I previously made a satirical video in which I played along with an accusation from The Kingdom of the Cults that Unitarian Universalism is a cult. In this article and the accompanying video, I would like to take a serious look at what a cult is. Below the video is an article I wrote before recording the video. They follow the same outline but differ in content.
Some people regard a cult to be, more or less, a religion that disagrees with their own, i.e. a religion other than the supposed one true religion. There are two problems with this. First, it is bashing a rival religion with a derogatory label. Second, it is failing to give this label any significant meaning. If you identify another religion as a cult merely on the basis of theological differences from your own, all you’re ultimately saying about it is that it is a different religion than yours. In that case, you may as well throw out the word cult as useless. If the word cult is to be truly derogatory, it has to mean something that is truly derogatory. Identifying something as a rival religion to X is derogatory only to members of X who consider X to be the one true religion. But to someone who is trying to pick between X and Y, knowing that members of X consider Y a cult is not very helpful. Perhaps members of Y consider X a cult, in which case we’re left without any useful information at all.
A variation on this is the approach taken in Kingdom of the Cults. This book distinguishes between major world religions and cults. It includes a chapter on Islam but begins it by saying, “Islam is not a cult, but a major world religion distinctly different from Christianity.” The religions it identifies as cults are all smaller sects. These include Christian sects, such as Christian Science, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as non-Christian sects, such as Zen Buddhism, the Baha’i Faith, and Scientology. The author seems to have some correct ideas about cults, but his perspective gets warped by the idea that his religion is the one true religion, leading him to misidentify some rival religions as cults. It is important to be clear on the difference between a cult and a false religion, but this book tends to blur these two ideas together.
Another variation on this would be to identify cults with new religions instead of older, more established religions. Since every religion is a new one at some time, identifying cults with new religions does not distinguish any relevant qualities of cults from older religions. In some instances, a cult may splinter into new groups that are actually less cultish. My approach to identifying a cult is to look at its structural characteristics, not at its age.
Some nonreligious people consider all religions to be cults. This is just a variation on what I’ve been criticizing. If you use cult synonymously with religion, you’re just disparaging religion without saying anything meaningful about it. I believe it is valid to distinguish between a cult and a religion. A cult is some kind of species of or variation on religion that it is dangerous to be a part of. Let’s start to consider what characteristics could make a religion a cult.
The first distinction I’ll make is that a religion without leaders is not a cult. If you have a religion of one, meaning that your religious beliefs are your own and do not come from others, you are not part of a cult. A cult requires multiple people, some of whom have leadership positions over others. A small cult may have a single leader, while a larger cult may have a hierarchy of leadership with a top level of leadership to whom everyone else in the cult is subordinate. This first distinction limits cults to clearly identifiable organizations. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other world religions cannot be cults, because none of these are single organizations with identifiable leaders. The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church, but he is not the head of other Christian denominations. Mohammed is the original head of Islam, but after his death, Islam split into two main sects over the question of who would lead Islam after Mohammed. There may be Christian cults, Muslim cults, Hindu cults, etc., but it is important to make the distinction between a religious movement that is beyond the control of any particular person or institution and a particular religious organization with a hierarchy of leadership. A cult could be as large as the Catholic Church with the right kind of ecclesiastical structure, but a cult cannot be something as all encompassing as Christianity in general.
Second, the leadership in the cult is authoritarian. The cult leaders expect other members to obey and conform. If you attend a liberal church where you are free to have your own ideas, and you are free to choose how to live your life, you have religion, but you are not in a cult. In a cult, you are expected to believe whatever your leaders tell you to believe, and you are expected to do what they tell you to do.
Third, the leadership of a cult is regarded as the highest authority its members can appeal to. A religion may make use of the Bible and claim that its authority comes from God, but if it tells you how to interpret the Bible and what God wants of you, and if it threatens to kick you out for questioning it, it may be a cult. In contrast to this, if your church leaders encourage you to use your own understanding of the Bible or to seek guidance from God directly, then you may be part of a religious organization that is not a cult. This is, of course, assuming that they sincerely mean it and are not just expecting you to agree with them. The American Baptists, which were founded by a man who subsequently left the denomination, have a free soul doctrine, whereby members are free to interpret the Bible without any expectation of adhering to a formal creed. When members of a religious organization have this kind of freedom, it is not a cult.
Fourth, the leadership is not accountable to the members. If the members are free to change their leaders through a democratic process, then it is not a cult. For example, the American Baptist church I was once a member of has been known to fire its minister. That’s a good sign that it’s not a cult. But if leadership positions are granted only from the top down, and members are not allowed to criticize or vote out leaders they disagree with, it could be a cult.
Fifth, leaders have the authority to kick out members. You may think that religion is about your relationship with God, and that this is something even a clergyman cannot come between. If this is what your church teaches, then you are not in a cult. But in a cult, the leader or organization is regarded as your intermediary with God, and they may formally revoke your membership.
Sixth, authority is backed up with threats, such as death or damnation, for anyone who leaves. This doesn’t have to involve literally murdering people who leave, though it sometimes does. In secular countries, such as the United States, it is more common for the threat of death to be left in God’s hands, such as the threat that God will not resurrect you to immortal bliss unless you remain a member in good standing. Instead of the threat of death, it could be the threat of being tortured forever in Hell. One of the ways religion is useful for manipulating people is that it can make threats on a stage where it never has to deliver them. Not every religion instills a fear of leaving in its members. For example, Universalism teaches that God is so loving, everyone will get to go to Heaven. That’s not a cult. But when a religious organization portrays itself as holding the keys to your eternal fate and holds it over your head in case you think of leaving, it may be a cult.
Seventh, the members are expected to keep themselves separate from non-members and former members. This restriction limits the exposure of members to contrary ideas, which helps keep them from questioning the leadership of their religious organization. At one extreme, members may be kept in a compound, completely isolated from anyone in the outside world. But this isn’t always practical, especially for larger cults. People normally need to maintain some contact with the outside world to meet their daily needs, and a cult can grow more when it can use its members for recruiting. So larger cults will allow members to come in contact with non-members for the purposes of shopping, working, or recruiting new members. But they will still restrict other contact, such as not allowing dating or friendships with non-members, or restricting social contact over the internet.
Eighth, members are expected to put the organization ahead of everything else, including life, family and education. When members are expected to shun family who are no longer members, when they are expected to put aside career or education to focus on recruiting new members, or when they are expected to let a child die because a certain medical intervention is considered sinful by the organization, then in all likelihood, this is a cult.
Ninth, a cult may exert undue influence over the behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions of its members. Some of the previous points I’ve gone over here already touch on this, but I wanted to make this explicit, since this refers specifically to Steven Hassan’s BITE model of undue influence or mind control. It used to be called mind control, but the preferred term now is undue influence. The BITE model has been criticized on the grounds that it may fit things that are not cults. So I’ll just point out that I am not equating a cult with just anything that exerts undue influence over people. But it is something that happens in cults, and you can learn more about it from other sources.
Tenth, a religious organization that advocates theocracy may well be a cult. In theory, theocracy is rule by God. In practice, it has always been rule by people claiming to speak for God. When a cult promotes theocracy, it does so for the sake of promoting its own authority over its members. It is saying that true governmental authority comes from God, and as God’s official spokesman, the cult claims to rule over people’s lives with the authority of God.
The general theme here has been authoritarianism in a religious organization. And so far, this has been in terms of how the leadership comes across to the membership. Let’s now look at it from the perspective of the leadership. The leadership of a cult finds itself in control of various resources, including money and manpower, and it uses these to increase its power. Its membership is the main source of its income, and it feeds on donations from its members while also using them to recruit more members. So, a cult preys on its members. It is something like the relationship between a shepherd and his flock, which has often been used as a metaphor for the relationship between clergy and members of the church. But instead of being about protecting the members, it is about feeding off of them. Remember that a real shepherd takes care of real sheep for people to eat them, not for their own sake, and that’s mainly the role that a cult takes towards its members, milking them financially and using their labor to expand itself.
With all of this in mind, I would describe a religious cult as an authoritarian organization that preys on its members by manipulating and exploiting their religious beliefs. While some religions may exist to better the lives of their members, a cult exists to increase its own power at the expense of its members. Joseph Franklin Rutherford, who succeeded Charles Taze Russell in leadership of the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society, would denounce religion, which he somehow distinguished from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as a snare and a racket. This might not be a fair description of all religion, but it is an accurate description of a cult. A cult will ensnare people into its clutches, keep them there by playing on their fears, and exploit them like racketeers. It is probably fair to say that any religious cult is a false religion, but we should continue to bear in mind that a religion may be false without being a cult. So we should never let ourselves jump to the conclusion that a religion is a cult just on the basis of disagreeing with it. We should examine it for features of a cult and base our conclusions on that.