In November of 1978, over 900 members of The People’s Temple died after drinking cyanide-laced juice in an event that would shock the world. To this day, “The Jonestown Massacre” has gone down as one of the most infamous cult-related events in human history.
Cult hysteria, and those who fear these groups, often label religious organizations that don’t fit any typical religious standpoints as a “cult.” However, the definition of a cult in pop culture has changed, according to some religious experts.
Dave Embree, a professor of religion at Missouri State University, is an expert on this topic. Embree teaches a class called “New Religious Movements,” which talks about many of the groups commonly labeled by the public as cults.
“The term ‘cult’ is interesting because it has become sort of a universally pejorative and negative term,” Embree said. “I have people dropping into this office on a regular basis, and they’re saying things like, ‘I think this group is a cult.’ Generally, what this really means is ‘this is a group that I don’t trust and that’s up to something dangerous.’”
Embree says the fear of danger comes from the tragedies that many see in the news. Events like The Jonestown Massacre are still in the minds of those who fear these religious groups.
“Consequently, the term cult has been used to measure the danger of a particular group,” Embree said. “There are hundreds of books with the word cult in the title. If they’re written from a particular doctrinal perspective, then a cult is just ‘anything that doesn’t agree with me.’”
In the ‘80s, however, there was a strong anti-cult movement, which saw a cult as anything that robbed people of their choice or free will. During this time period, the word “brainwashing” was thrown around a lot.
Embree cautions skeptics to stay away from the word cult, opting to use “new religious movements” instead.
“New religious movements is a safer term because there are a lot of different views out there, many of which have originated since 1800,” Embree said. “However, they don’t all fit the same structure. Many of those cult books talk about specific requirements, like a charismatic leader who controls people’s lives or who asks for a lot of money. Well, that’s sort of like a lot of the health clubs around. That’s a lot like the Army. That’s a lot like multi-level sales organizations that are out there.”
To Embree, there is a distinction between structure and belief system.
“When you meet a group, it’s important to ask what they believe,” Embree said. “You have to think about whether or not what they believe will put you dangerously out of sync with what you already believe.”
It’s also important to consider if there are real emotional, physical and financial dangers when getting involved with these groups.
A new religious movement is a religious organization that began after the year 1800. Groups that fit the category of a new religious movement would include, but are not limited to, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Satanic Temple — which doesn’t actually believe in Satan — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the traditional medical storefronts seen around town.
Locally, several new religious movements are present. The Satanic Temple, LDS Church, Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many “new eastern medicine” storefronts that serve as ways of “modern healing” have locations in Springfield, to name a few.
“These groups all say, ‘We want to give you a new way of looking at reality and a new way of coping with the world in which you live,’” Embree said. “Probably none of these groups that I just named are particularly physically threatening, nor all that financially threatening.”
There are other groups, like white supremacist groups, that advocate violence against others who aren’t white. Such groups argue that those of white skin with “white brains” are superior, according to Embree.
“Flip that around, and you’ll see groups like Nation of Islam, which on the surface talks about how they believe Allah is black and how white people are blue-eyed devils with genetic mutations created by mad scientists,” Embree said. “Throughout the last 30 or 40 years, however, they have not been pursuing violent repercussions. However, in prisons, where some recruitment takes place with both white and black supremacy groups, there is a propensity for violence, assuring mutual protection if you get involved in one of these groups.”
Rob Rook, a member of the Temple of Set, said that groups often get labeled as cults because people don’t bother to understand their ideologies. Rook also said that groups that use coercion and push people away from others who aren’t in the group would meet the cult criteria.
“When I first came to Missouri State University, there was a church that I became involved with called the International Church of Christ, which is not longer around,” Rook said. “Pretty much every other church in town considered them a cult. I think that they pretty much epitomize what people expect of a cult.”
Rook said the church was like any other church at first.
“They become a part of your life like any church,” Rook said. “Things start to get strange as you get more involved. The pastor, for instance, took all of the single guys and told us that we could serve God better by asking a new girl out every week, so that by Sunday, we could ask her to church. He wanted more young women to join the church.”
Rook says that he got kicked out of the church at one point because a pastor ordered him not to go home to his mother for Christmas because she believed that International Church of Christ was a cult. He said he was then marked, which meant he was a tool of the devil.
“Nobody in the church was allowed to talk to me after that,” Rook said. “It’s coercion like that that makes people think different groups are cults.”
Ted Vaggalis, a professor of philosophy at Drury University, also weighed in on what he believes the term cult really means.
“Cult comes from the Latin term ‘cultus,’ and it refers to groups of believers who have a ‘kite religious connection together,’” Vaggalis said. “Any sect of Christianity that fits the idea of a cult relates to culture.”
Vaggalis said the term became associated with Walter Martin and his book “Kingdom of the Cults” that wanted to paint a sinister portrayal of religious groups, such as Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and others.
Vaggalis said people who believe the books labelling different groups as cults are not the typical paranoid people that you would expect.
“They’re usually bright people, who, not knowing whether or not the authors are competent in the subject, accept the books for what they are,” Vaggalis said. “It’s not a matter of education, but rather, a lot of people don’t have time to pay attention to anything besides this one book, because it has a lot of information.
“What they don’t account for is the motive. Faiths are a refuge from the world, and when things are called into question, they are frightened.”