In his blog on Patheos, Christian theologian Roger E. Olson addresses Safe and Unsafe Sects (and Problems with Terms for Alternative Religious Groups).
Unlike many articles on the subject of proper terminology in relation to ‘cults’ and ‘sects’ this one is well-informed — by what Olson refers to as his “nearly lifelong avocation of studying so-called cults.” A breath of fresh air.
One buyer beware, though.
Olson related that, several decades ago, he taught an undergraduate course called “Deity, Mysticism and the Occult.”
Our primary textbook was one very sympathetic to minority, alternative religious groups (a label preferred over “cult” by most sociologists of religion) [...]
I invited representatives of many “alternative reality traditions” (another popular sociological label for what others call “cults”) into the class. [...]
I invited an expert on alternative religious groups to speak to the class and we opened that session to the public. He was J. Gordon Melton—later to become known as perhaps the leading expert on cults, new religions, alternative religious groups in America.
J. Gordon Melton indeed has a lot of expertise in his chosen field. Overall he is skilled at gathering and organizing research data.
However, many lay and professional experts involved in the study of cults and/or in helping people leave such movements consider him to be a ‘cult apologist,’ because he has a history of defending cults.
He has also produced largely uncritical treatments of various controversial groups. His study of the Church Universal and Triumphant, done in co-operation with fellow cult-defender James R. Lewis, is described by sociologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi as a “a travesty of research.”
Incredibly, in the face of evidence to the contrary Melton has testified in court that he believes apostates invariably lie.
Regarding apostates Beit-Hallahmi instead says
Recent and less recent NRM [New Religious Movements] catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. [...] In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years [...] we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors’ allegations.
It is one thing for a researcher to teach about such movements — and quite another to go to court for them, dismiss the testimony of those with first-hand experience, and to write what amounts to promotional material on behalf of these groups.
Incidentally, Melton is not the only scholar known as a cult defender.
Theological vs Sociological Perspectives
In his article Olson points out that the term ‘cult’ can be used from both a theological and a sociological perspective — which is part of the confusion surrounding the label. This is a point most often missed by people who try to address cult-related terminology.
The ambiguity of the term is the reason why — whenever we use the term ‘cult’ at Apologetics Index or Religion News Blog — we try to always place the word within its proper context, and to explain from what perspective the term is used.
Bookmark Olson’s article. You’ll want to refer to it whenever there is an occasion to discuss cult-related terminology.
For further study
CultFAQ — Frequently Asked Questions about Cults
Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters
Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research
What do you mean when you say ‘cult’?
What is a cult of Christianity?
And finally… beware of some ‘cult experts.’ Here’s how not to fall prey to the loose canons.