Menu Close
A 1979 image that shows disciples of Rajneesh lying on the ground, in meditation at the mystic’s headquarters in Poona, India. AP Photo/Eddie Adams

Why the label ‘cult’ gets in the way of understanding new religions

“Cults” are back in the news.

The Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country” has revived interest in the “free-love cult” founded by Indian guru Rajneesh, or “Osho,” that in 1984 launched a “bioterror attack,” spreading salmonella in restaurants near the group’s Oregon headquarters.

Then there’s NXIVM, a “sex cult” based in Albany, New York. Media reports state that NXIVM’s female members recruited “slaves,” who were branded with the initials of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere. Raniere, also called the “Vanguard,” has been arrested for sex trafficking.

Scholars sometimes use the term “cult” to describe groups that have distinctive beliefs and strong levels of commitment. The problem comes with the popular use of the word “cult,” often used to describe authoritarian groups that induce beliefs or actions through “mind control” or “brainwashing.”

As an academic, who teaches and writes about religion, I believe that the label “cult” gets in the way of understanding new or alternative religions.

Here’s why

First, “cult” is a vague category.

Authoritarian leaders and structures can easily be found in groups that have clear missions. From the Catholic Church to the U.S. Marine Corps, many organizations rely on strict discipline and obedience. Using the word “cult” is an easy way to criticize a group, but a poor way to describe one.

Second, “mind control” or “brainwashing” theories have problems.

In popular understanding, the leaders of cults use mind control or brainwashing to permanently remake the personalities of recruits by forcing them to do and believe things that they normally wouldn’t accept. If that’s true, as some scholars have pointed out, there would be measurable impacts at “the biochemical level of the brain.” For now, there’s no proof that brain cells can be automatically changed by religious means.

“Brainwashing” was associated with the Unification Church, or “The Moonies,” founded by South Korean Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Moonies would isolate new recruits and shower them with attention, a process called “love bombing.”

But, as sociologist Eileen Barker showed in her research on the Unification Church, recruitment rates were still very low. Whether it’s “love bombing,” “mind control” or “brainwashing,” the results aren’t very impressive.

Third, the label “cult” is negative.

As British sociologist James Beckford has observed, “cults” are usually associated with beliefs and practices considered to be “unhealthy.” But what is seen as healthy in one culture may be seen as unhealthy in another.

In fact, early Christianity could be called a “cult” because Christian beliefs and practices – such as not publicly worshipping the emperor – were considered strange and dangerous in ancient Rome.

Fourth, the term “cult” does not engage with key parts of a group’s belief system.

For example, religion scholars James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher argue that the 1993 “Waco siege” ended in tragedy, in part, because the FBI ignored the Bible-based beliefs of the Branch Davidians, a millenarian Christian sect.

Four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms were killed trying to arrest “cult leader” David Koresh. After a 51-day standoff, the FBI injected tear gas into the group’s compound. Seventy-five people, including children, lost their lives when the compound burned to the ground. If the FBI had dialogued with Branch Davidians by taking their beliefs seriously – instead of seeing members as brainwashed followers of a mad cult leader – deaths could perhaps have been avoided.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. It takes careful study to understand whether a religious group is simply “strange” or dangerous.

But the term “cult” lumps together all new or alternative religions. And when people hear the word “cult,” discussions end before any study has even begun.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,200 academics and researchers from 5,000 institutions.

Register now