No one wants their group to be labeled a “cult.” But should the title sometimes be applied? And if so, when, for what groups, and how?
In 2021, investigative journalist Sarah Berman published Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM.
Paired with the HBO miniseries “The Vow,” the book details the tempestuous rise and fall of NXIVM and its leader Raniere, who was convicted of sex trafficking, racketeering and fraud in 2019. He was later sentenced to 120 years in prison.
In the book, Berman shares that NXIVM members explicitly wanted to avoid having their community called a “cult.”
Members of groups labeled “cults” often see themselves as believers and disciples — not cult members. Moreover, NXIVM insiders knew the power of the word “cult” and the public probing or state-sanctioned opprobrium it could bring.
Meanwhile, family members, ex-members, law enforcement and media use the term “cult” to drum up interest about, discredit or accuse these groups.
The label comes with certain stereotypes: a charismatic, crazy-eyed leader, rituals and robes, “end times” prophecies or other seemingly strange and reclusive behaviors that don’t fit our definition of what a “real religion” should be.
In general, whenever a news story about such a community comes to the fore, readers tend to get freaked out and fascinated all at the same time. That heady mix seems to sell.
Despite journalists’ general skepticism about the term and its use, moviemakers, columnists and podcasters continue to cash in on the allure of “cult” stories.
Search any streaming platform and you’ll quickly find a selection of documentaries — like Netflix’s Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (2022), about Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or 2017’s hit Wild Wild Country, about Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his onetime community of followers in Wasco County, Oregon. Even popular action-adventure games like “Cult of the Lamb” play on popular ideas and images around cults and their dark, alluring secrecy and power.
If popular culture were not powerful enough to push the “cult” narrative, questions about a supposed cult’s involvement in the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the anniversaries of horrendous and infamous events such as Jonestown, Waco and Heaven’s Gate keep the dangers of “cults” at the forefront of our minds year after year.
This edition of ReligionLink explores reporting, analysis and commentary around the term “cult,” helping you better understand the word, its uses, and how to report thoughtfully, carefully and sensitively on the subject.
Background and resources for reporting
Most religion journalists and scholars agree: The word “cult” should probably be shelved.
But some organizations, such as the International Cultic Studies Association, say there are specific criteria that make a cult a cult and sometimes it is helpful to use the term if it fits.
In popular parlance, the word marks certain social groups as irregular, predatory, abusive, irrational, dangerous and outside the bounds of “respectable” religion. When we hear the term “cult,” we already think we know everything there is to know about that group. It is dangerous. It is deviant. It does not deserve to be treated like a “real” religion.
As Northeastern University professor Megan Goodwin pointed out, using “cult” to label religious or social groups that we don’t like or that we consider “strange” often marks those communities as “legitimate targets of state surveillance and violence.”
One of the most popular substitute terms for “cult” is “New Religious Movement,” or NRM. NRMs are religious groups with more contemporary and is marginalized from society’s accepted religious culture. They are sometimes referred to as alternative spiritualities, alternative religions or simply new religions.
The resources below take you deeper into the debate on terminology, why it matters, and how it applies to specific movements:
- Read “Compared to What? ‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements,’” by Eugene V. Gallagher.
- Read “Factsheet: New Religious Movements,” from the Religion Media Centre.
- Read “The Public Perception of ‘Cults’ and ‘New Religious Movements,’” by Paul J. Olson.
- Listen to “Smart Grrl Summer: What are ‘cults’? Why do we hate that word so much?” from the “Keeping it 101 Podcast.”
- Listen to “Cults and NRMs” from the Religious Studies Project.
- Read “Is it a cult, or a new religious movement?” by Tina Rodia.
- Listen to “New Directions in the Study of Scientology” from the Religious Studies Project.
- Read “New Books in New Religious Movements, 2015-2018” by Courtney Applewhite.
- Listen to “Millennialism and Violence?” from the Religious Studies Project.
- Listen to “Minority Religions and the Law” from the Religious Studies Project.
- Read The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? by Eileen Barker.
- Read Cults, Religion, and Violence, edited by David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton.
- Read The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11, edited by Sylvester A. Johnson and Steven Weitzman.
- Read Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell.
- Read The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, by Hugh B. Urban.
- Read Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, by Benjamin E. Zeller.
Red flags in reporting
To better understand and report on NRMs’ real-life contexts, religion journalist Sarah Ventre embedded herself in Short Creek — a community on the Utah-Arizona border — for three months. Short Creek was already infamous because of its associations with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, when Ventre moved in.
Living in the former home of the FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs, she detailed the struggles of a town divided not just by state boundaries, but by beliefs. The result was the podcast “Unfinished: Short Creek.”
Preparing for her reporting, Ventre noted the renewed interest in such communities. Although there were dozens of documentaries, podcasts and reality TV shows devoted to the topic, she noted a serious lack of best practices for reporting thoughtfully, carefully and sensitively on religious groups that are new, small or have a vastly different theology than a religion reporter’s core market.
She said, “There is a great need for reporters — and their audiences — to approach these communities and topics with a lot of cultural humility.”
In general, Ventre said, when reporting on these communities, “try replacing the name of the smaller religious community with that of a large one in a sentence and see if it strikes you as odd.
“Would you say that someone escaped the Catholic Church, even if they were abused? Would you say someone was brainwashed by a rabbi? Et cetera,” she said.
Agreeing with Ventre, Shirlee Draper, director of operations for Cherish Families, which provides services and support to families, especially from polygamous cultures, said it’s imperative that newswriters eschew euphemisms, avoid the word “cult” and consider taking an approach to reporting that is trauma-informed.
“Journalists should understand that victims, survivors and former members of these cultures and communities may have experienced serious trauma,” she said. “That means they need take into consideration how their actions will impact families and individuals once the interview is done and the piece published.
“In the end, it’s about vulnerability and ameliorating the power differential between survivor and journalist,” said Draper.
Based on her experiences in the field, Ventre shared a list of red flags that reporters and readers should remain aware of when evaluating news stories on NRMs:
- Pieces that make broad generalizations about an entire community.
- Claims about practices and customs without transparent sourcing and fact checking.
- Words that are inherently othering, including: cult, compound, outside world, brainwashing, mind control, etc.
- Pieces that always attribute abusive or problematic behavior to the whole community, rather than those in power or directly responsible, unless there are structural community issues at play.
- Pieces that frame someone’s narrative differently than they frame it themselves.
- Pieces with a lack of critical skepticism toward gatekeepers who claim to speak for a group or have insider knowledge even if they are not a part of that group.
The following stories, analyses and commentary from around the globe should be read with these red flags in mind. They are provided below to show how the word “cult” is used and what reporting on NRMs looks like — including the good, bad and in-between:
- Read “Gloriavale: Enlightening, heartrending doco lifts the veil on ‘NZ’s secret cult’” from Stuff.co.nz on Aug. 17, 2022.
- Read “Jiangsu Megachurch Holds Lecture on Anti-Cult,” from China Christian Daily on Aug. 15, 2022.
- Read “Cult Survivor Backed for Telling Sister She Was Just Like Kidnapper Dad” from Newsweek on Aug. 11, 2022.
- Read “Asian Cults And Castes, Where New Religions Meet Power Politics,” from The Initium on Aug. 11, 2022.
- Read “Recess Co-Creator Recalls Ignoring Disney About Cult-Themed Episode,” from Screen Rant on Aug. 8, 2022.
- Read “How Judaism, Scientology, Christianity, mythology and God knows what else haunt the dreams of Netflix’s ‘Sandman’” from The Forward on Aug. 5, 2022.
- Watch “New edict purportedly from FLDS leader Warren Jeffs raises alarm,” from Fox13 Salt Lake City on Aug. 1, 2022.
- Read “Church or cult? Abe murder spotlights Unification Church and other South Korean ‘pseudo-religious’ groups,” from This Week in Asia on July 30, 2022.
- Read “Shinzo Abe’s Assassin and Japan’s Complicated Spirituality,” from The New Yorker on July 26, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “The Cult of Donald Trump” from The Intercept on July 22, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “Abe’s assassination has shone a light on Japan’s faith industry,” from The Financial Times on July 16, 2022.
- Read “Ex-Scientologist Mike Rinder has memoir out in September,” from AP News on July 12, 2022.
- Read “Religious lies, conmen and coercive control: how cults corrupt our desire for love and connection,” from The Conversation on July 10, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “‘Religion gone bad’: What makes a cult, a cult? Was the Elder Council one?” from the Daily Commercial on July 4, 2022.
- Read “AI, cult charges embroil Google in religious controversies,” from Axios on June 22, 2022.
- Read “Google allegedly infiltrated by ‘cult-like religious sect,’” from Futurism on June 16, 2022.
- Read “How ‘Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey’ Makes the Horrors of Religious Cults Easy to Understand,” from Collider on June 15, 2022 (Commentary).
- Read “What Is People of Praise? ‘Cult’ Tied to Amy Coney Barrett,” from Newsweek on June 6, 2022.
- Read “Nxivm founder alleges FBI tampered with key evidence in his case, asks conviction be vacated,” from CNN on May 3, 2022.
- Read “Raskin says he’s worked with cult ‘deprogrammers’ to better talk to some GOP members,” from Religion News Service on April 22, 2022.
- Read “Just Say No: The Four-Letter Word Religion Writers Really Want To Avoid,” from Religion Unplugged on April 1, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “Behind the Curtain of the Heaven’s Gate Cult,” from JStor Daily on March 25, 2022.
- Read “Entering A Religion-Beat Minefield: What Is The Proper Definition Of The Word ‘Cult’?” from Religion Unplugged on Feb. 15, 2022 (Analysis).
- Read “QAnon isn’t a cult – a problematic term – but Michael Protzman’s Q-adjacent ‘Negative48’ certainly is,” from Religion Dispatches on Jan. 28, 2022.
- Read “Insights from a Religion Reporter,” from The Revealer on Nov. 4, 2021.
- Read “What Makes a Cult a Cult?” from The New Yorker on July 12, 2021 (Commentary).
- Listen to the “Sounds like a cult” podcast from 2021.
- Read “Yep, a Hamster Cult Is Currently Battling a Lana Del Rey Cult on TikTok,” from Distractify on Feb. 21, 2021.
- Read “Inside the Fringe Japanese Religion That Claims It Can Cure Covid-19,” from The New York Times on April 16, 2020.
- Listen to “Heaven’s Gate” podcast, from Witness Docs in 2018.
- Read “The C-word: what are we saying when we talk about cults?” from The Guardian on November 18, 2018 (Analysis).
- Read “With ‘cult narrative’ on the rise, professor argues for nuanced look at religious movements,” from the Cap Times on May 4, 2018.
- Read “Don’t be tooken in by Kimmy Schmidt’s cult,” from Religion Dispatches on April 3, 2015 (Analysis).
- Read “Selling Scientology at the Super Bowl,” from Sightings on Feb. 10, 2014 (Analysis).
- Read “Cult vs. religion: what’s the difference?” from The Baltimore Sun on Oct. 13, 2011 (Commentary).
Experts and potential sources
Eileen Barker is a professor emeritus in the sociology department at the University of London. She studies minority religions, including cults, sects and New Religious Movements, and relevant social conditions.
Michal R. Belknap is an emeritus professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego. He wrote the essay “Cults and the Law” for the book Religion and American Law: An Encyclopedia.
Henrik Bogdan is professor in religious studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His main areas of research are alternative forms of religion, such as Western esotericism, New Religious Movements and secret/initiatory societies.
Martha Sonntag Bradley is a professor of architecture and dean of the undergraduate studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She is the author of Pedestals & Podiums: Utah Women, Religious Authority & Equal Rights and Kidnapped From That Land: The Government Raids on the Short Creek Polygamists.
David G. Bromley is a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He specializes in sociology of religion, with a particular emphasis on the study of New Religious Movements and the anti-cult movement. He is co-editor of Cults, Religion, and Violence.
Cherish Families is a nonprofit founded and largely staffed by people from polygamist backgrounds. According to the organization’s website, Cherish Families aims to “connect individuals and families, primarily those from polygamist cultures, with tools and resources for generational success.” Alina Darger is executive director and Shirlee Draper is director of operations.
George D. Chryssides is a visiting research fellow in theology and religious studies, York St. John University, U.K. His research has focused on New Religious Movements, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was formerly head of religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton.
Carole M. Cusack is professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney, Australia. Trained as a medievalist, Cusack has taught about contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture since the 1990s.
William Ellis is professor emeritus of English and American studies at Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton. He is the author of Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live.
Megan Goodwin is a visiting lecturer on philosophy and religion at Northeastern University in Boston and the program director for Sacred Writes, an initiative aimed at increasing public scholarship on religion. She studies and writes about New Religious Movements, minority religions in the U.S., gender, sexuality and race.
Stephen Gregg is is senior lecturer in religious studies at the University of Wolverhampton and the honorable secretary of the British Association for the Study of Religions. His background is in 19th-century Hindu philosophy, but in recent years he has specialized in minority religious movements. Contact via the University of Wolverhampton’s experts portal.
Steven Hassan has written several books about cult experiences, including Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs. Hassan lives in the Boston area.
Dusty Hoesly is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He studies New Religious Movements, secularism and how minority faith groups shape American culture.
The International Cultic Studies Association applies research and professional perspectives on cultic groups to educate the public and help those who have been harmed through the manipulation and abuse of some cultic groups.
Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, where he researches New Religious Movements and American religious history.
John R. Llewellyn is a retired Salt Lake County, Utah, sheriff’s lieutenant who extensively investigated polygamy cults. A former polygamist, he wrote Polygamy Under Attack: From Tom Green to Brian David Mitchell; A Teenager’s Tears: When Parents Convert To Polygamy; and Murder of a Prophet: The Dark Side of Utah Polygamy. Llewellyn is now a monogamist and muckraker, and he was lead investigator in two major lawsuits against polygamist cults.
Timothy Miller is a historian of American religion in the religious studies department at the University of Kansas. His expertise is in new and alternative religions, and he has written about the impact of the influx of Eastern spirituality after the 1965 immigration reform act.
Amanda Montell is a a writer, linguist, and podcast host living in Los Angeles. She is the author of the book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism and co-host of the Spotify Top 20 podcast, “Sounds like a cult.”
Sean O’Callaghan is an associate professor of religion at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He studies New Religious Movements, religiously motivated violence and transhumanism.
Susan Palmer studies New Religious Movements and teaches religious studies at Concordia University and McGill University.
Lindsay Hansen Park is host of the “Year of Polygamy” podcast and executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, which is a platform to discuss the diverse range of Mormon belief and practice through scholarship, art, short fiction and poetry.
Erin Prophet is a lecturer in the religion department at the University of Florida. She studies cults and New Religious Movements.
James T. Richardson is Emeritus Foundation Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. He wrote the essay “Public Policy Toward Minority Religions in the United States: A Model for Europe?” for the book Religion and Public Policy.
Andrew Singleton is a sociologist of religion at Deakin University in Australia. He studies spirituality, New Religious Movements and young people’s relationship with faith.
Judith Weisenfeld is a professor of religion at Princeton University, where she specializes in American religion, with an emphasis on the 20th century and African American religion. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949. She has taught 17 courses, including ones on religion and American film, religion and the civil rights movement, and “cult” controversies in America
Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, has written widely on theosophy, millennialism, New Religious Movements and New Age religions. She is co-editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions.