The White Protestant Assumptions In The Word “Cult”

Here’s what you’re actually saying when you call something a cult.

1. The world ‘cult’ derives from the Latin ‘cultus,’ which simply means worship.

2. In the late nineteenth century some of the earliest scholars of religion began using it to describe the worship practices of so-called ‘primitive’ societies.  These people  believed that cultures evolved like species did, and that religious systems that emphasized ritual were inherently primitive, as opposed to religious systems that emphasized theology and ethical behavior, which were advanced. They believed this because they were Protestant and placed their own way of being religious on the top of the evolutionary ladder.

Of course, this had racial implications. “Cults” were religious systems that non-Protestants (and particularly non-white) people participated in; religion was what white people did.

3. Following this, in the early twentieth century, conservative Protestant evangelicals began to use the word “cult.” They, like the academics, used the word to refer to forms of Christianity that were, to them, fake Christianity: that is to say, non-Protestant. So, Roman Catholics and Mormons were cults because they mixed “real” Christianity with things that conservative Protestants thought weren’t really religious – like, for instance, ritual, or a charismatic leader. Again, though, “cult” meant to them “non-Protestant.”

4. In the 1960s and 1970s, these Protestant assumptions had sunk deeply enough into American culture that psychologists and sociologists started using the term to refer to religious systems that they found troubling. It was no mistake that most of these were Asian. Transcendental Meditation, formulated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India in the 1950s. The Unification Church, founded by Sun Myung Moon in Korea in the same time period. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishnas) founded in the 1960s by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. 

These religious movements did not seem religious at all because they weren’t Protestant. They demanded special dress from their believers (something virtually all religious traditions other than Protestantism require). They (like Roman Catholicism) had a charismatic leader. They pressed their followers to behave economically in distinctive ways. They emphasized ritual. And of course, they were led by people who were not white.

5. What people think they’re saying when they say “cult” is a religious movement that is abusive or dangerous in some way. If that is what you mean, simply say that. Use the phrase “abusive” or “dangerous” religion.  When you use the “cult” in a derogatory way, what you are doing is

a) implicitly asserting that only Protestantism is genuine religion, because the various meanings of “cult” we use today all stem from the idea that Protestantism should be normative: cults are religions that have charismatic leaders (Protestantism doesn’t); cults are religions that separate themselves from society (which Protestantism does in some countries, but not in the US, because Protestantism is dominant in society here); cults are religions that are “high-demand” (which Protestantism is not in the US, because it, again, frames what society is already like so it doesn’t have to be high-demand) and so on;

b) putting yourself in alliance with conservative evangelicals from the 1940s by assuming that these things are normal, and

b) drawing on a rhetorical legacy deeming the religious practices of non-white people as primitive.

So: don’t call religions “cults.”


  1. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    My favorite way of defining a cult came from my sociology of religion professor who stated “A cult is any group not powerful enough to defend itself against being labeled a cult.” That used to be the LDS Church, but it is now powerful enough to push back and defend against it.

  2. Interesting. For me this raises question about modern language usage, how language changes over time, and to what extent earlier uses of the words should impact how / whether we use them today. I don’t think the vast majority of people today who use the word “cult” are doing a, b, or c or would be understood by listeners to be doing that because cult simply means something else today than it did before. I do agree that certain words are so offensive that it shouldn’t matter whether they’ve changed, we should avoid them, but I don’t know if this falls into that category (thinking on that).

    That said, “cult” is not a well-defined or precise term at all and I agree that calling religions “cults” is generally unproductive and a conversation-stopper. High demand religion is one possible term, although that doesn’t capture the “harm” aspect of it. Not sure of a word that does. What would you call Scientology or Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate or People’s Temple Movement (Jonestown) if you had to use a term or phrase?

  3. Kilted Bob says:

    Elisa well said. What is the definition people use today?
    a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
    “the cult of St. Olaf”
    a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
    a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
    “a cult of personality surrounding the leaders”
    a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, especially among a particular section of society.
    “a cult film”

    You provide some good examples of organizations who could fall under the above definitions. As an active, every Sunday attending member of the LDS church, I think sometimes (sometimes a lot) we LDS folks can be pretty culty, and exhibit cult-like behavior. Don’t believe me? Just look at all the social media post coming during General Conference next month. ;)

  4. Michael Austin says:

    I suspect, but I have not done the research necessary to prove, that, at some point, the word “cult” merged in the popular mind with the word “occult” and took on some of the spooky, supernatural connotations that occultism has always had. This is especially true in the Evangelical counter-cult movement of the 80s and 90s, in which Mormons were described, not merely as deluded members of a false and harmful religion, but as actual devil worshippers whose sacred texts and founding revelations had a satanic provenance. When most people use the word “cult” today, they seem to imbue it with at least a tinge of occultism.

  5. Elisa:

    “Not sure of a word that does. What would you call Scientology or Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate or People’s Temple Movement (Jonestown) if you had to use a term or phrase?”

    I’d call religions like that “abusive religions.” I think the word “cult” implies there is a special category of religion that are inherently harmful, and that (as ‘Kilted Bob’s’ dictionary definition implies) religions with charismatic leaders or that are not culturally mainstream or whatnot are inherently harmful. I don’t think that’s the case.

    Of course the meaning of words changes over time, but I believe the way we use ‘cult’ in America still is rooted, ultimately, in religious and ethnic bigotry.

  6. I appreciate the OP and the Protestant history. It adds an important perspective. However, having been engaged in discussions that ended up categorically banning the word and its derivatives in a particular setting, I think there’s more to the story or question that goes to modern usage, where “cult” is so often derogatory, so often a quick slur without thought or substance. I think of a category that includes Black and queer and cult. And Mormon. Words that have a complex history and have been used in different ways. As a straight white Mormon I’m cautious about all these words, but my 2022 sense is that Black has been largely rehabilitated (although it’s certainly possible to misuse it), queer is in process headed toward rehabilitation, cult is in slur territory and not moving, and Mormon has moved rapidly toward slur in recent years (but only when used on the inside; I still don’t think the outside world cares).

  7. Old Man says:

    From what I’ve experienced, the use of “cult” in the history/sociology/religious studies world is more aligned with the concept of a religious group emphasizing ritualistic veneration of a place or person. Some (as A Turtle name Mack noted above) viewed it as an attempt to denigrate smaller or unpopular faiths. The use of “cult” as a pejorative is considered backward and misinformed.

  8. Old Man, I think that’s true in theory, about history/sociology/religious studies. I wonder if it matters, this late in the game?
    The actual occasions where I hear the word cult run at least 99 to 1 pejorative to technical. That’s partly because of where I spend my time, and partly because everybody I know in history/sociology/religious studies is well aware of misuse of the word and would couch it with a paragraph of explanation if they really needed to use it. The fact that there is a useful and arguably neutral definition doesn’t redeem the word unless there is an overwhelming wave of careful use. I don’t see signs of life.

  9. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    In many disciplines we might initially teach about “cults”, explaining its technical intent and how the term has been used, and then how its use has evolved through the years. But then settle on the current terminology of “new religious movement”. It’s not a perfect term, but I like how it emphasizes how these groups typically don’t start as religions, but as movements. This surely explains how Joseph Smith thought about the beginnings of his group, more a movement than a religion, or a Church.

  10. Interesting Protestant perspective I had not considered. Not sure I agree that religions should not be classified as cults of the meet the criteria. Visions of your thoughts on Steven Hassan’s BITE model related to cults. It feels much more precise and necessary to evaluate before we toss the word out in relation to religions.

    An assessment of Mormonism within the BITE model (not mine):

  11. Aussie Mormon says:

    “Visions of your thoughts on Steven Hassan’s BITE model related to cults.”

    It’s easy to call anything you want a cult if you’re the one writing the definition of a cult

  12. danielcpeterson says:

    The last portion of a book that I wrote many years ago considered the polemical deployment of the term “cult” against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was extremely widespread at that time among Evangelical Protestants. It might perhaps still have some value or relevance:

  13. rickpowers says:

    “Cult” is a word/weapon of mass destruction. It divides and seeks to conquer. A cult is what you believe and a bona fide religion is what I believe. It’s a catch-all term to describe anything that I don’t understand, but fear. Are some truly evil? Oh, yeah. Some.

  14. Cliff kirk says:

    Yes iskcon in Ireland collage when you study philosophy they rate Hare Krishna as second most dangerous religion in the world first is scientology, I was told this by ex devotee who went there for 2 years

%d bloggers like this: