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. Curiousgeorge

    The only difference between a "cult" and a "recognized religion" is popularity. All religions are, by definition, irrational and exclusionary. They both appeal to the same type of people.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  2. Freethinksman

    You say "cult". I say "religion". They are just two different names for the same thing. It's a shame people try to separate them and give one more credence than the other. They are both terms for people willfully abdicating responsibility for their actions, and giving someone/ something else credit for their successes. Using the Poplarity Contest model to decide what is legitimate religion versus cult is as childish as faith in the supernatural itself. Zeus, Jesus, Thor, Whatever. Grow up, people.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  3. taxed

    So what is the politically correct word for "cult"?"

    April 17, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • ShiningLight


      April 17, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  4. Grey

    Except he failed to mention how child endangerment, abuse, underage marriages and manipulations within these movements often play a role in the need for intervention by the government, and in public perception that can lead to aversion and labeling of the movement as a cult.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  5. give your head a shake

    In my view, the term "cult" isn't used frequently enough–should also apply to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Gary

      I don't have a problem with your liberty to apply the word Cult but you must also understand that Elite Atheism can also be cultish especially when it is get's into politics it loses control and can kill millions without a conscious like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  6. Jeff

    Here is a religion that should be labeled a cult: ISLAM. I have never seen the word cult used in reference to this dangerous and hateful religion, why is that? It fits the definition of a cult more then many of the others that were referenced in this article. ISLAM begins the brainwashing from birth, and it continues until death. Death may come from old age, or it may come from being killed when a person rejects the cult. ISLAM doesn't care as long as the cult continues. ISLAM is a cult that needs to be cut out like a sore on the human body, using whatever means are available. We will see if this post makes it past the censors.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  7. ShiningLight

    Most religions are cult-like - designed to take advantage of, and control, gullible "believers". Created by humans, for humans, to oppress humans, and extract their wealth from humans. They have nothing to do with spirituality, except as a deceptive afterthought.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  8. Brucie

    The author objects to the negative connotation of the word "cult." Unfortunately the deluded followers of all religious and ideological systems often have enormous political power and with their inherent distortion of reality, they often make bad policies. Just look at Southern Baptists, Communists, Catholic Church.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  9. Dr Bill Toth

    Words can make us laugh or make us cry. They can offer hope or destroy ambition. They can wound, heal, and express noble intentions or deepest desires. They are our thoughts made into sounds, our beliefs made tangible. They impact our behavior and direct our destiny. And both "good" and "evil" leaders know full well how to use words like "cult" to further their agenda.

    The meaning we assign to the words we use to describe our daily experiences ultimately determines the richness of our existence. Words create a biochemical effect in our nervous systems and therefore literally become our experience of life. Simultaneously, Life’s experiences can change the meaning of any word.

    Ultimately we choose the meanings we assign to the words we habitually use and especially those we hear. Positive or negative is our interpetation. Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

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

      I was in Mexico, practicing my limited Spanish, and a comedian had the crowd rolling in laughter. But those same words had virtually no effect on me, as I was busy "translating". So, its no tthe words...more like its the ideas, context, tone, etc.. Sorry to burst your Bubble Mr. Bill. ("Oh, no!")

      April 17, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  10. Lou Cifer

    Cults or religion, if you are undermining or manipulating people then it should be shut down.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  11. NotBrainWashed

    Quite honestly, all religions are cults, and their more adamant supporters are all brainwashed. How else to explain the "indoctrination" process that starts almost at birth especially in the "established" religions that god did this, god made that, god is looking over you, etc? And then the mass killing done in the name of god throughout history, Invisible friend indeed.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Gary

      Don't ignore your Atheist Elites who killed millions too: Stalin 20 Million. Mao 30 Million, Pol Pot 2 million. Atheism isn't for the powerful, only the week minded.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • hehe101

      honey, not all atheists are communists, or dictators, or creepy murders, or bigots towards religion. Some are Jewish moderates who lean closer to left who immigrated to the US from Canada, had a daughter, then a son, and are now living in the most religious part of the country. Smack in the middle of Georgia. Yeah, I'm talking about my dad. He certainly isn't a Stalin. On a different note, all the dictators during WWII had cool facial hair. Hitler, Mussolinni (I know I spelled it wrong.), Hiro (is there more to his name?), and Stalin all had some.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  12. Bman

    Definition of a cult. Group of people controlled by one individual for the purpose of impregnating as many women of child bearing age as possible all under the guise of religion.
    Branch Davidians fit the definition. End of story.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  13. Meat Puppet

    Pay no attention to the shills on this Board - d-bags all of them

    April 17, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • free2do

      Lemmings and shills..... Lemmings and shills, I'll keep on swallowing those faux news pills.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  14. Brad

    Why would using the word cult more sparingly help our society? To me, Christians use the word cult to dismiss any religion group that has a bad wrap in order to protect their good name. If we didn't have the word cult, we would just have to accept the fact that some Christian groups are corrupt and some Christians are bad – who wants to accept that.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  15. Owl

    Time has taken its toll on Dr Richardson's memory. OR – Dr Richardson prefers to believe, and no doubt teach, that there is little distinction between a cult and a 'new' religion. Careful doctor, you are either knowingly rewriting definitions or you are ready to join a cult yourself. I suspect that no matter which is true you do not need to be teaching, and niether should you be accepted as a respectable scholar. Your research is sorely lacking when it comes to the Branch Davidians, and David Koresh, the delusional demagogue qua pedophile. Post Script: CNN, the National Enquirer of cable TV, is history to most thinking people today, precisely because of articles like this one.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • tom

      Owl, I get it Koresh bad. Needed killing. Did all those kids, who had NO CHOICE need killing too? The FACT is, the federal government jack-booted THUGS killed a bunch of people when the sheriff of that county could have done what he had ALREADY done twice before & brought Koresh out. No need for those kids to DIE, at janet reno's orders. We have left America behind to become what we profess to hate.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  16. steve

    Redefine the word "cult" to include Islam.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Why are the messages on this Board so dijointed

      Did CNN delete a bunch of messages on this Board? I'm trying to follow the comments and none of them make sense. What is AXES? Perhaps CNN shouldn't censor so much. Seriously. What happened to free speech. Obviously doesn't exist on the CNN Board. Shameful.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • hehe101


      April 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  17. Gumby

    Why don't we just cut to the chase and be honest? ALL religions are cults. The only difference is that when a cult gains a large number of cult members and lasts a while, it is re-termed a "religion".

    April 17, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Fuyuko

      Very true. good post.

      April 17, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  18. someoneelse

    The only true difference between a cult and a religion is popular support. The sooner all cults are gone from the Earth the better off we will ALL be. And no, I am not saying violence, as that never works. Education on the other hand is working quite well against the Jesus cult here in the West luckily.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Gary

      Atheism can be "cultish also". They speak as though they have "proof" there is no God when they really don't. They make you think that if the whole world where rid of religious belief that it would be a great place to live. Well, in order to do this you would have to destroy all people of believes, archeology, books, art, , everything under the sea which is really imposible and absurd. Also, look at Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot who killed millions and they where atheist elites.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Gumby

      Gary, your statement that atheists talk as if they have proof of the nonexistence of God is simply wrong. You'd be hard-pressed to find an atheist who says that. Atheism simply is a non-belief in gods due to a complete lack of evidence of the existence of gods. And people like Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot may have been atheists, they did not slaughter millions in the name of atheism. They slaughtered because they were brutal totalitarian dictators. Stop with the overused, simplistic and inaccurate smear propaganda, please – you only show how desperate theists can get when they try to defend their religions.

      April 17, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • Gary

      Gumby, You seemed confused. Theism is the belief that there is atleast one God. Atheism is the rejection of Theism i.e. that there is even one God. Agnosticism is the belief that you are refering to which believes there is no proof of atheism or theism. If an atheist where a totalarian then the political system which was run would be of atheist rule or an ideology against any form of theism. Since Stalin was atheist his totalarian government rejected anything but his ideology which led millions to their death. It was not totaltarianism that killed as totalarianism is the effect of the atheist leaders ideology. If you find this overused then I appologise but I don't find reminding those of history overused. Try not to be so robotic in your arguments and you may find your own style.

      April 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • hehe101

      I'm not an atheist, but I don't believe in God, Adoni, Allah, Zeus, Mars, Osiris, Anubis, etc. How can this be? There are levels (I call them this, cause that's what they are) of Judaism that do not base our services on Adoni. We are mainly non-believers (as in a god of come kind). So there's an end to your argument. Thank you for coming to CNN, they let correspondents stay at great hotels and have a cool place in ATL. Good bye, see you tomorrow. Drive carefully.

      April 28, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
  19. Willow

    This article is way too "PC". I suppose CNN now does not want to use the "cult" word in regards to ANY religion. Shame on them for not wanting to report the truth.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  20. Joe

    A lot of people would call the government a cult. Just a really big one.

    April 17, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Cults = CNN D-Bags

      Why does CNN promote these stupid articles? Answer: Becuase they are the most Liberal news source on planet Earth

      April 17, 2011 at 9:42 am |
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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.