Apologetics Index
A Cult Recipe?

A Cult Recipe? - 2/2

by Kenneth Samples, Erwin de Castro, Richard Abanes, and Robert Lyle

© 1994 Baker Book House Company. Used by permission.


Family Affair

The 1960s witnessed the dawning of the "Age of Aquarius" in what seemed to be a sudden and unexpected boom in Asian religion -- most notably Hindu-based an Buddhist-based groups. Many of the new members, usually in their late teens and early twenties, came from middle-class urban families.

Their parents' puzzlement quickly turned to concern and then fear. They had lost their children to alien religious groups. Strange new people had broken apart their families and taken from them their beloved offspring. What could be worse?

Why, they asked, would their son or daughter do something so drastic as to leave school, abandon work, and move away from home? It seemed extremely odd and unnatural that their children should undergo such a quick change in outlook, attitude, behavior, and attire. They weren't acting their normal selves. What could have possibly made them that way?

The answer they arrived at was plain and simple: their rational faculties had been subverted; they were brainwashed. The Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, the Children of God, the Scientologists -- these and other "destructive cults" manipulated and tricked the youth into giving up their lives and surrendering themselves wholly to the groups and their leaders.

Something had to be done. Outraged and stricken with grief, the parents consoled one another and organized themselves to counter the cause of their pain. These "destructive cults" posed a serious threat to society and had to be stopped.

Thus was born in the 1970s what has come to be known as the secular anticult movement (though its ranks include ministers, rabbis, and lay members of various Jewish and Christian denominations).

At first, members of the movement drew from the works of evangelicals to familiarize themselves with the "field of battle." They were determined to learn everything they could about their adversaries. But some adjustments had to be made. Religion scholar J. Gordon Melton explains in his "Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America" that

[w]hile drawing upon Christian counter-cult literature in the beginning, the secular anti-cultists gradually discarded any overtly religious language as a means of designating cults in order to appeal to government authorities and avoid any seeming attack upon religious liberties. Thus, "cults" have come to be seen as groups that share a variety of generally destructive characteristics.

Several violent incidents involving relatively small and obscure groups only served to heighten the perceived threat: the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by the Manson family; the Symbionese Lebanese Army's abduction and transformation of heiress Patricia Hearst into a terrorist; the tragedy in Jonestown, Guyana, involving the mass suicide of over nine hundred adults and children and the shooting of congressman Leo J. Ryan and members of his party.

The parents were joined in their cause by mental health professionals, lawyers, and former members who had dedicated themselves to combatting the further growth of groups they once joined. Many respected psychologists and psychiatrists helped give the movement credibility in the eyes of the media and the larger public. One such individual, Michael Langone of the American Family Foundation, set forth the movements's understanding of destructive cults in a 1982 booklet titled "Destructive Cultism: Questions and Answers:"

A destructive cult is a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits.

A destructive cult: a) dictates -- sometimes in great detail -- how members should think, feel, and act; b) claims a special, exalted status (e.g. occult powers; a mission to save humanity) -- for itself and/or its leader(s) -- that usually sets it in opposition to the mainline society and/or family; c) exploits its members, psychologically, financially, and/or physically; d) utilizes manipulative, or "mind control" techniques, especially the denigration of independent critical thinking, to recruit prospects and make members loyal, obedient, and subservient; and e) causes considerable psychological harm to many of its members and to members' families.

Although some people deem a group destructive merely because it is deviant or "heretical," the point of view advanced here reserves the label for groups that tend to be exploitative, manipulative, psychologically damaging, exclusive, and totalist. According to this perspective, a group may be deviant and "heretical" without being destructive.

In 1988 Langone co-wrote a book titled Cults: What Every Parent Should Know, defining destructive cults as "those which tend to use extreme and unethical techniques of manipulation to recruit and assimilate members and to control members' thoughts, feelings, and behavior as a means of furthering the leader's goals."

What's particularly significant is the final sentence of that paragraph, which reads, "Although most cults [that] have aroused concern are religious, they can also be political, commercial, or pseudotherapeutic." Thus, it seems that within the secular anticult community a group doesn't necessarily have to be religiously oriented to qualify as a cult.

Clearing the Confusion

So far we've seen the various definitions that the term "cult" has been given. In the first instance, sociologists apply the classification in a purely descriptive sense without indicating whether particular cults are good or bad. Then, there are evangelical countercult organizations who label as cults groups that deviate from the fundamental doctrines revealed in the Bible and embraced by historic Protestantism; the negative slant they give the term "cult" is in reference to theology.

Whereas the two definitions above employ the term "cult" in a religious context, the final definition, coming from secular anticultists, does not view the term as necessarily having a religious character. Rather, the distinguishing feature of a cult is its unethical and manipulative treatment of unawary members. The negative connotation of this last definition is far more reaching than the second definition, whose negative pronouncement may only be regarded as such by evangelicals.

By and large, whenever the media report on a "cult," chances are that it usually concerns a group that is a combination of definitions two and three above -- that is, some unorthodox group (by evangelical standards) that has or continues to engage in unethical and/or manipulative practices. The complication isn't helped by the fact that the terms "denominations," "sects," and "cults" are sometimes used interchangeably.

Richardson, along with a number of other sociologists, laments the term "cult" has been used "as a 'rug' under which were swept the troublesome and idiosyncratic religious experiences of mystics and other religious deviants."

So far, at least one attempt has been made by sociologists to redefine the term "cult" to accommodate the more popular usage while at the same time retaining it as a relatively value-free description that's still useful in the area of social science. But as we've noted above, there seems to be a growing consensus among sociologists to discard the term altogether in place of something else that's not so negatively loaded.

Yet even those terms referring to "new religious movements" or "alternative religions" have been met with stiff opposition by the secular anticult groups. "Although 'new religions' lend more (sometimes deserved) respectability to many groups," comments Langone, "it may, on the other hand, lend a false respectability to dubious groups."

How strongly do secular anticultists feel about their stance? In one instance they wrote that "[a]lthough we have placed the adjective 'destructive' in front of 'cult' in order to emphasize that some cults are benign, we, like most writers in this field, will use the word 'cult' with the pejorative connotations of 'destructive' implied."

In some cases secular anticultists label a particular group as a cult that sociologists and evangelical countercultists will not, such as a group galvanized around a particular political persuasion. In other cases, evangelicals may classify a group as a cult that the other two may not, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons.

Given the fact that there's currently no universal definition of a cult, it seems best to ask one simple question whenever someone talks about cults: "Just what do you mean by the term 'cult'?" You may not agree with the way the person uses the term, but at least you'll know where he or she is coming from.

You may also want to ask yourself the same question before referring to any group as a cult. It may not be such as bad idea to begin by explaining what you mean by the term "cult" in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding. You never know. All the while you're talking about cults, the person listening may have a different concept altogether.


About This Article

This article is Chapter 10 from the book, "Prophets of the Apocalypse", by Kenneth Samples, Erwin de Castro, Richard Abanes, and Robert Lyle (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994).

Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, © 1994. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.

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