Aviva Directory » Faith & Spirituality » Cults

"Cult" is an umbrella term that is somewhat indefinite, and 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 are regarded by others as strange or sinister. Theologically, a cult generally refers to a system of religious veneration that is 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 with poor public relations. Whatever the definition, the focus of this category is on the general topic of cults, by whatever definition, rather than a place to list sites 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 religious 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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