Short Discourse on Cult Terminology

Do you know the difference between a religion and a cult?

Salman over at Irtiqa has a very welcome post about the terminology of these things. It’s the subject of a very significant debate in the study of contemporary religion today, especially since it has such real legal ramifications. These days, all eyes are on the trial going on in France in which Scientology is being accused of fraud and manipulation. The trial has inspired, for instance, a discussion at the Guardian’s Belief section on “What makes a cult?

Salman turns to an entry in the beautiful new edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion for some help:

The terms cult and sect are regarded as stereotype-loaded terms that are associated with new or unpopular religious movements, and these terms are thus mostly avoided by scholars. They are, however, widely used by the media and by groups (especially so-called anticult groups) that perceive certain new religious movements as objectionable and dangerous. In contemporary English, cult functions as the derogatory word, with sect reserved for less controversial groups. In French, German, Spanish, and Italian, the derogatory word is the local equivalent of sect, and the word cult is rarely used. Some dictionaries now translate the French secte and similar non-English words with cult rather than with sect. Originally, however, the English cult and sect were nonpejorative, scholarly terms.

In recent years, the term new religious movementhas been used by those scholars who don’t want to approach their subject with a tone of hostility from the outset. Even so, in the United States, the vocabulary of “cult” vs. “religion” (and the corollary, “brainwashing” vs. “conversion”) has so proliferated in public consciousness that virtually any new religious movement becomes instantly classed as illegitimate compared to the legitimate historical faiths. This same terminological poverty might also be the reason people involved in certain alternative spiritualities are so insistent that they have no religion at all—they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“New religious movement” is a mouthful (some say, simply, “new religion”), but its consequences are well worth making available to the wider culture. Because, when you scratch away the stereotypes on the surface, the difference between religion and cult melt away surprisingly quickly. If one is to grant Christianity and Islam legal and social legitimacy, one becomes compelled to do so also for the small, new movements that so much resemble their early stages. It is an affirmation of the religious creativity of human beings, which is so much vaster and more ever-present than many people have been allowed to realize. Or, for some, an appreciation of how widespread foolish superstition is—not just confined to the deluded popes and imams and rabbis and their henchmen.

Recognizing that there are thousands of new movements popping up around the world at any given time helps us understand better the origins and development of the great traditions. It’s serious stuff, with people’s lives and communities, and cosmologies in the balance. But it’s also a fantastic circus.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.