April 17th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: Rethinking the word 'cult'

Nearly 20 years ago, 76 people lost their lives during an FBI raid near Waco, Texas. CNN's Drew Griffin looks at those events at 8 ET/PT and 11 ET/PT Sunday night in "Waco: Faith, Fear & Fire."

Editor’s note: James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he specializes in new religions. He is the coauthor of the forthcoming Saints under Siege (New York University Press).

By James T. Richardson, Special to CNN

I remember being struck by one of the early stories about 1993’s siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Shortly after an initial raid by federal authorities ended in a gun battle that left 10 dead (six Davidians and four ATF agents), a lengthy story appeared in my local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal, about the history of the Davidian group, which had existed at Mount Carmel, Texas for decades.

The story noted that Branch Davidians were a spinoff sect of the Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination. The term “cult” did not appear in the story at all. And yet the headline of this front-page piece screamed “Cult Standoff in Waco” in inch-high capital letters.

Some headline writer had decided that the Davidians were in fact a cult, no matter what the story said.

The term cult also factored into the federal trials that grew out of the Branch Davidian tragedy.

Some survivors of the fire that ended the siege, which left 76 sect members dead, faced a criminal trial in 1994. Early in the trial, the defense made a motion to disallow the use of the term cult in the proceedings.

The federal judge presiding over the trial quickly rejected the motion.

I was intrigued by use of such a powerful, pejorative term to refer to the Branch Davidians, a decades-old offshoot of a Christian denomination that did not fit the definition of the type of group to which the term cult had traditionally been applied.

The term had, over the previous couple of decades, been used to refer to unpopular new religious groups like the Unification Church (the “Moonies”), Scientology, the Hare Krishna and the Children of God. These groups, although usually quite peaceful in orientation and practice, were all newer, and most were promoting religious beliefs and practices that were definitely outside the mainstream of American religious history.

But the term cult had not been used with older groups that were spinoffs of more traditional religious movements, such as the Davidians.

When used against one of the newer religious groups, which most scholars call new religious movements, the term cult suggested that such groups are not “real religions” at all, but trumped-up facsimiles designed to take advantage of allegedly gullible American youth.

Research showed that these youth were members of the best educated and most affluent generation that America had yet produced. But they had rejected American values and culture, which they viewed as racist, sexist and imperialistic, and were exercising their volition to try out some new, usually non-Western, religions. This rejection upset many parents and political leaders.

These new groups became quite unpopular and, as Americans grappled with why many joined them, a theory developed suggesting that these young people must have been brainwashed by gurus who had developed some powerful psycho-techniques unknown to the rest of us.

This assumption was derived crudely from efforts to explain what took place in the 1940s in Communist China and in the 1950s in Korean War POW situations.

Americans needed some explanation for why Chinese people came to accept Communism as their governing ideology and why a couple dozen American POWs chose to remain in Korea after the war ended.

Brainwashing became the accepted rationale, even if scholars have since asserted that this was more propaganda than real explanation. In the 1960s and onward, this same rationale came to be a useful tool to use against unpopular religious groups including, eventually, the Davidians.

This approach gained considerable traction and helped justify claims that so-called cults were not “real religions” and that therefore First Amendment protections did not apply to them or their adherents.

The term cult became a social weapon against unpopular religious groups, new or old. That’s what happened with the designation assigned in the news media to the Branch Davidians during the 1993 siege and during the 1994 criminal trial of the surviving Davidians.

Such thinking about unpopular religious groups in America was mainstreamed in our society and helped justify the kidnapping of thousands of young people out of some of the more controversial groups. A new pseudo-profession of deprogramming was born, with parents of group members paying "deprogrammers" to kidnap their kids.

Many of these young people were then forced to undergo a form of radical and coercive resocialization. The practice continued until the 1980s and still happens in other countries, including Japan.

The practice of deprogramming led to a wave of so-called cult/brainwashing cases in which former members were awarded significant damages by juries who were infused with popular anti-cult sentiments.

It took years for the courts to finally accept the fact that most of those joining new religious movements were of age, that they were exercising their own volition, and that they had rights, including religious freedom - even if they were participating in unpopular movements.

The Branch Davidians lost their criminal case and the civil cases they brought. So the legal victories eventually won by some of the controversial NRMs did not directly translate into similar outcomes for the Davidians.

But most so-called cult cases were eventually either settled or overturned on appeal, as courts recognized that “cults” and their members had rights that were associated with other religious groups.

One such case, which involved the Unification Church, made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982. The Unification Church aimed to overturn a Minnesota law requiring any religious group that obtains more than 50% of its funding from non-members to seek government approval before doing fundraising, and to submit annual reports on its fundraising and expenditures.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled in favor of the Unification Church, though a strong dissent questioned whether the UC had standing as a religious group to challenge the law.

So it’s clear that the application of the term cult has become a battleground, and that those opposing the spread of new religious movements have won the war over how to designate them.

But more and more courts have recognized that members of so-called cults have the same rights as other believers. I hope ordinary people are coming around to that point of view, too – and that they begin to rethink the term “cult.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James T. Richardson.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Cults • History • Opinion

soundoff (960 Responses)
  1. naf

    our sun is our god ...

    April 17, 2011 at 6:51 am |
    • Pinga

      a bj is my god

      April 17, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  2. Tohrm

    The author seeks to downplay any hint of "brainwashing".
    The techniques are well-docu.mented scientifically by hundreds of independent researchers, even thousands if you'd like to take in all of human history.
    Brain-washing is indeed a very real technique and it can be done in many ways. That religions use it to raise children into their faith regardless of the child's rights is criminal child abuse.
    Maybe that's why the author is trying so hard to discredit any hint of brain-washing while saying the victims were just exercising their freedom of religion.
    But with brain-washing, there IS NO freedom of thought or religion.
    That's why it is one of the worst crimes against humanity.
    You cannot discredit an actual, scientifically-proven group of psychological techniques that have worked for thousands of years.
    To do so is to lose a lot of credibility.
    To say brainwashing is extremely rare is to say a blatant lie.
    It is amazingly easy to do and extremely common. Self-hypnosis also can play a part. That's where you brain-wash yourself.
    And religions use it every day. It is an integral part of every religion.
    EVERY religion. You can hardly hide the signs of it. Some are ready to shout their religious beliefs and force others to follow at pain of death.
    It's the easiest thing to take away the rights of your own children without thinking. Religious brainwashing is integral to every religion.
    Rethink your stance, James T. Richardson, for you have made some grave errors and are arguing from the wrong footing.
    But maybe you can't help it because you were also brainwashed.
    It's extremely likely. A virtual certainty.
    Look up the methods used. How often can they be referenced with your personal experiences? Your religious experiences?
    And your brain does certain things in response to different forms of stress.
    You obviously see the necessary restraint on religious expression, i.e. no violence, no murder or slavery or torture, etc.
    Religion does not get a free pass with methods that violate the rights of others as a matter of course.
    And brain-washing violates the rights of others to self-determination.
    Being a mental slave, you blithely brainwash your children to be slaves as you are a slave.
    Yet slavery is a crime against humanity. Your children are supposed to be born as free Americans, not pre-packaged slaves to your holy book and local religious fraud. Let them seek the truth as a free people.
    Brainwashing is in other things, too, like political parties and other group-identlties.
    How free are your children today?

    April 17, 2011 at 6:40 am |
    • JLS639

      @Tohrm: The American Psychological Association has said there is no scientific consensus that any set of coercive techniques called brainwashing actually work. You can perform searches based on this line to find APA reviews of the subject:

      "The term "brainwashing" is not a recognized theoretical concept, and is just a sensationalist "explanation" more suitable to "cultists" and revival preachers. It should not be used by psychologists, since it does not explain anything."

      April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Pinga

      coo coo

      April 17, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Tohrm

      JLS639 – You must be new to the internet. Welcome.
      From the APA.org website:
      "Mind control is the process by which individual or collective freedom of choice and action is compromised by agents or agencies that modify or distort perception, motivation, affect, cognition and/or behavioral outcomes. It is neither magical nor mystical, but a process that involves a set of basic social psychological principles.

      Conformity, compliance, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, guilt and fear arousal, modeling and identification are some of the staple social influence ingredients well studied in psychological experiments and field studies. In some combinations, they create a powerful crucible of extreme mental and behavioral manipulation when synthesized with several other real-world factors, such as charismatic, authoritarian leaders, dominant ideologies, social isolation, physical debilitation, induced phobias, and extreme threats or promised rewards that are typically deceptively orchestrated, over an extended time period in settings where they are applied intensively.

      A body of social science evidence shows that when systematically practiced by state-sanctioned police, military or destructive cults, mind control can induce false confessions, create converts who willingly torture or kill "invented enemies," engage indoctrinated members to work tirelessly, give up their money–and even their lives–for "the cause."

      April 18, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  3. thegoatinsf

    Landmark Education.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:28 am |
  4. AndyF

    Just start treating ALL religions as cults so that society can finally have a chance of moving forward. People should just celebrate their versions of the Great Fairy Tale at home, that's where it belongs.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:26 am |
    • John

      Well said!

      July 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  5. kungumastah

    They weren't raided for being a cult, they were raided because they were stockpiling illegal weapons and Koresh was "indoctrinating" young girls by taking them as wives. That's illegal too. The really scary thing is that these kids parents approved it.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:12 am |
  6. doug

    A cult is usually led by a cult figure, hence the name. Often these figures present themselves as the messiah and also believe that it is OK to abuse the children with whom they've been entrusted. Cults hurt people and destroy famiiles and people. The name exists to describe something that is counter mainstream and exists for a reason. The Church as we know it has made some grave mistakes, however it exists to serve God, the Word and people. Cults exist so the likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh can prey upon innocent people. A rose by any other name, is still a rose.

    April 17, 2011 at 6:04 am |
    • TheyNotHim

      The brilliance of xtianity as a cult is that it offers up the person of Jesus or God as the cult leader, therefore anybody willing to thump a bible loud enough can take on the characteristics of the leader and brainwash his followers.

      All organized religions are cults...there just is no getting around that. Live with it I guess...

      July 3, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  7. Ellen

    YAWN @ those trying to stir things up and call all religious organizations cults. Labels are boring and a nice way for lazy people to fit everything into neat little boxes and not have to actually give any real thought. If people want to label every single person who follows a religion as being a cult member, so be it! Words only have as much power as you give them. So definitely no skin off my nose.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:55 am |
  8. EuphioTGank

    not only is EVERY religion a cult..Every political and social movement produces it's own brainwashed followers and some like the "green" movement do reach cult status. in fact anytime you find yourself making decisions based solely on your belief in those you follow. you are a brainwashed cult member. remember "question not only those you oppose but those you follow!"

    April 17, 2011 at 5:36 am |
    • Eric


      April 17, 2011 at 6:13 am |
  9. Paolo

    Part 2: my comment got cut off in the middle, dont know what happened. anyways, the group came up to my counsin in Tx and was talking about Ask marketing stuff in english and spanish. it was a black and green tshirt. Man he was shocked. people stay away from uckg universal church of kingdom of god living faith evengelical, succeed in life centre and all those demoninations with the stop suffering sign with red and white dove. Stay home with your family pray and read the bible. if you want to help people give to charities and work in soup kitchens.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  10. bluhousworker

    I remember wondering when I was 21 years old and this was happening why the ATF was raiding the house, what charges had been brought against them, how was it legal, moral, and tolerated that a government agency could raid a place like they did without any formal charges against anyone, without any proof of anything?

    The semantics of the cult do not interest me, in fact it seems like a smoke screen to the real issues behind this illegal raid.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  11. Paolo

    Stay away from Universal church kingdom of god UCKG out of Brazil their everywhere branching out in every city. 5 or 7 years ago my counsin lived in Calif and he got taken by this group Living faith evengelical they took all his $$$. Then he moved to Texas he was working at some mall and some group came up to him about Ask marketing stuff suceed in life centre and the moonies , the catholic and baptists, stop suffering sign with the red or white dove < the crystals , the chanting and the rest of them. their all bogus. 'nuff said!!!!!

    April 17, 2011 at 5:23 am |
  12. Sally Li

    The insinuations which have been building up around the word "cult" really take away both the freedom and the religion
    out of freedom of religion.
    At one time, every major world religion was a despised, persecuted and maligned cult
    in the matrix of some other religion.
    I have to go now, so I will C U L 8 Tr!

    April 17, 2011 at 5:10 am |
  13. Sam

    I agree. Religious organisations are nothing but cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:01 am |
    • Eric

      When one person has a delusion it's called insanity, when many people have a delusion it's called religion.

      April 17, 2011 at 6:11 am |
  14. Ike

    If all religions are cults that means that Atheism is a giant cult as well. Its a large group of people unified by a common belief centered around a deity (or lack there of in this case)

    The only belief that doesn't classify as a religion is agnosticism since it means you don't believe for or against a deity

    April 17, 2011 at 4:48 am |
    • Dubhly

      Not really atheism does not involve religious practices, they do not pray to an invisible master. Rather they dont believe one exists. Gotta love how believers always try to group everyone else with them. see the above reference to the definition of cult, its not common belief, rather its religious worship...atheist dont worship.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:03 am |
    • Lowpro

      Agnosticism is just fence sitting, waiting till all the evidence is in to make an inferred decision (it's a good idea)

      Atheism is not a cult; there's no belief. The "belief" in no Gods is not a true statement. We (I included) don't believe there are no Gods. I know that there are no Gods anyone's created now, and throughout history. I deny theism because its tenets have no evidence.

      An atheist is an agnostic; we just don't sit 50/50 on the subject. It's more like 99.9999999% : 0.000000001% against God(s) because every religion just can't substantiate their beliefs.

      But then, politics can also qualify for cults, it depends on how you want to apply the term. Communism, fascism all entail a particular "trust in" contract.

      Agnosticism BTW is stupid; it is fence sitting at best, and a lack of knowledge (and being fine with that!) at worst.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:05 am |
    • Eric

      I prefer the use of the word "think" instead of "believe" that there is no god. But as said many times before saying atheism is a religion is like saying not collecting baseball cards is a hobby.

      April 17, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • NamelessOne

      As one who has has no religion, I would ask you not to lump me in with other non-religious persons. I may be no more of like mind with some dyed-in-the-wool atheist than I may be with some raving religious zealot. I am simply a man, and like it here. I do not call myself an Agnostic, yet we're ALL "without knowledge". What I think defines me is this: I know I don't know, I know you don't know, and I'm quite happy being free from the need to know. I'm also free of the need to quarrel over it. What do you think you will EVER know in your finite existence here? You seem very angry. Life is so beautiful it's inescapable. [Religion not required.]

      April 17, 2011 at 6:28 am |
    • Bennie

      The goal of a cult is to solve an unsolvable problem. It does not have to be about finding a way to heaven, but it often is.

      April 17, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  15. Lowpro

    Um I have to disagree with you because you're ignoring the fact of who the Branch Davidians are, especially when it came to Koresh's influence. Him and Jim Jones are excellent parallels, but would you then say that the People's Temple was NOT a cult?

    I want to go one step further and put the pejorative term "cult" to all religions. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other religion are cults; they are because they fit the definition. If you don't like the pejorative use, don't try to mask it by covering up the Branch Davidians as "being decades old" to cleanse them of the incident at Waco. That's devious, absurd, and not worth your time to argue.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:47 am |
  16. Jeff

    A cult doesn't have to have their beliefs be religion based. Their beliefs can based upon a myriad of things such as a new world order, aliens arriving from the tail of a comet and more recently in an Equal money system by a cult in South Africa called Destini.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:45 am |
    • Red Wings DIVA

      I agree. It's easy and lazy to just label religion as a "cult". Political parties, sports teams, entertainers, etc. all have fanatical people "worshiping" them irrationally as well. Not all people that carry a bible are brainwashed.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:16 am |
    • Tohrm

      Too true.

      April 17, 2011 at 6:07 am |
  17. Josie

    EXCELLENT article!

    April 17, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  18. World Dictionary

    cult —noun
    1. a specific system of religious worship, esp with reference to its rites and deity
    2. a sect devoted to such a system
    3. a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents
    4. a group having an exclusive ideology and ritual practices centred on sacred symbols, esp one characterized by lack of organizational structure
    5. intense interest in and devotion to a person, idea, or activity: the cult of yoga
    6. the person, idea, etc, arousing such devotion
    7. a. something regarded as fashionable or significant by a particular group
    b. (as modifier): a cult show
    8. (modifier) of, relating to, or characteristic of a cult or cults: a cult figure

    April 17, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • Pinga

      Thanks for nothing. Churches and religions just want your MONEY!!!!! you dolts

      April 17, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  19. Steev

    I gotta hand it to CNN. I never expected to see an actual Branch Davidian apologist on here. You are crazy-magnets. That must explain why I am here as well. 😛

    April 17, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  20. Don

    Religions are just very large cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Totally agree! The only difference between the so-called major religions and other cults is the age at which the indoctrination begins.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:22 am |
    • BJ

      We could say the same about certain large secular groups in this country....just very large cults (or even religions in themselves, secular religions). Think about it.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:01 am |
    • There are no gods!

      no BJ, you are wrong. Religions are cults as they promise something that DOES NOT exist ie god.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:05 am |
    • doctore0

      Yea, all religions are cults

      April 17, 2011 at 6:00 am |
    • Liam

      It is apparently clear that you are unable to distinguish between a cult and a DESTRUCTIVE CULT. Clearly you are uneducated with regards to the issue and clearly need to do some research. If you want there is a good comprehensive book you should get. it is called "Combating Cult Mind Control" by Steve Hasan. But knowing you as a journalist and my personal experience with your profession, you will fail tofollow through...in this regard, you will dismally fail as you normally do. ti is in the nature of your profession.

      April 17, 2011 at 6:31 am |
    • Walker

      Who is uneducated? The article doesn't mention destructive cults. Only you do. A cult IS a cult. A destructive cult is just a subset of cults. Religions ARE cults, and I have yet to see a single one that isn't in some way destructive to some.

      April 17, 2011 at 8:03 am |
    • Don

      You could argue that religions are just big cults. However when you look at a group of people who take kids, stock pile weapons, and shoot law enforcement officers, then I would be quicker to label that group a "cult."

      Larger religous groups also tell people how to think, what to do.....ect., but generally don't back it up with arms and very controlling policies (that's the reason cults are smaller) most people wouldn't put up with the controlling ways.

      That is why it is more important for us (as a society) to teach kids to think critically than to believe.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Zappa

      The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:00 am |

      CNN editors must be trying for some sort of award for having the MOST FUCKED UP BLOG ON THE INTERNET.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
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