Sunday, November 13, 2011

What's a cult?

What’s a cult? Is Mormonism a cult?

It’s often hard to define things. Where Mormonism is concerned, you could begin with a definition of “cult,” then see if that applies to Mormonism.

However, I think that, historically, this procedure is probably backwards. I think the definition of a “cult” arises by process of abstraction from certain religious movements that are treated as paradigm-cases of the thing to be defined. The definition generalizes from those concrete examples. To my knowledge, at the time Christian apologists began to classify the cults, Mormonism was one of the definitive religious movements they had in mind. So, by definition, Mormonism is a cult. Mormonism could only avoid that classification by undergoing radical change.

It’s like asking if Amiens is a gothic cathedral. I suppose you could always begin with a definition. But Amiens is one of the buildings that defines Gothic architecture in the first place.

Over time, this definition is then extended to other, or newer, comparable movements. But this can also result in a rather dated or wooden definition inasmuch as the definition was formulated in reference to certain examples at the time of writing.

Those may furnish an insufficient basis for further extrapolation. If, say, the definition had been formulated a 100 years earlier or later, it might differ in some respects inasmuch as the defining examples might be different.

i) One element in a standard definition is blind allegiance to an authority figure or blind allegiance to institutional authority. This also introduces a psychological dynamic to the definition.

ii) Another element in the standard definition is heresy. But this calls for two qualifications:

a) A heresy is not, itself, a cult. For a heresy is a teaching that denies a fundamental doctrine of the faith, whereas a cult is a sociological phenomenon, viz. a movement with leaders and followers. A cult may mobilize around a heresy, but it has a social identity as well as a theological idenity.

b) In addition, “heresy” is a theological category, but there are secular “cults”–as well as a cultic mindset. Something you can find in sports, politics, science, etc. Perhaps we’d say that’s analogous to certain religious movements.

iii) Finally, I myself am tempted to define a cult as a movement or mentality that either treats unimportant things as all-important or treats all-important things as unimportant. 


  1. I am assuming you would accept this?


    A small culture within a larger culture, perhaps?

    Within the broad culture of the United States the connotation using the word "cult" seems to be immediately negative and nefarious?

    Using the word "culture" instead of the word "cult" kind of sweetens the effect causing the negative "feelings" to subside??

    When you add the word heresy into the understanding there is a strength that comes back to either word, cult or culture, as in a heretical cult or culture.

    Again, for me, Mormonism is both a cult, a culture built around a heretical form of Christian religion started as a movement somewhere back in New York by Joseph Smith in 1830, wasn't it?

  2. I like your definition, Steve.

    I recall calling Jehovah Witnesses a "cult"- and a Christian pastor corrected me. Calling it a "Christian sect" instead.

    So...I think I can be gracious enough to call Roman Catholicism a "Christian sect" as well. Despite their "all-important" anathemas.

  3. "..unimportant things as all-important or treats all-important things as unimportant."

    Made me think of the Amish, and that great film 'Witness'.

    Thanks for always posting things that are way less shallow then what our Church is used to as they listen to the CCM and Christian radio airwaves. Keep on.

  4. One of my favorite films.