Why No One Should Ever Use the Word "Cult"

And now for something different: A skeptic defends cults.

Posted Jul 18, 2016

We all know what a cult is, right? It’s one of those weird organizations founded on crazy ideas. It also may be exploitative or dangerous.

But wait, something’s not quite right here. If we step back and take an honest look at how this label is applied, it’s plain to see that nothing more than popularity and power separate cults from “normal” religions.

The application of this term is prejudice in practice. The vast canyon of meaning that people imagine exists between cults and religions is not there. It is a fabrication of sloppy thinking.

One should not have too much difficulty recognizing “cult” as an unsavory stealth word with an unjust mission. This is verbalized bullying that demeans less popular groups and distances them from more popular groups. Labeling a group a cult is a cowardly way of tolerating, condoning, appeasing, or promoting favored religions while simultaneously rejecting and disparaging a minority religion.

A religion’s conduct, safety, and validity of claims mean nothing when it comes to determining who gets slapped with the “cult” smear. Only the length of membership rolls and political/economic/social influence count.

People argue that some groups deserve the cult insult because of their potential danger to members and/or others. But how does this make “cults” special when the world’s most widely respected religions have helped cause and inspire hate, violence, and destruction on a massive scale for centuries and still do today to a significant degree?

Some groups tagged as cults are dangerous but this does not make them unique, not when one considers what “real” religions can do: The Crusades (one to three million dead), the Inquisition (unknown thousands tortured, executed), French Catholic/Protestant wars (two to four million dead) the Thirty Years War (three to eleven million dead), Taiping Rebellion (20 to 30 million dead), the Sudanese Civil War (one to two million dead), India’s Hindu vs. Muslim riots (thousands dead), and contemporary terrorism tied to mainstream religions (thousands dead). Deaths linked to classic “cults” such as the People’s Temple (918 dead) and Heaven’s Gate (39 dead) become minuscule, or statistically insignificant, when compared with the oceans of blood associated with popular and respected religions.

Another common but erroneous belief is that some groups earn the cult stigmatization because they push unusual and unproven claims. Again, how is this different from the larger, respected religions?

When Christians, Muslims, or Hindus make extraordinary claims that are unconfirmed by evidence, the most common reactions are agreeable nods or respectful silence. When followers of a fringe group promote odd ideas without evidence, however, everyone turns into a world-class skeptic and starts channeling Carl Sagan. Suddenly, an unquenchable thirst for evidence and an appreciation for the scientific method pop up.

But what sense does it make to accept or respect various claims of gods, miracles, answered prayers, and an afterlife put forth by contradictory mainstream religions and then scoff at Lord Xenu and the thetans of Scientology? What exactly is the difference in the quantity and quality of scientifically verified evidence for any of this stuff?

“Cult” is just another sleazy slur word. It provides a counterfeit confidence that enables people to feel good about their own questionable beliefs and group memberships. Please see it for what it is — a mean-spirited label unfairly applied. In principle, using it in either serious writing or in casual conservation is little different than using pejorative terms to describe gender, sexuality, or racial identity.

All people who strive to be accurate and fair when communicating should jettison “cult” from their vocabulary. It is not difficult to function without it. Should one need to identify an unpopular or potentially dangerous organization, describing it as “unpopular” or “potentially dangerous” works just fine.

Guy P. Harrison is the author of six books, including 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God and 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian