptions of the terms "new religious movement", "cult" and "satanic cult" were found. These perceptions however differed significantly (i.e., not due to chance) in how negative the participants perceived them. "New religious movement" was found to be the most favorable term followed by "cult" and then "satanic cult."
Scholars have estimated that new religious movements, of which some but not all have been labeled as "cults," number in the tens of thousands world-wide. Most originated in Asia or Africa. The great majority have only a few members, some have thousands, and only very few have more than a million. In 2007 religious scholar Elijah Siegler commented that although no NRM had become the dominant faith in any country, many of the concepts which they had first introduced (often referred to as "New Age" ideas) have become part of world-wide mainstream culture.
Pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) found that cults based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma. Sociologist Roy Wallis (1945–1990) argued that a cult is characterized by "epistemological individualism" by which he means that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member." Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant, non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership", and are transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems. Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu". In their book Theory of Religion, American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of cults can be explained through the rational choice theory. In The Future of Religion they comment "...in the beginning, all religions are obscure, tiny, deviant cult movements."
In the early 1960s sociologist John Lofland lived with Unification Church missionary Young Oon Kim and a small group of American church members in California and studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctorial thesis entitled: "The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes", and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion.
Michael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group International Cultic Studies Association, presents three different models for conversion and then describes his own integrative model. Langone explanation of the deliberative model says 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" states that people do not join 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 numbers of cultists tend to favor this latter view. Langone presents an integrated model by explaining that deliberation is a function of manipulativeness and psychological neediness. By breaking down manipulativeness and psychological neediness into low and high conditions Langone can determine which of the three models would be favored. A deliberative model would be utilized when a person falls into low manipulativeness and low psychological neediness categories. When manipulativeness is high but psychological neediness low would result in the use of the thought reform model. In the case of the opposite with low manipulativeness but high psychological neediness a psychodynamic model is used. In cases where both manipulativeness and psychological neediness are high, both psychodynamic and thought reform models awould be expected; Langone notes that more research is necessary for this cross-section as the literature was lacking.
Some scholars favor one particular view, or combined elements of each. According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists 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.
Coates investigated what drove former members to remain committed to their cults using qualitative methodology. His findings included two distinct reasons: direct rewards and levels of control. Direct rewards include most positive aspects of cult membership. An example of a direct reward is the friendship and affection of other cult members. Levels of control are often imposed by cult leaders to force members to depend on the cult for survival. An example of a level of control is not being allowed to have individual possessions; by not having any possessions, cult members are forced to rely on the cult for necessary supplies such as food, clothing and shelter. Coates' study only contained seven participants so his results are not generalizable to all cult members but they do give insight into why members may be committed to their cult.
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 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 people 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.
In a 2008 survey of 695 Pennsylvania psychologists, by Edward Lottick, 33% reported treating a former cult member and 20.4% reported treating a family member or friend of cult members. When asked about their comfort level treating these patients, 53.6% reported being very uncomfortable or somewhat uncomfortable. Cognitive-behavioral therapy was the most common reported successful treatment for participants patients. Other successful treatment methods reported included family therapy, psychodynamic therapy, hypnosis and medication (types of medication were not listed).
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.
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".
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the words "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some academics, in addition to groups referred to as cults, argue that these are words to be avoided.
Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the word "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.
In the United Kingdom the Crown Prosecution Service the Edinburgh City Council have ruled that the word "cult" is not "threatening, abusive or insulting" as defined by the Public Order Act, and that there is no objection to its use in public protests.
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".
"Doomsday cult" is an expression used to describe groups who believe in Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and can refer both to groups that prophesy catastrophe and destruction, and to those that attempt to bring it about. A 1997 psychological study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that people turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements. Leon Festinger and his colleagues had observed members of a doomsday cult for several months, and recorded their conversations both prior to and after a failed prophecy from their charismatic leader. The cult members believed that most of the Western Hemisphere would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood on December 21, 1955. Their work was later published in the book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.
A political cult is a cult with a primary interest in political action and ideology. Groups that some writers have termed as "political cults," mostly advocating far-left or far-right agendas, have received some attention from journalists and scholars. In their 2000 book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth discuss about a dozen organizations in the United States and Great Britain that they characterize as cults. In a separate article Tourish says that in his usage:
"The word cult is not a term of abuse, as this paper tries to explain. It is nothing more than a shorthand expression for a particular set of practices that have been observed in a variety of dysfunctional organisations."
The LaRouche Movement and Gino Parente's National Labor Federation (NATLFED) are examples of political groups described as "cults" that are based in the United States; another is Marlene Dixon's now-defunct Democratic Workers Party (a critical history of the DWP is given in Bounded Choice by Janja A. Lalich, a sociologist and former DWP member).
The followers of Ayn Rand were characterized as a "cult" by economist Murray N. Rothbard during her lifetime, and later by Michael Shermer. The core group around Rand was called the "Collective" and is now defunct (the chief group disseminating Rand's ideas today is the Ayn Rand Institute). Although the Collective advocated an individualist philosophy, Rothbard claimed they were organized in the manner of a "Leninist" organization.
In Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party, a Trotskyist group led by the late Gerry Healy and strongly supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave, has been described by others, who have been involved in the Trotskyist movement, as having been a cult or as displaying cult-like characteristics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also described as such by Tourish and Wohlforth in their writings. In his review of Tourish and Wohlforth's book, Bob Pitt, a former member of the WRP concedes that it had a "cult-like character" but argues that rather than being typical of the far left, this feature actually made the WRP atypical and "led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself." Workers' Struggle (LO, Lutte ouvrière) in France, publicly headed by Arlette Laguiller but revealed in the 1990s to be directed by Robert Barcia, has often been criticized as a cult, for example by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his older brother Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, as well as L'Humanité and Libération.
In his book Les Sectes Politiques: 1965–1995 (translation: Political cults: 1965–1995), French writer Cyril Le Tallec considered some religious groups as cults involved in politics, including the League for Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Cultural Office of Cluny, New Acropolis, Sōka Gakkai, the Divine Light Mission, Tradition Family Property (TFP), Longo-Mai, the Supermen Club and the Association for Promotion of the Industrial Arts (Solazaref).
"Destructive cult" has generally referred to groups whose members have, through deliberate action, physically injured or killed other members of their own group or other individuals. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance limit use of the term to specifically refer to religious groups that "have caused or are liable to cause loss of life among their membership or the general public." Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits."
John Gordon Clark cited totalitarian systems of governance and an emphasis on money making as characteristics of a destructive cult. In Cults and the Family the authors cite Shapiro, who defines a "destructive cultism" as a sociopathic syndrome, whose distinctive qualities include: "behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders."
In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, destructive 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 as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demand of total commitment. According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against destructive cults is sexual abuse. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.
Some researchers have criticized the usage of the term "destructive cult", writing that it is used to describe groups which are not necessarily harmful in nature to themselves or others. In his book Understanding New Religious Movements, John A. Saliba writes that the term is overgeneralized. Saliba sees the Peoples Temple as the "paradigm of a destructive cult," where those that use the term are implying that other new religious movements will have similar outcomes.
Writing in the book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, contributor Julius H. Rubin complains that the term has been used to discredit certain groups in the court of public opinion. In his work Cults in Context author Lorne L. Dawson writes that although the Unification Church "has not been shown to be violent or volatile," it has been described as a destructive cult by "anticult crusaders."
In 2002, the German government was held by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court to have defamed the Osho movement by referring to it, among other things, as a "destructive cult" with no factual basis.
In the book Jihad and Sacred Vengeance: Psychological Undercurrents of History, psychiatrist Peter A. Olsson compares Osama bin Laden to certain cult leaders including Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. And says that each of these individuals fit at least eight of the nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. In the book Seeking the Compassionate Life: The Moral Crisis for Psychotherapy and Society authors Goldberg and Crespo also refer to Osama bin Laden as a "destructive cult leader."
At a 2002 meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), Steven Hassan said that Al Qaida fulfills the characteristics of a destructive cult. He added: "We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism."
In an article on Al Qaida published in The Times, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart wrote that al-Qaida resembles a "classic cult", commenting: "Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means."
The Shining Path guerrilla movement active in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s has been described variously as a "cult" and an intense "cult of personality." The Tamil Tigers have also been qualified as such by French magazine L'Express' The People's Mujahedin of Iran, a leftist guerrilla movement based in Iraq, has been controversially described as a political cult and as a movement that is abusive towards its own members.
Former Mujaheddin member and now author and academic Dr. Masoud Banisadr stated in a May 2005 speech in Spain :
If you ask me: are all cults a terrorist organisation? My answer is no as there are many peaceful cults at present around the world and in the history of mankind. But if you ask me are all terrorist organisations, some sort of cult? my answer is yes. Even if they start as ordinary modern political party or organisation, to prepare and force their members to act without asking any moral question and act selflessly for the cause of the group and ignore all the ethical, cultural, moral or religious code of the society and humanity, those organisations have to change into a cult. Therefore to understand an extremist or a terrorist organisation one has to learn about a Cult.
In the 1970s, the scientific status of the "brainwashing theory" became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was used to try to justify 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 the more latent xenophobic and anti-American attitudes have contributed significantly to the extremity of European anti-cult positions.
For centuries, governments in China have categories certain religions as xiejiao (邪教) The term is sometimes translated as “evil cult,” but a more literal translation is “heterodox teaching.” The classification of a religion as xiejiao did not necessarily mean that a religion’s teachings were believed to be false or inauthentic, but rather, the label was applied to religious groups that were not authorized by the state, or that were seen as challenging the legitimacy of the state. In modern China, the term xiejiao continues to be used to denote teachings that the government disapproves of, and these groups face suppression and punishment by authorities. Fourteen different groups in China have been listed by the ministry of public security as xiejiao. In addition, Chinese authorities in 1999 denounced the Falun Gong spiritual practice as a heretical teaching, and began a campaign to eliminate it. According to Amnesty International, the persecution of Falun Gong includes a multifaceted propaganda campaign, a program of enforced ideological conversion and re-education, as well as a variety of extralegal coercive measures, such as arbitrary arrests, forced labour, and physical torture, sometimes resulting in death. The Chinese government has sought to legitimize its treatment of Falun Gong by adopting the language of the Western anti-cult movement, but Western scholars familiar with the group say that Falun Gong does not meet the definition of a cult.
Sociologists critical to this negative politicized use of the word "cult" argue that it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members. In the 1980s clergymen and officials of the French government expressed concern that some orders and other groups within the Roman Catholic Church would be adversely affected by anti-cult laws then being considered.
The application of the labels "cult" or "sect" to religious movements in government documents signifies the popular and negative use of the term "cult" in English and a functionally similar use of words translated as "sect" in several European languages. While these documents utilize similar terminology they do not necessarily include the same groups nor is their assessment of these groups based on agreed criteria. Other governments and world bodies also report on new religious movements but do not use these terms to describe the groups.
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