(WSJ) Mitch Horowitz: When Does a Religion Become a Cult?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

America has probably supplied the world with more new religions than any other nation. Since the first half of the 19th century, the country's atmosphere of religious experimentation has produced dozens of movements, from Mormonism to a wide range of nature-based practices grouped under the name Wicca.

By 1970 the religious scholar Jacob Needleman popularized the term "New Religious Movements" (NRM) to classify the new faiths, or variants of old ones, that were being embraced by the Woodstock generation. But how do we tell when a religious movement ceases to be novel or unusual and becomes a cult?

It's a question with a long history in this country. The controversy involving Hollywood writer-director Paul Haggis is only its most recent occurrence. Mr. Haggis left the Church of Scientology and has accused it of abusive practices, including demands that members disconnect from their families, which the church vigorously denies....

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6 Comments
Posted February 25, 2011 at 11:22 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. bettcee wrote:

“The ‘Why Serve’ conference is a safe place to learn more about how your gifts might be used at various levels of the church

I don’t understand why they say that it is a “safe place”, are there places where it is not safe “to learn more about how your gifts might be used”?

February 25, 8:06 pm | [comment link]
2. bettcee wrote:

I posted my previous comment on the wrong thread, please disregard it.

February 25, 10:50 pm | [comment link]
3. NoVA Scout wrote:

I would disagree with the author that America has spun out a lot of new “religions”.  Almost every American product is some variant of Christianity.  Scientology is the exception that proves the rule, although it still looks to me like some kind of rather expensive club, rather than a religion.  The more I learn of early Christian Gnosticism, I wonder whether L. Ron didn’t dive deep into that lore for some of his ideas.

I also have found it hard to find the utility of the distinction between a “religion” and a “cult” although I confess I have candidates for the latter status.  But one never hears anyone describe their own faith as a “cult”.  The term is always used pejoratively from the outside.  Khoresh and Jim Jones no doubt were running “Cults”, as I perceive the sense of the word.  But I doubt that they would have described themselves that way or that I gain anything by calling them cults.  The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints comes in for cult status from a lot of mainline Christians, but I doubt that it is any more deserving of that appellation than were Quakers or even Methodists in the latter’s early years.  The post is probably correct, however, to go beyond theological earmarks to discussing the inner dynamics of membership.  The secrecy, control and demonization of outsiders at some level become so extreme as to provide a useful marker.

February 26, 12:24 am | [comment link]
4. LumenChristie wrote:

The technical definition of a cult is neutral:  a small, new, committed group which diverges significantly from its parent religion or larger cultural norms.  The real question is whether a cult is destructive or not.  This question revolves around the issues of duplicity, exploitation and abuse.

If you want to join a small, new, intensely committed, “odd” group, you are welcome to do so.  When that group sells itself as something completely different, takes all your money, love and energy for its own ends and causes you physical, emotional and mental harm, that cult is destructive to its members.

The real issue is the use of mind control, popularly thought of as “brain washing.”  Yes, this truly does exist; it does not require starving, beating or the use of high-tech machinery (see: The Ipcress File).  One weekend in someone’s basement with no clocks, no opportunity for reality checks and no freely chosen food or potty breaks will do it very well.  Really—scary, but quite true.

The well thought of psychologists, Margaret Singer Robert Jay Lifton, Louis Jolyon West and others have thoroughly researched and documented this process.

There is no need for confusion here.  The problem is clear—the will to solve it, less so.

And BTW:  Scientology is demonstrably one of the worst.

February 26, 9:44 am | [comment link]
5. nwlayman wrote:

The Christians of course first got on the Roman radar by being an illegal secret society, so fall under the “undue secrecy” heading at the start.  More generally from inside Chritianity I hope people would be more Christocentric.  Anything denying what the New Testament teaches for a start.  The Mormons are pretty obvious, it’s surprising anyone can think of them (though lots do) as another protestant group.  Protesting what?

February 26, 2:34 pm | [comment link]
6. NoVA Scout wrote:

If they are thought of as “protestant”, No. 5, it is simply in the context of not being Roman Catholic.  But, of course, you are right that they post-date the Reformation by centuries.  They do not think of themselves as “denying” the New Testament, I’m sure.

February 26, 2:52 pm | [comment link]
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