Opinion writer spouts misinformation about the term ‘cult’
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday November 17, 2008
Note: the opinion article below contains inaccuracies (e.g. refering to Kool-Aid instead of Flavor-Aid, or the claim that anti-cult groups labeled every peripheral church likely a cult).
It looks like the author has bought into the arguments of some cult defenders.
While some people may indeed misuse the term ‘cult’ to denounce religons they do not like, the term has a variety of sociologial and religious definitions. Use of the term should therefore be qualified with an explanation regarding the context in which it is applied.
See also the history of the term ‘cult’.
‘Cult’ is out of vogue as term for high-pressure faith
Is your place of worship a cult? Probably not. No group calls itself a cult.
That’s the trouble with the word: It’s mostly used to denounce any religion we don’t like.
That’s why cult is in decline these days — tarnished by misuse or vagueness. Abusive, secretive sects still exist, but scholars and news reports use cult guardedly. Too often it’s just a smear word.
Thirty years ago, cult was in its grisly heyday. In November 1978, the Jonestown suicide tragedy killed some 900 Americans under the psychotic sway of leader Jim Jones.
On Nov. 18, 1978, the drill turned real with poison-laced Kool-Aid and gunfire, egged on by Jones, who died, too. A sensational “death cult” was born.
The still-shocking photos from the air — the hundreds of bodies, embracing in death — launched a national panic attack. The threat of cults, a theme throughout the 1970s, seemed everywhere now. Anti-cult watchdog groups happily stepped in as experts, labeling every peripheral church a likely cult. Parents feared for their children.
A turning point was the Branch Davidian catastrophe in Waco, Texas, in 1993, when 75 followers of David Koresh burned to death after a standoff with federal agents. This time it was unclear who the bad guys were. Were these dangerous cultists, or harmless zealots needlessly provoked by the government? After Waco, definitions of religious freedom and cult behavior were made more cautiously.
Scholar Sean McCloud of North Carolina-Charlotte (in an article in the 2006 book Faith in America) suggests high-pressure totalistic religions have not disappeared. But he says recent decades have seen attitudes change toward new religions. Dramatic court battles against cults have declined. Some cults reformed themselves or won mainstream acceptance. Many spiritual seekers now look for eclectic, improvisatory, customized religious experience.
Perhaps contemporary life itself — suspicion of authority, the Internet’s vast information about mysterious religions, with postings by ex-members — serves to inoculate many against questionable religion. McCloud says the opposite: People seeking alternative faiths can find them more easily now.
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