I love the word cult. Inside the word itself is the power to shift one’s entire perspective.
It is a nearly impossible word to define. Every time you try to fix its boundaries a question comes up that destroys its own parameters, forcing you to redefine your definition. For instance, if I pretend that I am a first year university student giving a presentation and say, “Wikipedia defines cult as ‘a religious or social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices,'” the immediate response is, “but what about Christianity? To be a christian in many parts of the world could be considered socially deviant. Believing that you are ingesting the physical body and blood of a man who died two-thousand years before you were born could be considered a novel belief and practice. Is Christianity a cult?” I just felt the collective hackles of the Christian community rise with that last question.
People get their backs up when you tell them they are in a cult because it is not a nice word to use. Regardless of the details in the various definitions of cult floating around out there, it is universally understood to be pejorative. Nobody considers themselves to be a part of one and yet we are quick to point out the cults we see around us. Here’s a fun exercise: go onto a dictionary website such as merriam-webster.com and read the comment section for the definition of cult. (And yes, looking at the comment section of a dictionary does make you a special kind of nerd.) There are a whole bunch of people there defining it as whatever religion or group they don’t like or, more basically, that to which they don’t belong. It is what other people believe.
Somewhat uniquely, cult has not experienced a reclamation that other negative religious terms have enjoyed; calling someone a ‘witch’ doesn’t have the same effect that it did a hundred years ago. In fact, there are many proud covens across the world. Telling someone they are in a cult though is a quick way to start a fight.
It is precisely the tension between cult‘s broad subjectivity and negative implications that makes me love it so much. This tension has the ability to set off a chain of logical progressions that are impossible to escape. If you are a religious person and I tell you that I think you are in a cult, you first have to do two things: 1. explain why your belief system is not a cult, and 2. define cult in terms of other religious beliefs in order to reinforce point number one. You have to do these things because the only other option is to accept that you are in a cult and, because it has such a negative connotation, no one is willing to do that.
The problem is that both of those tasks are impossible without some fairly severe hypocrisy and lack of self-reflection. As we have already discussed, the definition of cult is so fluid, subjective, and ill-contained that there is no way to explain yourself out of a cult or others into one.
So, then you are left with a couple of choices:
You can just ignore the paradox, pass it off as semantics, and continue on your merry way.
You can accept that all religions hold some definition of cult within their practice, find it distasteful, outright reject religion, and start a new life.
Or, (and this is why I love this word so much) you can allow yourself to see through another’s eyes. By recognizing that other people from other religions see your belief system as a cult as much as you see theirs as one, you open yourself up to a whole new world of possibilities and perspectives.
Consider the Raelians for a moment. If you aren’t familiar with them, they are a religious group that believes that a technically advanced race of aliens called Elohim propagated human life on Earth. The Elohim are believed to be recording followers’ memories and DNA in order to resurrect them using cloning techniques after they die. Interestingly, cloning is also how they explain the resurrection of Jesus. If you just thought, “Now there’s a cult,” you wouldn’t be alone. Because their ideas seem far fetched and unsubstantiated, Raelians are generally thought of as a cult and have even been given that official distinction by some governments.
Now here’s the challenge: explain how these beliefs are more cultish than any one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) that make up most of the world’s religious beliefs. Two of the three believe in a resurrected afterlife, and all believe in a being outside this world that created humans. Raelians explain their beliefs through technology; Abrahamic traditions explain them through miracles. As you poke holes in their beliefs, you are poking holes in your own.
Though I am not a Raelian, and really only have a minimal understanding of their belief system, I would imagine that from their perspective, believing in miracles is ridiculous. Everything in their system can be explained through technology (granted, it’s technology that nobody has ever seen) so belief in the impossible is not necessary.
As soon as you start to see that you are as ridiculous to others as they are to you, your perspective has begun to shift.
This holds for all cults in our society, be they religious or not. Go ahead and point out the oddity of gym cults with sleeveless muscle heads guzzling protein and sporting workout clothes regardless of the occasion, but recognize your own odd practice of showing up everyday to hear the leader speak in the lecture hall at the university cult so that after 4-8 years of servitude you can get a piece of paper with your name on it, or dressing in uncomfortable shoes and clothes to go sit in uncomfortable chairs for hours to listen to music you could have listened to at home in the cult of orchestra, or waking up before the crack of dawn to shiver in a wet boat with the rest of your fishing cult in the hopes that the offering you’ve attached to a hook will allow you to yank a slimy creature out of the water just so you can throw it back .
You don’t have to reject all of your beliefs because they may be a bit “cultish,” but you do have to recognize that’s what they are.