The C-Word: ‘Cults’

Scholars have spent decades advocating alternative terms for new and emergent religions – but have we become a ‘muted voice’?

The ‘cult debate’ may not be as prominent as it was during the 1970s and 80s, yet it seems use of the the word ‘cult’ (for a variety of purposes) is becoming increasingly popular in public discourse once again. Indeed, the topic was recently covered in an article by Benjamin Zeller on the ‘Cult of Trump’, in which he demonstrated that the term is being adopted to delegitimise political opponents. Recent political discourse in the UK also echoes these observations, with Alan Johnson (former Labour Home Secretary) describing activist group Momentum as a “little cult”. For political agents, it’s an effective (if unsophisticated) method. Such accusations paint a vivid picture: of activists that have lost a sense of reason, have embraced an irrational worldview, or have simply been mindlessly enamoured by their leader.

It was only a matter of time before the the notion of cults was discussed on this blog – my research concerns New Religious Movements (NRMs) after all. However, I felt the urge to write this blog not because of recent political discourse, but from viewing an episode of the second season of Netflix’s Explained series. The show, which explores a distinct topic per episode, returned to the cult debates of the 1980s for its ‘Cults’ episode. Overall, the episode was largely predictable: new religions and minority movements are (for the most part) positioned as coercive, destructive, and exploitative groups.

I often say that “there are no such thing as cults, simply movements you do or do not like” (similar to Zeller’s remark in the aforementioned article). This is, quite clearly, a simplistic remark – yet a useful one. It challenges a prevailing narrative in media discourse surrounding cults – one that Explained certainly adopts. But this media narrative is at odds with decades of scholarship surrounding NRMs, which have mostly sought a balanced approach to minority movements, hence the avoidance of the term ‘cult’ in favour of the more neutral ’New Religious Movement’. (Although of late I prefer to use the term ‘contemporary religion’, as the distinction of NRMs somewhat panders to the World Religions Paradigm, but that’s another topic for another time…)

From one of the earliest lines of narration in the episode – “most cults insist they’re not cults, and almost nobody in a cult realises they’re in one” – it was clear that the brainwashing thesis would be a dominant factor in the show’s approach to NRMs. Indeed, whilst discussing sociological studies of cults the episode makes reference to a paper from Margaret Singer, one of the most prominent anti-cultic academics of the 1980s who wrote significantly on the notion of brainwashing. Unfortunately the show neglected to explain that Singer’s position, once popular in the 1980s, now serves as a counter-narrative in contemporary studies of NRMs. As Anthony and Robbins have remarked, “most scholars who have actually done research on the topic view their results as contradicting the thesis” (2008: online). However, Reza Aslan later featured in the episode to explain that many scholars in the study of religions prefer the term “New Religious Movements” (emphasising that ‘cult’ is a value judgement). Sadly little reference is made to any tangible NRM scholarship; not least the pioneering work of Eileen Barker (1984) with the Unification Church (‘Moonies’), in which she rejected the brainwashing thesis.

Why is this? Why is a debate which has been explored significantly over previous decades seemingly non-existent in the eyes of media sources? The obvious answer, of course, is that NRM scholarship simply isn’t ’sexy’ enough. More people will read or watch forms of media adopting a sensationalised ‘cult controversies’ approach rather than a balanced NRM approach. I believe there is a larger issue at play, however, one which feeds into a wider concern for the academic study of religion: communicating our work with the media and wider publics. This concern is discussed on an excellent panel recorded for The Religious Studies Project, and is well worth a listen to get a further understanding of the prevailing challenges facing scholars attempting to play a part in public discourse on the subject of religion. I believe that the NRM/Cult debate is a central aspect of this challenge, particularly when it can often seem that decades of NRM scholarship has simply become, as the panel describes, a “muted voice”.

I am not proposing any answers in this post. If anything, I’m simply thinking out loud. But viewing the Explained episode has reminded me of the core purpose of why we do what we do: contributing our work to enrich public life. For a topic as controversial and often highly sensitive as new and minority religions, this is of crucial importance. INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) have excelled at this by establishing a significant archive of data on an enormous number of NRMs, informing government bodies, and providing a research-based and publicly accessible source of information on minority movements.* Organisations such as INFORM must be both supported and protected, but also highlight the genuine and significant impact of successful engagement. While the NRM/cult debate is often summarised as a product of 1980s academic discourse, it is obvious that the need for collaborative approaches to communicate these conversations outside of the ivory towers of academia is still needed. Accordingly, scholars of NRMs must now consider engaging, effective, and perhaps even entertaining methods of finding their voice.

*To find out more about INFORM, and donate to its excellent cause, visit its website.


Anthony, D. and Robbins, T. (2008) ‘Conversion and “Brainwashing” in New Religious Movements’, in Lewis, J. R. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements [Online], Oxford, Oxford University Press. Available at

Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice?, Oxford, Blackwell.

One comment

  1. I prefer the term “minority religion” because no matter when a particular “cult” was started, it is the pressure to conform that mainstream cultures put onto their minority sub-cultures which illuminates the most productive context for the use of the word “cult”.

    It’s also an objectively true description – no matter the human society – in any time and any place.


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