Mon, Nov 26, 2018 - Page 8 News List

The C-word: what are we saying when we talk about cults?

All kinds of violent deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion, from wars to witch-burnings to child sex abuse cover-ups. Why don’t we use the word cult more widely?

By Laura Woollett  /  The Guardian

Originally, the word “cult” simply meant “to worship.” Deriving from the same root as “culture” and “cultivation,” it described rituals and offerings intended to cultivate the favor of gods, saints and other holy figures. The term later took on negative connotations, and by the mid-20th century was mostly associated with charlatans and violent or otherwise bizarre fringe groups.

Today, a cult might loosely be defined as any group exhibiting a combination of qualities including (but not limited to): a charismatic leader, mind-altering practices, sexual and economic control and exploitation of members, us-versus-them attitudes towards outsiders and an ends-justify-the-means philosophy.

WAS Jonestown A CULT?

By this definition, it’s difficult to argue that Peoples Temple wasn’t a cult. After all, they had a leader who was notoriously charismatic, and who exerted a disproportionate level of control over his congregation. Members were often overworked and overtired, their finances and sex lives regulated by leadership. Relationships with outsiders were generally discouraged, and Jones was known to sexually abuse both male and female followers. Meanwhile, an ends-justify-the-means line of thinking was employed to justify everything from faked healings to the ultimate massacre of more than 900 individuals.

Yet I can understand the impulse of Jonestown survivors, and others, to shy away from the “cult” label. It’s reductive, at best; dehumanizing, at worst.

“Cult is an expression reserved for those religions of which we disapprove,” states Rebecca Moore, a religious studies scholar who lost two sisters and a nephew in Jonestown. When headlines labeled the Jonestown dead “cultists” in the days immediately following the massacre, they relegated them to the sidelines of humanity.

This made it easier for the public to distance themselves from the tragedy and its victims, dismissing them as weak, gullible, unsuited to life and unworthy of postmortem respect. Bodies weren’t autopsied.

Families were denied the timely return of their relatives’ remains. A thousand “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” jokes were launched. Is the violence of the group’s demise, and our eagerness to distance ourselves from it, ultimately to blame for the persistence of the “cult” label?

Certainly, we seldom hear of cults that don’t end catastrophically. Certainly, had Jonestown ended some other way — with Jim Jones dying of natural causes, for instance, and his followers leaving the group or carrying on without him — Peoples Temple would likely be remembered differently. As significant as the violence is, however, all kinds of violent deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion, from wars to witch-burnings to child sex abuse cover-ups. Why isn’t the C-word applied, in these cases?

The association between “cult” and “cool” is a more recent phenomenon. We talk of cult films, cult bands, cult novels, the cult of fitness and Justin Bieber. It seems that almost anything can be called a cult, provided it has a following — a trend that feels especially meta, given the contemporary craze for cult-related media.

Popular true crime podcast My Favorite Murder even went so far as to establish a “Fan Cult,” offering members exclusive content and matching t-shirts at a cost of US$39.99 per annum.

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