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what is a cult?

December 15, 2013

1, Let me say that this post is likely to offend some people.

2. I received an excellent comment from a Mormon reader,  who pointed out some things I got wrong in this post. See the bottom of this entry for the comment.

3. Damn, I really am ignorant about some things. Live and learn.


I’ve spent lots of time studying several of the world’s religions. I was a conservative Protestant for over 20 years. After leaving that faith, I studied mostly Buddhism in various forms, but also read about Wicca and other forms of Paganism, and Taoism. I’ve read very little about Hinduism or Islam. What I’ve learned about Judaism comes from studying what Christians call the Old Testament. I am not at all knowledgeable about modern Judaism.

There are other faiths out there I have not given much attention to, such as the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientology, for example.

As I’ve wandered through my readings and investigations, I have noticed that some religious people say other religious people are members of cults. I started giving serious thought to what makes a religion a cult.

Here is a set of definitions from This website incorporates definitions from both the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries:

(I did not insert the links, I just cut and pasted.. this is how it came out).


[kuhlt] Show IPA



a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies.

an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.

the object of such devotion.

a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.

Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.

a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.

the members of such a religion or sect.

any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
Hmm.. definitions 1-5 and 7  don’t sound at all sinister, and can be applied to any religion.
Definition 6 is used is often used by members of one religious group to define all others.
Let’s try Wikipedia.. just the first couple paragraphs..

“A cult is an organization with deviant and novel beliefs and practices.[1] However, whether any particular organization’s beliefs are deviant or sufficiently novel is often without a clear or consistent definition.[2][3]

The term ‘cult’ was originally used to describe a group of people who worshiped a deity. The term was first used in the early 17th century denoting homage paid to a deity and borrowed via the French culte from Latin cultus (worship), from the adjective cultus (inhabited, cultivated, worshiped), derived from the verb colere (care, cultivate).[4] Today the term often carries derogatory connotations[5][6] and is used selectively by proponents of “brainwashing” theory.”

     “Deviant and novel.” Hmm.. There was a point in the history of humanity when there appeared on the world’s stage a man named Jesus Christ. As can be clearly understood by reading the Bible, the teachings of Christ were not always welcome. Christ and his teachings were often considered both deviant and novel.
Go back in history something like 500 years before the birth of Christ and you will find Buddha. Buddha was originally known as Siddhartha Gautama. “Buddha,” like “Christ,” is a title, not a name. “Buddha” is sometimes interpreted as “enlightened,” or “the one who woke up.”
    Siddhartha was from a Hindu culture, and reformed Hinduism with his teachings, just as Christ was a Jew, and reformed Judaism with his teachings. The result of the teachings of these men and the spreading of these teachings by their disciples? Two of the world’s five largest religions.
     It could be said that both Buddhism and Christianity started as cults. Both religious movements are centered around veneration for a person and that person’s teachings. The teachings of the leaders of both movements were once considered deviant and novel.
Is a religion just a cult that has been around long enough to gain millions of members, and therefore, respectability?
     Or, is there more to the word “cult” than the first set of definitions I provided? I won’t put the whole Wikipedia article here, because that would take up a lot of space, but it mentions some things most of us think of when we hear the word “cult,” especially if we hear that word on TV.
From the Wikipedia article..
“Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a “cult” as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members.”
     Throughout the history of the world’s five largest religions, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, it is possible to find both clergy and laypersons who have manipulated, controlled and exploited people. Does that make these religions cults?
Is a member of one religious group justified in saying another religious group is, in reality, a cult?
     There was a Protestant Christian man named Walter Martin, who lived from 1928-89. He spent much time in his life writing and speaking about what he considered to be cults. He even wrote a book called “The Kingdom of the Cults.” In this book, he wrote that Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and those who attended Unitarian-Universalist churches were among those who were part of the kingdom of the cults.
     Seems odd to me that a man who is part of a religious movement that could be said started out as a cult,  was pointing figures at other people, claiming they were cultists. But, this is actually fairly common human behaviour, I am guessing. Consider my relatives..
     Almost all my relatives are Christians. When they get together, they sometimes enjoy talking very negatively about Mormons. We live in an area of the world where there are more Mormons per square mile than practically anywhere else. I live in Idaho. I’ve heard it said there are even more Mormons in Idaho per capita than there are in the state of Utah, where the Mormon church is based. Mormon churches are everywhere in Boise, the capital city of Idaho, and my relatives are sometimes bothered by this.
     I can’t sit and listen to the conversations my relatives have. It seems ridiculous to me. Some of my relatives are Protestant Christians, and some are former Protestants who converted to Catholicism. Fortunately, they all get along, and don’t argue about their two versions of Christianity.
     Protestantism is quite basic, generally. Catholicism is very complicated and mysterious. Catholics believe a lot of things that Protestants don’t. I find Protestant beliefs to be strange, even though I was raised with them. Catholic beliefs seem very strange to me.
     It feels quite odd and unpleasant to hear my mother and aunt, who believe that when a priest blesses a wafer and some wine, these items become the literal flesh and blood of a man who died over 2,ooo years ago, bash people who believe the teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church.
      It’s also hard for me to hear this from my brother and sister-in-law  – Protestants  – who believe a man was born of a virgin, rose from the dead and etc. I have to leave the room when this happens, even though, many years ago when I was a Protestant, I was happy to join in the discussion.
     Before I’ve left the room when these discussions have taken place, I have on occasion said,”None of you have a leg to stand on.” In other words.. “your beliefs are just as odd and nonsensical as those of the Mormons.” Fortunately for me, my comment is always just greeted with silence, not hostility. Even so, after I have submitted my comment, I  have taken my leave.
    Still.. I don’t really think of Protestant denominations or the Catholic Church as cults, and I do think of the Church of Latter Day Saints as a cult.
Part of it is the anti-Mormon bias I was raised with, but it goes beyond that. I’ll get into this in a bit.
    I came up with my own thoughts on what constitutes a cult. Here are the things I can think of right now. Some go along with the dictionary definition, and some go with what Wikipedia says.
1. Claim that the group’s truth is the only truth.
2. Claim that the group’s God and/or spiritual founder is the only legitimate one.
3. Control over people’s lives in terms of who they are allowed marry, socialize with, etc.
4. Intense proselytizing.
5. Control over money.
6. Having to report to a guru or other spiritual superior.
7. Control over sexuality.
8. Control over what people read, watch, etc.
9. Control over diet.
10. Secret rituals.
    Is it fair for me to label the Church of Latter Day Saints a cult, using my own criteria?
Let’s see..
    Christians, Muslims and Mormons believe theirs is the only true religion. Some Hindus and Buddhists believe this as well. I don’t know what Jews think. I’ve met very few Jews. Jews aren’t very common in most western parts of America.
     Most of my life was spent in a city in California.. a city full of immigrants from many many places. Here in Boise, ID, there is a small but growing refugee population. There are other people from overseas living here as well, because there are two large computer companies with campuses in the area. These companies attract workers from many parts of the world. Muslims and Hindus are more common here in Boise than Jews, as far as I can tell. I’d like to talk with more Jews. I’ve not had much opportunity as of yet.
   Getting back to what a cult is and isn’t and are Mormons part of a cult..
     Believing that one’s religion’s founder and/or god is the only true prophet, god, etc..  that is certainly not unique to Mormonism.  Judaism has Moses, Buddhism has Buddha, Christianity has Christ, Islam has Mohammed, and Mormonism has Joseph Smith. Hinduism is unusual in that it has no venerated founder.
      Marriage and socializing.. I think it is Mormon church law that Mormons marry Mormons.. spouses must convert. Catholics and Protestants are allowed to marry people who are not of the same faith. Jews? Probably. Buddhists.. as far as I know, yes, but Buddhism in Asia is not only religious but cultural. It’s possible there’d be a problem with the relatives if a woman or man brought home a potential spouse who was not a Buddhist. Hindus.. frankly I don’t know. I’m guessing Hindus believe in marrying other Hindus. Again.. religion is part of culture. This is true of all the religions. But some are stricter than others regarding many things, including marriage.
      What about ostracizing relatives and others who leave the faith? I have heard from former Mormons that LDS  folks (Latter Day Saints, also called Mormons) are encouraged to ostracize those who leave the church. Some Catholics and Protestants will also do this to people who leave, but I don’t think Protestants and Catholics are officially encouraged to do so. Often it’s quite the opposite. Muslims who convert to Christianity or other religions not only face ostracism, but can receive the death penalty in some countries. Jews who convert to another faith.. I’m guessing they are not ostracized, unless they convert to Islam, but I could be wrong. What about Hindus who leave? I don’t know. Buddhists? Depends on the culture of any Buddhist country, I suppose.
    Proselytizing.. Both Protestants and Catholics, in times past, were incredibly active in missionary work. Not so much anymore, but in the past, definitely. Muslims are still busy trying to make converts in Africa, or so I’ve heard from people I know who have lived recently in Africa. There were Buddhist missionaries who were quite busy many centuries ago. But the Mormons make a large effort even now. So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mormons are hardcore about spreading their faith, that’s for sure. But so are a few Christians out there.

    Control of money.. I have heard that the Mormon church demands that their members submit to their leaders their official proof of income paperwork to make sure they (the members)  have given the required amount of money to the church. Charitable donations sometimes are claimed as tax deductions, and show up on these records. At this point, I can only call this a rumor. My brother knows about a great many things, and he’s probably right about Mormons having to send in their tax statements or other paperwork. But, I do not know this for sure.
    Catholics and Protestants are encouraged to tithe ten percent of their income, but no one is required to submit tax records.  Muslims are required to give alms, but I doubt they have to send in tax documents.
     Having to report regularly to a spiritual superior... Catholics are required to confess their sins to a priest. Protestants are not required to do so. I do not know if Mormons are required to give an accounting of themselves on a regular basis. I am guessing they are not. I figure I’d have heard of this.
   Control over sexuality.. Protestants, Catholics and Mormons all are taught that sex must only be between a man and a woman, and that the man and woman must be married before they have sex. Other religions teach this too. A very common thing.
     Control over media.. I don’t know if Mormons are officially encouraged not to watch rated R movies, for example, or to avoid certain books. There is one book I’ve read a little of that Mormons are rumored to be encouraged to avoid. It is a biography of Joseph Smith, written by Fawn M. Brodie. Her book is called, “No Man Knows My History.” Other than that book, I am not aware of Mormon condemnation of any media.
   Some intense Protestants are strongly against certain movies, books etc. Catholics, going by what I’ve heard from Catholics I know, are more relaxed about entertainment.
    Pornography is a different matter. Many religions are against porn.  Porn is a part of sexuality, and considered to be immoral.
     Control over diet. Mormons are required to abstain from alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco. Protestants, with the exception of Seventh Day Adventists, are not handed down any dietary restrictions that I know of. Catholics were more strict about this, but now, it’s mostly just eat no meat on Fridays during the season of Lent.
     Hindus avoid beef. Muslims and Jews both avoid eating pork. Muslims avoid alcohol. Some Buddhists are vegetarian, but most aren’t. Dietary restrictions are fairly common, it seems.
      Secret rituals? None in Protestantism that I am aware of. Catholicism.. yeah, probably.. there are rituals priests and nuns go through that laypersons probably are not aware of. Are these rituals intentionally secret though? I don’t know.  I don’t know if Muslims, Jews, and Hindus have secret rituals. I’ve read that certain schools of Buddhism have secret mantras (chants) that are very powerful, and not taught to everyone. Hindus use mantras as well, and might also have the belief that not everyone should be taught certain mantras.. that some need to stay secret.
       Mormons keep their temples a secret. Their temples are large, ornate places, and are very different from neighborhood Mormon churches. Any non-Mormon can show up at a Mormon church and be allowed to enter and attend a service. Temples are a different matter. Temples are only open to the general public for a few days after the temples are first opened. There will be a new Mormon temple opening in a neighboring city next year. I’d like to take advantage of this rare opportunity, and tour a Mormon temple.
     There are secret doings in Mormon temples that Mormons aren’t supposed to talk about. But, it is well known that some Mormons get married in the temples, and that there is a ritual performed in the temples in which dead people are symbolically baptized and drafted into the Mormon church. This has created some controversy.
      So.. can I rightly say Mormonism is a cult? For me.. yes.. it is.. because it meets more of my criteria than other religions do. Mormons are more strict about marriage than some people in other faiths. Ostracism is encouraged. Mormons engage in intense proselytizing.  If my brother is right, Mormons take control over money. Like most religious people, Mormons are instructed about sexuality. Like many religious people, Mormons have rules about what they can ingest. Unlike most religious people, Mormons take part in secret rituals.
     I think Mormonism is more a cult than Catholicism or Islam, for example. But, I think Catholicism and Islam are more similar to cults than Protestant Christianity or certain forms of Buddhism. To a certain extent, it is a matter of perspective. One person’s cult is another’s religion.
       But, there are certain groups that most religious people, regardless of their faith, consider to be cults. One of these groups is The International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The members of this group are referred to as Hare Krishnas.
Why did I think of writing this post?
   There is one library branch in town that has cultural events every few months. The first one I attended was a few weeks ago. The culture of India was celebrated. The only Hindu temple out here that I know of is a Hare Krishna temple. The HK movement is a part of Hinduism, but the Hare Krishnas, who belong to an organization called The International Society of Krishna Consciousness, are considered by most Americans to be cultists, not average Hindus.
    I don’t know much about Hinduism, but I don’t think there are as many restrictions on life in the general practices of Hinduism as there are in the lives of Hare Krishnas. Here are some rules HK’s live by, according to Wikipedia:
  • No eating of meat (including fish) or eggs.
  • No illicit sex: only between married couples and only for the procreation of children; only at a prescribed time of month, with permission of the couple’s spiritual superior.[19]
  • No gambling.
  • No intoxication (including alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and other recreational drugs.[20]).

Those are some tough rules! No sex except for procreation, and HK’s even need permission for that?!!

Yeah.. this is a cult.

Also, Hare Krishas are also encouraged to proselytize, but are not so forceful about this as they were back in the ’80’s, when I was a kid. I used to see them around in parks and other public places, sporting shaved heads (except for a little tassle) and strange robes, beating drums, chanting, and passing out literature.

There were HK’s at the cultural presentation I went to. Most of them were from India, or of Indian descent, but the leader of the drum-banging and chanting was a young white guy in robes, sporting an odd haircut. Dude had a weird look in his eyes. I’m surprised no literature was passed out. Maybe that happened while I was in the bathroom, or checking on some paperwork in the back room of the library.

Even if no literature was passed around, all the attendees of the event were encouraged to join in the official Hare Krishna chant. Not cool. The HK’s should not have been so pushy. They should have said something like, “Please feel free to join in our chant. However, do not feel pressured to do so. If you feel uncomfortable chanting our mantra, then please do not chant. We will not hold it against you.”

I went along with this a little at first. I don’t believe in much of anything spiritual, and sort of have a vague, pantheistic viewpoint.. that God is not a being, a personal deity, but is made up of all things.. including chants.. so I chanted along a little. And, I like the Hindu teaching that all is part of a whole. Hindus have a saying, “That art thou.” Whatever you point to, it is you, you are it, everything is one. Also, I’ve been working on a Hindu mantra, not because I’m a Hindu, but I believe that mantra meditation in general is healthy. Science has proved this to be true (I saw this on a well-respected documentary.. of course, I’ve forgotten the title of it.. but I’ve read it here and there too),  and so.. why not.

But.. I don’t believe in any particular god, including Krishna, who the HK’s worship. The chanting and drum-banging went on for over five minutes, and I started to become rather annoyed. It seemed quite presumptuous that these people showed up at a secular place and expected us to chant to their god. If a Christian tried to lead a prayer at a cultural event in a library, there’d be outrage. I don’t think Hare Krishnas should get a free pass.

Hare Krishnas believe their god is the one true god, their prophet is the true prophet, they have to report to a spiritual superior, they have a restricted diet, their sexuality is quite controlled (yikes), they engage in intense proselytizing.. I think the International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a cult.

It was this contact with Hare Krishnas that got me thinking again about cults. Why that popped into my head just a little bit ago.. I don’t know. I was planning on reading about the HK’s, and that’s what I decided to do this evening. Before I got very far into the Wikipedia article, I started thinking…

What is a cult?

Right then.. here is the helpful comment from a Mormon reader, which I received on 12/16/03:

“Mormon here- thanks for the post. While you got a lot of things right, there are a few misconceptions.

For one, marriage and family life is indeed very important for us Mormons, but marrying within the faith is by no means required. In any Mormon congregation you’ll find a handful of families where only one of the spouses is a member.

Second, ostracizing people who leave the faith is the opposite of what we teach. There are certainly bad apple cases, but it’s not a belief or practice.

Third, the income tax records thing is a myth. While payment of tithing is expected of practicing members, the only “proof” of payment is one’s own word.”

There you have it. Thank you very much Brian, for both your comment, and being cool about my mistakes. Please feel free to comment on anything else you might find that I get wrong in the future.

I am, after reading Brian’s comment, officially NO LONGER considering Mormonism to be a cult.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    December 16, 2013 8:38 PM

    Mormon here- thanks for the post. While you got a lot of things right, there are a few misconceptions.

    For one, marriage and family life is indeed very important for us Mormons, but marrying within the faith is by no means required. In any Mormon congregation you’ll find a handful of families where only one of the spouses is a member.

    Second, ostracizing people who leave the faith is the opposite of what we teach. There are certainly bad apple cases, but it’s not a belief or practice.

    Third, the income tax records thing is a myth. While payment of tithing is expected of practicing members, the only “proof” of payment is one’s own word.

    • tomschronicles permalink
      December 17, 2013 12:20 AM

      A comment from a Mormon, awesome! (I’m being serious here, not sarcastic). I like it when people call me on my mistakes, especially when they do it in a polite way, like you did.

      There are some things Protestants apparently get very wrong. I found this out years ago when I started studying Catholicism, and learned what some Protestants told me about Catholicism was incorrect.

      And now it is quite clear that some Protestants, including some ex-Mormons, have provided me with incorrect information.

      Yeah Brian, you are right, there are bad apples.. in every group. Maybe the woman I spoke with who left the Mormon faith was bitter about being treated badly, and decided to tell others that Mormons were taught to ostracize family members and friends who left. I didn’t just hear this from her, but she was the main person I spoke with. Hmmm..

      In any case.. glad Mormons are not taught to ostracize people who leave.

      Another probably incorrect thing I heard was that Mormons teach that the worst place in the afterlife is reserved for former Mormons. I forgot to put that in my entry. Likely a good thing I forgot, too. I am guessing I was misinformed about this issue as well.

      Good to learn about the marrying and income tax issues too. Where do Protestants get these ideas? I have to be more careful about who I trust.

      I will now put an update at the bottom of my blog entry, and post your comment on it. Since I was wrong about the issues you mentioned, I will take Mormonism of my cult list. And I’m happy to do so.

      Thanks very much for your quite helpful comment.

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