What is a Cult?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

On google, a “cult” is defined in four main ways:

1) a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object
2) a relatively small group of people having religious practices regarded by others as strange or sinister
3) a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing
4) a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, especially among a particular section of society i.e. “a cult film”


The modern definition of “cult” is derived from the French culte and Latin cultus which meant “worship”, “inhabited” or “cultivated” and was derived from the Latin verb colere. It is also related to the words that led to the formation of our word “culture”.
It is interesting to note that when people talk about “cults” the second and third definition are usually the ones that the connotation of the word brings to the forefront. If we look at the first definition, however, it is pretty clear that the term “cult” could be used to describe any religious organization that is devoted to a particular figure or object, not just the ones that the greater majority of religious adherents describe as “wacky”, “strange”, or “fringe.”

It is pretty common practice for certain denominations of Protestants- particular some Evangelicals and/or Pentecostals- to describe Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses  as being cult members or non-Christians.

The Mormons, meanwhile, disown more starkly conservative branches of their number- like the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS)- as being too extremist to be considered legitimate. Christians and non-Christians alike condemn as cults groups that follow the teachings of Scientology.

Not even the Amish, whose simple, country lives were romanticized in my eyes (thanks to reading lots of fictional writing by Beverly Lewis), are able to escape from accusations of extremism. On TLC’s show “Breaking Amish”, the cameras follow youth who choose to rebel against Amish religious and cultural constraints, and experience the new freedoms- and troubles- that modern life affords. I also read snatches of the book “Crossing Over: One Woman’s Escape from Amish Life” by Ruth Garrett, and was surprised to see that the life of the Amish wasn’t always quite the ideal that it is often portrayed as.

It seems that whether or not something is classified as a “cult” depends more or less on the majority opinion and less on an analysis of the validity of the actual beliefs being presented. Christianity, much practiced in the West- is considered a poisonous delusion by adherents to Orthodox Judaism, much in the way Islam is considered a poisonous delusion by the majority of Evangelical Christians. I have heard stories about so-called “Deconverters”, who are employed by Jewish parents desperate to purge the minds of their children who have converted to Christianity.

It seems that we live in a “culture of cults” with one religion attempting superiority over the next. In Ireland, to this day Catholics and Protestants are at odds. In Africa, Christians and Muslims fight for supremacy, or sometimes just survival. Sunnis and Shiites battled it out in Iraq. In three of these cases, the groups at odds both claimed to be followers of the same religion (and some might even say that all of the groups worship the same God).

So where did we as human beings fall short? We can’t all be right, but then, is it possible that we’re all wrong?

It seems that most groups that are considered by the larger and more powerful groups to be cults- such as Mormonism- for example, were started by one man- or woman- stating that he/she had some sort of supernatural experience or visitation that resulted in new, never-before-known revelations. Joseph Smith added books to the Bible, while Muhammed, hundreds of years before (and with the help of a visitation from the angel Gabriel) corrected “inaccuracies” that were found in the Holy Scriptures.
Though it may be hard for some to believe, at its inception “Christianity” was considered a cult by the Jewish authorities and to some extent the secular government. In a way, Jesus was as radical to the Jewish authorities as Joseph Smith is to many of us today. According to the Biblical record found in Luke, he bravely stood before the synagogue, opened the scriptures to Isaiah, and declared “This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, naming himself the fulfillment.
The question I have to pose is this- if Jesus were to have appeared in our lifetime, would we ever have accepted him? Or would he just have been considered a mad prophet, a meglomaniac, a blasphemer?

We are so quick to denounce any or everything that doesn’t line up perfectly with our ideas of what’s normal or right. We are seated in prejudice. We usually think of it as a cult if it’s “isolating”, “abusive” or “shrouded in mysticism and secrecy” but maybe we are all members of a cult when we choose to stubbornly believe in anyone or anything without giving serious thought to the reality or validity of that person or thing. We’re a cult when we cut other people off, without choosing to hear them out.

So what point am I really trying to make here? Maybe just that, from another perspective, you’re as much of a barbarian to others as they are to you. Somewhere, someone is killing, or dying, because of a religious concept or idea. It’s easy to see where those people are in error, it’s a lot harder to see where I’ve maintained the exact same attitude even if I haven’t reverted to the same courses of action. I’m trying to break free of the mold, to,for the first time, think for myself.
It’s a lot easier said than done.

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