Mitch Horowitz: When is a religion a cult?


"Medication," from Andrew Brandou's Jonestown series

When does a religion become a cult? That's the question former BB guestblogger Mitch Horowitz, author of the excellent Occult America, recently tackled in the Wall Street Journal:

To use the term cult too casually risks tarring the merely unconventional, for which America has long been a safe harbor. In the early 19th century, the "Burned-over District" of central New York state–so named for the religious passions of those who settled there following the Revolutionary War–gave rise to a wave of new movements, including Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism and Spiritualism (or talking to the dead). It was an era, as historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom wrote, when "Farmers became theologians, offbeat village youths became bishops, odd girls became prophets…."

Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control–using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership.

"When Does a Religion Become a Cult?"