What is a Cult?

What is a Cult?   This may not be as easy to define as you may imagine.

There are a variety of definitions.   The World Book Dictionary © 1977 by Doubleday & Company, Inc. states that a cult is system of worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.   Using this definition, any religion could be said to a cult, and in fact, in the Catholic Church, the term cult is used this way.   The World Book Dictionary, also, defines a cult as a great admiration for a person, thing or idea.   Again, the Church has used this term this way to describe the honoring of Saints (ie., the cult of St. Francis). However, for the most part, in the United States, when we say cult, we tend to mean a negative thing.

For instance, the Pocket Catholic Dictionary © 1985 by Doubleday talks of a "religious group centered around some unusual belief, generally transient in duration featuring some exotic or imported ritual and other practices". Going even further is Dr. Charles Braden, who as quoted by Dr. Walter Martin in his book The Kingdom of the Cults © 1975 by Bethany House, states that a cult is "any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expression of religion in our total culture."

This last definition can bring to question any religion which may not be viewed a "normative", which can be a dangerous assertion. In fact, in my own experiences, I have met other Christians who considered the Catholic Church a cult, which is a ludicrous assertion for someone like me who has studied the history of Christianity and the writings of the Early Church Fathers.

For the purpose of this article, from this point onward when I refer to the word "cult", I will be using it in its negative connotation.

Bob Larson in his book Larson's New Book of Cults © 1989 by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. probably has the best description of the term as it is used in American Society. A cult is a religious or philosophical group that is

  1. tightly controlled by a centralized authority (allegiance to the founder’s ideals is a requirement)
  2. it has a "we" versus "they" complex which pits them against an outside culture they deem as hostile
  3. each member is committed to proselytize the "unconverted"
  4. entrenched isolationism

A cult (in the negative sense) actively recruits members looking for people who are weak in their own faith, lonely, indecisive, facing despair or disappointment. People who are looking for an affirming community or for answers can, also, be drawn into a cult. I personally have had several friends join different cults at different times. Fortunately, most have them have left these destructive groups and have found Christ and God in more conventional religions.

Rev. Larson goes on to define some of the methods that cults use to draw people into their organizations and keep them:

  1. Allegiance to the sect is demanded and enforced with threats (either actual or veiled)
  2. A forced diet (low on essential nutrients and proteins) which leads a person to be disoriented and more mentally pliable
  3. Use of repetitious songs and chants instead of intellectual discussion.
  4. Forced conformity in dress, language, names and interests.
  5. Doctrinal confusion – "truths" are presented in a complex fashion.
  6. Those outside the cult are viewed as spiritually inferior.
  7. All or part of a persons personal assets are donated to the cult.
  8. Hypnotic states induced by chanting or meditation.
  9. Isolation from friends, family and society.
  10. Lack of privacy to prevent any reflective or critical thinking.
  11. "Love-bombing" – the use of physical affection or contrived attention to give a false sense of community.
  12. Bombarding inductees to long confusing lectures.
  13. Destruction of "old" relationships and creation of new ones (such as marriage to a cult member).
  14. Nonsensical activities that rely on the cult member to be led and ordered.
  15. Behavior modification by using reward and punishment.
  16. Peer pressure.
  17. Sensory deprivation.
  18. Unquestioning submission.
  19. Rejection of the values of life of one’s former life.

In his book, Rev. Larson describes over 100 cults ranging from the Aetherius Society to Yoga. Now, it is possible that you may not agree that some of the sects he mentions as cults are truly cults, but the key to any religion is knowing its roots and its motivation.

Here are some facts from Bob Larson’s book:

  1. the Waldorf Schools were started by the Anthroposophical Society (a religious sect started in the early 20th century by Austrian Rudolph Steiner) which teaches a form of "true" Christianity combining the concepts of reincarnation, karma and concepts such as Jesus being a man who appeared to his disciples after death as a "physic" projection.
  2. A Course in Miracles by Helen Schucman is supposedly the transcribed messages from a Voice who identified himself as Jesus to Ms. Schucman which were written with a technique called automatic writing. While claiming to be from Jesus, the teachings of this Voice contradict most of what is considered orthodox Christianity.
  3. The Unification Church (not to be confused with the Unitarian Church) is a Church founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. In the 1970’s – 1980’s, his followers were called "Moonies" and were a common sight at Airport terminals selling flowers and asking for donations. Rev. Moon claims to be the Messiah and the Messiah’s goal is to mate with the perfect woman and father perfect children to redeem the world from the sexual sin of Eve (she mated with Lucifer). While he tries to make his religion seem mainline, his followers are still controlled and all marriages are picked by Rev. Moon.

In conclusion, I would suggest to anyone interested in this topic to go on the internet or go to the library and read up on cults. For the internet I would suggest which is the website for Rick Ross (an Intervention Specialist). This is not an endorsement of Mr. Ross or his agency, but I have found his web site to be a good site to get information about new religious sects.

I, also, would like to urge people to make your faith a living faith through pray, read the Bible, and a good Biblical Commentary as well as a book on Church history to better appreciate the storehouse of wisdom we have been handed by God, the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles…and never, ever, check your reasoning and critical thinking at the door.

- Deacon George Kozak (6/01)

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