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. Happyfrenchman

    If any rethinking of the word needs to be done, it should be that it is applied to more religions. Because there is little difference as he says, between what passes for mainstream, and what passes for aluminum foil hat time.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  2. Richard Aberdeen

    I think the Teabaggers represent a cult; actually a cult duped far worse than the Branch Dividians...

    April 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  3. Daniel

    Christianity is brainwash cult and the bible needs to banned . When your child comes home and talks about these fantastic biblical stories ,it's too late . Christianity puts its seed in the minds of the young and unable to think for themselves .

    April 17, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  4. Dark shadow

    Right and Jonestown was perfectly legit as well. The government response to Koresh and the Davidians was overkill but that doesn't mean that jacked up stuff wasn't happening in Waco at that time.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  5. Blame Bush

    Koresh anointed himself as a prophet and made it a point to deflower every girl there when she reached 14 years of age.

    If that's not a cult, then there are no cults.

    IMO, every religion is a cult. Fancy buildings, stained glass windows, funny costumes, et al, don't make any fairy tales true.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  6. Davidians were a cult

    This article was poorly written. In attempting to rethink the term "cult", the author made very general statements and really had no argument or foundation to even create a debate. The Davidians were not America's affluent, and they certainly were not America's youth. They were brainwashed. Hare Krishnas as well as Scientologist have been repeatedly accused at such practices and worse. So all I really have to say is "WHAT????"

    April 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  7. Chuck Beatty

    Telling editors NOT to use the un-scientific word "cult" is absurd. It's not your place.

    Granted it is impossible for you scholars to even consider, let alone agree, on when to label a new religion a "cult".

    Professor Richardson, the word "cult" as we use it, is NOT your word. It's our word, us ex members, us family who have been "disconnected", it's OUT word of contempt and emotional reaction.

    When a newspaper uses the word "cult" because we use the word when we are interviewed, it's totally within that news media's right to use the term.

    Sure the media could edit out the term "cult" and use it bette when they do use it.

    But ex members are the ones who decide which of these new religions is to our minds deserving of this unscientific label "cult."

    I think "cult" is a valid word of emotional contempt for a new religion. "Cult" is mainly expressed by ex members or family or interested observers of that new religion. The validity of using "cult" is that it is an appropriate emotional pejorative based on ongoing history specifically whether that new religion is right now continuing to abuse its parishioners or religious staff in some significant and systemic way or not.

    I as an ex member, to Scientology don't disagree with any good that Scientology does, and when II say the word "cult", I mean it only in the emotional contempt rejection of Scientology overall.

    I'm sure some linguist has a category for how us ex members and upset family members and upset public in general feel when they use the unscientific label "cult".

    When these smallish new religions stop their pain and suffering causing actions, then the pejorative "cult" label (or any replacement pejorative label) will then NOT fit them, and only the new religions' simultaneously ongoing "good works" will be what form the public's overall image of those new religions. When they stop their bad, the public will only judge them by their good that is left that they are doing.

    Until then, it is "our" word of contempt, and it's NOT your scholars' word!

    Chuck Beatty
    ex Scientology lifetime staffer (Sea Org 1975-2003)
    chuckbeatty77@aol.com Pittsburgh, USA

    April 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
    • Patricia

      Thanks for your meaningful post. The writer's interplay between the words religion and cult is as manipulative a tactic as those cult leaders out there...I don't see the need to change the linguistics of an issue just to downplay the rhetorical effect.

      April 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  8. brucemo

    The word "cult", in modern usage, refers to a religion that exploits or otherwise harms its members, typically for the benefit of its leader or leaders.

    In some cases, it is pretty safe to use this term, since most of us could agree that members are being exploited or harmed, and that the leaders either intend this or allow this.

    What makes the term dangerous is that it is possible for a cult to evolve into what we'd term a conventional religion, and it's possible for an authority figure who propagates harm to exist within the structure of a conventional religion.

    To the extent that the individual is free to make their own choices in our society, it's none of my business if someone gives their money and labor to someone I believe is a confidence man and they believe is a religious leader.

    This doesn't mean that I can't argue that the organization is a cult, and it doesn't mean that the legal system shouldn't get involved if laws are broken.

    April 17, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  9. Canadain

    Such a classic religious response " Atheism is a religion"
    No Actually its not. Its beliefs do not require any faith merely evidence.
    calling atheism a religion is like calling "not collecting stamps" a hobby!

    April 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
    • Patricia

      LOVE it.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Buckminster Fullerene

      Alleluia, Amen.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
  10. Brian

    Christianity=biggest and most irrational "cult" in the world.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
    • photoman1

      Islam seems a bit more irrational than Christianity. But let's face it, which religion isn't irrational?

      April 17, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  11. Brian

    Believing a man was killed then rose and was resurrected all for you = "cult-like" thinking.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Jen

    I would strongly recommend the book "The God Virus" by Darrel W. Ray – a startling analogy about how religions spread and seek to become the "only" religion in a given population, just like viruses do. Good stuff. www dot thegodvirus dot net.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  13. Apocatequil

    Man, I can't stand brainwash cults...they go against my mainstream Protestant (sensible) beliefs.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
    • hehe101

      same with Jewish beliefs.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  14. tom

    How about instead of rethinking the word cult (and indirectly normalizing the word religion), let's rethink the word religion and place that, too, on a dustbin with the word cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  15. Brian

    All religions are cults.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  16. anotherone

    What is missing from his commentary is that there can be a good reason to call a group a "cult". It is the attribute that he associates with "deprogrammers":

    "Many of these young people were then forced to undergo a form of radical and coercive resocialization."

    There are coercive elements in many of these groups. Critical thinking is being discouraged, a leading figure is put above question and critics are attacked, sometimes to the point of illegal activity. There is a clear difference between mainstream christianity and groups such as those of Jim Jones and it's not just the popularity. It's the structure of the group and the aggressive elimination of any internal dissent. There's a different between a normal religious group and a totalitarian group in which a person or a group of persons uses the guise of religion to exert their power without respecting limitations found in common human decency.

    Some groups, however should probably not be characterized as a "cult" first and foremost, as that is too harmless a word to describe them, even if it's true. For example, the Church of Scientology. It should be characterized as a criminal organization instead and treated accordingly. It finally needs to be held accountable and its tax exempt status needs to be removed.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • phred

      .....as long as you strip tax exemption from the Catholic Church first, which has an actual history of criminal activity and protecting known guilty parties from the law. Scientology may be weird, but it has not engaged in wholesale crime to the same degree.

      April 17, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Canadain

    The only difference between a cult and Religion is the number of followers.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • twiddly

      Yep, in a nutshell!!!

      April 17, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  18. faye

    the Branch Davidians were led by a man that slept with girls as young as 12. He was allowed to sleep with any woman in their "religious" group, no questions asked. If this isn't a cult, then what is?

    April 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • twiddly

      Well, since you asked.
      Any and all organized religions are cults. The congregations willingly brainwash their children into the faith.

      Think about why you believe what you believe. If you'd been born in another country, another culture, you'd likely have different beliefs. How then, can the random belief system you were brainwashed into be the one true religion? This is the problem with every religion.

      April 17, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
    • hehe101

      twiddly, not Judaism. Okay, maybe some of the more strict branches but not Reform, Reconstruction ,or Humanistic. Especially Humanistic.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  19. Consultofactus

    My girlfriend has a cute name for her...whoops, my bad, this is about cuLt

    April 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • twiddly

      Let me guess – Little Big Horn?

      April 17, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Ben Dover

    What's to rethink? David Koresh was a pedophile, liar, cult leader. Our govt. screwed up royally when they could've arrested him in town but they wanted to engage in a firefight and kills 90+ people, which they did, then tried to blame everyone but their own stupidity for the actions. Go figure.

    April 17, 2011 at 4:20 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.