alternative spiritualities, the new age and new religious movements in Ireland

Conference link:

We open our comment section to those who would like to reflect on the theme of NRMs which the conference in Maynooth will afford.

Eileen Barker ONE OF THE SPEAKERS is one of the INVENTORS of the term NRM. Her friend and deceased scholar from the Univ of Virginia  Jeff Hadden felt that the term CULT must be preserved for academic discourse. What do you think?

The director of DI wrote a thesis for his MA at Milltown about a cultist NRM called “The Magnificat Meal Movement.”

His second Chapter is really the first material on the discusssion of cults in an Irish context, and might be helpful to the discussion leading up to the conference in Maynooth.

He suggested that one can’t look at the issue from one discipline say Sociology as that gives a totally one sided understanding of the issue. In fact he suggests that all disciplines should be used to for a rounded view of the phenomenon:
In this chapter, guided by the interdisciplinary nature and concrete social and religious interests of postmodern spirituality and practical theology,[1] the main concern is to clarify the meaning of the word cult and decide on the appropriate terminology to use in the analysis of the MMM that follows. This is important for two reasons. The first has to do with the interdisciplinary nature of practical theology; the second is required for reasons of technical and theoretical clarity even though the nature of NRMs as such is a secondary focus of the thesis.

In this context practical theology is understood as a critical conversation between interpretations of faith and practice, and interpretations of the social worlds in which people live and express their faith.[2] As is the case with contemporary spirituality this tends to be done in close dialogue with the social sciences.[3] A review of international literature in English on the theme of this chapter is required, given the paucity of theoretical reflection on this topic in Ireland. This will provide a vocabulary to interpret usage as it applies to occurrences of the phenomenon here in Ireland and abroad. The literature review and internet search that follows produced a high level of diversity in the use of terminology, a problem that must be faced. John A. Saliba’s interdisciplinary method[4] is used as a specific lens to surface the pertinent literature examined in this chapter.

The term cult is difficult to define, given the range of ways it is commonly used to refer to many new religious groups. According to John Saliba the word “is so laden with diverse meanings and replete with emotional content that it might have lost one of the major functions of linguistic designation, that is, to convey accurate and useful information.”[5] He suggests that the media, some professional writers, psychiatrists, lawyers, and anti-cult groups especially, have picked on the negative connotations currently attached to the word and have employed it consistently to refer to all those groups they have judged to be deviant, dangerous, corrupt, and pseudoreligious.

In fact, cults or NRMs represent contextually diverse and complex organizations whose significance cannot be gauged without reference to the sociocultural and religious situation pertaining since the Second World War. As a result it has become increasingly difficult to define the nature, characteristics, significance, and implications of NRMs with reference “to a single narrow definition.”[6] Saliba argues in favour of abandoning the use of the word “cult” altogether because of such definitional difficulties.[7] He also highlights problems with the term NRM. Despite these definitional difficulties Saliba acknowledges that the term “cult” has a received academic usage. He further recognizes that,

[A]n effort has been made to employ it sparingly. When used, it is applied in a broad and neutral sense to refer to the relatively new religions or fringe religious groups that have sprung up in the West, especially since the 1960s. Such a usage, in spite of its shortcomings, points to two undeniable facts, namely that the new religions stand apart from the society and require special attention.[8]

Saliba then identifies three major interactive definitional conceptualisations of the term that emerge from a survey of current usage. These are respectively theological (or religious), psychological, and sociological. These conceptualisations will now be explored.

2.2 Theological Definitions

According to Saliba, theological definitions of the word cult are most evident in Christian Evangelical literature.[9] In this usage all cults are defined in terms of their lack of biblical orthodoxy regardless of whether they have any Christian orientation. This narrowly focused definition is simple and easy to understand, but it fails to deal with the particularities of current NRMs. According to Saliba appropriate “criticism of this more narrow definition of a cult points to the urgent need for a more thorough assessment not only of what the new religions teach, but also of the many factors that contribute to their rise and success. Only then can a theological appraisal be safely made.”[10]

Typical of internet sites representative of this narrow theological position is Anton Hein’s “Apologetics Index.”[11] This site quotes extensively from the work of Dr. Alan Gomes. According to Hein, Gomes defines cult as follows, “Our English word cult comes from the Latin word cultus, which is a form of the verb colere, meaning ‘to worship or give reference to a deity.’” He stresses the religious roots of the term, without reference to sociological or psychological factors. In this usage theological heterodoxy grounded in an absolute, objective and unchanging standard is the definitional key. Hein states that Gomes prefers to speak of a “‘Cult’ of Christianity” than of a Christian cult. This is an attempt to exempt Christianity from the problem of cultism by the linguistic manoeuvre of inventing a new category in which theological orthodoxy is the sole criterion of analysis.

[A] cult is a group that deviates doctrinally from a “parent” or “host” religion; that is, cults grow out of and deviate from a previously established religion. The expression “Cult of Christianity” makes a clear distinction between Christianity and cults as well as highlighting the derivative nature of cults.[13]

This definitional mode is not informed by the human sciences. It is shaped entirely by a narrow view informed by an exacting biblical theology.

An even narrower vision informs the approach of the Christian Research Institute (CRI), which defines a cult as “a group that denies essential biblical doctrine while claiming to be Christian or in harmony with true Christianity.” They include Transcendental Meditation and Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, which have no connection to Christianity, in this definition. The implication is that, for some unstated reason, all NRMs are considered to be heterodox versions of Christianity. The CRI concludes, “While each of these groups claims it is the one true representative of Jesus Christ, each one denies historic and essential Christian doctrines; therefore, Evangelical Christians do, indeed, consider each of these groups to be a cult of Christianity.”[15] More recently they acknowledge a secular definition that views cults in terms of leadership and control.[16] The narrow views of these two sites are indicative of the problems raised by the unclear usage by some Evangelicals of the term cult. We shall now examine two Catholic usages.

2.2.1 Cardinal Francis Arinze’s View

Cardinal Francis Arinze offers a Catholic theological definition.[17] The author addresses the definitional difficulty and notes the complexities involved. He attends to factors such as variations in origin, belief, size, means of recruitment, behaviour patterns, and how they respond to other religious groups and society. In consequence, Arinze does not use the term cult. Instead, he speaks about sects and NRMs. For Arinze, who identifies both positive and negative usages, the word sect refers to small groups holding deviating beliefs or practices that break away from a major religious group. He also notes variations in usage. “In Latin America, for example, there is a tendency to apply the term to all non-Catholic groups. In Western Europe the word has a negative connotation, while in Japan the new religions of Shinto or Buddhist origin are freely called sects in a non-derogatory sense.”[18]

Arinze sees the term NRM as more neutral when referring to such groups. They are called “new” because they appeared since the Second World War, and because they challenge in some sense the established religious institutions and the prevailing culture. They are religious because they propose to offer a vision of the religious, “or sacred world, or means to reach other objectives such as transcendental knowledge, spiritual illumination or self realization, or because they offer to members their answers to fundamental questions, such as the meaning of life or of one’s place in the universe.”[19]

Arinze further argues that while no universally accepted terminology can be agreed, efforts should be made to adopt a term that is as fair and precise as possible. “Such a term should treat these movements with truth and respect and therefore avoid attributing to all of them in a collective way the more negative aspects to be found only in some of them.”[20] He settles on the term “New Religious Movements” because it is neutral and general enough to include the new movements of Protestant origin, the sects of Christian background, new Oriental or African movements and those of the Gnostic or Esoteric type. In Arinze’s view stand-alone theological approaches are not very helpful, especially those that depict groups strictly through a biblical lens. An openness to a broader range of insights drawn from a variety of disciplines is needed before evaluative positions are taken.

2.2.2 Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s View

A second view is that advanced by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P. Archbishop of Vienna, Austria. He is concerned with the issue of so-called “Catholic sects” within the Church. Inevitably, this limiting context raises definitional challenges. He writes, “Early on, some of these new groups were labelled as ‘conservative’ or ‘fundamentalist’; now one tries to describe them as ‘sects within the Church’. […] But the claim that groups approved by and acknowledged by the Church are ‘sects’ within her membership seems disturbing to many Christians.”[21]

Schönborn’s initial usage of the term sect is essentially theological and ecclesial. Recently he has argued that socio-politically inflected usages add a further dimension, but at the cost of theological and ecclesial precision and clarity. He notes that the term is now used by critics of certain ecclesial movements to brand groups as dangerous since they are unacceptable to the prevailing secular ideology. He describes these groups as elites

sealed off from social reality and frequently in opposition to it; the development of alternative ways of life, often so extreme that they lead to a loss of the sense of reality and to unhealthy exaggerations. Besides following an aim in life that goes against generally accepted conventions, or a spiritual idol with occasionally utopian features, the following inner characteristics are listed: renouncing today’s basic values of personal freedom and tolerance; occasionally fighting for fundamentally opposed attitudes; a totalitarian way of life; oppression of the members’ consciences; ostracizing outsiders, as well as the tendency to dominate society or aspects of it. If several of these characteristics are recognized in a group, it is called a sect.[22]

Quoting Gal 1: 6-12, Schönborn claims that his theological view, based on a split from the Church, offers a more apt and precise use of the term.[23]

Schönborn appears to claim that once a group comes under Church authority it becomes inappropriate to speak of cultist or sect-like tendencies. This position already hints at difficulties of translation related to Italian usage of the word setta, an issue that will be addressed later. This view claims that canonical recognition insures against any danger of cultist activity; that orthodoxy and submission to legitimate authority protects any such group from cultist involvement, such that it is only if a group becomes schismatic or heterodox that the use of the term sect becomes apposite. Friedrich Greiss, the President of FECRIS, (European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sects or Cults), who is closely involved with the cult issue in Austria, and who engaged in dialogue with the Cardinal on these issues, was pleasantly surprised that Cardinal Schönborn had modified his position to acknowledge that cultism can be found within the Church.[24] Quoted in a Catholic newspaper, Cardinal Schönborn was reported as follows: “The distinctive mark for those groups is whether they are open to the whole church and society. From this we can deduce whether “they are cells of renewal or a cult”.[25] Greiss concludes, “By this, the Cardinal implicitly admits that cults can be found within the church.”[26] This is an important point.

2.2.3 The Continuing Terminological Debate

Judith Tydings makes a considerable contribution by providing a concise summary of the definitional debate.[27] She asserts that lack of precision hampers both popular and academic exchanges regarding NRMs, cults, or sects. Extreme examples, such as the suicides/murders of Jonestown, the Solar Temple, and Heaven’s Gate, have added a negative and sinister connotation to the terminology and complicated the discussion. Tydings claims that the subject is stuck in a definitional quagmire characterised by contradictory uses of the basic terminology, cult, sect and NRM. She is particularly interested in the Italian usage of setta (sect) and its adoption in official Church documents. She writes,

British writer Gordon Urquhart…explains that the Italian language makes exclusive use of the word “setta” [sect] where English speakers would commonly use the word “cult.” He says that the Pope and official Church pronouncements have adopted the Italian term. As a further complication, in Latin America up until Pope John Paul’s visit to Mexico and his exhortation, Ecclesia in America, (1999) there has been an official Church tendency to use the word “sect” for all groups that are not Catholic (Arinze, 1991), much to the chagrin of Latin American Protestants.[28]

Michael Langone, while avoiding equation of mainstream movements with cults, also draws attention to linguistic and translational problems facing workers in the field.[29] According to Langone, in the U.S. and English-speaking Canada, (Ireland and the UK should be added) the term cult translates sekten, secta, secte, sekta, setta, and related terms in Europe and Latin America. According to Langone, while these terms resemble sect in English, they are in fact better translated as cult in common usage.[30] Regarding Cardinal Schönborn’s view Langone writes,

[I]f we are to dialogue productively with loyal church members about problems of manipulation and control within their faith communities, we must use terminology that makes sense to them and not beat them over the head with ambiguous terms with which we may feel comfortable but which they reject or define differently. Fortunately, a report of the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians (1986) provides terminology that I believe can be useful in dialogue. The report states: Indeed, certain sectarian mentalities and attitudes, i.e., attitudes of intolerance and aggressive proselytizing, do not necessarily constitute a sect, nor do they suffice to characterize a sect. One also finds these attitudes in groups of Christian believers within the churches and ecclesiastical communities.[31]

Note that Langone, having detailed the need for using the word cult, cites the Vatican report without translating the transliterated term ‘sectarian’ from the French sectarisme into English as the word cult thereby adding to the definitional problem. Tydings agrees,

When groups including groups within the Catholic Church seem tainted by what the Vatican document calls “sectarian mentalities and attitudes” those who belong to or value aspects of such groups understandably defend them when the groups are labelled “cults” or “sects.” These groups’ defenders, however, may become preoccupied with correcting linguistic errors, thereby overlooking the intended message of a particular criticism (however ineffectively that message may be communicated), namely, that certain practices may sometimes harm some people. This state of affairs may make some Church authorities uncertain about how to meet their pastoral responsibilities toward those who may have been harmed by sectarian mentalities and attitudes, as well as those who value the missions and ideals of the groups that are criticized.[32]

So a ‘cultist mentality and attitude’ may be found within Church settings. The fact that Church authorities dismiss evidence of cultist tendencies in some groups on the grounds that the groups in question have official approval by the Church “is analogous to a physician asserting that a malpractice claim must be false because he is licensed by the state.”[33] The implications of this consensus view of theological terminology for an analysis of the MMM are self-evident. However, the matter is not helped by similar difficulties within psychology.

2.3 Psychological Definitions

According to Saliba, while theological definitions rely on normative principles that distinguish orthodox from new but unorthodox religious forms, “the psychological definition has focused on the way the new religious movements recruit and maintain their members and how they affect those who join them.”[34] Two distinct and opposed conceptualisations of what constitutes a cult have emerged in psychological and psychiatric literature. The first and more prevalent view is that ‘cults’ are dangerous groups that can cause severe psychological trauma to those that join them. The second viewpoint interprets NRMs in quite a different, more positive light. NRMs are judged to be helpful organisations that provide an alternative vision to many young adults faced with momentous decisions at turning points in their lives.[35]

2.3.1 The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) View

The ICSA, formerly known as the American Family Foundation (AFF),[36] retains the word cult, but with a different definition based on the work of Rosedale and Langone.[37] These authors have been involved in NRM work for more than twenty years, but neither feels completely comfortable with the term cult. They retain its use because they believe it more effectively serves the linked educational and research aims of their Association. One of their more commonly quoted definitions of cult was articulated at the 1995 ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism. Under the rubric totalist type cult is defined as a

group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgement, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.[38]

Rosedale and Langone’s definition implies a spectrum of possible uses of the term cult, in which a large grey area separates it from non-cult phenomena. Consequently they are constrained to qualify the term by adding specific descriptors such as “destructive” or “totalist type.” It also shows the difficulty of using the word because “it has to be qualified and even then we might get it wrong.”[39] They also recognise that different people “attach different and usually imprecise meanings to the term ‘cult’”.[40] Those who have sought information from ICSA have – properly or improperly – applied the word “cult” to a wide variety of phenomena.[41]

A central component of the Association’s mission is to study psychological manipulation and abuse in cultist and other groups. In an article on the ICSA web site the ambiguity of the term is acknowledged. They also recognise that, for better or for worse, cult is the term that their inquirers, particularly on internet searches, tend to use.[42] The ICSA thus uses the term cult within specific parameters.

The concept “cult,” as with other concepts (e.g., “right wing,” “left wing”), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one’s disposal. The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype. It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.[43]

ICSA policy is to direct inquirers’ attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to lists or labels.[44] Their consistent concern is with practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people.[45]

Assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a ‘cult’. ‘What if anything about his or her behaviour would trouble you?’ Having identified the elements of the behaviour not found in the cultist group they might then try to determine how, if at all, these behaviours are related to the group environment. ‘A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the analysis.’[46]

The ICSA advocate a “nuanced, evidence-based approach to definition and classification.”[47] They do not ignore or criticise evidence indicating that some groups may closely approach the theoretical type, but continue to advocate that these kinds of judgements rest on careful analyses of structure and behaviour within a specific context, rather than superficial classificatory decisions.[48]

In the ICSA view, because it is so embedded in popular culture, the term cult has limited utility. Nevertheless those who are professionally engaged in helping people harmed by their involvement in a group cannot avoid using it.

Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., socio-psychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, and exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.[49]

A central component of ICSA work is to study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultist and other groups. Langone looks at a wide range of groups, religious, political, psychological, commercial, and notes pejorative usages that confirm the complexity of the terminology.

The majority of those who attach the “cult” label to these phenomena share a disapproval of the group or organisation they label. That is why some people have dismissed the term “cult” as a meaningless epithet hurled at a group one doesn’t like. Although this position may appeal to one’s cynical side, it ignores the reality that many common concepts are fuzzy. […] most people most of the time use these fuzzy terms with enough precision to be meaningful and understood by others.[50]

He agrees that “fuzzy terms” leave much to be desired and notes that scientists often develop new terms to avoid the imprecision found in “natural” language. Even where the scientific community advocates the use of technical language, disputes can develop about how to define properly a term in common use. “About twenty years ago, for example, sociologists of religion abandoned the term cult in favour of ‘new religious movement’; yet they still debate the meaning and merits of ‘new religious movement.’”[51] As a result even within academic circles terminology is rarely as precise as scientists and academics wish. According to Langone there are three choices with regards to use of imprecise terms:

First, one can act as if a particular term, e.g., “cult,” is more precise than it actually is, thereby inviting misapplication of the concept to which the term refers. Secondly, one may define it so narrowly that it becomes useless in a practical sense. Third, one may strive for a practical level of precision while acknowledging the unavoidable ambiguity of the terminology. Langone suggests that the ICSA has chosen the latter course. “Although we try to focus the meaning of the term, we must, nonetheless, also try to respond constructively to the wide spectrum of phenomena that our inquirers collectively associate with “cult,” however misguided their linguistic usage may sometimes be.”[52] A principle of similarity seems to be at work.

Generally speaking (though certainly not always), the phenomena to which they attach the term “cult” constitute a “conceptual family.” The members of this family are distinct, and it is inappropriate to give all of them the same “name,” e.g., “cult.” Yet they do have a family resemblance resting on the inquirer’s perception that the group exhibits one or more of these characteristics: It treats people as objects to be manipulated for the benefit of the leader(s). It believes that and behaves as though the group’s supposedly noble ends justify means that most people deem unethical. It harms some persons involved with or affected by the group.[53]

Though some individuals who seek information from the ICSA may associate any one of these characteristics with the concept “cult,” frequently other terms may provide more appropriate descriptors. That is why the ICSA mission sidebar lists “psychological manipulation, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, brainwashing, mind control, thought reform, abusive Churches, extremism, totalistic groups, authoritarian groups…exit counselling, recovery, and practical suggestions for families, individuals” as areas for which they provide information. That is why central components of their mission are:

[T]o study psychological manipulation and abuse, especially as it manifests in cultic and other groups…to help individuals and families adversely affected by psychologically manipulative groups and to protect society against the harmful implications of group-related manipulation and abuse.”[54]

Saliba critiques the ICSA approach as follows, “[a]lthough the AFF seems to distinguish between cults and new religious movements, the tendency to include all new groups under the negative label of “cult” dominates its literature.”[55] It is important to note that Saliba’s view is not borne out by a close examination of the documentation available on the ICSA website.[56]

2.3.2 Marc Galanter’s View

Marc Galanter takes a position that places him on the opposite end of the spectrum from the ICSA.[57] He attends to the boundary behaviour of cult members that makes the deepest impression on outsiders. This involves the, “glazed, withdrawn look and trance-like state that some find most unsettling. Although this may appear pathologic, it can help group membership by reducing the possibility of direct exchanges with outsiders – it has an insulating effect.”[58] This trance-like appear­ance protects the group’s boundary. It is more likely to develop in settings that threaten group integrity, so that an observer who is per­ceived as an antagonist is more likely to see the behaviour than one who is not. Galanter suggests that this may help explain the puzzling discrepancies among observers’ re­ports on contemporary cults because of the way they approach the group’s safe bound­aries.

According to Galanter, researchers such as John Clark and Mar­garet Singer who have had a great deal of contact with people leaving sects and have addressed at length the ill effects of membership, are likely to encounter defensive resistance, much in the way of a self fulfilling prophecy. Their writings question the place of these groups in a society that is supposed to protect the right to free and independent thought. “They underscore the emotional constriction and stereotyped behaviour sometimes associated with cult membership, implying that it is equivalent to psychopathology.”[59] On the other hand, other observers like Galanter, have estab­lished a positive working relationship with active cult members and tend to look at the more constructive aspects of membership. Not surprisingly this second group has not found the same stereotyped behaviour and emotional constriction that others have. The important implication is that the mode of approach taken by researchers, whether their approach is theological or psychological, impacts research results.

Before concluding this overview of psychological research, a brief word on the psychiatric approach will be helpful. Psychiatric definitions tend to be rare and narrowly focussed on individual patients. Social, religious and spiritual concerns tend not to be addressed. “Their main thrust is to relate involvement in intense religious groups to specific forms of human psychopathology or psychological weakness.”[60]

2.4 Sociological Definitions

The wealth of material available through sociological studies makes precise definition difficult.[61] Four major definitional strands are identified in sociological literature, namely, Church, denomination, sect and cult. While Church and denomination are used to refer to mainline religious organisations, sect and cult are applied to those relatively small groups that are sociologically marginal and deviant. Sociological definitions of NRMs have proved to be the least popular among those negatively touched by this phenomenon, due to the tendency of sociologists to make no value judgements. To such people this neutrality is perceived as supportive of NRMs and not as academic objectivity. Sociologists do not look at truth claims as in the theological approach, nor do they view the effects on individual people as in the psychological approach. However, even those unhappy with the neutrality of the sociological approach have “to admit that [sociologists] have provided the most complete descriptions of many of the new lifestyles as well as penetrating insights into the phenomenon of new religions as a whole.”[62] In general sociological definition tends to such factors as “authoritarian leadership patterns, loyalty and commitment mechanisms, lifestyle characteristics, [and] conformity patterns (including the use of various sanctions in connection with those members who deviate).”[63]

2.4.1 Jeff Hadden’s View

On the University of Virginia web site, which is widely acknowledged to be one of the best internet resources on the study of NRMs in the world, the late Jeff Hadden cautions the loss of the nomenclature of cults and sects in favour of the term NRM, not least out of respect for popular usage.[64] He offered the following observations at the Department of Sociology at University of Virginia, in his course on New Religious Movements:

1. Sociologists have adopted the concept new religious movements (NRMs) as an overarching idea that embraces both cults and sects.

2. The reason: the highly pejorative meanings of the concepts cult and sect in popular culture.

3. The concepts “cult” and “sect” do have precise meaning as they are used by sociologists, and are free of prejudice.

4. However, this meaning is not understood by the general public and, thus, the value neutral analytical content is lost.

5. The expression “New religious movement” is free of pejorative meaning, but not without problems.

6. Most significantly, many NRMs are not new, and some are not even new to a particular culture.[65]

In 1993 David Bromley and Jeff Hadden edited a two-volume work in which they use the terms cults and sects in the title for two reasons.

First, the concepts do have more or less precise meanings as employed by social scientists. Second, it has become abundantly clear that after nearly two decades, the concept new religious movements have virtually no recognition either in the mass media or the general public. By calling attention to the concepts as they are used by social scientists, we hope to begin the long process of educating the mass media and public regarding the non-pejorative meaning of these words.[66]

Though aware that some scholars of new religions have argued in favour of jettisoning the concepts cult and sect, they did not yet see good reason to do so. While most people understood Hadden’s use of the terms, he received strong protests from members of NRMs who wrote to him with their objections to the use of the word cult. He addressed this issue in a brief essay. “In time I came to understand that it is difficult to see one’s faith referred to as a cult, even in the context of scholarly inquiry.”[67] That the concept cult carries a heavy burden of cultural prejudice in public discourse, and the concept sect is only a little less pejorative, is not, Hadden suggests, a new development. It is linked to the gaping chasm between popular usage and the language of social scientific inquiry. He then goes on to explain why social scientists should not succumb to the easy and politically correct decision to cease using these concepts.

For Hadden these concepts have both fairly precise meaning and important utility for the construction of social science theory. The basic terminology cult and sect, along with a set of derivative concepts (e.g., audience cult, client cult, cult movement, sect movement, etc.) carry clear meanings and tell us a lot about the origins, development and likely futures of groups.

To abandon the concepts “cult” and “sect,” would likely result in an abdication of a good bit of the theoretical insight these concepts have spawned. That popular culture usage of these terms is inappropriate is not a reason to send science back to the drawing board in search of new words to convey the intellectual content of their theories. This, in my view, would be very bad science.[68]

Hadden describes how during the 1970s, in the midst of the high visibility of sects and cults as part of the youth counterculture, many social scientists sought to remove the negative views associated with the use of the term cult by substituting the concept new religious movement (NRM). He supports the sentiment, but in reality came to the conclusion that, “it is questionable whether it should be used as a surrogate for cult simply because cult is loaded with negative implications. Such usage, I would assert, is not appropriate for publications that are written for scholarly journals.”[69]

NRM as an analytical tool has not proven to be nearly as robust as the concepts cult and sect. Putting aside for a moment the question of whether the concepts cult and sect are critical for the advancement of science, Hadden was not convinced that new religious movements achieved the goals that those who introduced it had in mind.

It doesn’t communicate profoundly important information that is carried by the separate concepts. Its introduction invited a proliferation of additional concepts: “new religions,” “contemporary new religions,” “novel religions,” etc., without adding anything to the conceptual clarity. The development of science is not served when every scholar behaves as an entrepreneur with his or her own preferred terms. The use of the concept “new religious movements” in public discourse is problematic for the simple reason that it has not gained currency. Speaking bluntly from personal experience, when I use the concept “new religious movements,” the large majority of people I encounter don’t know what I’m talking about. I am invariably queried as to what I mean. And, at some point in the course of my explanation, the inquirer unfailing responds, “oh, you mean you study cults!”[70]

Stephen Hunt further illustrates the terminological complexity.[71] He asserts that the term cult has caused endless difficulty especially when it is interchanged with sect or other labels.[72] He then goes on to use a variety of characterisations to avoid using the word cult, such as Alternative Religions, Cults, Sectarianism and New Religious Movements.[73]

Hadden believed that it was necessary to retain the non-pejorative use of the terms cult and sect, while trying to educate the public about NRMs.[74] Saliba in fact does use the word cult, throughout his book, as well as other terms like new religions and the like. This is what Hadden argued would happen if people do not resolve the terminological problem. Instead of extinguishing the term cult there has been a proliferation of new terminology. Nor has Saliba resolved the issue.[75]

2.4.2 The Sociological Views of the ICSA

The ICSA quote Robbins’s review of sociological contributions to this study. He identifies four definitional perspectives:

a. cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;

b. cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;

c. cults as loosely structured protoreligions;

d. Stark and Bainbridge’s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes among “audience cults” (members seek to receive information, e.g., through a lecture or tape series) “client cults” (members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual guidance), and “cult movements” (organizations that demand a high level of commitment from members). The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that cult membership increases as church membership decreases.[76]

They also address the views of Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki who holds that sociologists often distinguish cult from Church, sect, and denomination. Cults are innovative, fervent groups. In Zablocki’s view, if they become accepted into the mainstream, they lose their fervour and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become Churches. When people within Churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations. Zablocki defines a cult as “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment.”[77]

Zablocki’s view is particularly helpful in coming to terms with the MMM. Langone cites Zablocki to the effect that cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members’ adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded. This characteristic is evident in the MMM. However, since this can also happen in bona fide, non-cultist religious groups it also reveals the problem of a narrow definition of the word cult.[78] The ICSA tends to expand on Zablocki’s definition by emphasising elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious. The relevance of Zablocki’s view to an understanding of fervent charismatic groups like the MMM is clear.

2.4.3 Eileen Barker and the Term NRM

The term NRM was originally coined by Dr Eileen Barker.[79] Barker makes the point that the use of the term does not imply that a movement is good or bad, that it is true or false, or genuine or fraudulent. She prefers the term new religious movement to cult precisely because it has acquired negative connotations in everyday parlance, even though cult (like sect) is sometimes used in a purely technical sense.

The application of the term ‘new religious movement’ does not in itself imply either confirmation or denial of the appropriateness of any particular group’s or movement’s self-definition whether the claim is that it is a religion or that it is not a religion, or that it is not new. For purely practical purposes the term should be taken as referring to those groups, movements or organisations that have been called ‘alternative religions’ ‘nonconventional religions’, ‘cults’ or ‘contemporary sects’.[80]

Hadden did not accept this as a good enough reason to use the term NRM. Saliba agrees:

Because of the ambiguous and derogatory meaning that the word ‘cult’ connotes, attempts have been made, largely by sociologists and religionists, to find a better phrase to designate those religious phenomena popularly known as cults. Phrases like ‘new religions’, ‘unconventional’, ‘fringe’, ‘alternative’, or ‘non-traditional’ religions, ‘intense religious groups’, and ‘new religious movements’ are common. The last phrase (NRMs for short) is used in professional literature, even though it has serious drawbacks.[81]

2.4.4 Massimo Introvigne & Gianni Ambrosio’s Views

Italian scholars Massimo Introvigne & Gianni Ambrosio have a different perspective to what has been mainly a North American approach.[82] In a 1990 study in Turin they asked the question, “What is a ‘new’ religious movement?”

The results showed that neither ‘new religious movements’ nor ‘new religions’ are really part of the general language in Italy. ‘Culto’ (cult) normally means a devotion within the Catholic Church (e.g. ‘cult of the Sacred Heart’), although scholars sometimes use ‘nuovi culti (new cults) to designate all or some new religious movements.[83]

Italian usage, according to the authors, tends to limit use of setta (sect) to groups of Christian origin like the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons. The survey, however, confirms that a large majority of the Italian public use the word sect to designate both historical Christian sects like the Mormons and new religious movements like the Unification Church or the Church of Scientology. Additionally, the survey shows that 40% of the Italian public normally understand the word sect and relate it to some sort of social problem, 25 % understand the term new religions, while very few people understand what a question concerning new religious movements, or new cults means.

‘Sects’ are perceived by 80% of the Italian public as something negative and/or dangerous (hence the scholarly preference for some other word). …Indeed, a specific feature of Italy seems to be the almost immediate link in the popular perception between the ‘problem of the sects’ and Jehovah’s Witnesses.[84]

It would be interesting to see this research replicated in Ireland.

2.5 Summarising the Literature

A study of the literature surfaces various understandings of terminology to describe the NRM phenomenon. Saliba has a problem with the word cult by definition, but feels it is impossible to speak about the subject without using the term in a sparing way.[85] Gomez views the term cult in the narrow sense of being heretical.[86] The ICSA hold that cult is the best word to use as it conveys most clearly what it is we are attempting to depict, but also want it used with reservations.[87] Some, like Eileen Barker still favour the use of the term NRM.[88] She also calls for the term to be used in a common sense way.[89] Introvigne summarises the issue well. “We should perhaps remark, once again, on the difficulties inherent in a general definition of ‘sects,’ ‘cults and ‘new religions’ independent from a specific country or time.”[90] The particularities of context remain a significant factor.

2.6 Cultism

What about Ireland? How is the terminological problem to be resolved? Louis Hughes makes an interesting suggestion.[91] He proposes cultism as the best term to describe the cult phenomenon here in Ireland and in the English speaking world. Hughes later clarified his standpoint, since cultism is a defect that can enter into and poison the way any group – religious or non-religious – functions.[92] Hughes shows the range his term addresses:

The cults we hear most about are new religious movements. While these are the main focus … it should be noted that there are also psychological, political, commercial, and New Age and science fiction cults that control their members’ lives no less ruthlessly. While concerns are most often expressed in connection with new religious movements, problems can also be found within groups claiming association with mainline religions.[93]

For Hughes the definitional point at issue is the abuse of authority, when boundaries are not respected and control is exercised. Used in this way the term is not intended to be offensive, but descriptive of the presence of a specific mentality within a group. It identifies a flaw that can enter into and poison the way any group – religious or non-religious – functions. The issues of cultism can be found anywhere at any time, even in one’s own affiliations. Hughes uses the term cult to designate any group, religious or otherwise, which subjects its members or would-be members to a potentially harmful degree of psychological pressure, intimidation, control, or deception. Because of the ambiguity that surrounds the term Hughes proposes that the word cult be used in parentheses. He quotes a French government definition to support his contention: “A cult is a totalitarian organization, whether religious or not, the behaviour of which affects human rights and social stability.”[94] The French view is very broad. It is noteworthy that the European research organisation FECRIS uses the French term sectairisme in its title. In 2004 when Ireland had the presidency of the European Union FECRIS wrote to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as follows,

FECRIS is concerned with cults, sects, (the more usual term in French), sometimes called new religious movements. We understand that sectarianism has a different connotation in Ireland connected to the inter-religious conflicts within Christianity.[95]

Not even in Europe is there agreement on terminology. Hughes also disagrees with those in the anti-cult movement who divide groups into two categories: cults and non-cults.

Questions have been raised about the prevailing mentality in the Society of Pius X and the Legionaries of Christ. According to Patrick Madrid and Peter Vere the Society of Pius X, by claiming that they were the only authentic upholders of the Catholic tradition and by entering schism, represent the classic sect type behaviour described by Cardinal Schönborn. [96] On the other hand, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner allege cultist tendencies in the Legionaries of Christ. [97] Renner and Berry raise important allegations.

(T)he evidence clearly suggests that the Legion is a Roman Catholic sect, built on a cult of personality that is centred on its founder. Maciel has fostered a militant spirituality by emulating fascistic principles he admired in the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. More disturbing, the Legionaries use psychologically coercive techniques common to cults. [98]

If these allegations of harm, control and boundary issues are true, we are confronted with an example of the cultist mentality within the Church. In this chapter, guided by the interdisciplinary character of practical theology today, we have reviewed the terminological challenges that face the pastoral theologian analysing cults, sects and NRMs. While the use of the word ‘cult’ has an agreed popular resonance, it surfaces serious technical difficulties that are shared with the words sect and sectarian. This being the case a choice must be made in the present work to avoid any terminology that might add confusion to an already complex situation. Terminology that is precise and clear is necessary for critical, analytical, descriptive and pastoral reasons, even in the absence of agreed definitions. For these important methodological reasons, in what follows the terms cultism and cultist mentality will be used in reference to the MMM phenomenon. Pastorally, what is at stake is not denunciation, but the accurate description and evaluation of an actual movement made up of real people, including Irish people, whose belief system derives from the Roman Catholic tradition, and whose trajectory surfaces many of the travails of that Church today.

[1] For a discussion of the concerns of practical theology and postmodern spirituality see J. Woodward and S. Pattison, eds, The Blackwell Reader in Pastoral and Practical Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000); See also R. Lennan, ed, An Introduction to Catholic Theology (Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1998) 164-183.

[2] See B. J. Lee “The Undistancing of the World: A Theological Anthropology” in M. H. Barnes and W. P. Roberts A Sacramental Life: A Festschrift Honoring Bernard Cooke (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2003) 41-55 at 54.

[3]See J. A. Coleman “Practical Theology and Congregational Studies” in Barnes & Roberts, ibid. 175-205 at 178. See also D. Tracey “Theologies of Praxis” in M. L. Lamb Creativity and Method: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan, (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1981) 35-51 at 44.

[4] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op.cit.

[5] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op. cit. 1.

[6] ibid. 2.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op. cit. 2.

[13] Hein op.cit.

[14] CRI, “Cults and Aberrational Groups” http:/ (accessed April 8, 2003). This site is no longer accessible.

[15] ibid.

[16] CRI, “Statement CP0200 What is a Cult?” (accessed May 29, 2006).

[17] F. Arinze, “The Challenge of the Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Approach” in M. Fuss, ed., Rethinking New Religious Movements (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University Research Center on Cultures and Religions, 1998) 769-771.

[18] F. Arinze, “The Challenge of the Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Approach” op. cit. 770.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid. 771.

[21] C. Schönborn, “Are There Sects within the Catholic Church” in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (August 13/20, 1997) 3.

[22] ibid.

[23] C. Schönborn, “Are There Sects within the Catholic Church” in L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (August 13/20, 1997) 3.

[24] Private email communication with the author (August 27, 2005).

[25] Kathpress news web page (accessed May 10, 2006).

[26] Private email communication with the author (August 27, 2005).

[27] J. Church Tydings, “Shipwrecked in the Spirit: Implications of Some Controversial Catholic Movements,” in Cultic Studies Journal 16 (1999)2 at 3-6.

[28] J. Church Tydings, op.cit. 3.

[29] M. Langone, ICSA email documentation (June 13, 2005).

[30] ibid.

[31] Vatican Secretariat for Non-Christians. (1986). “The Vatican Report – Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge” in Cultic Studies Journal 3 (1986), 1, 93-116.

[32] J. Church Tydings, op.cit.

[33] ibid 38.

[34] J. A. Saliba, op.cit. 7.

[35] ibid.

[36] AFF became the ICSA in 2005.

[38] L. J. West, & M. D. Langone, Cultism: A Conference for Scholars and Policy Makers (Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 1986) 117-134.

[40] ibid.

[41] M.D.Langone, “The Definitional Ambiguities of the Term Cult” (accessed May 10, 2006).

[42] ibid.

[43] ibid.

[44] M. D Langone, term_cult op. cit.

[45] ibid.

[46] M. D Langone, “The Definitional Ambiguities of the Term Cult” op.cit.

[47] ibid.

[48] ibid.

[49] ibid.

[50] M. D Langone, “The Definitional Ambiguities of the Term Cult” op.cit.

[51] ibid.

[52] ibid.

[53] M. D Langone, “The Definitional Ambiguities of the Term Cult” op.cit.

[54] ibid.

[55] J. A. Saliba, op.cit. 8.

[56] ibid. 40.

[57] M. Galanter, Cults, Faith, Healing, and Coercion (Oxford: OUP, 1989) 113-14.

[58] M. Galanter, Cults, Faith, Healing, and Coercion (Oxford: OUP, 1989) 113.

[59] ibid.

[60] J. A. Saliba, op.cit. 10.

[61] ibid. 10.

[62] ibid. 11.

[63] R. Enroth. “What Is a Cult?” in A Guide to Cults and New Religions<!–[if supportFields]>PRIVATE “TYPE=PICT;ALT=Off-site Link”<![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]> <![endif]–> (Downers Grove, Ill: Inter Varsity, 1983) 16.

[64] J. Hadden, “The Concepts ‘Cult’ and ‘Sect’ in Scholarly Research and Public Discourse”

http://religious (accessed May 10, 2006).

[65] ibid.

J. Hadden, op.cit.

[67] ibid..

[68] ibid.

[69] J. Hadden, “Cult Group Controversies: Conceptualizing ‘Cults’ and ‘Sect’,” op.cit. See also C. Partridge, Encyclopedia of New Religions (Oxford, Lion Publishing, 2004) 16-20.

[70] J. Hadden, op.cit.

[71] S. J. Hunt, Alternative Religions (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003).

[72] ibid. 17.

[73] ibid. v-vii.

[74] This issue will be addressed at the end of this chapter as a synthesis emerges.

[75] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op.cit. 12.

[76] M. D Langone, term_cult op. cit.

[77] M. D Langone, term_cult op. cit.

[78] ibid.

[79] J. Hadden, “Cult Group Controversies: Conceptualizing ‘Cults’ and ‘Sect’,” op.cit.

[80] E. Barker, New Religious Movements – A Practical Guide (London: HMSO, 1989) 4-5.

[81] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op.cit. 11.

[82] J. Aagaard, & H.Meldgaard, New Religious Movements in Europe op.cit.

[83] ibid. 42.

[84] J. Aagaard, & H.Meldgaard, New Religious Movements in Europe op. cit. 42.

[85] J. A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements op.cit. 2.

[86] See A. Hein’s Apologetics Index op.cit.

[87]M. D Langone, op. cit.

[88] E. Barker, New Religious Movements – A Practical Guide op.cit. 4 -5.

[89] ibid.

[90] J. Aagaard, & H.Meldgaard, New Religious Movements in Europe op.cit. 43.

[91] L. Hughes, “Cults and Cultism,” in The Furrow 44 (1993) 352- 358.

[92] L. Hughes, Private email communication to author (March 20, 2002).

[93] ibid.

[94] ibid.

[95] J. Nokin letter to Taoiseach B. Ahern (January 15, 2005).

[96] P. Madrid and P. Vere, More Catholic than the Pope (Huntingdon, IN Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2004).

[97] J. Berry and G. Renner, Vows of Silence (New York, Free Press, 2004).

5 Responses

  1. The decision to use the word ‘cult’ or NRM is irrelevant. While scholars debate the relative merits/demerits of each, groups and individuals who are racketeering in one way or another and who are abusing individuals and society are growing and increasing in influence, In a sense, the debate over the use of term is ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. Put the damned fire out, dont argue over what we should call the people who started it.
    Bloody intellectuals will bring about the downfall of society through their massaging of their own intellectual egos. If it were left to the working classes to deal with these groups/individuals they’d string the b****ds up, thus doing us all a favour and making the world a better place for our children, and our childrens children (Rousing stuff, perhaps I could found a ‘movement’-actually ive just had one;)


  2. From the cultfaq website ( ):

    It is, in fact, useless to abandon (and to advocate against the use of) the term ‘cult.’ After all, if deservedly controversial groups and movements like Aum Shinrikyo, the Church of Scientology, and the Unification Church were identified as, say, ‘pineapples,’ the term ‘pineapple’ would take on a negative connotation the moment people realize that you are using the term as a euphemism for ‘cult.’

    So the tl;dr* of Anton Hein’s point is this: Be specific about how you are using the word cult.

    *tl;dr means “too long; didn’t read”. It is commonly used to provide a very brief summary at the end of a long post.


  3. In speaking about Apologetics Index the author of this article appears to completely ignore the fact that, as publishers of the site, we evaluate groups and movements from both theological and sociological perspectives.

    We explain the difference at our CultFAQ site:

    A group can be a cult in a theological and/or sociological sense. Mormonism, for instance, is seldom considered a cult from a sociological perspective, but usually is identified as a cult of Christianity from a theological perspective.

    The Mormon Church is a cult of Christianity (i.e. it claims to be Christians even though its teaching violate the essential doctrines of the Christian faith). The term ‘Christian cult’ would not have been appropriate because it is confusing. ‘Cult of Christianity’ denotes a theological view, whereas ‘Christian cult’ would indicate a group that is both Christian (theologically) and a cult (sociologically).

    A group like the International Churches of Christ is a prime example of a movement that is a cult from both a theological and a sociological perspective. Here, too, the term ‘Christian cult’ would not be appropriate.

    Given that the term cult is so ambiguous, those who use it should always qualify it by explaining from what perspective it is being used. A cult wine is different from wine being used by a cult…

    In much of the world the term ‘sect’ is used where others would use ‘cult.’ This makes things even more confusing — and all the more necessary to place the word in context if and when it is used.

    We address these issues at our website.


  4. The current meaning of the word ‘cult’ has changed from the original meaning, so it would not concern me that it is dropped in favour of NRM. What is important is that any group that would have been classified as a cult does not slip under the NRM radar.

    A cult should be a cult by any name.

    Having looked at the conference website it seems that so far it is quite narrowly represented.


  5. I must say, the presence of L Cox at the conference is quite confusing, his being a supporter of one the Wests most controversial NRMs in recent years, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I had always thought that academics were objective observers; some of the blind spots he exhibited in his writings on the Order would seem to suggest that he has become yet another tool in the FWBO’s ‘legitimacy’ program, wherein members pose as neutral commentators then covertly promote their own preferred group as being representative of the ‘middle ground’, If long term sex abuse, financial fraud, rape and suicide are the norm in Irish NRMs, then God help the Irish!
    What next, Kelsang Gyatso of the New Kadampas on ‘Why the Dalai Lama has got it all wrong’? Maybe for dispassionate advice on Christianity you could call the Children of God???


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