Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Exactly Is A Cult?

As I mentioned yesterday in my post about Scientology, for some strange reason I'm in a cult-documentary phase at the moment, and by now I think I've seen every single one of them that I can find on youtube (except the ancient aliens one from the history channel, I refuse). What struck me was that, despite my searching "cult documentary", I never really knew what to expect when I watched one of the videos, mostly because of the extremely diverse views as to what constitutes a cult.

Sometimes the documentaries would be strictly about extremely violent and sociopathic cults, like the Manson family or Aum Shinrikyo. These were the kind of documentaries that I liked the least, dealing mostly with the shock value of these heinous crimes in the oh-my-god-how-did-he-convince-these-people-my-lordy sense. Incidentally I would have found them far more interesting if they were presented in the context of the psychology of sociopaths, Stokholm Syndrome etc, rather than pure awe at how good people can go so terribly wrong given a charasmatic enough leader (as if it were that simple). Either way, in this case it was evident that the writers were considering the word "cult" in the strictest sense, a small brain-washed group of puppets controlled by an evil Satan-like leader. In other cases I would get the documentaries about an organizations that are recognized officially as religions in many countries. Others yet considered cults to be people who believe in things that are just far too silly and out there to be taken seriously (as if a parthenogenic teenager that popps out a guy that can walk on water is somehow more probably than space aliens coming for our bodies when we die). I saw some instances where the people proudly announced that they were in fact part of a cult, and others (none more so than the Scientologists) that could not find a single more offensive word to describe themselves. Suddenly I'm very confused.

What exactly is a cult? What is a religion? Can we come to a consensus as to what the two words mean and how exactly they differ? 

Now my favorite snarky response to this question is one I heard a while ago from my father, who in turn saw it on a t-shirt: The only difference between a religion and a cult is numbers. I can definitely agree with that assessment (especially when referring to people who think that cults are simply people who believe "crazy" things), but let's take a closer look for a second.

This is the part when we go back to the dictionaries, and let's see if we can get a little consistency.

cult: a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object:
       1. a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members

religion: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
            1. a particular system of faith and worship
            2. a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion

Merriam-Webster: eek, this is a long list

cult: 1. formal religious veneration
         2. a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents 
         3. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
         4. a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
         5. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad 

religion: 1. the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion>    
            2. (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
            3. a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices 
            4. archaic : scrupulous conformity
            5. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith 

cult: 1. a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
         2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers
         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  

religion: 1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs
               2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects
               3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices
               4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc
               5. the practice of religious  beliefs; ritual observance of faith

Crap, my head hurts just looking at all that. Doesn't seem that anyone can really agree can they?

Well, for starters, there is obviously a lot of overlap between what constitutes a religion and what constitutes a cult, which of course is quite obvious. If we take away all of the overlap, what do we really have left?

1. a relatively small group of people
2. practices regarded by others as strange or regarded as unorthodox
3. imposing excessive control over members

As I said before, the second one is quite subjective and based on nothing particularly concrete- should we call creationists a cult? AIDS-denialists? 9/11 truthers? perhaps, but as I said earlier, I don't see anything in the core beliefs of the main monotheistic religions that makes them more reasonable than these other logic-defying beliefs, so unless we want to abandon the distiction between the two words entirely I would be wary of this point here.

The first one is interesting in that it falls into the snarky comment that I made earlier. I suppose those that believe that this is the main distinction are the ones that find absolutely nothing wrong with being referred to as a cult and even adopt the label with pride: they are the few people who actually got it right and so be it. 

It is the third that I find the most telling, and the one that I think the one factor that tied all of those documentaries that I saw together: the excessive control. The splitting up of families, of not allowing members to speak to or interact with anyone outside the faith. The strict rules with which they control every aspect of their followers' lives, eliminating the chance that they think for themselves. 

This aspect is unfortunately found, in a diluted form, in pretty much every religion there is: you can talk to outsiders, just not marry them. You can marry them, but only if you convince them to convert. You can marry someone who does not convert, but the children you have must be raised in the faith. You can talk to your child who decides to leave the faith, but you must be deeply ashamed of them and worried for the fate of their soul. You have to fast for a month. You don't have to fast for a month, just no meat on Fridays. You can eat meat on Fridays, just not on Fridays during Lent. On and on and on it goes. 

When these rules and restrictions become less and less reasonable and cause the people following them to be less able to integrate into their society, we begin to call that religion a cult. There are also many religions that follow all three of these criteria but that are simply referred to as "fundementalist religions", but is there really a difference? Either way, does it really matter?

What do you think when you hear the word "cult"? Is there anything that these dictionaries have left out, but that you would have included in the definition?


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