Excerpts from "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative" (1992)

by James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, University of Nevada-Reno abridged by The Reverend Douglas Eugene Savoy Jr. with permission of the author

It should be noted that the Advocates for Religious Rights & Freedoms recognizes the there are in existence subversive groups and anti-social organizations that do pose certain threats to both civil and social laws and orders. The purpose of this paper is not to defend those groups but rather to aid legitimate emerging sects and religions.

In his paper "Definition of Cult," Dr. Richardson attempts to examine the theoretical and historical development of the term "cult." He focuses on the "usurpation of the term by popular usage which associates strong negative connotations." The paper concludes with the suggestion that "scholars should avoid the term and that it should not be allowed to be used in legal proceedings because of its confused and negatively connoted meaning in contemporary society."

In recent years the term cult has become a widely used popular term, usually connoting some group that is least unfamiliar and perhaps even disliked or feared.... This popular use of the term has gained such credence and momentum that it has virtually swallowed up the more neutral historical meaning of the term from the sociology of religion. Indeed, some would claim that the term cult is useless, and should be avoided because of the confusion between the historic meaning of the term and the current pejorative use.

The "New" Cult Definition
Robbins and Anthony delineate the new, more popular definition of cult as follows: "...certain manipulative and authoritarian groups which allegedly employ mind control and pose a threat to mental health are universally labeled cults. These groups are usually:

  • 1) authoritarian in their leadership;
  • 2) communal and totalistic in their organization;
  • 3) aggressive in their proselytizing;
  • 4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination;
  • 5) relatively new and unfamiliar in the United States; and
  • 6) middle class in their clientele."
This definition clearly shows the problems associated with the new, popularized definition of cult. The emotionally charged terms used in the definition evidence the meaning of the term for those who employ it. To call a group manipulative and authoritarian, and the allegation that they pose a threat to the mental health of participants shows strong feelings. Calling such groups "totalistic," "aggressive," and saying that they systematically indoctrinate members adds to the baggage carried by popular use of the term.
       Thus the new definition of cult is a hodgepodge of elements that do not hang together in any logical sense, as did elements of the traditional definition. The new definition's elements are a list of things which some interest groups in our society do not like, or which they attribute to disfavored groups. If those opposing certain groups can successfully attach the label "cult" to a group, then they virtually automatically get to heap negative baggage of the popular definition on to that group. In short, the term has become a "social weapon" to use against groups not viewed with favor.
       The new use of the term cult has become widespread. Media use it indiscriminately, which evidences the success of the Anti-Cult Movement in promoting its view of the world. Professionals and lay persons who oppose the new religions use the term as frequently as possible, and in an ever-expanding way as evidenced by the recent focus on activities of alleged satanic cults." Even more interesting is growing use of the popular term in scholarly writings about new religions and related phenomena. Some scholars attempt to avoid the term because of negative stereotyping which accompanies its use. The term "new religions" or "new religious movements" has been developed as a somewhat amorphous term of art by some scholars ....
       [R.] Ellwood adds: "...the word cult is so intimately intertwined with the popular connotations the word has acquired as to make it, in my view, ultimately undesirable. The label, has too often been used to isolate groups in a priori theological or social grounds and then endow them with a wide range of characteristics associated in the user's mind with cults."'
       ... In reasonably neutral language [Ellwood] offers a delineation which includes the following elements:
  • 1) a group that "presents a distinct alternative to dominant patterns within society in fundamental areas of religious life." This includes a small size with "distinctly different" forms of belief and practice, carried on by a uniquely organized group;
  • 2) possessing strong authoritarian and charismatic leadership;"
  • 3) oriented toward "inducing powerful subjective experiences and meeting personal needs;"
  • 4) is "separatist in that it strives to maintain distinct boundaries between it and the 'outside,"' and "requiring a high degree of conformity and commitment;"
  • 5) a tendency "to see itself as legitimated by a long tradition of wisdom or practice of which it is the current manifestation."
This integrative effort is defended by Ellwood who says the definition will not apply to some groups being referred to popularly (and by some professionals) as cults. He states that it will apply to newer religious movements "in their first generation and subsequently become less applicable as they, through routinization of charisma and institutionalization, become something else sociologically, even if still small and alternative."
        Ellwood has made a valiant effort to define the term cult in a useful, non-stereotypical way. He apparently is not satisfied with his efforts, however, as he proceeds to recommend use of an alternative term "emergent religion" in place of the term cult. I [the author] also share his concerns, based on personal experiences with trying to use the term in a technical sense with newer religious phenomena. Indeed, I would take the regrettable position that the term should be abandoned by scholars as currently being misleading and not very useful. For scholars to attempt to make use of the term with such strong and negative popular meanings seems to be folly, and plays into the hands of those who would oppose the development of new religious forms in our society.

Use of the Term Cult in Legal Proceedings
As problematic as the term cult is for scholars, its use within the legal setting seems worse. The term has such negative connotations that for the term to be allowed in court at all is a major victory for those attacking new religions. If a group being sued is referred to with impunity as a cult, many of those hearing the term -- which is itself a damming accusation -- can be expected to assume the baggage that often accompanies the term in its popular usage. There is ample evidence suggesting that this process may occur with regularity.
       Jeffrey Pfeiffer, a psychologist also has done some research relevant to the question. His research, grounded in psychological framing theory as developed by Tversky and Kahneman, thus offers some empirical test of the claim that the term "cult" carries significant "baggage." Pfeiffer states that "when an individual is asked to evaluate an object, person, or event, his or her judgement may be based upon previously developed cognitive representation such as schema." He adds, "(t)he negativity bias... has been illustrated by a number of studies which suggests that in some instances negative information carries more weight than positive information in terms of biasing judgements."
       Pfeiffer then points out the general negative coverage of cults in the media and suggest that the inundating of people with the negative images from the media may result in the formation of "negative schemas regarding the indoctrination processes employed by cults." He refers to Tversky and Kahneman's point that when a person is asked to make a judgement about something unfamiliar they may "anchor the response to any piece of relevant information they have... and subsequently frame their decision around this anchor." Pfeiffer thinks the term cult is a significant anchor which frames interpretations given to anything referred to by that term.
       Pfeiffer's conclusion included the following statement: "(S)ubjects tend to rate both the group, and the individual joining the group, in more negative terms if they are led to believe the group is a cult."

Conclusions and Recommendations
Given the obvious negative connotations of the term cult, as shown by a number of surveys and by Pfeiffer's research, it seems reasonable to suggest that the ten-n "cult" should be disallowed in legal proceedings. Those defending actions against new religions popularly referred to as cults should consider making pre-trial motions to suppress the use of that term in the court room. It simply carries too much baggage to allow its casual use in proceedings designed to have rational judgements made about important issues. Scholars as well should abandon the term cult, in favor of terms that have not been so taken over with popular negative usage. Perhaps Ellwood's term "emergent religion" will be found to be useful. But if it does not, then some other should be tried, so that dispassionate discussion and research can proceed.
       Some years ago Kilbourne and I did a somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece entitled "Cultphobia." I would now close with the suggestion, somewhat more seriously, that those concerned with the misuse of the term cult should become literally "cultphobic" and develop a strong aversion to the term. To make any use of the term "cult" offers solace to those promoting the new, negatively loaded definition of the term, and such use should be stopped.

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