Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What is a Cult?

The other day an atheist on the Guardian’s Comment is Free discussion forum defined a cult as a small unpopular religion and a religion as a large popular cult.

There is little doubt that ‘cult’ is a bad word and no one wants to admit to being a member of one. In that way, it is a bit like the word ‘heretic’. You can even decline the entire grammatical form:

I am orthodox
You are unorthodox
She is a heretic
We are a religion
You are a sect
They are a cult

So is it all wholly subjective? I’d like to offer an objective definition of a cult which, I think, captures the essence of what we think cults are.

For me, a religious organisation (broadly conceived) is a cult if they reserve their most important secrets to the initiated. In other words, if their theology is not laid face up on the table, you are dealing with a cult. Christianity, Islam and mainstream Judaism have no secrets. Everything that these religions profess is public knowledge (even if many regular members are ignorant of the details). With Scientology, most people’s archetypal cult, no one gets all the ‘big secrets’ until they have paid big money to move up the hierarchy.

Most cults get bad publicity, but one historical cult has traditionally been given a very easy ride by the media. It is described as tolerant and sometimes, bizarrely, as inclusive. I’m talking, of course, about the ancient Gnostics. They owe their rather cuddly reputation to the wildly misleading bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels. In reality, the Gnostics were a cult reserved for men where only initiates were allowed to know the true secrets as revealed by the risen Christ. Nowadays, we can read their confidential documents from the Nag Hammadi Library and they are pretty thin gruel. I expect that the disclosures when you get to the top of the tree in the scientologists are just as disappointing.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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