“Cults” and Globalization: Reflections and Questions
In my presentation today, I will give an overview of definitions for cult. Then I will briefly discuss harm and intervention.
Definitions for Cult
A couple of months ago, a media storm occurred after an American evangelical pastor referred to Mitt Romney, a front-running candidate for the leadership of the United States Republican Party, as a member of a cult because of his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons). The pastor later qualified his statement by saying that he viewed the Mormons as a theological cult.
I have often heard the statement, “We all know what a cult is.” In my opinion, however, the belief that we all know what a cult is, is both a presumption and a generalization.
In fact, no one agrees on how to define a cult. For example, in France, a country that has taken an active approach to dealing with cults, the president of MIVILDUES, the French government agency that deals with this issue, recently stated, “There is no legal definition of a cult in France, not more than elsewhere in the world. I don't know any country in the world with a definition for it.” The many government reports that have focused on cults over more than twenty years confirm this statement.
The word cult may be one of the most confusing terms to use. The word is derived from the French word culte, which comes from the Latin noun cultus, meaning care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence... And so by this definition we can apply the term cult to any group of religious believers: Southern Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Hindus, or Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned very different meanings. Whereas the original meaning of cult is positive, more recent definitions vary from neutral to extremely negative.
In the past two decades, pejorative connotations to the word cult have become more common. For many, the term raises images of people lining up for their fatal drink of Kool-Aid or carrying out brutal acts at the behest of an omnipotent leader.
Lists of so-called cults have been created, leading to the assumption that all such groups are similar and dangerous. By extension, because a group has not made it to a list does not necessarily imply it does not pose a problem.
At times, I have been criticized for “muddying the waters” with regard to the term cult. Some people have expressed frustration when I do not respond with a “yes” or “no” when asked whether or not a certain group is a cult, or whether it is a cult or a religion, or whether or not the group in question is dangerous. After all, they are directing their questions to the executive director of Info-Cult!
Info-Cult’s view is that individuals can have a positive experience in a so-called “bad” group or a bad experience in a so-called “good” group. The reality is that groups in our society exist on a continuum, from groups that value the integrity and opinions of each of its members, to high-demand groups that function according to the leader’s wishes and demands. And a variety of factors may influence the experience someone might have in a group, or the impact a group may have on society. Some such factors to consider include:
I was motivated to write this book, in part, by the thousands of calls Info-Cult had received since its inception in 1980. The callers usually were looking for information and used the term cult to refer to a wide variety of groups, including the following:
If a group is labeled as a cult, we should be asking the following questions: Who labeled the group, and how has that label been designated? What criteria have been used and what research has been undertaken to evaluate the group? And, equally significant, what information does the label provide, for example, about the group’s
At the same time, it is wise to keep in mind how we use terminology related to the issue of cults and new religious movements—in particular, those terms that promote a dichotomy of good versus evil and do little to contribute to a better understanding of this issue, and to support dialogue among those with differing views. Examples of these terms are anti-cult movement, pro-cult movement, and cult apologist. these divisive labels function as “thought-terminating clichés,” to use an expression from Robert Lifton’s seminal book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
As much as I encourage a nuanced approach to defining the term cult and understanding the cult phenomenon in general, I think we would all agree that there are groups that do harm. To quote Michael Langone of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA): “Some groups may harm some people sometimes, and some groups may be more likely to harm people than other groups.” I would add that contributing factors include a group’s location, the nature of its leadership, and at what period in its history we are looking at it.
In fact, it has been observed that members of groups can be harmed in different ways, including psychologically, physically, and financially. Following are examples of each:
We need to be prudent, however, because in some cases we can view harm subjectively and assign a meaning that is culture-bound. For example, in Russia some groups are seen as harmful and often described as cults because they are perceived as a threat to the traditional culture and religion; they view certain groups as a form of Western imperialism. Recently, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose publications are considered to be “extremist literature,” was arrested for possession of the group’s writings. In contrast, in North America, Jehovah’s Witnesses not only are free to possess their literature, but also are permitted to hand it out on city sidewalks or by going door-to-door.
At the outset of my presentation, I noted what an American evangelical pastor had to say about Mitt Romney. That example illustrates that some groups are labeled cults because they deviate theologically from some other group’s(s’) beliefs.
In determining whether or not a group poses a risk and the nature of the risk, and in making a fair and informed assessment about an individual or a group, it is important to ask the following questions:
If an intervention by agencies of the state is warranted, the following questions can help us in coming to a decision about a suitable course of action. These questions can also be helpful for families who are dealing with a loved one involved in a group.
 Anderson Cooper 360°, CNN, October 8, 2011 (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/anti-mormon-pastor-to-anderson-cooper-romney-may-belong-to-a-cult-but-he-is-better-than-obama/).
 France 3, Sun, July 3, 2011, with guest George Fenech, English translation (http://www.sott.net/articles/show/235545-Georges-Fenech-of-MIVILUDES-Nemesis-of-the-Scientific-Method).
 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland, The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function, Info-Cult (2006). See Appendix 6: Governments and the Cult Phenomenon, p. 165–168 (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/phenomene/English/HTML/doc0018.htm#R248).
 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/cults.htm).
 Refers to the manner in which the members of Peoples Temple died in a mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, November 18, 1978. Marshall Kilduff and Ron Javers, The Suicide Cult: The Inside Story of the Peoples Temple Sect and the Massacre in Guyana, Bantam Books (1978). Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing The Voices of Jonestown, Syracuse University Press (1998).
 Two examples that are especially significant in the province of Quebec where I reside are 1) The Order of the Solar Temple, in which more than seventy people died in three countries, in murder and ritual collective suicides operated in the province of Quebec. The murder/suicides were precipitated by the murder in September 1994 in Morin Heights, a village outside of Montreal, of a husband and wife and their three-month-old baby, who had tried to escape from the group. 2) The group led by Roch “Moses” Theriault had a history of physical and sexual abuse of its members, including the murder by Roch Theriault of one of its members.
 For example, see the following: 1) France—“Les Sectes en France” Rapport Fait au Nom de la Commission D'Enquête sur les Sectes (le 22 décembre 1995) (http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/rap-enq/r2468.asp). 2) Belgium—Chambre des Représentants de Belgique: ENQUETE PARLEMENTAIRE visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illégales des sectes et le danger qu'elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d'âge. (28 avril 1997); Partie I (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313007.pdf); Partie II (http://www.lachambre.be/FLWB/pdf/49/0313/49K0313008.pdf).
 Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3).
 See Note 3. See also Mike Kropveld, “Governments and Cults.” Presentation given at the INFORM/CESNUR conference, Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality.' London, England (2008) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/kropveld_inform2008.pdf).
 Adapted from “The Definitional Ambiguity of ‘Cult’ and ICSA’s Mission,” Michael D. Langone, PhD (http://cultmediation.com/infoserv_articles/langone_michael_definitional_ambiguityofcult.asp).
 Michael Kropveld, “An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation,” Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, p. 130–150. Accessible at http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/ControversyCSR.doc
 Robert Jay Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, W. W. Norton and Company (1961).
 Michael Langone, Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, p. 1.
 A previous version of this paper, presented in Bangkok, indicated that the arrested member was sentenced to 2 years in prison. This information came from the article in Asia News, “Jehovah’s Witness gets two years in prison for possession of ‘extremist literature’” (http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Jehovah%E2%80%99s-Witness-gets-two-years-in-prison-for-possession-of-%E2%80%9Cextremist-literature%E2%80%9D-19529.html). I could find no other reference to that information, and other reports indicate that the arrested member was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. Sophia Kishkovsky, “Russian Terror Law Has Unlikely Targets,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/europe/russian-terror-law-has-unlikely-targets.html). “Russian court finds Jehovah’s Witness guilty of inciting hatred,” Amnesty International, 3 November 2011 (http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/russian-court-finds-jehovahs-witness-guilty-inciting-hatred-2011-11-03).
 “Counter-cult” groups are composed primarily of conservative Protestant Christians who label groups as cults for having unorthodox or heretical beliefs according to their interpretation of the Bible. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/ccm.htm).
 For more details, see the following: 1) Mike Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland (see Note 3), and 2) Mike Kropveld, “A Comparison of Different Countries’ Approaches to Cult-Related Issues.” Paper presented at the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS) Conference, Cults and Esotericism: New Challenges for Civil Societies in Europe (Hamburg, April 28, 2007) (http://infosect.freeshell.org/infocult/HamburgpresentationFECRISFinal-web.pdf).
About the Author
Mike Kropveld is founder and executive director of Info-Cult/Info-Secte (1980) based in Montreal, Canada (www.infocult.org). He is on the Board of Directors of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and of the International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org