Let’s try a quick experiment: think of the word “cult.”
What does it make you feel? What concepts are associated with it in your mind?
What would you think of a group if someone told you it was a “cult”? What would you think of someone who joined that group?
“Cult” has become one of the few remaining socially acceptable slur words. It provokes fear and suspicion and is used to vilify and discredit alternative spiritual groups.
The “cult” concept is almost universally recognized and is generally associated with a set of stereotyped characteristics. Scholar Sean McCloud notes that “cult” is “today’s most common mass-media moniker for new religions”, a term which “conjures images of brainwashing, coercion, deception, exploitation, perversion, and religious fraud.” He also argues that “[for] many Americans these associations have become doxa – those socially constructed opinions, assumptions, and inclinations so taken for granted that they seem natural.”1
Because these “cult” stereotypes exist in people’s minds, almost any small spiritual group can trigger the “cult” label and its negative associations, regardless of whether they have done anything wrong.
The “cult” label and characteristics associated with it have become an unseen dividing line in our society, separating spiritual options considered legitimate or mainstream from those options considered to be deviant and unacceptable. If you happen to be interested in pursuing a form of spirituality that is on the wrong side of that line, you can experience the consequences first hand.
This article will explore how the “cult” stigma functions to keep that line in place.
What’s in a name? The “Cult” Stigma
There are few labels more socially damaging than “cult.” It places a group outside the limits of what’s acceptable in society. It evokes an image of something strange, harmful, and dangerous. Not many words can so quickly transform the impression of a group or person and with such a devastating impact.
The destructive power of this word is not accidental. Labelling a group a “cult” is a fundamental weapon used by the anti-cult movement — a social movement working to marginalize, stigmatize, and restrict the rights of groups that fall outside of the culturally-accepted status quo of mainstream religion or commercial spirituality.
The fact that the term “cult” evokes negative impressions is somewhat self-evident, but several academic studies provide strong evidence to support this claim.
For example, a 2003 study surveyed more than 2,400 residents of Nebraska to gauge the difference in their perception of “cults” as compared to other spiritual alternatives.2
Of those surveyed, 81.4% said they would feel either very or somewhat uncomfortable about their neighbour joining a “cult.” On the other hand, when asked the same question about their neighbour joining a “New Christian Church” the results were diametrically opposed: 88.7% of those surveyed were either very or somewhat comfortable with their neighbour’s choice in this scenario. Note that in both cases, the respondent had no other information about their neighbour or the group in question beyond the term used to describe it. This is the power of a word.
The Nebraska study demonstrates how the word “cult” by itself evokes deeply negative associations. However, another research study goes even further, demonstrating that the negative associations of the “cult” label can completely influence our perception of a situation. Depending on whether or not the “cult” label is invoked, we might find the exact same situation either acceptable or objectionable.
In this second study, respondents were provided with a scenario of a young man joining a group and his experiences being “indoctrinated.” Some respondents were told the young man joined the Marines, in other cases the Catholic Church, and in other cases the “Moonies” (a nickname for the Unification Church, a new religious movement that has been attacked by the anti-cult movement). Although nothing in the scenario was different except the name of the group, respondents were far more likely to characterize the process as “brainwashing” in the case of the Moonies.3 As these results demonstrate, the influence of the “cult” label is strong enough to cause people to view certain activities in a negative light if done by a “cult” but find them perfectly acceptable if done by another type of group.
So what IS a “cult” anyways?
Given that it has such negative connotations, it is even more alarming that there are no precise rules or guidelines for how the word “cult” can be applied.
Merriam Webster defines a “cult” as
a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous
Similarly, the Oxford English Dictionary states:
A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members
Both definitions are extremely ambiguous and subjective; the gauge for what makes a “cult” is how “others” around the group perceive it, rather than any objective traits that a group might possess.
These definitions create a dangerous circular logic. If people regard a small group as “extreme or dangerous”, “strange”, or “imposing excessive control”, that group then meets the definition of a cult. However, as the research above demonstrates, the very act of labeling a group as a “cult” can influence people to perceive them as extreme, dangerous, or excessively controlling.
Effectively speaking, any group that someone decides to call a “cult” can then become a “cult” by definition due to the perceptions the word can create.
Some academics, particularly in the field of Sociology, have made significant efforts to show the bias inherent in the “cult” term and to provide a more neutral way of describing alternative spiritual views (“new religious movement” is one of the most common). Despite these efforts, Religious Studies Professor Eugene Gallagher notes that the word “cult” “reigns supreme” in the popular news and entertainment media and is used “with a robust confidence that its meaning and accuracy are both self-evident and widely shared.”4
This is problematic because the term then becomes a convenient way to attack those whose views fall outside of the mainstream and who some people wish to marginalize. “Cult” is used to “assert identity in order to propagate fear of the other,”5 defining implicit yet powerful social boundaries between a dominant “us” and a marginalized, outcast “them.”
How did the word “cult” gain its power?
How did the word “cult” gain such negative connotations?
And how did these connotations acquire such widespread acceptance, even if most people have had little or no personal experience with any kind of “cult”?
There have been two main steps to this process. The first has been the creation of a new category for certain spiritual groups, which was given the label of “cult”. The second step has been associating that word with vivid and highly publicized negative events, which has given it a deep significance shared and understood by a broad majority of people.
Creating the “Cult” Category
“Cult” has historically possessed a neutral or even positive sense. It is derived from a Latin word signifying devotion and religious worship, and the English word originally held that same meaning — for example, “the cult of Dionysus” would refer to those who worshipped Dionysus.
The word acquired an additional negative sense in the 1930s, when it was adopted by Christian writers to describe non-orthdox Christian movements such as the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These authors used “cult” in much the same way the term “heresy” has been used in other times.
In the 1970s, a secular anti-cult movement emerged and adapted the term “cult” to their own purposes. They defined “cults” not in terms of what they believed but in how they supposedly behaved. According to their claims, “cults” were groups that recruited using deception, manipulated and abused their members, practiced “brainwashing”, and posed a danger to society. Given that this is the meaning of the word that has become most commonly understood today, it is surprising to note it is less than 50 years old.
Anti-cult groups such as the Citizens Freedom Foundation (later the Cult Awareness Network) worked energetically to promote this definition and make the label stick on groups they opposed. These ACM groups were primarily activists and spreaders of information: they distributed newsletters and reading lists of anti-cult material, reported news on “cult” activities, suggested tactics for bringing negative “cult” information to the media, and helped anti-cult volunteers stay organized and connected. They also focused on public relations, with ACM representatives appearing in television and radio interviews and lobbying government, with the goal of convincing legislators to restrict the activities and freedoms of “cults”.6
Through these efforts, the concept of “cult” with its present-day meaning came into being — essentially, the ACM “created cultists”.7
But are these efforts enough to explain the widespread familiarity with the concept among the general public and the deeply negative views most people hold of “cults”? How is it that the supposed existence and evils of “destructive cults” came to be an accepted belief in society?
The Influence of Schemata
To understand how the “cult” concept really took off, it’s useful to consider the principle of schemata as found in psychology and cognitive science. A schema can be defined as
a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information.
Put more simply, schemata are sets of concepts that people use in understanding the world and absorbing information. When confronted with new phenomena, people tend to fit it into an existing schema based on perceived similarities, even at the cost of ignoring or distorting other attributes.
According to forensic psychologist Dr. Jeffrey E. Pfiefer,
Research on schematic representations suggest that when an individual is asked to evaluate an object, person, or event, his or her judgement is often based upon a previously developed cognitive representation such as a schema…This is especially true if the individual has very little direct evidence available to counteract the effect of a schema.8
Additionally he cites research stating that negative information as well as specific, highly vivid incidents are both likely to bias a schema as opposed to statistical/objective data.9 This means that a person’s impression of a category they have little experience of will tend to skew towards the negative and sensationalistic information they have already absorbed.
This research proves insightful when trying to understand the highly negative reactions evoked by the word “cult,” even by those who have no direct experience with them. As researchers van Driel and Richardson note, “few individuals ever have the opportunity to obtain in-depth, firsthand information about NRMs.”10
For most people, the schematic frame of reference for the “cult” category is heavily influenced by the representations of and information about so-called “cults” they have most exposure too — those found in the popular media.
And research indicates that media coverage tends to be both highly vivid and dominated by negative stories:
Given that most information regarding cults is presented through the mass media in a highly vivid and negative fashion…it is possible that the effects of this exposure will lead to the development of negative schemata…especially if the individuals have little direct contact with cults or their members.11
Events Defining the “Cult” Schema
Consider for example the “cult” events that most people are familiar with. The most famous is the 1978 tragedy of the People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana — which has been referred to as the “9/11 of Spirituality” and “the watershed event that made new religions synonymous with the cult menace.”12
This incident resulted in hundreds of people losing their lives. The media coverage was intense, with stories of brainwashed “cultists” drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and then lying down in rows to die. Photographs, news footage, and eye-witness testimony from journalists who visited the community after the fact saturated the airwaves. Across mass media, the People’s Temple was referred to consistently as a “cult” in coverage that was “striking in its indictment of [all] cults”13 and strongly suggested the tragedy was symptomatic of a broader and systemic “cult” menace threatening society. Meanwhile, ACM-affiliated experts went on the interview circuit and arbitrarily conflated the Peoples Temple with other groups, explaining how these “cults” use brainwashing to recruit and control members, with the tragic results plain to see.14
Americans were justifiably horrified by what they saw, and almost all Americans paid attention: a 1978 survey indicated that 98% of Americans were familiar with the Jonestown incidents. This level of awareness was equalled only by certain events in World War II such as Pearl Harbour.
Another significant “cult” incident publicized in the media is the stand-off between forces of the US government and the Branch Davidian spiritual group in Waco, Texas. After a failed raid of the Branch Davidian community, a militarized police force surrounded them in a tense 51-day stand-off. It ended only when the compound was set on fire, after which 76 group members, including numerous children, lost their lives.
David Koresh, the group’s spiritual leader, was vilified in the media, and the tragedy was spun as another example of a “religious lunatic who doomed his followers to mass suicide.”15
Of course, there are massive controversies surrounding both these events. These controversies include allegations of CIA involvement in Jonestown and the extremely aggressive actions of the government agencies conducting the siege in Waco, which some claim may have been influenced by the involvement of an anti-cult activist (who was advising the FBI during the siege). Neither of these two events are straightforward.
But most members of the public are not familiar with any evidence that contradicts the official stories. Furthermore, anyone questioning those narratives is likely to be ridiculed as a “conspiracy theorist”. The most memorable details about these events are not the unanswered questions but rather those images that are bizarre and gruesome: dead “cultists” laid out in rows, the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, stories of sexually predatory “cult” leaders, a crazy looking David Koresh on the cover of Time Magazine, and other similarly horrifying scenes.
What information do you think the public has remembered?
“Cult” Tragedies Loom Large Over Alternative Spiritual Groups
It is hard to overestimate how significant and powerful the events of Jonestown (and a tiny handful of similar events) have been in defining the “cult” category. The corresponding impact on thousands of innocent spiritual groups is equally huge. Since this small set of violent events has been given extensive, negative, and vivid coverage in the media in association with “cults”, these events have become part of the “cult” schema in the minds of the public and easily associated with all other groups to which that label is applied.
As religious studies scholar Professor John Saliba notes,
[t]he tragic demise of the People’s Temple, in Jonestown…is taken as the paradigm of a destructive cult, thus implying that all new religious movements might end up like Jonestown.16
Considering this context, calling a group a “cult” becomes so much more than a neutral sociological description; it is simply impossible to use this term without evoking extremely negative associations. So when Dr. Margaret Singer (a prominent member of the anti-cult movement and the most well-known proponent of the “cult brainwashing” theorem) writes that “there are anywhere from three thousand to five thousand cults in the United States alone”, she is associating three to five thousand groups with some of the most horrific events imaginable.17
In this way, the “cult” rhetoric of the ACM conflates thousands of mostly law-abiding but unheard-of groups with a very small number of sensationalized and well-known violent groups. The result is that the characteristics of the violent minority become representative of the whole category, and the ACM effectively brands all alternative spiritual groups as another Jonestown waiting to happen.
In this process the anti-cult movement has been aided by a largely sympathetic media, who has adopted the ACM’s rhetoric and perspective consistently. As noted above, “cult” terminology is common place in the media and used as if the term is uncontroversial and clearly defined. And when virtually every “cult” news story is a tale of brainwashing, deception, or some awful tragedy, then these characteristics are accepted as a fair representation of all the thousands of harmless groups that are given the same nasty label:
By the late 1970s the connections between cults, brainwashing, and fraudulence had become naturalized. In other words, these associations became unquestioned truths in magazine articles and for many Americans.18
To realize how absurd and unjust this is, consider that the small number of groups who have actually engaged in physically destructive behaviour represents less than one tenth of 1% of total religions worldwide, which some scholars estimate to number in the tens of thousands.19 Unfortunately, such statistics have become irrelevant when it comes to the public perception; highly vivid and highly negative incidents are more memorable than facts and data.
The Formula that Makes the “Cult” Label Stick
As described above, there are a set of stereotyped characteristics that have become associated with the “cult” label. For example, when you hear the word “cult”, you may think of a sexually abusive leader, deceptive recruitment techniques, mass suicide, “mind control”, and other traits. When a group is labelled as a “cult”, it is easy for all of these stereotyped characteristics to become associated with that group, regardless of the objective reality. Research has shown we can even interpret identical sets of facts differently when the “cult” label is invoked.
This process can work in reverse as well: if we encounter a group with a similarity to one or more of the characteristics that we associate with “cults”, then it is possible to uncritically apply the “cult” label and stereotypes to that group, even if the similarity to the destructive “cult” archetypes is extremely superficial.
For example, if we encounter a small group following a spiritual teacher, we might automatically perceive that teacher with suspicion, assume they are manipulating their students or are after some financial gain or sexual gratification, and so on. This may be entirely inaccurate, but the match between a particular trait (a group with a spiritual teacher) and a pre-programmed “cult” characteristic (“cults” have spiritual teachers) is enough to trigger the schema containing many negative associations.
These characteristics or “cult criteria” have not emerged in a vacuum: just as the “cult” label has been actively promoted by the ACM, so too have a set of criteria of how “cults” supposedly behave.
For example, one noted “cult expert” (the Executive Director of a prominent ACM organization) has defined a number of “characteristics associated with cultic groups”.20
The wording of these characteristics immediately brings to mind abusive groups that are clearly in violation of common-sense ethical boundaries, such as the groups that have become household names through violence or controversy. However, a more thoughtful analysis of these characteristics reveals massive ambiguity. These “cult” traits might just as accurately describe major religions, peaceful spiritual communities, or mystical groups from across the ages.
So what are the traits of “cultic groups”? Here are a selection of these supposed characteristics, along with some analysis.
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
At what point does religious commitment become “excessive”? Who decides? This characteristic assumes that deep religious devotion and commitment to a spiritual teacher must be misguided. There is also a strong implicit skepticism about the validity of such religious experience and the legitimacy of such teachers.
Surely committed Christians have a zealous commitment to the teachings of Christ, just as Muslims are committed to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad, and Jews regard the Torah handed down by Moses as spiritual law. No doubt all these groups regard the belief systems, ideologies, and practices associated with their faiths as the Truth. Why does this behaviour become “cultic” if done in a modern-day context?
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Questioning and dissent seem healthy and obviously can be in certain situations. But also consider that in many religions, “doubt” is seen as an opposite to faith. How can we distinguish between a group that discourages critical thinking as opposed to a group that encourages faith in something greater than what the eye can see? Based on this characteristic, any group encouraging faith (a very fundamental religious principle) could be seen as “cultic”.
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
Meditation and chanting are time-honoured spiritual practices in Buddhism and Hinduism, both major spiritual traditions. There are numerous scientific studies on the psychological and physical benefits of meditation. Does any practice of meditation or chanting make a group “cultic” — or only when these techniques are used beyond some hypothetical limit? Who gets to decide where that limit is?
The same questions could be asked of work routines, which are a form of spiritual practice in many communities.
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
This characteristic evokes a horrible image of controlling spiritual leaders. But then consider that ancient spiritual texts contain many prohibitions and proscriptions regarding marriage, mode of dress, how to eat, how to behave, how much to give to charity, and so on. What differentiates these rules, which lie at the heart of many established religions, from spiritual guidelines given today?
This characteristic prohibits a modern spiritual group from having any code of conduct or spiritual principles for living
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
Virtually all established spiritual groups begin with a figure who is considered a special being on a spiritual mission of some kind. Jesus, Krishna, Mohammad, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, and many others all share this trait.
This characteristic seems to take for granted that there is no deeper spiritual truth in the world — if we accept this, then of course any group claiming to have found such a truth is probably misguided. But why is this assumption treated as an obvious fact? Is it not possible for a modern-day group to be led by a special being or to have a special mission? This characteristic would immediately label all the ancient spiritual figures mentioned above as “cult leaders”, were they to emerge today.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Any group that deviates from or is critical of social norms may be considered to have a “polarized” mentality. Observe this characteristic to the letter, and you ironically prohibit dissent from and demand conformity with the wider society.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
All spiritual leaders are accountable to the secular authorities of the countries in which they live or visit, should they break the law. In terms of spiritual matters, every spiritual group governs themselves in the way they choose. For example, the Catholic Pope is considered infallible to Catholics, his decisions cannot be judged, and he effectively cannot be removed from office in any way. Similarly the widely-respected Dalai Lama, who has been acclaimed as the world’s most influential spiritual person, is actually considered a “God-King” by his Tibetan followers.
One may find this to be a wise or unwise policy, but to claim that a spiritual leader with authority is uniquely a “cult characteristic” and is unlike “mainstream religious denominations” does not hold up to serious scrutiny.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
Based upon this characteristic, spiritual adherents are not allowed to change, adopt new relationships or leave old ones, or modify their goals and interests based on their spirituality. In other words, the only “safe” form of spirituality is one that produces no change.
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Most major religions focus on missionary work or “spreading the gospel” as a religious duty. At what point does it become preoccupation? This characteristic effectively prohibits small spiritual groups from attempting to grow and spread their message, which is a fundamental activity for their survival.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
All organizations require funds to carry out their mission. How do we distinguish legitimate fund-raising from financial preoccupation? This characteristic prohibits spiritual groups from attempting to support themselves financially.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Spiritually-oriented activity is a key component of many spiritual groups and traditions. Even if someone wanted to devote their whole lives to spiritual activity, is that not a socially valid choice to make? This characteristic establishes an arbitrary threshold of spiritual dedication and says that anyone who goes beyond it is in a “cult”.
Secular Values and Anti-Cult Witch Hunts
These “cult” characteristics contain many value judgements about spirituality, cloaked in the respectable garb of clinical language, as well as assumptions about what is important in life, how we should behave, and the role of spiritual practice. Ultimately, any spiritual group that transgresses against the secular and materialistic values that underly these assumptions is going to fall into the “cult” trap.
In the world of the ACM, spirituality can be a hobby, a casual interest, or a cultural affiliation, but not a serious focus of one’s life.
These characteristics are also oddly reminiscent of the witch hunts of early modern Europe and New England, where subjective, ambiguous, and often absurd criteria were used to label innocent people as witches.
Then as now, the witch hunts were driven by moral panics and hysteria about a supposed threat to society. Just as the discovery and condemnation of supposed witches became a self-fulfilling prophecy to “prove” that witches existed, so to has the widespread existence of “destructive cults” became an unquestioned fact due to the one-sided depictions of “cults” in the mass media.
Finally, just as witch trials featured a variety of spurious “tests” to determine whether someone was, in fact, a witch, the “cult” characteristics used by the ACM impose often equally impossible or subjective criteria on those organizations seeking to prove they are not a cult.
In order to absolutely avoid meeting any “cult” criteria, a spiritual organization would need to have no interested members, no real leader, no spiritual principles, no effort to spread its message, no funds to support itself — in short, it would need to cease operating altogether.
Is the ACM attempting to suppress all spiritual organizations of any kind that are not mainstream religions?
It is easy to underestimate how widespread the “cult” stigma is, how deeply ingrained, and how damaging it can be. Most of us would object if we heard someone using a racial or religious slur, and yet descriptions of “cults” and “cultists” do not typically rouse a second thought. “Cultists” are depicted as robotic and dehumanized by definition, and thus they do not evoke much sympathy.
As sociologist James Lewis notes, “[t]he failure of normally open-minded people to protect religious pluralism has allowed contemporary witch hunters to declare open season on cults”.21
However, the unnoticed and casual bigotry lurking in the “cult” concept does not just affect a group of strange or destructive people; it affects the choices available to us all.
The window for the free exploration of spirituality is being gradually closed and the fundamental human right of freedom of belief is being gradually eroded. The limitations on these freedoms do not have to come from an external force or oppressive laws; people police each other through taboos, social stigma, and family pressures, enforcing limits on the type of spirituality that is acceptable without even realizing it.
If we value the right to explore spirituality in freedom, then we need to wake up to this process and reject the “cult” stereotype.
McCloud, “From Exotics to Brainwashers: Portraying New Religions in Mass Media”, 2007, 215 ↩
Paul J. Olson, “The Public Perception of ‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements,'” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (2006): 100 ↩
Jeffrey E. Pfiefer, “The Psychological Framing of Cults: Schematic
Representations and Cult Evaluations,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 22.7 (1992): 536 ↩
Eugene V. Gallagher, “Compared to what?: ‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements’,” History of Religions 47.2-3 (2007-2008): 206 ↩
Gallagher, “‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements'”: 218 ↩
Shupe, Spielmann, Stigall, “Cults of Anti-Cultism”, 1980, 45. ↩
The North American Anti-Cult Movement Vicissitudes of Success and Failure (The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements) Shupe, Bromley, Darnell, 2008, 186 ↩
Pfiefer, “Framing of Cults”: 533 ↩
Pfiefer, “Framing of Cults”: 533 ↩
Barend van Driel and James T. Richardson, “Print Media Coverage of New Religious Movements: A Longitudinal Study,” Journal of Communication 38.3 (1988): 38 ↩
Pfiefer, “Framing of Cults”: 533-4 ↩
Barker, 1986 ↩
McCloud, 222 ↩
Barker, Religious Movements: Cult and Anticult Since Jonestown, 330 ↩
MacWilliams, Mark (2005). “Symbolic Resistance to the Waco Tragedy on the Internet”. Nova Religio (University of California Press) 8 (3): 59–82, as cited in Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siege#Role_of_anti-cult_activists ↩
Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements, 144 ↩
Singer, Cults in Our Midst, 5 ↩
McCloud, 220 ↩
Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements, Challenge and Response, 16 ↩
Langone, Michael. http://www.icsahome.com/articles/characteristics ↩
Lewis 202 ↩