Why We Should Not Use the Term “Cult” to Refer to Any Religion (Reflection)

This post 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 unfairly.

Historical Context

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 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 where Christianity has typically been the dominant mainstream religion.

Prejudicial treatment of unconventional religions by a dominant tradition is not limited to the West. In Japan, religious movements deemed unconventional by the public have been treated with prejudice and suspicion, especially because of the Aum Shinrikyo’s terrorist gas attack on a subway in Tokyo in 1995.

Deviance Labelling

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 people within societies view conventional and unconventional religion. In the West, conventional religion is typically a form of Christianity (5), such as in Canada, Germany, South Africa, and the United States, where churches are perceived as “conventional religious organizations” (6) that do not, for most, produce difficult legal and moral dilemmas (7). Dominant Christian traditions in these countries coupled with the work of anti-cultist groups (sometimes connected to churches) has caused unconventional religions to be treated wrongfully.

In Germany, the Evangelische Zentrale für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW) comprises pastors and Christians holding an aggressive anti-cultist disposition who strongly oppose unconventional groups. Their efforts and the activities of anti-cultist groups have led to these groups being considered deviant. Many in Germany’s public space are therefore “quite negative” about NRMs (8).

In Russia, anti-cultists perceived NRMs as a threat to the country’s national identity (9) which is why they were treated with hostility and suspicion (10). They are considered threatening, and the Church has labeled them as deviant (11). The Moscow Patriarchy views Russia as the “canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church”, which it considers the only legitimate religion and institution. Much effort goes into opposing NRMs and their proselytization (12).

NRMs movements have hardly fared any better in South Africa where they are perceived as deviant through the lenses of the dominant Christian and African Traditional traditions (13). This produced alarm among many as apparent in the fearful social backlash to the phantom of Satanism and devil worship (14). Such did not exist, and the backlash emerged from the fears of white South Africans during the transitional period from apartheid in the new democratic era (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 large part of the twentieth century.

The anti-cultism in the United States has contributed to demonizing NRMs and unconventional groups (18). John Melton explains that “cults” became an “appropriate label for the despised new religions” (19). A major force behind this was evangelical Christians who questioned the legitimacy of NRMs as authentic religions (20). A strong anti-cult backlash also emerged against NRMs considered threatening to dominant socio-cultural and religious values of American society (21). These efforts caused pain for unconventional people who had 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 these accusations and concerns unfounded (22).

Important Insights and Questions this Data Raises

The word “cult” is a prejudicial term used to refer to religions that are unconventional and not within the mainstream of accepted religion. These unconventional movements are viewed as harmful, extremist, unorthodox, and threatening. Many believe that they must be actively opposed, as apparent in anti-cultist efforts. Unconventional groups are often perceived as “unstable cancer cells that could be surgically” removed from society (23).

Is this treatment fair when the majority of them co-exist with others peacefully in society? There is little differentiating most NRMs from older dominant mainstream religious traditions (24). For example, “cults” are often perceived to have devotees who form intense relationships with a founder and/or charismatic leader. But this does not differ from mainstream religions that also show intense commitments to religious authoritative figures. Further, where there are abuses in NRMs regarding sexual and financial crimes, the same occurs in dominant religions in which members have committed these offenses (25). There is nothing unique to NRMs in these regards.

The vast majority of NRMs pose no threat to society, despite sensationalized representations in the media. In Russia, investigations found a minimal threat of criminality within these groups (26). Based on several investigations into members of these groups, only one criminal conviction occurred but was later appealed and overturned. Investigations by the So-called Sects and Psychotherapy Groups in Germany found NRMs posed no real danger to society and the state (27). A blow was experienced by Canada’s anti-cult movements after investigations failed to show that NRMs constituted any threat to the safety of the public (28).

Is it fair to refer to all or most NRMs as “cults” when this term brings to the popular imagination the likes of Jim Jones and Heaven’s Gate, both movements that led to terrible outcomes? Only a handful of NRMs have caused violence and/or death, which is a small number when over 850 such movements exist in the United States and over 5000 across the globe.

It is not only dominant religious traditions who have viewed NRMs and unconventional groups as threatening cults. Governments have 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 came to view NRMs as an affront to an original Russian psychological makeup constituted by “traditional religions” (28). An important psychiatric institution in Moscow considers a letter from an Orthodox priest necessary before treatment of disorders caused by alleged cult involvement can begin. Other mental health professionals, some of who work for the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry, explain conversion to NRMs due to socially induced “delusion”.


Scholars do not wish to use the term “cult” to refer to NRMs and unconventional groups because they are aware of the negative meaning the term has. Eileen Barker explains 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). When scholars do use the term for whatever reason, it it under a strict definition distancing itself from the prejudicial treatment observed above.

Many scholars refer to NRMs and unconventional groups as “marginalized”, “unconventional”, or “alternative”. In most cases, NRMs are considered authentic religions alongside dominant religious traditions in society (31). In Canada, for instance, scholars wish to protect religious liberty and freedom, and distribute accurate information about NRMs across various media for public consumption.



Let me know your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s