Scholars of Religion Tend to Avoid the Term Cult Essay

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Cult vs. Religion

Contemporary religious scholars tend not to use the term cult in their works unless referring to a dangerous and sociological unhealthy organization. This is primarily due to the pejorative definition with which the term is now used. In a very strict sense of the word, though, the difference between a cult and a religion is often in the eye of the beholder, of the manner in which that particular society views the organization, and what the societal mores are for that particularly time. In fact, in most modern academic studies, cult is a sociological term, while new religious movement becomes a theological phrase (Lewis, 2004).

One could reasonably argue that many world religions exhibit clear cultish behaviors, although most do acknowledge temporal authority (e.g. The code of law, etc.), and most hold their own leadership accountable for the psychological impact of their teachings on younger people. Most also at least acknowledge that there have been dissenting view points, and, at least in the modern world, are more open to allowing this dissention to be discussed. Cult behavior is easier to understand by identifying certain characteristics that tend to be typical of modern cults:

Zealous and unquestioning commitment to a messianic leader (alive or dead)

Unquestioning devotion to a belief system and ideology

Seeing this ideology as the only truth, and law

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Punishing doubt and dissent and frowning upon any questioning

Use of mind altering practices to suppress doubt

Allowance of the leadership to dictate how members should think, act, work, worship, and live.

Relatively elitist philosophy, placing itself above the rest of humanity as the only true way

Mentality that engenders a complete polarization of society (us. Versus them)

Leadership believes it is not accountable to any earthly authority

TOPIC: Essay on Scholars of Religion Tend to Avoid the Term Cult Why Assignment

Utilitarianism to the extreme (ends justify the means)

Preoccupied with recruitment and earning funds

Refuses to allow members to leave group or abide by societal rules (Lalich and Langone, 2009).

Clearly, religious scholars want to distance themselves for observations that might place their religion away from spirituality and more into the public perception of the Jim Jones Guyana incident. Another way of thinking about the subject might be to establish degrees of fervor -- at least in the modern world. This, of course, could be argued with historical using the Inquisition and other organized purges. However, the popularization of the word "cult" now has meanings so complex and secular that it would be impossible to use in scholarly writing without inviting criticism.


Cult -- in contemporary terminology, a cult is a group that forms together to form practices which are considered to be relatively pejorative by reasonable members of society. This is a post-1980s definition, somewhat subjective, but indicative of the way modern society uses the word in most styles of communication. Cultish does not mean a group of likeminded individuals, then, it minds like-minded individuals that share certain proclivities and beliefs that may be anti-social or harmful (Lewis, 2005, 3-6).

Rather than being a total antithesis of religion, cults may be seen as behavior that takes the basic philosophy of the organization (religious or secular) to the furthest possible extreme, and adopts more fringe, or novel beliefs and practices in order to provide the proper level of legitimacy for that organization (Stark and Bainbridge 1987, 124).

Additionally, the two most extreme parts of a cult, that of mind control and not allowing members to leave the organization, make them unique in the modern world. While some might cite the saying of a Rosary or group prayer, even religious meditation, places one into a more receptive mind state; there is still a difference between meditative communication with the divine and an earthly entity using spirituality to control others. In the same way, using extraordinary and often illegal means to keep members in a… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Scholars of Religion Tend to Avoid the Term Cult.  (2010, July 4).  Retrieved July 31, 2021, from

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"Scholars of Religion Tend to Avoid the Term Cult."  4 July 2010.  Web.  31 July 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Scholars of Religion Tend to Avoid the Term Cult."  July 4, 2010.  Accessed July 31, 2021.