Question: What is a cult?
Answer: It is important to understand that the negative connotation currently associated with the term cult is a very new definition, and that before that cult did not mean anything averse. The majority of all cults that have existed are not dangerous, or negative, indeed most are benign and even beneficial.
So what is a cult?
A cult is defined within Webster's as, “. . . Etymology French & Latin; French “culte”, from Latin “cultus” meaning care, adoration, from “colere” to cultivate. Dated 1617 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 ( film or book cults ); such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion. . .”
In essence any group of individuals who adore or adhere to a specific practice, a fascination, or an interest are involved in some form of a cult per se, so the inquiry what is a “cult” is a very complex and difficult answer to give.
It is possible that psychologically, the nature of the cultic “re-action” (or process) is inherent within all individuals, within all of us, and correspondingly within the psychology of any group dynamic as well.
So even though the term is currently used to refer in a religious or spiritual context, its actual meaning is significantly broader, and as such one can easily stipulate that there are as many non-religious cults as there are religious, and most likely more so.
For the sake of simplicity when I refer to the term “cult” from this point forward I will be using its religious or spiritual context, the context that the public and media often associate to it.
People generally assume the term cult has a negative meaning, but that has been true only very recently, for it must be recognized that a cult can be both good or bad.
An example of the difficulty in defining what is a cult (or what is a good or bad cult) is in the example of the initial followers of Jesus the Nazarene who, by the Webster's definition above, were a small group of Jews involved in a Messianic sect of Judaism. They were members of a very small but dangerous “cult” (as far as the established Pharisees, and Sadduceeian Jews of that time were concerned).
From that example one can recognize the inherent difficulty in making judgements about any spiritual or religious process (or group), and the danger in making the assumption about any groups over all value, especially in a larger historical sense.
On the other hand it is true that some organizations have been created by well meaning (but wisdom limited) individuals who claimed or sought a spiritual practice which they were not truly mature to.
Also there are those few unscrupulous individuals who design groups to “fleece” their members of property and / or emotional commitment, . . .something like Amway (smile).
However having said that, all groups of such a limited or negative “type” are generally recognized early within their existence, and do not survive into the larger test of time.
Some Christian organizations within the public mind have become the most dangerous of all the cults in the late 20th century, and it is important to note that many religious or spiritual groups were often designated a “cult” only in the glare of 20/20 media hindsight, but were perfectly acceptable initially, a.k.a. Jim Jones is a prime example.
One if the issues revolving around defining a cult is the tendency for individuals seek some specific psychological marker or a smoking gun that can easily determine an uncertain cult from a beneficial one, when in reality their are no objective or quantifiable determinations that can make such a disctinction, and this is because poor (or limited) cults often appear exactly as a valid or beneficial cult.
Like the freedom of speech, where individuals have the right to say that which others vehemently disagree with, it may be just as true that valid and limited cults must exist side by side with valid and valuable ones to ensure the freedom of all religious practice as a whole.
The idea that good and bad cults should have the right to exist comes from the concept that spirituality or religion is a living process, changing, updated and renewed with each living spiritual teacher, or succeeding generation, and within the language and culture as a whole.
For example a practicing christian of the early 300 AD would have no understanding of the development and disintegration of the Christian Church over the course of 1700 years.
There is a plethora of groups and organizations that cater to individuals who have determined their victimization by one cult or another, or even by established religious methodologies, however from a measurable psychological perspective the reasoning (and the motivations) any individual may have for joining a religion or group are as similar as one gives for adopting Judaism or Christianity, or Soccer for that matter.
Currently in the media there is an almost an inordinate amount of information regarding the empirical experiences of specific individuals regarding one group or another, and though some personal narratives are horrific, it can be seen that the vast majority of these negative experiences deal with issues of either a). conflict regarding personal independence and or disciplines, b). and / or aspects of sexual activity (or the denial thereof and c). money.
However the same aspects can be said for any study done of individuals in “families” where some of the greatest victimization of the individual will, either in money, discipline, power, or in sexuality are performed by one family member upon another, so by this narrow definition one could count the Family as one of the largest negative “cults” in our society.
Also the degree and definition of “victimization” has not been determined methodically, or quantitatively, meaning that within any group there are always a certain percentage of individuals who will determine that they are victims, i.e.; Taxpayers, Sports Fans, Hari Krishna, Christians, Sewing Circles, etc., and that some argument can be made that the more investigative a specific group is, [ radical teachings, or unusual philosophical purpose or ethics ], the greater this percentage of dissatisfied individuals or “victims” there may appear.
The problem here is that there is no quantifiable tools that can be used to make the distinctions between a bad or a good cult, nor are there any known quantifiable parameters that define just what is or is not a cult, . . . meaning in simple terms that one man's cult is another man's home spun religion.
Some work has been done by individuals writers to make such distinctions, but depending upon who you read, everything from Doll collecting to the Catholic religion can be defined as a “cult”, or on the contrary argument no group can be defined as a “cult” as all such organization are equally valid until proven otherwise.
I can say from my own very limited, and wholly individualistic experiences, that by and large, and in the main, valid spiritual groups tend to be difficult to join and easy to leave, whereas invalid spiritual cults tend to be easy to join and difficult to leave, but there is of course an infinite number of variations within this generalization.
The interesting fact is that all the current accepted and conventional religious institutions existing today began as a cult in their own time.
This is especially true of those apostolic Jewish and Gentiles ( God-Fearers ) who became the followers of spiritual teacher called Jesus the Nazarene were to the existing Jews, just as this was true of the Essenes, or of Buddhism when it arrived within Tibet, and China, and Japan, or of the early Lutherans to the existing Roman Catholics, etc.
Each previously existing belief methodology and their conservative thinkers considered the emerging belief system to be a “cult”, and even dangerous, so the reality is that today's cult could become tomorrows established religion.
To make a determination as to what is or is not a cult will require the understanding of all of our a priori and our a posteriori suppositions about what is a religion, or spirituality, what do you mean by God, before it is possible to begin collecting any information about what a cult “is”.
It is one's existing and prior assumptive stance which will determine how one defines what is, or is not, a negative cult.
I hope that this was helpful,
"Valid spiritual groups tend to be difficult to join and easy to leave, whereas invalid spiritual cults tend to be easy to join and difficult to leave".