“Cult” Defined: Any Religion Practiced by Others

The end of summer always finds me “channel surfing”—looking through the vast quantity of cable offerings, trying to find something watchable on the tube. And what I’m noticing this year is yet another brand of sensationalist pseudo-newscasting. Where networks like A&E and Discovery used to be filled with colorful “true” crime “reenactments” (exceptionally cheap to produce and never really truthful), I’m seeing a new brand of programming that is cheaper still: religion bashing.

A woman wearing a sign that says “End Islamophobia”
(Photo by Lorie Shaull)

On A&E, for example, you might catch an episode of a show called “Extreme Cults.” Imagine my surprise to see that last week’s “extreme cult” was the Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s right, folks. Door-to-door proselytizing and an aversion to commercialized religious holidays is, according to A&E, enough to render your faith an “EXTREME CULT.”

Over on Discovery, I caught an episode of another “cult” exposé show. On this one, the adjectives “horrifying” and “bizarre” were used to describe a home birth (safe, no danger to mom or baby) and circumcision. Whatever your viewpoint about it, circumcision has been an accepted religious practice for thousands of years. Thousands. But Discovery called it “horrifying,” with a close-up of a dripping scalpel.

The effort to make these religious groups seem dangerous, threatening or just plain weird was prodigious. And didn’t really work on me, to be honest—my husband’s family includes a large branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses and they all seem perfectly normal to me. Lots of women are choosing to have babies at home these days. And I’ve been present at more than one bris (a Jewish circumcision ceremony and celebration).

“Cult” is just a four-letter word that is used to describe a religion or group different from one’s own.

Calling these religions “cults” might get my attention, but I’m sorry. This isn’t news. It’s a sad attempt at propaganda, another media-driven effort to create division and conflict between human beings. It’s mean and petty and I wish someone would just tell them to stop it already.

“Cult” is just a four-letter word that is used to describe a religion or group different from one’s own.

It’s a hate-word, used to set apart an entire group of people, simply because they share a set of beliefs that are (1) not understood and (2) different from one’s own.

And it’s a slippery word, because whether or not a group is a “cult” is dependent entirely on one’s perspective.

For example, one Christian publication advises identifying as a “cult” any religious group that is characterized by three things. The group is:

1) Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong; and if you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”

2) Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.

3) Authoritarian. A human leader expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.

According to this publication, Christianity cannot possibly be considered a “cult” because it lacks these characteristics.


I wasn’t raised as a Christian, so I have experienced the fact that every Christian church is “exclusive.” Belief in Jesus is a mandatory requirement—if you don’t believe that Jesus can and will save your soul, you are “wrong” and “your salvation is in danger.”

A picture of a bible on a stand

I can’t say for sure about the secretive part, but I’d bet that just about every religious group on the planet has something that they consider sacred, not easily understood by non-believers, or just plain private. And while some Christian groups are probably more “secretive” than others, even I am quite aware that the oldest Christian group, Catholicism, certainly keeps a great many secrets.

It does seem, however, that within the many branches of Christianity, there is actually fierce disagreement over whether this Christian group or that deserves the “cult” label. See, for example this article, in which the author does his best to exonerate Catholicism from the “cult” label while just as surely applying it to other Christian groups that might be smaller in size, have arrived later on the scene, or rely on religious leaders other than the current Pope.

Believe me, I’m not interested in faulting Christian groups here. In fact, I will firmly and loudly proclaim the right of each and every one of them to insist that they are in fact the “one true faith.” I’m simply referring to the many branches of Christianity to make a point: it’s easy to call any religious group not exactly your own “a cult,” even religious groups that have been around for hundreds of years.

The “you’re in a cult and I’m not” mentality is not limited to Christians, of course. There is, for example, a pretty hot debate between the Jews for Judaism and the Messianic Jewish movement about that definition. The “Jews for Judaism” argue that the Messianic Jews (a.k.a “Jews for Jesus”) are a cult because they “encourage rigid submission to an elite leadership” and fail to disclose to recruits that their beliefs are the same as those of mainline Christian groups.

The Jews for Jesus, however, argue that a group cannot be termed a “cult” so long as it “remains scripturally based and gives the Lord Jesus Christ His rightful place”—the exact point upon which the two groups collide.

And honestly? If you look around, you will see that just about every religious group imaginable has been called a “cult” by critics (read: “apostates” and “nonbelievers”), and has felt a serious need to defend itself from that characterization, including HinduismMormonismToaismIslam… It’s an endless list.

Sadly, in today’s world a “religion” (or “the one true religion”) is “that religion or nonreligion which is practiced by me.” A “cult” is “any religion which is practiced by others.”

And you’ll find that “cult” is most often used by a former religious believer to describe a religion that he or she no longer holds dear.

Or, as some might say, this particular hate-word is the language of the apostate. The excommunicated. The former believer who was removed from the group, frequently after either deceiving its members or behaving in ways contrary to the group’s accepted moral values.

Religion, all religion, is an opportunity. It’s a chance for people to make a spiritual connection with one another, to find hope and joy and possibility.

Former members love to berate their previously-held beliefs as the product of “brainwashing.” After all, it absolves them from any responsibility for believing in that religion, and gives them complete justification for any and all immoral or criminal actions that they might otherwise be held accountable for by the group they just left.

So, in light of this, isn’t it time for this name-calling nonsense to end?

Scientology is a worldwide religion that fosters high moral and ethical standards amongst its believers. It holds its doors open to the world, and even broadcasts its messages of hope, peace and help to all on a 24-hour international television network.

But I will tell you this: even if it were brand new, strange, and had only four members meeting daily in a tiny basement, my religion would not be a cult.

And neither would yours.

Little boy reading the Bible in bed

Religion, all religion, is an opportunity. It’s a chance for people to make a spiritual connection with one another, to find hope and joy and possibility. Whatever your belief about your own personal salvation, I applaud it. If you want to dialogue about salvation and choices, I welcome it. And if you are trying to bring hope and peace to the peoples of earth, I join with you.

We should be supporting and applauding our clergy—all clergy, and all who follow a path toward salvation, grace and peace, not applying a pejorative to those who have chosen a path different from our own. In a world so easily divided by disagreements, religious tolerance is a key to a better future for all.

So let’s call these cult-bashing shows what they are: propaganda pieces from folks who profit from creating hatred, antagonism and dividing us.

And let’s treat them accordingly. Because the best way to get them off the air is pretty simple: don’t watch them. And if you do, make note of the advertisers, and let them know that you won’t be buying what they have to sell so long as they are selling it with hate.

Laurie Bartilson
Always in search of wisdom and truth. I think for myself, and advise you to do the same.