Deciding if a cult is a cult

Published Saturday, April 25, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News
BY TED ANTHONY, Associated Press

HE SAID it in Chinese, and then for emphasis Simon Tsai switched to slow, deliberate English. "People keep asking us if we're going to commit suicide," he said last month. "But we're not. We are not a cult."

Tsai and nearly 150 other Taiwanese followers of "Master" Chen Hon-ming and his "zhen dao," or "true way" movement, didn't see God in suburban Dallas last month as they expected. And because they took no drastic action afterward, attention waned.

But Tsai's protestation illustrates the pejorative aura that surrounds the word "cult," once the catchall for any religious movement that struck people as unusual or excessively controlling.

Academics, writers, television reporters -- all seem more reluctant, in varying degrees, to use "cult" in recent years. "Sect" is the word of choice. In academic circles, "new religious movement" is a favored alternative.

Matter of definition

But when, then, is a "cult" a cult?

"I frequently campaign against the use of the word," says Gerald McDermott, an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke (Va.) College and an expert on, well, cults or new religious movements.

"It's shunned now," he says. "This is in contrast to 15, even 10 years ago."

Many say the term "cult" has become stigmatized because of the images it evokes -- images of unwilling participants, extreme rituals and instability.

On the Internet, everything from Mormonism to Scientology to Jews for Jesus has been described, dismissed or denounced as a cult, often to loud objections of group members.

Consider the most notorious groups called "cult" in recent years:

The Rev. Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, where more than 900 people died after drinking cyanide-spiked grape punch in 1978.

Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese group believed to have released lethal gas in Tokyo's subways in 1995.

Heaven's Gate, whose members wore black to their deaths last spring and expected a UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet to carry them off to paradise.

And perhaps the most dramatic of this decade: David Koresh's Branch Davidians, 80 of whom went up in flames in Waco, Texas, after a 51-day standoff with federal agents ended five years ago Sunday.

"Waco was really a watershed that opened the eyes of many, many academics to the cynical and interested and manipulative use of the word," McDermott says.

Not surprising, then, that most groups want nothing to do with such terminology, which often picks up additional words: "suicide cult," "doomsday cult," "UFO cult."

Dictionary definition

By its most basic definition, in the third edition of Webster's New World College Dictionary, a cult is foremost "a system of religious worship or ritual." But its second definition is more detailed: "a quasi-religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices or beliefs."

Pretty wide definition, especially when you realize that "Methodist" and "Quaker" were once considered derisive terms for groups with "unorthodox or extremist views."

But linguistic change is taking place, however subtly. For example, the German government refers to Scientology as a cult, but many German journalists call it a sect, which implies more mainstream tendencies. And in Garland last month, some of the dozens of reporters awaiting God's non-arrival could be heard discussing the term: "I know this is a cult," one said, "but do we come out and call it that?"

The answer, for now, appears still to be yes. An AltaVista search on the Internet this week produced 8,254 responses for the search term "cult" and just 214 for "new religious movement." So euphemism, if it is taking hold, is doing so slowly.

"Whatever term is used that turns out to be accurate is eventually going to become offensive," says Terry Kaufman, a linguistics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "People are afraid of having legal action taken against them. And people are afraid of having people kill them. And people don't want to sound like a redneck or a bozo. Those are the issues."

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