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. BriSoFla

    All religions are cults because you are prohibited from free thought other wise you commit "blasphamy" which is a cult's way of shunning. If you dont like be told you belong to a cult, then dont belong to your religious cult. Now shut up..

    April 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm |

    This is the stopping point of a free land people. With efforts to control the way you live, think and believe. There is no "free" land.

    April 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  3. LouAz

    Didn't there used to be some common sense called "THE DUCK TEST" ?

    April 17, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  4. Peter Mallard

    Professor Richardson is being irresponsible and academically inaccurate. The group at Waco and their leader were not recognized by the Branch Davidians. You can make the case that established religious groups should not be called cults but David Koresh and his followers were not Branch Davidians nor were they Seventh-day Adventists. Professor Richardson should be ashamed and the University of Reno-Nevada should investigate his academic misconduct.

    April 17, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  5. NSP

    All religious groups - mainstream or otherwise - are cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  6. Don't Understand

    Addressing the comments more than the article here, but what is so bad about religion? I mean in its purest form? Aside from the political and personal agendas people often selfishly use religion for, what is bad about ANY theory, philosophy set and/or set or morals that encourages people to be civilized? No one can argue that all religions get corrupted and perverted greedy and self-serving people, but that heart of almost EVERY religion is the same: Live your life well, in service of your fellow man, while respecting that some power (be it sub-atomic and chemical or divine) gives you a very limited life.

    How is that bad?

    April 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Jamas

    HotAirAce doesn't appear to be educated.

    April 17, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Care to explain why you think that?

      April 17, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. sceptic

    I don't know where else to write this, but does anybody else think that the Waco compound has been intentionally set on fire by the gas that has been pumped into the building by the FDA?

    April 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
  9. DJSimp

    What's the difference between a cult and a religion? A religion has a university.
    I suppose that David Koresh has as much claim to being a god as some iron-age carpenter thousands of years ago.
    Such silliness, either way.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  10. Phil in Oregon

    I used to worship at a small 'newer' church, and I remember the leaders telling me that a lot of things that make good business sense to everyone else are illegal because of the tax exempt status of the organization. My definition of a cult would include the total control and isolation of the members but includes not going through the process to become a legitimate non-profit. There are 'religious' org's that are nothing but tax shelters

    April 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  11. Ben Thare

    Isn't the author's telling us how we should interpret the word "cult" a cult-like behavior? This post serves as nothing more than an opportunity for the author to promote his book.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  12. Blair

    David Koresh was gorgeous 🙁 He was absolutley beautiful- this was a horrible case of BS and the only reason people died was because we went into an area that was not ours (nothing new) – the Branch Davidians were happy, peaceful people..
    do the research – our government boys shot, killed an dlet a man stay there for 2 days, on the ground before any fire happened, it was horrible.. (and they didn't let his wife get him) – yall weren't there. There as no "child abuse" this had to do with weapons.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Robert

      Koresh may have been "beautiful" and 'gorgeous" but he was also a lunatic that thought he was the son of God! LOL. If they were a "peaceful people" then why were they armed to the teeth??!! That's like say Islam is peaceful! Lol, say what you want about people but their actions speak louder than words.
      Branch Davidians were a CULT! Plain and simple. David Koresh was crazy, plain and simple.
      I'm not religeous, not political, just a Texan that smelled the BBQ 18 years ago.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  13. Clyde

    Cult. Religion. They are both the same thing.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  14. Brian from Washington

    If you belong to a religion you belong to a cult. Period.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  15. zenman

    The author deliberately stays away from David Koresh and other charismatic leaders and the influence and control they have over members because if he goes there the Branch Davidians are immediately apparent as a cult in the pejorative sense of the term. The FBI report says Koresh ordered his compound set on fire and his followers DID IT. That's what folks mean when they call the Davidians a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Roger Krueger

      It's the abuse of charisma, social ties and structure that define a cult, not the religion per se. One of SoCals most notorious cults, Synanon, was not primarily religious.

      One easy test is "what happens if you leave?" The more draconian the consequences the more offensive the organization is to the American ideal of free will. (And guess who that puts at the very top of the cult list?)

      A religion should be a collection of like-minded people, where individuals retain the right to leave whenever they choose. The problem is that the closer a religion gets to that ideal, the faster they lose headcount.

      April 17, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  16. DrewL

    In many ways, one could refer to ANY mainstream – or otherwise – religion as a cult. Many of the practices of the mainstream religions would be viewed as "odd" if people would look at them with any semblance of perspective.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • airwx

      Wow..generalization to the max!!! Do you mean the feeding and clothing of the poor, housing the homeless or visiting the sick as some of the practices that need to be seen from a new perspective? That's where our faith takes us. Where is there an issue in that?

      April 17, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  17. BroNate

    There have been some times and places where small unpopular religious movements have produced truly valuable and important advances for humanity, but taken on average it's been a tiny fraction compared with all the times when religion has been used as a rationalization for prejudice and injustice.

    While it might make sense to rethink the definition of what we consider to be a cult, it isn't likely to be a semantic argument that works out in favor of religion as a whole. And in any event, the Branch Davidians aren't what I would have chosen as a Rosa Parks for splinter religion sect liberation.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  18. tallulah13

    By definition, all religions are cults. (I'm ignoring all political commentary and sticking to the article.)

    April 17, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  19. Darth Vadik, CA

    Every religion is a cult, just because it may have 10,000 or even 1,000,000,000 followers does not make its nonsense more acceptable to non-stupid minds...

    April 17, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Dan

      We should also take it a step further. For example, there are loose groups out there who worship the earth. I believe they call themselves new agers. These narrow minded people believe that cars cause global warming. They also hug trees and vandalize business. Another cult we should be concerned about is the athiests. They attempt to force their religion on the believers and strive to dismantle morality in this country. I'm sure that you, since you are highly eductated and smart will agree. Our country is blessed to have smart people like you making decisions for the little people who are less fortunate to have as large of brain as you and practice a religion. You're a typical liberal moron. Go worship Obama.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jason

      Darth Vadik: Agree 100%. To Dan: It is spelled ATHEIST you moron. Atheism is NOT a religion, it is a lack of belief in any theistic system. Period. If Atheism is a religion, bald is a hair color and not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Cultofpersonality

      READ THE ABOVE STATEMENT!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHa DAN the man, tellin it like it is. What, are you from Alabama?

      April 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  20. ???

    Let's reserve the term 'cult' for groups endorsing or practicing beliefs that are blatantly detrimental to society in the name of religion. For example 'pedophilia'. Of course that doesn't really eliminate the Davidians from a cult status...nor the Catholic church.

    April 17, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      But that would just perpetuate the problem! The problem being that cults are looked down upon while religions get a free pass, but in reality they are pretty much the same thing with the notable exception that religions are more accepted than cults.

      Words and their definitions are important. Religions do not want to be labelled as being cults because of the negative connotation. Too bad – they don't get to change the definition so that they can continue to fly off the radar. So-called mainstream religions should receive the same sceptical attention that cuts do – 'cause they are cults!

      April 17, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "Words and their definitions are important. Religions do not want to be labelled as being cults because of the negative connotation. Too bad – they don't get to change the definition so that they can continue to fly off the radar."

      You're conflating the colloquial definition of "cult" with the literal definition in order to stigmatize religion in general.

      Religions do not want to be, and are not, labelled "cults" because "cults" in common parlance refers mostly to anti-social groups whose leaders have (or try to have) absolute control over their followers. Again, you are not your own person, you belong to the leader in a cult.

      In most major religions you're generally free to come and go as you please. It's an entire voluntarily association without the pervasive personal control exercised by most cults.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      From Merriam-Webster:

      Definition of CULT

      1: formal religious veneration : worship

      2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents

      3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents

      4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator

      5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

      Please explain how regular or mainstream religions do not fall into the above definition. And as I have pointed out elsewhere, once a child has been indoctrinated into a religion (cult!) it is difficult for them to discard the imposed beliefs, so while they may be able to physically leave a place of worship, it is much more difficult to discard and repair the phychological aspect.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "Please explain how regular or mainstream religions do not fall into the above definition."

      Re-read my comment, for your own sake.

      You're mixing the "colloquial" definition of "cult" (which has a negative connotation) with the "literal" definition in order to try to disparage religion in general.

      "And as I have pointed out elsewhere, once a child has been indoctrinated into a religion (cult!) it is difficult for them to discard the imposed beliefs"

      Which hardly comes close to the amount of personal and mental control that is exercised by cult leaders.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      I am not confusing anything. Religion fits within the definition of a cult. It is the religious who are trying to duck away from the negative connotation of cults, because, in my opinion, if the literal definition is applied and society begins to take a different look at religions, they will be recognized for what they are – cults that do have negative aspects to them. And of course, if religions (cults) are opened up to investigation, rather than continuing to get a free pass, their basic and unsubstantiated foundations will be seen as the pile of bullsh!t they are. In other words, the religious are trying to duck away from, or change the definition of, cult so that society does not go down the slippery slope of shedding religion (any faster than it already is). This is about surviability not truth – as much of the history of religion has been. One more lie piled upon century's of lies...

      April 17, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • ???

      My point was that if cult is a term with negative connotation then let's use it for religious groups that allow blatantly negative behavior regardless of size. It was not a comment on the value of religion as a whole.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      So the key to labelling or declaring an organization a "cult" or a "religion" is the degree of blatantly detrimental beliefs? I'd love to be on the panel that gets to set up the standards or scale to more definitively assess religious organizations! And would I be correct in thinking that a religion would (continue to) receive benefits and considerations that a cult would not? After all, there has to be some consequence of being correctly positioned...

      April 17, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "I am not confusing anything. Religion fits within the definition of a cult. It is the religious who are trying to duck away from the negative connotation of cults, because, in my opinion, if the literal definition is applied"

      It's no use, of course, arguing with someone who's so dogmatically anti-religious that they won't answer any of the arguments given to them.

      You're confusing the definitions because you're taking the negative connotation that's association only with the colloquial use of the word "cult" (which has a narrow application), and trying to apply it to the literal definition of "cult" (which is has a broad application), in order to paint all religious beliefs in a negative light.

      It's fallacious because you're applying to the whole what only applies to a part.

      "if the literal definition is applied"

      And the literal definition doesn't contain any of the negative aspects of the colloquial definition.

      It's a shame you're so single minded that you can't see that.

      April 17, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      You don't see any negative connotations to # 3, as mild as they might be? You don't think that applying such a definition to mainstream religions, or even asking the question "does this apply to mainstream religions" as being potentially harmful to them? Any chance you are the one that is confined by your own need to have religion seen in the most positive light, to not be associated with those nasty and plainly wrong cults?

      April 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • ???

      Hot –

      My argument is for consistency between connotation of the word and practical application of its use. Somehow I think a panel of reasonable individuals could recognize pedophilia as being detrimental to society.

      Currently which group is a cult and which group is a religion, and therefore eligible for the benefits, is determined by established powers. Unlike the author above,who seems to be proposing just to abandon the use of 'cult' altogether because it is a negative term, I propose to actually make the determination based on reasonable criteria. You seem to be advocating this is a worthless endeavor either because you think all religions are bad because they do not believe the way you do or because it would be to hard. That is an immature stance.

      April 17, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      I believe that all religions that propose and worship supernatural being are based on 100% pure bullsh!t and therefore are without foundation. Propagating the mythology of these beliefs as facf may not be bad, but it is certainly not good or honest.

      I don't think you can accuratley describe atheism, or atheists, as immature unless you also characterize believers as the same, especially given that it is believers that continue to believe in unproven and unseen enti!ies and superst!tions that are usually left behind when one realizes that Santa Claus does not exist.

      That being said, while I also believe that religion has and continues to do great harm, I also recognize that religious organizations and their sheep do some good. That being said, none of the good they claim to do needs an imaginary sky daddy. Good people will do good things because it is the right thing to do, no god(s) required.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "You don't see any negative connotations to # 3, as mild as they might be? You don't think that applying such a definition to mainstream religions, or even asking the question "does this apply to mainstream religions" as being potentially harmful to them?"

      It really is incredible that you refuse to address the issue in every one of your posts.

      I'll take your non-response as a tacit admission of your defeat.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • M22

      hot: "Good people will do good things because it is the right thing to do, no god(s) required."

      Your responses show an amazing lack of knowledge when it comes to philosophy, history and logic.

      What counts as "good" without a god? A question at least as old as Euthyphro, yes, but important nonetheless. Is it dependent on your own desires, your wishes, how you believe the world should be?

      And how is doing "good" the "right" thing to do? If, for instance, doing wrong benefits me personally, increases my pleasure and my happiness, what reason do I have to be "good" if no unintentional consequences will befall me?

      April 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      I think that you underestimate the power of indoctrination of accepted cults. I believe that society collectively through democratic mechanisms can determine what is good and bad for society, and that most people will act accordingly, no god(s) required. I don't think we are going to sway each other's views.

      April 18, 2011 at 2:59 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
About this blog

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.