What is a Cult?

I found this blog post at orthopraxis.wordpress.com, entitled “What is a Cult?” This interested me especially because I have long felt, and even said – to raised eyebrows – that the Christianity of my childhood was like a cult. When I was growing up the church said cults were those weirdo religions that didn’t believe Jesus was God’s Son, our personal Savior (etc. through the “correct” theology). I contend that a cult is a cult because of it’s overall mindset, well-described in the post copied below. The fact that these churches had key theological points in Christian order does not mean they were not a cult. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the theology involved, which includes a supposed Biblical mandate to blindly follow certain human leaders, etc. is an idolatrous religion.

So, read the description of cults that follows and see if it doesn’t look like some segments of Christianity. This article is Part One, of two parts. The second article is called The Theology of Cultic Christianity.

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In the field of sociology, much really excellent work has been done on analyzing the polity of cult behavior. The analysis has proceeded quite helpfully across confessional boundaries, to think in terms of cult social behavior, cult attitudes (in terms of social psychology), cult social structures, etc. There have been many studies and many lists of earmarks of cults put out, and some points are controversial, while others have nearly universal agreement. “Nearly”, because of course some groups feel justifiably threatened by the analysis. The analysis can apply to an entire group, to a group within a group, to a mere congregation of something vast and univeral, or to an entire confession. The sociological elements are key, not anything like “official” status, sanction, or membership. Your tax-exempt status has no relevance. Likewise it does not assume that all cult or cult-like groups will have all of the elements, so analysis is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to look for a constellation of attitudes and behaviors that elicit a trend. Here are set of common elements culled from some of this analysis:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to a charismatic leader and regards his particular version, flavor, or interpretation of beliefs, as the truth.
  • Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished, usually by a series of social reprisals to include stigmatization (or even framing), shunning, and ostracizing dissenters with the goal of isolation, denial of support, and breaking down the reputation of those who leave or who try to remain but hold different views. The group may even go after dissenters in the larger culture, maintaining dossiers and conducting witch hunts for the ‘incorrect’ in our midst – essentially a kind of stalking of ideological opponents at large, and may employ moles, propaganda agents, and others to conduct operations against these opponents.
  • ‪The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel.
  • ‪The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members.
  • The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.
  • ‪The leader successfully evades accountabiliy to proper authorities in key matters relating to cult characteristics.
  • ‪The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.
  • ‪The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
  • The group is preoccupied with correctness of belief and behavior, well beyond the norm.
  • Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities, and simultaneously to curtail ordinary behavior within the context of family, friends, etc.
  • Physical abuse is present and is justified or concealed.
  • Angry or vehement mistreatment may result from failing to achieve goals.

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