This article argues that we should not refer to new religious movements (NRMs) and unconventional religions as “cults” because of the negative connotations this term has. It is argued that this term treats NRMs and unconventional religions prejudicially and therefore unfairly.
A brief review of context on how this term has been used historically will be informative as to why we should not use this term today. It is recognized by scholars that the term “cult” has negative connotations (1) which is why, as we will see, many scholars prefer not using this term (2). The negative connotation can be traced back to the twentieth century when dominant religious traditions used the term to refer to NRMs and unconventional religions as deviant and/or religiously inauthentic (3). This has normally been a perception held by members within certain Christian traditions since we are interested primarily in the West (where Christianity has typically been the dominant, mainstream religion). Of course, prejudicial treatment of unconventional religions by a dominant tradition is not limited to the West. In Japan, for example, religious movements deemed unconventional by the public and the dominant Buddhist and Shinto traditions have also been treated with much prejudice and suspicion. So, this is not a uniquely Western or Christian phenomenon, but the West is where we want to focus here.
Deviance Labeling of NRMs by Dominant Religious Traditions
The argument here is that the prejudicial treatment of unconventional, marginal, and new religious movements as “cults” is a source of hostility that can lead to harmful consequences. Scholars have observed how this term can not only offset important inter-faith co-operation and understanding, but also give rise to deviance labeling, misrepresentation, and even persecution (4).
Dominant religious traditions have a large influence on how persons within societies view conventional and unconventional religion. In the Western world, conventional religion is typically a form of Christianity (5) as we find, for example, in Canada, Germany, South Africa, and the United States. Here churches are often perceived as “conventional religious organizations” (6) that do not, for most, produce difficult legal and moral dilemmas (7). It is in light of the dominant Christian traditions in these countries, coupled with the work of anti-cultist religious groups (often connected to, although also sometimes independent of, the Church), that NRMs and unconventional religions are treated prejudicially and as hostile.
In Germany, for example, the Evangelische Zentrale für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW) contains pastors and Christians holding to an aggressive anti-cultist disposition who strongly oppose NRMs and unconventional religions. Such efforts, accompanied by anti-cultist groups, have led to new religious movements being considered deviant. Many in Germany’s public space are “quite negative” about NRMs (8).
In Russia, anti-cultists perceived NRMs as a threat to the country’s national identity (9) and this is why they were treated with hostility and suspicion (10). NRMs are deemed threatening and the Church has labeled them as deviant (11). For example, the Moscow Patriarchy views Russia as the “canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church.” The Russian Orthodox Church is the only legitimate religion of the country and they therefore put much effort into opposing NRMs and their proselytization (12).
NRMs movements have hardly fared any better in South Africa. These movements are perceived as deviant through the lens of the dominant Christian and African Traditional traditions (13), which has produced alarm and fear among many (14). This was strikingly evident in the backlash to the phantom of Satanism and devil worship manifesting from the fears of White South Africans during the transitional period away from apartheid (15).
In Canada, NRMs and unconventional religions were stereotyped as cults by Christian minister Jan Karel van Baalen in his book The Chaos of Cults (1938) (17). This book was influential at both the lay and academic level for a good segment of the twentieth century. Despite this unfriendly precedent, Canada is, arguably, today one of the better locations for NRMs and unconventional religions to exist.
Further, the anti-cultism in the United States has contributed to demonizing NRMs and unconventional religions (18). As John Melton explains, “cults” became an “appropriate label for the despised new religions” (19). A major force behind this anti-cultism were evangelical Christians who felt threatened and questioned the legitimacy of NRMs as authentic religions (20). A strong anti-cult backlash also emerged against NRMs deemed to threaten dominant socio-cultural and religious values of American society (21). Evidently, anti-cult efforts caused pain to unconventional groups and persons, and often had these groups needing to divert limited resources to defend themselves from various accusations, such as “brainwashing” and physical coercion. However, scholars studying NRMs and unconventional religions mostly found such accusations and concerns unfounded (22).
Important Insights and Questions This Data Raises
To emerge from this brief review is that the word “cult” is a prejudicial term used by members of dominant religious traditions to refer to religions that are unconventional and not within the mainstream of accepted religion. These unconventional religions are deemed harmful, extremist, unorthodox, and threatening. In many cases, they need to be actively opposed and this is why so much historical effort has been put behind anti-cultist efforts. They are perceived as “unstable cancer cells that could be surgically” removed from society (23).
This raises important questions. Perhaps at the forefront of our minds is fairness. For example, is the prejudicial treatment of these movements fair when it turns out that the majority of NRMs co-exist with others peacefully in society? Scholars studying these movements have discovered that there is little to differentiate most NRMs from older, dominant, and mainstream religions (24). For example, cults are often perceived as constituting devotees who form intense relationships with a founder and/or charismatic leader. But this is no different to mainstream religions that also foster such commitments. And where there are abuses in NRMs regarding sexual and financial crimes, the same can also be pointed out in dominant religions in which members have too committed such crimes (25). There is nothing unique to NRMs in this regard when compared to dominant religions.
Moreover, the vast majority of these movements pose no threat to society, despite sensationalized representations in the media. In Russia, investigations found minimal threat of criminality within these groups (26). Of several investigations into members of NRMs, only one criminal conviction was forthcoming and this was later appealed and overturned. Investigations by the So-called Sects and Psychotherapy Groups in Germany found that NRMs pose no real danger to society and the state (27). There was a great blow to Canada’s anti-cult movements when investigations failed to demonstrate that NRMs constituted any threat to the safety of Canadians (28).
Finally, is it fair to refer to benign NRMs and unconventional religions “cults” when we know that in the popular imagination this will bring to mind the likes of Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate, both movements that led to terrible outcomes? Is this fair when there are only a handful of examples where NRMs have caused violence and death considering that there are over 850 such movements in the United States alone and more than 5000 across the globe? In fact, most persons in these societies do not even know about these movements because they exist under the radar and tend to be secretive.
Prejudicial Treatment Does Not Only Come From Dominant Religious Traditions
This prejudicial treatment of the so-called “cults” has also emerged in other areas. It is not only dominant religious traditions who have viewed NRMs and unconventional religions as threatening cults. Governments have too played a role in deviance labeling. Australia’s government produced reports that contained negative characteristics of NRMs and the consequences of joining such movements. Mental health professionals in Russia, moreover, came to view NRMs as an affront to an original Russian psychological makeup constituted by “traditional religions” (28). Surprisingly, an important psychiatric institution in Moscow deems a letter from an Orthodox priest necessary before treatment of disorders caused by alleged cult involvement can start. Other mental health professionals, some of whom work for the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry, explain conversion to NRMs due to socially induced “delusion.”
As we noted earlier, most scholars do not wish to use the term “cult” to refer to NRMs and unconventional religions because they are well aware of the negative historical meaning ascribed to the term. And where scholars do use the term, they use it under a strict definition that distances itself from the prejudicial treatment we observed above. This is best articulated by specialist Eileen Barker, who says that scholars distance themselves from deviance labeling because it is not helpful “for a sociologist who, rather than aiming merely to label or condemn, is trying to find out about particular movements” (30).
Many scholars will now refer to NRMs and unconventional religions as “marginalized”, “unconventional”, or “alternative.” In most cases, with some exceptions, NRMs are considered authentic religions to be seen alongside dominant religious traditions in society (31). Many scholars in Western societies view these movements in a more positive light. In Canada, for instance, scholars wish to safeguard the religious liberty and freedom of persons in the country and attempt to distribute accurate information about NRMs across various media for public consumption.
We won’t get into the debate here, but it is also important to acknowledge that many scholars now dispute the term “cult” as a meaningful description to refer to religious movements (32).
What this article has attempted to demonstrate are the reasons why we should not refer to NRMs and unconventional religions as “cults.” We have examined several reasons for this. First, the term is rigidly tied to historical prejudice and hostility as it was employed by members of dominant religions. This can manifest, and has manifested, various ill consequences for members of NRMs. Second, the term is grossly unfair when the overwhelming majority of NRMs and unconventional religions are peaceful and exist under the radar. Where and when these movements do commit crimes, these crimes are often no different from those committed by members of dominant religions. We should adopt the view of many scholars, which is to not use this term and find a better alternative designation. Finally, it would be best if we did away with the term altogether.