The phrase "New Religious Movement" has been used as a substitute for the word "cult" by many scholars who profess a scholarly objectivity toward the issue. I intend to examine this phrase and enumerate its shortcomings. To do this, one first must look at the word it is intended to replace, "cult." This word is itself a conundrum, as I will show.
The 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines "cult" in this manner:
Cult (k?lt) n .[F. culte, L. cultus care, culture, fr. colere to cultivate. Cf. Cultus.]
1. Attentive care; homage; worship. Every one is convinced of the reality of a better self, and of. the cult or homage which is due to it. - Shaftesbury
2. A system of religious belief and worship. That which was the religion of Moses is the ceremonial or cult of the religion of Christ. -- Coleridge
Webster's definition is the definition of the root word "cult" which has in recent decades collected an astonishing baggage of definitions, meanings and connotations. The strength and usefulness of the Webster's dictionary is found in its strict adherence to the denotation of a word, for one can get close to the core of a word's meaning and thus separate it from connotations.
The Webster definition remains unaltered today, even using the same quotations as its source.
Another dictionary, the Merriam-Webster, defines "cult" in this manner:
Main Entry: cult
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: French & Latin; French culte, from Latin cultus care,
adoration, from colere to cultivate -- more at
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 <health cults>
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 : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
This definition subsumes the 1913 definition, but further entries indicate what the word "cult" connotes in standard American usage. The word "cult" carries mountains of connotations, from the images of slaughtered men, women and children at Jonestown, to the impression of a movie with a small but devoted following.
The most recent cult catastrophe is now one of those impressions which slowly alter the meaning of a word, and being fresh in the minds of people, will probably evoke the image of thirty-nine identical corpses identically draped in identical cloths, on rows of identical beds, dead from identical doses of poison.
Events such as these change the meaning of a word by a gradual process of accretion, and of wearing away of old meanings, making the process of definition a slow process of deconstruction.
The word "cult" as used in mass society is, however, not the meaning of the word "cult" as used by cult experts, or of the word "cult" as used by behavioral psychologists, or of the word "cult" in religious history. However, by comparing the 1913 Webster definition to the more detailed Merriam-Webster definition, one can see that the impressions of numerous scholars, as well as news media, have added connotations to the word "cult" which do not exist in the root word.
The work of Lifton, Singer, Hassan and the others has spread incompletely to mass society, divested of the notion of mind-control to the extent that it is not even in the dictionary. However, the notion of "mind-control" is almost immediately brought up in any discussion of cults, with the concomitant fierce division of opinion concerning the reality of the phenomenon.
The first reaction upon viewing such a shocking tableau of apparent insanity is to dehumanize the victims and even to say that such people deserve to die. Even an amateur cult observer will recognize this stereotyped reaction, repeated with every cult catastrophe, as nothing more complex than a thought-stopping technique intended to quell the cognitive dissonance created by evidence that strongly points to the falsehood of cherished Western delusions of free will and self-determination.
When one asks how a cult leader can kill with words as surely as with a weapon, one may as well ask a number of other questions as well. How do astrologers infest every newspaper in the country like the common cold of cult delusion? How did American leaders gull an ignorant nation into a foolish and destructive "war on drugs" which ignores medical facts, common sense and even the obvious empowerment of the black market? How do gangs get people to kill and die for a few blocks of a ravaged slum? How do world leaders convince the population that the way to peace is to build enough weapons to destroy the planet, then point them at each other?
Delusion and ludicrous belief systems are not a cult phenomenon, but a phenomenon of the larger society as well, but what makes a "cult" a "cult" and separates it from other groups? While an exhaustive examination of this issue is beyond the scope of this essay, I propose for the purposes of this essay to define a cult in this manner:
A cult is a group with an authoritarian structure and established, rote methods for stopping thoughts, which centers to the exclusion of other activities on the goals and desires of the group's leader or leaders.
This separates cults from "normal" religions, political affiliations, and belief systems which, although perhaps sharing many of the aspects of a cult, do not harmfully interfere with the lives of their members.
I feel that this use of the word "cult" makes a meaningful and useful distinction between harmless and harmful groups, that it clearly and without ambiguity defines a phenomenon which deserves to have a word which can be used to convey the notion of such groups.
In short, I believe after long thought and much examination of the issue that the word "cult" is a perfectly good word, and does not need to be replaced.
That said, I will now look at the issue of the specific substitution of the phrase "New Religious Movement" for "cult."
The term "New" is fairly easy to analyze. It denotes recently-formed groups, usually with leaders who are still alive. It carries to most people an impression of "New Age" groups and other recent phenomena such as the recent consideration given to many people of nontraditional and non-Western belief systems, such as the rise of Eastern mysticism among Americans. With the word "New," the phrase implies that there is something which separates religious movements and cults which are recent from those which have existed for some time.
I do not believe this to be the case. Except for the improvement of methods used in controlling members and the increasing sophistication of public-relations techniques used to sell belief systems, I do not believe there is anything fundamentally different between religious movements which have formed in the last ten, twenty, or thirty years. I do not believe that such groups have changed in the general structures of their belief system.
Further, the word "New" appears to define a group of religious movements as being "New" or being "Old" and creates a specific impression concerning groups such as the Moonies, the Church of Scientology, the Christian Coalition, the loosely-affiliated and loosely-structured congregations of those who share Eastern religious beliefs, new denominations of established religions, the Hare Krishnas, and any religious movement which is "New."
The impression created is that there is something in these groups' novelty that separates them from other groups, and further that these groups have a shared distinction that makes it meaningful to speak of "New Religious Movements."
I find that the word "New" not only creates a useless and meaningless distinction between groups based on their novelty, but indeed also destroys a useful and meaningful distinction between groups which use destructive methods and groups which do not. Thus, the first word of the phrase just by itself damns the phrase to uselessness and obfuscation, by what it denotes and by what connotations it carries.
A similar use of the word "New" could be imagined in the case of the phrase "political movements." The word "cult" captures religious, political and other groups which use similar methods, but imagine for a moment that there were a word similar to "cult" which carried the same connotations toward political groups as "cult" in common usage carries toward religious groups, and defined a set which would include the Nazis, the Larouche organization, the Communist Party and similar groups. Now, imagine that someone created the phrase "New Political Movement" to avoid saying this word, in the same manner as the phrase "New Religious Movement" is used to avoid saying "cult." This new phrase would create a meaningless distinction, and would lump such groups as the LaRouche organization, the ACLU, the Christian Coalition, the Green Party, and Earth First! into a useless category.
It can be argued, however, that the word "New" does, indeed, add a useful distinction in that it refers to the stage of development of religious movements. However, considering that it is lumping together cults, denominations, loosely-affiliated networks of people with similar beliefs, and other groups which are tenuously related at best. A loosely-affiliated group and a cult do not necessarily go through the same stages of development, and certainly the culmination of cult catastrophes is a result of forces within the group which existed from its very formation. Those forces of enforced conformity, closure and confrontation simply do not exist in any comparable way in organizations simply based on their novelty. To pretend otherwise is to be a fool.
The second word of the phrase is "Religious." This limits the phrase's scope and again, destroys a functional distinction between groups which share nearly identical methods, nearly identical thought-stopping contradictions in their doctrines, and nearly identical methods of recruitment and expansion. Further, it also creates the false impression that religious belief is a defining characteristic of a motley set of groups, a set which is also defined by novelty, and uselessly links a set of disparate groups based on irrelevant and arbitrary criteria.
The word "Religious" also carries connotations which cause the person seeing it to think of many things: churches, clergy, charitable acts, noble self-sacrifice, freedom of belief and action, the right to free assembly, one's notion of God, hierarchies, tax-exemption, martyrdom, persecution, holy wars, the separation of church and state being merely a smattering of the vast quantity of impressions and beliefs this word almost instantly evokes.
The word "Religious" almost immediately causes many people to develop a positive impression of the set of groups to which it is applied, as the good connotations of the word "Religious" cause good impressions of religion in general to be transferred by proxy to anything described as a "New Religious Movement." To describe something as a "New Religious Movement" is to look at the phenomenon through a stained glass window.
Once an organization is defined as "Religious," other aspects of the organization are diminished in importance, and notions of freedom of religion are extended to cover such movements, regardless of their written doctrines, their documented behavior, and their methods of recruitment and expansion. The very use of the phrase destroys objectivity and makes a mockery of any attempt to understand the issue based on the notion that there are "Movements" which are "Religious" and "New," and that the modifiers "New" and "Religious" are meaningfully distinguishing between "New" and "Old" movements and "Religious" and "Secular" groups.
A similar phrase, which should define a useful set if the method of generation for the phrase "New Religious Movement" creates useful additions to the English language, would be "Old Secular Movement." It is obvious that this phrase is ludicrous and useless, once the impressions of religiosity are removed from a semantic analysis of the meaningfulness of a phrase containing the word "Religion."
The words "New" and "Religious" are both useless modifiers which do not add any understanding, and which do not define anything worth defining.
The last word, and the core word of the phrase, is "Movement." The word "Movement" also implies many things, and as with "New" and "Religious" it carries positive connotations. The phrase "Movement" is applied to any number of phenomena, from burning draft cards to joining the ACLU to founding a group to oppose medical research on animals. A connotation of the phrase "Movement" is of a spontaneous decision based on knowledge that there are others sharing a belief, and tends to create the impression of a loose coalition of individuals acting toward a common goal.
It is obvious that a deliberate and deceptive recruitment process is precisely the opposite of a "Movement" as the word is commonly-used. Further, the word "Movement" when applied equally to loosely-organized grass-roots social activism and to organizations which are based on an authoritarian structure that quells dissent is sloppy to say the least.
As with "New" and "Religious," the word "Movement" carries a mass of positive impressions and implies that there is something positive and spontaneous about being recruited into a cult, and that this process is similar to the process by which someone takes action simultaneously with others based on their preexisting beliefs and knowledge.
Obviously, these two processes are widely divergent, and confusing them with each other, implies strongly that a high-pressure recruitment by "love bombing" and modern sales techniques, a spontaneous decision to burn a draft card in protest, and writing a letter to one's congressman at the suggestion of others are all basically the same thing.
This is clearly delusional, and flies in the face of reason. To pretend that this sort of redefinition of words, creation of obfuscating euphemisms and ignorance of fact represents "objectivity" is to redefine "objectivity" and to insult any notions of a scientific appraisal of issues of fact.
It is to abuse the English language, to abuse one's readers, and to coddle dangerous delusions while masquerading as an objective examiner. It is to falsely conflate different things, while creating pointless and nonexistent distinctions between things which are not different.
There is a difference between objectively examining an issue from all sides, rejecting delusional beliefs from all parties, then presenting the factual issues concerning a controversy with no animus toward either side; and accepting the public statements of deceptive groups as the truth, minimizing even the most glaring examples of wrongdoing by a group, ignoring the group's written policies, then slapping deceptive, obfuscatory labels on everything in sight to avoid offending anyone with the truth.
I would place this line at the use of the phrase "New Religious Movement" rather than "cult."
I have demonstrated that the word "cult" is a valid term to apply to high-pressure groups, and that the word can be used accurately to refer to a number of groups, not all of which are "New," "Religious" or "Movements." I have further demonstrated that the category created
by the use of the word "cult" does, in fact, represent a phenomenon deserving of a word.
I have also demonstrated that every word in the phrase "New Religious Movement" not only fails to describe any recognizable phenomenon in a meaningful way, but that each word, individually and in concert, takes away meaning, destroys useful distinctions, and creates a proliferation of false impressions. Those who use the phrase "New Religious Movement" are more likely to dismiss any wrongdoing by cults, to minimize the responsibility of the cult leader, and to ignore secular aspects of "Religious" organizations which are of great interest and importance.
The tendency to do this is rooted in the very use of the phrase. Those who think of cults as "New Religious Movements" are defying reality, engaging in semantic pollution, and deluding themselves and others. The phrase insults legitimate religion while fraudulently ascribing to cults the good aspects of "normal" religious groups, political associations and mass movements.
I find those who will calmly and "objectively" talk about cults to be similar to someone who watches someone being knifed to death without doing anything but taking notes, analyzing the trajectory of the knife and the techniques of the killer, then ignoring the moral issues of murder and the sin involved in standing by idly, while criticizing anyone who attempts to stop the murderer as a biased fanatic.
Copyright © 1997 Robert W. Clark
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