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"Cult" is a somewhat indefinite umbrella term used to describe unorthodox, extremist, or false religions or sects whose practices are outside of conventional society, generally under the direction of a strong, charismatic leader.

In a broad sense, a cult is a relatively small group of people who hold to religious beliefs or practices that others regard as strange or sinister. The term is indefinite and may describe religious groups considered unorthodox or spurious. Cults are often characterized by excessive control over their members.

A cult generally refers to a system of religious veneration directed toward a particular figure or object.

Many, if not most, new religions are considered to be cults until they get large enough to be defined otherwise. One might say that a cult is a religious group in need of a well-developed public relations program.

How does a cult differ from a religion? In one sense, it doesn't, since a cult is a religion. A religion is a set of beliefs, feelings, doctrines, and practices that define the relations between humans and the divine, while a cult is a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion, and typically, one that is believed to have socially deviant practices and beliefs.

Newly established religions are often deemed cults until they grow large enough to shed the title. In common usage, "cult" is a pejorative and negative term. They are viewed as strange, abusive, or dominating and are seen in this negative light because their teachings and beliefs differ significantly from those of more established religions. In many cases, these views stem from misunderstandings.

Religions are usually deemed cults by members of the larger, mainstream religious bodies. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that religions deemed cults by Christians might differ from those considered cults by members of other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism, and would vary even more starkly by those considered to be cults by atheists, who might view all religions as strange or socially deviant.

Nevertheless, some religions are considered cults despite being well organized, having a long history, and a large membership. While Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have earned their place as mainstream religions in most respects, they still appear on many lists of cults. However, their status is gradually changing in their favor.

A tighter definition of a cult might restrict the term to those groups that emphasize dominating members through psychological manipulation and pressure strategies and are headed by a powerful leader who isolates members from the rest of society. There is also a sense that cults are secretive and dangerous, whereas other religious groups are not.

Defining a cult is a problematic and often irresponsible task because cult members do not view their religion as a cult and because the term is often carelessly distributed.

Cults are usually defined by people outside the religion and from the perspective of former members, who are often disgruntled. Consequently, even cult researchers often disagree about whether a particular religious group is a cult.

The Cult Education Institute lists the following ten warning signs to look for when considering whether a religious group might be a cult, characterizing a cult by:
1. Absolute authoritarianism without accountability.
2. Zero tolerance for criticism or questions.
3. Lack of meaningful financial disclosure regarding budget.
4. Unreasonable fears about the outside world that often involve evil conspiracies and persecutions.
5. A belief that former followers are always wrong for leaving and there is never a legitimate reason for anyone to leave.
6. Abuse of members.
7. Records, books, articles, or programs documenting the leader's or group's abuses.
8. Followers feel they can never be good enough.
9. A belief that the leader is always right.
10. A belief that the leader is the exclusive means of knowing truth or giving validation.

Can you think of any mainstream religions that would check all or most of the criteria on this checklist?

Whatever the definition, this category focuses on cults, but it is not a place to list the websites of various religions that might be deemed cultish. Sites representing a specific religious body or group should be listed in the appropriate category for that spiritual body rather than here. The focus of this category is on cults rather than on any specific religion that might be considered to be a cult.



Feature Article

What is a Cult?


To a large extent, today, a cult is a religion in need of a good public relations campaign. New religions are generally thought of as cults, at least until they gain enough followers to become a part of the mainstream. I think it's fair to say that members of a cult do not consider themselves to be cult members.

One dictionary definition of a cult is "a system of religious or spiritual beliefs, especially an informal and transient belief system regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, or false, and directed by a charismatic, authoritarian leader."

Christianity was considered to be a cult when it began, and for good reason. Like most new religions, Christianity fit the definition of a cult perfectly. It was informal, in that Christ rejected many of the traditions of Judaism, and there can be little argument that Jesus was a charismatic, authoritarian leader.

The early Christians were persecuted for their faith by both the Jews and the Romans. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was stoned for his transgression of orthodoxy, and it is believed that most of the early Christian leaders died at the hands of either the Jews or the Romans.

In the early days of Christianity, there were rumors of cannibalism, perhaps stemming from a misunderstanding of the Christian sacrament of Communion, and there were allegations of sexual orgies among Christians.

Christianity, now the largest religion in the world by far, began as a cult that was viewed as dangerous by those outside of the group.

Sharing a common origin, Islam, now the second largest religion in the world, began similarly. Mohammad, certainly a charismatic leader, embarked on his ministry at the age of forty. Although known for its religious tolerance, the people of Mecca initially ridiculed Mohammed for his beliefs, and later became hostile.

Together making up more than half of all of the religions in the world, neither Christianity or Islam are thought to be cults today, but they were considered to be such in their early years.

Within the Christian religion, and probably other major religions as well, there are also sects and groups that are considered to be cults. Many of these never reach the point where they are able to shed that label but, during my lifetime, I am witnessing the transformation of at least a couple of these groups, namely the Mormons, also known as Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Not too long ago, a common belief among Christians was that the Mormons and the Jehovah's Witnesses were non-Christian cults. Today, while there are many who would still refer to them as cults, these groups are more often now included in lists of major Christian denominations.

While there may have been some changes in the doctrines of these organizations, I don't believe that a change in doctrine is the reason for their change in status. I am convinced that this has had far more to do with persistence, growth, and good public relations.

Nearly every town in the United States, it seems, has a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall. Most people in the United States work with, live near, or are otherwise acquainted with someone who is a Jehovah's Witness

The same is true of the Mormons. In addition, the Mormons have been one of the chief sponsors of Boy Scout troops in the United States. From all reports, they do not proselytize scouts in their troop, but these boys grow up aware that their scout leader was a Mormon, and they probably met for scout meetings in a Mormon church. As men, they will be unlikely to view the Mormons as particularly strange, or of Mormonism as a cult. I am not suggesting that the Mormons sponsor Boy Scout troops as part of an established public relations campaign, only that it serves as good public relations.

However, public relations has been important to the church, which produced an excellent television advertising campaign centered around family values and in the early 2000s, the church issued a press release encouraging reporters to use the full name of the church in news articles, with references to the "Church of Jesus Christ," and discouraging the use of the term, "Mormon Church," in order to better identify itself as a mainstream Protestant denomination.

It is not unreasonable for a church to be concerned with image, but in the case of those churches still young and small enough to be considered a cult, a good marketing and advertising campaign is perhaps the most important tool that can be used by a religious group wanting to shed that label and become part of the mainstream.

It's all a matter of perception, after all.

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