The CBS Numb3rs episode which aired last Friday night, called “Atomic No. 33”*, made me start thinking about the use of the word “cult”. They used the word in Numb3rs to say that the FBI has a list of cults that they watch for violations of the law. I'm wondering if the FBI really does have such a list. If they do, should it really be called a cult list? It really does not matter if the organization claims if it is religious or not. It also does not matter if an organization is deemed by others to be religious or not. What does matter is if the group is breaking the law. However, if a law enforcement group such as the FBI does maintain a list of cults, then what is the criteria? I would suspect the criteria would be abnormal control of the members, abuse of members and/or illegal practices. What do I mean by abnormal control? I mean draconian methods of control such as pressuring members to giving up of all possession, requiring fasting and causing sleep deprivation. These are a common means of gaining control over members of a group.
For those who study ancient religions say the “cult” of Baal and do not really meant to be derogatory or that these groups were controlling or practicing something illegal at the time. Of course, the practices do not meet with my and probably my readers moral sense, but that is not the issue when an academic type is speaking of an ancient “cult”. It simply means the followers of a religion.
Sometimes in Christian contexts, the world “cult” is used to mean something entirely different than these two usages. I have used the word to mean that the group has left an essential doctrines of the faith such as the Apostles Creed, or Nicene Creed. These boil down to fairly basic points such as the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the deity of Christ, or the resurrection of Jesus. I am thinking in terms of interfaith dialog, the word “cult” may not carry the same message that I wish to convey since the other party may think I am merely insulting the group or misperceive the level of control the authorities in the church practice over the constituency. In thinking about terms that may be more descriptive, I considering the terms like “consciously embraced a creed that does not align with essentials of historic Christianity”. Wow, that is a mouth full so that probably will not work. But how do you describe the issue in such a way that gets to the point without insulting those who may think it is merely a jab at another group? Suggestions welcome in the comments.
* Note: The element in the periodic table with the atomic weight of 33 is arsenic. Arsenic was used in the church coffee pot which caused a mass poisoning.