No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.

4 thoughts on “No Cult

  1. “…the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.”

    I am not at all sure that “religion”, being the more general term, does just as nicely as the further defined term, “cult” despite the obvious problems associated with the usage of that term. When an religious movement is mostly authoritarian, life-diminishing and abusive then some label which acknowledges that feature may seem to be appropriate. And there are religious movements which could be categorised in this way and which should, in my view, be studied and understood, not least in order that sound guidance may be provided for people trying to rebuild their lives after disillusionment which such religion.

    However, to label these movements “cults” can reinforce the impression within the mainstream that “we are okay, we are good and healthy religions.” There exist, in my experience, elements within the mainstream which which exhibit features of the “cult” and which can derive credibility and respectability from the mainstream.

    Perhaps “religion” will do just as nicely as “cult” when the focus is upon how religions fail. But when the focus is upon how religion may be a positive aspect of society it would be unfortunate to allow abusive religion to be shielded by the perceived respectability of the mainstream.


    • Well said. A great deal of abuse is shielded under the label “religion” when the mainstream feels compelled to lend respectability to faiths that emphasize such things as pedophilia and misogyny in their tenets.


  2. By some definitions of “cult,” some mainstream “religions” would seem to be mislabeled, and yet the mainstream would be shocked to hear the word “cult” apply. From outside the theological community, it appears to me that the only difference between what mainstream perceives as a “cult” and what it perceives as a “religion” is the number of followers.


  3. Steve Wiggins

    Thank you Rob and Piper. The points you make are similar to those raised by McCloud. Those traditionally called “cults” have a seemingly different cast than “mainstream” religion. The difference, however, is often muddy. The word “cult” may, as in the case of Waco, lead to hasty, if inappropriate, action. We need, as a society, to think more carefully about religion. Instead, we cut the funding for it and build new business schools. Of course, that’s just my bias. Thanks for the comments!


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