Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What's in a cult?

One of the things I find amusing is reading Fundamentalist Christians declaring that "The Catholic Church is a CULT!" or that Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses are cults. IN my opinion, this is nothing more than the pot calling the kettle black.

Let's look at the definition of the word, first of all:

From Dictionary.com
1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3. the object of such devotion.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
7. the members of such a religion or sect.
8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

So let's look at this in more detail.

1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.

Now this first definition can apply to pretty much any religious system, and doesn't really distinguish between religion and the modern use of the word, "cult".

2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.

This is sort of closer to how people use the word, but it must be stressed that "great veneration" should be "excessive veneration" to approach how modern people use the word "cult". For example, admiring Elvis is one thing, but worshipping him as a religious object is excessive.

3. the object of such devotion.

Still not close to how we use it.

4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

Like the first definition, above, this canb apply to any religion.

5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

See #1 and #4.

6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.

Now this is how most modern people use the word "cult". We're talking about groups that aren't just religious, but which are extreme, and where members live outside of conventional society, often times under someone else's direction. We are all aware of the cults whose members sell all of their possessions, and move away to be with other members of the faith, in an extremely controlled environment where everyone watches everyone else.

Incidentally, there are plenty examples of this among evangelical fundamentalist Christians. Whether it's the Boston Church Of Christ, the Brotherhood, or some of the more extreme Christian Summer camps, plenty of Evangelical Christians belong to groups that are described by definition #6.

When looking at the Catholic church, only certain aspects of the priesthood, convents, and monestaries full of monks fit #6 -- rarely do you see lay-Catholics living unconventional lives under the direction of religious leaders.

7. the members of such a religion or sect.

No comment needed.

8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

This doesn't really apply, either, as it's seldom used.

So anyway, I've narrowed down how I, and most other people tend to use the word "cult". Interestingly, enough, unorthodox or extreme religions, once practiced by enough people, and accepted by the majority, tend to no longer be called cults. If the majority of Americans were to converted to a cult, and Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, and other common sects were a minority, the Cult would technically no longer be a cult, and non-cult members would then be the extremists, since the behaviors formally seen as extreme are now common place.

I would only say this to Evangelicals -- be careful of using the word "Cult" and be specific in how you define it. You need to chose your words and their definitions carefully, otherwise, you will easily include yourself in the definition.

5 comments:

GamingAsshole said...

What I find really hilarious is the fact that cult used to simply mean religion, it didn't have the negative connotations it implies today.

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David W. Irish said...

Yeah, that's because at some point, all religions are cults.

You can take a secular person, and add "superstition" (belief in the power of the number 13, spirit communication, astrology), and they're still not "culty" enough.

Once they get hooked up with an actual organized religion, they are essentially more cult-like. If tyhe leadership of the organization makes them stop doing things that were normal to them in their secular life, for no reason other than to follow religious doctrine, then they are part of a cult.

Cult is sort of short for "culture". When I use the word "cult", I usually refer to a society of people who are living in a culture that is separate from everyone else. They treat living in our society as though it's evil (they avoid "worldly things", and consider the world to be evil or bad), and band together in a group of their own. They have their own banter or jargon, their own dress code, their own rules that are different from the society rules, or more intense than society rules.

On the one hand, I don't mind people referring to the Catholic church as a cult, because when you look at the ritual, the priesthood, nuns, and monks, they certainly are a cult, but the lay-catholics -- average church members who just go to church and stand-kneel-sit-stand-kneel-stand-pay collection-say-a-prayer -- apart from Sunday mass, the church itself doesn't have much more to do with them.

But I've been to plenty of Fundy churches that are most definitely far more a cult than anything I ever experienced from Catholics. In fact, the culture of Evangelical Fundamentalists is most definiteyl a cult, because the church doctrines penetrate all aspects of a follower's life. They can't just go to church n Sunday, and be done with their obligations. Preachers tend to give followers a sense of mission and urgency that consumes more than just a little bit of one's time. They sell a lifestyle that is full of religious devotion 24 hours a day, and the fear that God is intensely interested in their sex-lives. The religion pentrates far and controls deeper than Catholic officials have ever dreamed (Well, except for the medieval and renaissance era church).

But any time you follow a religion, which asks you to adjust your lifestyle, for reasons that do not involve your health or your relationships with other people (In other words, the church tells you that you need to be around only with other church members, because unbeleivers are evil), you are in a cult.

David W. Irish said...

Hi Jjones,

I had some friends who were Jehovah's Witnesses, and I know what you're saying. One of them went away to a summer camp thing when she was starting to get interested in boys, and the church sort of steered her into getting married. Not that it was against her will or anything, but she believed that the church's people knew what was best for her, and she just married this guy without much thought.

I mean, she's happily married, but she only knew the guy for a about a week, and it was a situation that if she questioned it, she probably would have gotten crap for it. I think her parents were afraid she'd go out and get pregnant or something (lot of trust, there...).

GamingAsshole said...

I've actually never really experienced any sort of religion, so I'm kind of new to all these things.