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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. Byrd

    Yes, I agree that the word "cult" should be re-examined, but we should also rethink the term "journalism", because that's the media for sensationalism, usually devoid of substance. All religions are cults as far as I'm concerned, but their larger size hardly distinguishes them from the Freemasons, Scientologists, Davidians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Baptists, Methodists, you name it. Everything involving worship is a cult.

    .

    April 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  2. john316

    The fact is...that all organized religions are "Cults"....whether they want to accept that or not. And the biggest and most intoerant are making lots of money as a result....

    April 17, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Cheri

    You're absolutely right Professor. Everyone has the wrong name. They should be called fanatics because, after all, cult's first definition is a formal religious veneration and veneration's definition is respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of a person. Words I have rarely see exercised in most cults or religions. It seems as though many of our religious leaders (John Robinson (1575-1625); James "I was wrong" Baker; Oral Roberts (member of the 900 foot club); etc.) are of the do as I say, not as I do affiliation. And, let's not forget the every other religion until mine was incorrect association. Too many religions, old or new, have the kill them or act superior if they don't believe as we believe theme. I also find it interesting that many of the people leaving comments understand that most religions are cults. Thinking for oneself and taking responsibility for those thoughts and actions seems to be an unknown concept to many of the, so called, religious. If you use your position as a professor to drill your students into belief, you may be just a step away from forming your own cult. Let me end this with the non-responsibility phase for not taking ownership of your own words "just saying."

    April 17, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Dan

      Well said and very true!

      April 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. BL

    The ONLY difference between a cult and "religion' is the number of people who believe in it.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  5. aanse

    in my opinion.. if more than two individuals follow the same believes that is a cult. a lot of people say that groups that follow gurus in eastern religions are a cult. well, my take is, how is that different than what america, or china or any other country preach? eastern religions so called "cults" preach spirituality and how we should not be linked to the money, well america is teaching us how to follow the money. those eastern cults do not harm anyone, however american corporations destroyed the world. so in all, america materialism is a cult that destroyed people lives.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  6. Kyle McDermott

    In my opinion, the U.S. federal government is a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  7. Babs

    CNN lets jokers like this write it blogs from time to time to stir up controversy. This man obviously has little appreciation for what the definition of a cult actually is, and the damage that cults actually do. He is a mere rabble-rouser sent by the press to create a media frenzy.

    "Regular" religions allow people to choose to belong or not. "Regular" religions seek to persuade, not to control. Any religious group (mainstream or not) that seeks to use brainwashing techniques and seeks to limit a person's autonomy, or to isolate its followers from the rest of the world is, by definition, a cult. Regardless of what this man says.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Bullsh!t! Children do not get to choose! They get indoctrinated at an early age by their parents and the "education" (I'm being polite – it really is brainwashing) they recieve can be just as difficult to deprogram as any other cult. As has been pointed out many times, what children believe about man made tribal beliefs (that we give credibility to by calling them religions, not cults) is virtually 100% dependent upon where geographically they are born. If in the "The West", they generally become christians, in in "The Middle East" jews or muslims, etc.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Babs

    CNN lets jokers like this write it blogs from time to time to stir up controversy. This man obviously has little appreciation for what the definition of a cult actually is, and the damage that cults actually do. He is a mere rabble-rouser sent by the press to create a media frenzy.

    "Regular" religions allow people to choose to belong or not. "Regular" religions seek to persuade, not control. Any religious group (mainstream or not) that seeks to use brainwashing techniques and seeks to limit a person's autonomy, or to isolate its followers from the rest of the world is, by definition, a cult. Regardless of what this man says.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  9. John Richardson

    The issue is not that small, new, out of the mainstream groups are entirely benign, but that large, established, mainstreamed groups are so often at least as malignant as the newbies. The word 'cult' serves not just to marginalize some groups, but its selective use legitimizes other groups whose practices can be at least as repugnant. Some people mentioned Koresh and allegations of child abuse. Well, besides the obvious fact that treating these alleged "cultists" as subhuman led to many of those very children being burned alive by the US gov't, it is simply absurd to cite the abuse of children as proof that the Branch Davidians aren't a "real" religion as we hear piece after piece after piece about Catholic priests and even bishops abusing children for decades both here and abroad.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • M22

      john: "Some people mentioned Koresh and allegations of child abuse. ... it is simply absurd to cite the abuse of children as proof that the Branch Davidians aren't a "real" religion as we hear piece after piece after piece about Catholic priests and even bishops abusing children for decades both here and abroad."

      It's a shame you can't see the distinction here.

      The Catholic Church's orthodoxy is not dependent or based on abusing children in any way. Koresh's beliefs, however, seem inextricably intertwined with his having power over children, and his right to do with them as he pleased.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @M22

      Seems to me that the rcc, and all religions, are very much dependent upon having power over children because they need to begin indoctrinating them as young as possible. Religious beliefs are very much a function of where someone is born and their parents forcing them to learn their tribal myths. Very few people convert to another religion once they have been programmed, which usually starts ar an early age. Child abuse is the extreme end of power over children.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "Seems to me that the rcc, and all religions, are very much dependent upon having power over children because they need to begin indoctrinating them as young as possible."

      Besides being non-responsive to what was written, you're equivocating.

      The emotional "power" an established church has is not the same as the coercive physical and mental "power" usually exercised by cults.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @M22

      Please explain why you beleive I am equivocating? If it is my used of the word "seems" then you should re-read your post.

      I will grant that accepted cults do not exert the same degree of physical control that the non-accepted cults often do. I do not agree that the mental aspect is any less – there are simply too many rabid believers (a few hanging out here peddling their "your damned" bullsh!t...) to deny that accepted cults have huge indoctrination powers.

      April 17, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "I will grant that accepted cults do not exert the same degree of physical control that the non-accepted cults often do. I do not agree that the mental aspect is any less – there are simply too many rabid believers (a few hanging out here peddling their "your damned" bullsh!t...) to deny that accepted cults have huge indoctrination powers."

      You're equivocating for the simple reason that you're using two different definitions of the word "power", and trying to equate the two.

      Whether you like it or not, a cult's "power" is typically physical and mental. "Mental power" in the sense that cult followers usually become so psychologically subservient that their will is not their own.

      The same isn't true, in general, for regular religions. There is no figurehead exercising pervasive control over parishioners' mental or physical lives. Any "power" churches have is usually dependent on the personal religious feelings of the church goers themselves. They aren't brow beaten into submission.

      You can't escape that fact. But trying to equate the two "powers", in order to call all religions "cults", is absurd.

      April 18, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  10. svann

    200 years ago they would be tried as witches.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  11. MS

    Every religion is a cult. A cult is a religion that doesn't have many followers. The only difference between David Koresh, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed is that billions of people still believe in Jesus and Mohammed

    April 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Jim

      Exactly right, MS. The difference between a religion and a cult is the number of followers.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • M22

      MS: "Every religion is a cult. A cult is a religion that doesn't have many followers. The only difference between David Koresh, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed is that billions of people still believe in Jesus and Mohammed"

      Not quite.

      The difference between them are their abilities to function in society, and the amount and extent of control each "religion" has over its followers' lives. In the case of a cult, you are not your own person. You belong to the cult's leader. In the case of established religion, you're generally free to come and go as you please.

      It's nice that you have such a simple and shallow view of the world, though. Doesn't make you look dogmatic in the slightest bit.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  12. davej

    This professor seems to have some sort of convenient memory lapse regarding the obvious reasons why the Branch Davidians were considered an abnormal and dysfunctional religious group. I suppose in his search for perceived Christian persecution he would like to join the Davidians and rejoice in being persecuted. Christians just can't get enough perceived persecution. The chips on their shoulders are the size of bricks.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  13. geckopelli

    Thet're all cults. For example christianily is a personality cult/

    April 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  14. Rusty

    "Cult" & "Devil" are terms used to describe other peoples religion. There is NOT freedom of religion in America – just ask VooDoo followers and how their practice is banned in many cities in America.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  15. seth bullock

    All religions are cults. It's just that when one gets really big, it becomes a 'religion' because, I guess, who's gonna argue with a large group of faithful nuts who prove century after century their willingness to fight about it?

    April 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • tansoku

      well said.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • jean2009

      Best response.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Sharon

      Upranked +∞

      April 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Rah Abasd

      Exactly.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • M22

      seth: "All religions are cults. It's just that when one gets really big, it becomes a 'religion'"

      Not really. In colloquial speech a "cult" has a negative connotation because it refers to a small religious, or quasi-religious, group that is either socially dysfunctional or has extremely anti-social behaviors and beliefs. Charles Manson's group, suicide cults, etc. all fit in that context.

      Muslims, Christians, the Amish, etc. don't fall anywhere near that definition.

      Nice attempt at smearing religion, though.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  16. joxer

    The guy who wrote this article clearly believes it is ok to brainwash people into letting koresh have s ex with children. go crawl into the hole you came out of. how many lives did he destroy in the name of religion don't blame the atf koresh told them to start the fires.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  17. Lou Cifer

    Darwin wins

    April 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  18. TTFL

    The word cult preparatively refers to a group whose beliefs of practices are considered abnormal or bizarre......look it up on WiKi! No doubt.....the society defines what abnormal or bizarre means. A religious group that is isolating itself from the rules and common opinions of the society is therefore quite certainly a cult. The point of view of the author of this article is just wrong: he is judging the behavior of the society as false but not that of the cult – not a very intelligent viewpoint!

    April 17, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  19. Live Free88

    Webster has the definition wrong. A religion becomes a cult when the followers no longer seek truth and blindly follow the leaders teachings without question. The Branch Davidians are a cult. This does not justify the USG ATF response however. Innocent people died. I wish the media would stop calling the B.D. a offshoot of The Seventh Day Adventist. These people left the SDA to form their own religion. The SDA are very peaceful people, not armed radicals.

    April 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Sharon

      By your definition, every religion is a cult. And with that, I'd agree wholeheartedly.

      April 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Live Free88

      I think to some extent your are correct. The same church can be a cult to some, a religion to others. It changes when those congregation stop seeking truth. That is why I left my church as we are asked to have blind faith. I cannot stop asking questions. "Because the Bible Says So" is not a sufficient answer. Don't get me wrong. I believe in God. I just want to know who and what He is, and why He put us through this mess.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  20. joxer

    Is this guy serious. anyone who can convince people that it's ok to have s ex with children is indeed a cult. you are a libritard

    April 17, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.