Thoughts on the word “cult.”

I already wrote a thousand words today so I don’t feel like writing an excessively long blog post. I do want to jot down a few thoughts on the word “cult.” In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell made a pretty strong case that the F.B.I. botched negotiations with David Koresh and The Branch Davidians in the early nineties. As an atheist I disagree with all of their beliefs as I would with any religious group. But I have to agree with Gladwell that the government officials involved made the wrong assumptions about the nature of The Branch Davidians. The popular opinion about the group was that they were a cult and dangerous, even though there was no evidence for either view.

Gladwell gave an interview on the podcast “The New Yorker Out Loud.” When asked of his opinion of whether or not The Branch Davidians were a cult, he made a point that he wasn’t even sure what the word meant any more. He said that the word gets tossed around all the time for certain groups but not others and the definition is too vague. I also have to agree to this point. For a long time I thought the idea of a cult could be a cool idea given that the ideals and rituals involved were those that I agreed with. This could refer to any sort of philosophical beliefs, fan-base for a band or entertainment franchise, or just for fun. Even in the metal world “cult” tends to have a positive bent. Some people in the extreme metal communities, at least for a few years, have been spelling it “kvlt” as a means of making it look more archaic. I always found that one corny.

Now, after hearing Gladwell make his point, I have to say that the word “cult” lost its appeal for me as well. Whether it’s used positively or negatively, it gets tossed around whether or not it should really apply to the group in question. What’s so appealing about it, anyway? Okay, so I have something of a rebellious nature in me somewhere that longs to be part of a counter-culture. But why “cult?” I don’t really care about following any sort of dogma, even if it’s in fun. That could change but my feelings of the word probably won’t.

I think the problem is that “cult” is tossed around as a lazy means of avoiding trying to come up with the appropriate word for a certain type of group. For a religious group “sect” might be more appropriate. So wouldn’t “fan-base,” “society,” “following,” or just plain “group” in certain circumstances. I still find the occult fascinating and will use that word appropriately, but fortunately it isn’t getting abused as badly. Let’s hope that it’s not so close to “cult” that it won’t be in the near future.


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