What is a Cult?

Several ideas were tabled. One person said a cult is defined by the teachings and personality of its leader. Another said that a group can only be defined as a cult when its members are forced to surrender or sacrifice their own identity in order to be included. Someone said something about socially deviant beliefs. I babbled incoherently about organized groups who adhere to an unfalsifiable proposition while insisting on the falsity of every other group’s unfalsifiable propositions.

Finally someone intervened in the collective pooling of ignorance and looked up the Wikipedia definition. (That last sentence may or may not be ironic.)

Cult, an actively edited and revised Wikipedia page, has about as much difficulty defining its own topic as my friends and I did. A key problem is the highly pejorative sense in which the word is used today. Whatever a cult is, virtually no one claims to belong to one themselves: cults are something that other people are involved in. Therefore, as soon as you call something a ‘cult’, you are implying a negative judgment of its legitimacy in society. You can’t research the word for long before you come across Hugh Rawson’s oft-cited definition: “Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree” (Rawson 2002[1995]).

As Wikipedia attests, many attempts have been made to define and differentiate words like ‘cult’, ‘sect’, and ‘religion’, and to cite clear parameters that set each one in its own conceptual category. But every bid to explain how each is different must begin by explaining that they are not all the same. If you define a cult as a group of people with unorthodox beliefs who actively protest or ridicule mainline society or established religion, then most major world religions began as ‘cults’. Then where is the line between the two? Does a ‘cult’ become a legitimate ‘religion’ simply as a result of popular, mass approval? If you are religious person, this proposition is heresy — you hold that beliefs are legitimate on the conviction that they are true, not simply because they are prevalent in your society.

In English, the word ‘cult’ entered popular usage in the 1930s. It originally served as a way for sociologists to categorize people who practice spiritual or supernatural beliefs apart from organized institutions (religion) or breakaway schisms from mainline traditions (sects). But quite quickly, by the 1960s, the word had evolved the subjective and pejorative ambiguity it carries today. Now, many people argue that the word itself is discriminatory and that its use inherently implies intolerance or disrespect for another person’s beliefs.

Long before all this confusion, the Latin cultus seems to have simply meant ‘worship’, ‘cultivation’, ‘care’, and ‘reverence’. Cultus is a past participle of the verb colere, which meant to inhabit, tend, or cultivate a piece of land. In fact, colere is also the root word for colonus — from which we inherit the word ‘colony’. Cultus is fundamentally about people doing and believing something together, which is evident in another derivative word, from the very same Latin root, that we use almost everyday: culture.

Is there a lesson to draw from this little etymology exercise? Perhaps we ought to accept that everyone is in a cult. Perhaps culture itself is a collection of cults. Capitalism is a cult. Your city is a cult. Your job is a cult. The gym is a cult. Highway traffic is a cult. And, yes, even your church is a cult.

Where do you go where shared values do not ‘colonize’ your behaviour around shared customs and norms? Today, if you think that the beliefs of a certain subset of people are incoherent, illogical, or even anti-social, remember this: in our culture, virtually no one is willing to believe that they themselves are in a cult. At present, it is possibly one of the least useful words we have.

1 Comment

  1. I tend to agree that “cult” is largely used as a pejorative and is not helpful for most intents. Personally, I favor the more laborious sounding “authoritarian group”. This encompasses the identity-gobbling aspect, and avoids the thought-stopping sound of the word “cult”.

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