Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

The Practical and Ethical Considerations in Labeling a Religious Group as a 'Cult'

Academic journal article Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies

The Practical and Ethical Considerations in Labeling a Religious Group as a 'Cult'

Article excerpt

Abstract: In American, the terms "schism," "heresy," "sect," and "cult" have been used to describe splinter groups as they distinguish themselves from the majority religion. The term cult has been used in two different senses. Within the Roman Catholic Church a group's devotion to a particular saint may earn them the title "Cult of" that particular saint. However, among contemporary American Protestants the term cult has come to be applied to religious groups that split from mainstream Christianity with regard to their beliefs and behavior to the degree that the groups are considered dangerous to themselves and society. When it comes to defining what a cult is, only about ten percent of the attention is placed on a cult's beliefs and ninety percent is placed on a cult's behavior. In fact, there seems to be a general squeamishness about using the term cult in the first place. There are several reasons for this malaise toward the term, but this article will argue that the term cult can and should be used in general and scholarly contexts.

Key Words: Cult, schism, heresy, sect, American religion, religious history, ethical considerations

Introduction

Religious history is filled with examples of splinter groups springing from the majority religions of their day.1 Some splinter groups remain within the walls of their parent religion, spurring on helpful conversations about the beliefs and/or behaviors of the denomination. Some depart altogether, forming their own separate communities. There are three types of reactions a parent religion may have toward their splinter group. First is the dead branch approach, wherein the splinter group is ignored as useless and harmless to the parent religion.2 Second is the reconciliation approach, wherein the parent religion actively seeks to reclaim their prodigal sons.3 Third is the destructive approach, wherein the parent religion sees the beliefs and/or behavior of the splinter group as dangerous and needing to be stopped for their own good and for the good of society.4 These three types of reactions have been exercised in all contexts of religious history,

In American churches, the terms "schism," "heresy," "sect," and "cult" have been used to describe these splinter groups as they distinguish themselves from the majority religion. A schism refers to a larger split in the church such as that between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of the early church. Historian Everett Ferguson distinguishes between heresy and schism by assigning deviant beliefs to the former and deviant behavior to the latter.5 Heretics were generally regarded as neighbors to the true church, while those belonging to a sect might still have been living in the church's back yard.6 The term cult has been used in two different senses. Within the Roman Catholic Church a group's devotion to a particular saint may earn them the title "Cult of" that particular saint. However, among American Protestants today, the term cult has come to be applied to religious groups that split from mainstream Christianity with regard to their beliefs and behavior to the degree that the groups are considered dangerous to themselves and society. The Protestant sense of this term will be the focus of this article.

Since the early work of Walter Martin nearly fifty years ago, there has been a tremendous amount of scholarly research done in the field of cults. One of the primary tasks of that research has been to define what a cult is by its deviancy from the norms of Christian belief and behavior. It may seem surprising that in this field of research, when it comes to defining what a cult is, only about ten percent of the attention is placed on a cult's beliefs and ninety percent is placed on a cult's behavior.7 It appears that American cult scholars are more comfortable identifying the deviant behavior of cults than deviant beliefs. This may be a reflection of the theological relativism of its postmodern society. …

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