The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance distinguish other meanings. A cult can be any style of worship and rituals associated with a particular idea, entity or philosophy. Sociologically, any religious group that represents a minority living in tension with the region’s predominant religion may be considered a cult. Evangelical Christians may label cults other Christian groups that do not accept specific historical doctrines, including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, among others. And fundamentalist Christians might typically label a cult any religious group that deviates from historical Christian beliefs, including all non-Christian religions of the world, as well as liberal Christian denominations.
I was reminded again this week of the latter definition when an online commenter labeled Unitarian Universalism a “cult.” This, however, is when the technical versus derogatory uses of a word can cause problems. You see, I come from a generation influenced by events, such as the Manson family’s brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969. After this event, the popular media considered a cult to be any small religious group engaging in brainwashing and other mind control techniques. This would include The People’s Temple (Jim Jones), the Branch-Davidians (Waco, Texas), Heaven’s Gate and the Aum Shinri Kyo (Japan).
For me, therefore, a “cult” consists of a group with very specific characteristics, which include:
- Authoritarian Structure: A power structure like a pyramid, with all authority at the top.
- Charismatic Leadership: A single, self-appointed leader, portraying themselves as a living prophet or messiah who alone interprets the truth and who alone makes decisions for the group.
- Social Encapsulization: Physical and psychological isolation of members from the rest of society, often in communal arrangements.
- Apocalyptic Beliefs: Leaders preaching the impending end of the world and imminent transcendence of the group.
- Violence and Weapons: Stockpiles of weapons to counteract perceived powerlessness against enemies.
- Deception and Exploitation: Confusing messages and ever deepening levels of commitment not apparent on the surface, as well as taking advantage of members through control of money and time, forced labor, and physical and sexual abuse.
Given these definitions, anyone familiar with Unitarian Universalism can see why associating that faith with the term “cult” is absurd. Unitarian Universalism exhibits none of these classic attributes of a cult and, in fact, generally presents polar opposite characteristics.
The cautionary lesson, therefore, is to use words carefully. Use a term if you feel justified. But be prepared to defend your use of the word when challenged by those with a different definition.