When is a Religion a Cult?

From Inform
Inform believes it is important to recognise that definitions are man-made decisions. Exactly what characteristics are ‘put together’ under a label, and where the distinguishing boundaries are drawn between different phenomena, can vary from place to place and time to time.1 Furthermore, different people may use the same concept to refer to very different things. Sometimes a term is used merely to denote a negative or positive evaluation, rather than to tell us about the specific characteristics of the phenomenon.

It is worth noting that most countries have no precise definition of the word ‘religion’, nor is there a recognised definition in international law; however some institutions have their own working definitions and some countries have registers of recognized religions.

Although ‘cult’ and ‘sect’ are used as technical terms by sociologists of religion,2 these terms have come to be used as pejorative labels in popular parlance, often telling us more about the attitude of the speaker than about the movement in question.For this reason, Inform prefers not to label a particular group or movement as a  ‘cult’, but instead, to use more neutral terms such as ‘minority religion’ or ‘movement’ as a starting point, and then to describe what it is that the movement believes and does.

This does not mean that Inform denies that religions can be harmful. But, rather than saying ‘this is an evil cult’, Inform prefers to report factual information, such as ‘the founder of movement A has been convicted of murder’; ‘group B indulges in unprotected group sex, while all members of movement C are expected to remain celibate’; or ‘religion D has ammassed a large fortune for its leader while his followers live in poverty’.
1 See Douglas, M. (1966) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

2 See McGuire, M. B. (2002, 5th edition) Religion: The Social Context. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, chapter 2.