Grant Montgomery – Grant’s Rants on Cults

Grant Montgomery
Photo Copyright 2011

The primary dictionary definition of “cult” is “a system of religious worship.” By that broad definition, all religions everywhere could be considered cults.

This is of course different from the way the word is most commonly used today, in which a cult (generally a smaller group) is regarded as an abhorrent group (oftentimes as so branded by a larger, more established group.) Generally, applying this pejorative term to any given group has the effect of immediately casting doubt on its legitimacy. Throw in a few choice rumors, innuendos or half truths and any given group may be thus branded for life, unless of course it is fortunate and savvy enough to have the cash to shell out for lawyers, and then publicists to undo the damage once all this has been disseminated via the Internet.

Guilt by association is an easily-played trump card by those in-the-know.  If the organization is labelled “fundamentalist” or “charismatic”, not to speak of a fringe “cult”, the perpetrator will not even have to argue their case, as fellow partisans will dismiss the culprit-in-question with righteous indignation. Branding someone in this way more often than not prevents them from ever being able to prove they are innocent. It’s a cheap and effective ploy that’s been around a long time, a particular “tar and feather ’em” favorite of the religious.

In any case, taking virtually any Christian denomination or religious organization, the number of “cults” and cult members worldwide changes radically based on which of the following dictionary definitions is used. For example:

  •         “A cult is any religious group that does not teach strict Christian doctrine.” By this definition, billions of people could be considered cult members, since even Catholicism is considered a cult by the most conservative Christian groups.
  •         “A cult is a phenomenon supported with outspoken exuberance and devotion from its adherents.” In this colloquial usage, actual membership is not the issue; the word “cult” is more a description of behavior or enthusiasm.
  •        “A cult is a group that seems to take over people so that they lose the power to think for themselves.” In this definition, cult membership is still impossible to determine because of disagreement about which groups qualify.

To bring this down to a personal level, when I was 19 I got involved with a Christian group that many would later attach the derogatory term “cult” to. (To quote noted Christian writer and lecturer Brian McLaren on such Jesus Freak groups, “For those  who were part of it, especially in its early days, the Jesus Movement was a truly wonderful thing. There was a simplicity, a childlikeness, a naïveté, and a corresponding purity of motive that I have seldom seen since.”)

Do I regret my experience? No. As with almost any experience one reflects back on with 20/20 hindsight, there is the good and the bad. In general though, I would say mine was a positive experience and it contributed — along with a plethora of other life experiences — to making me the person I am today.

Certainly, the radical transformation I went through when I initially “found religion” and zealously tried to apply my new-found faith through this group scooped me out of a dead-end netherworld of drugs and depression into which I had been descending at the time.

The experience also led me into opportunities to live and work in different countries, learn other cultures and languages and gain a much broader and greater experience of people in other parts of the world.  (This “awakening” on my part to the needs of the world provided the inspiration for me years later [1997] to co-found a NGO that betters the quality of life of children and families in developing nations. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”)

Perhaps the most important element I walked away with from my experience is an enduring faith that has carried me through many personal challenges and tough situations over the years, including a divorce and the sharp learning curve of finding myself as full-time single father to some wonderful kids who remain the center of my world.

Another takeaway: All these experiences have taught me a much greater tolerance and respect for, as well as a less judgmental view of people, their beliefs and lifestyles. And so what I might have once have been quick to accept as a “cult” or “some weird religious doctrine”, or whatever, I might now be more inclined to evaluate less harshly.

Final food for thought: A little-highlighted fact is that the early Christian followers of Jesus of Nazareth were publicly declared a heretical cult (i.e. “sect”) by the religious establishment of their day, as brought out in these Bible verses:

  • “Here are the facts: this man [the Apostle Paul] is a disease to the body politic. He agitates trouble in Jewish communities throughout our empire as a ringleader of the heretical sect known as the Nazarenes.” (Acts 24:5)
  • ”The only thing we know about this Christian sect is that nobody seems to have anything good to say about it.” (Acts 28:22)

[Bible version: Acts 24:5 =The Voice;
Acts 28:22 =The Message]

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Grant  Montgomery – Grant’s Rants on Cults