What Defines a Cult?

The Face of A Cult Leader?

Here’s the news, as reported by MSNBC:  Fourteen years ago, a member of the Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, NH, allegedly rapes his 15-yr-old babysitter and gets her pregnant. Then, the pastor at the time, Rev. Charles Phelps makes her read a forced written statement of apology about being immoral and recommends/helps her family move to Colorado.

The alleged rapist is being brought to justice after Concord police found the woman on a Facebook page titled Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult Survivors.

But, is the church, or other IFB churches like the one where Rev. Phelps works now, a cult?

The current Reverend at Trinity Baptist (who started working under Rev. Phelps a year after the incident) says in the Concord Monitor, “We have heartfelt regret for the victim, that she ever stood in front of our congregation, as well as absolute regret and . . . disgust that the perpetrator remained so long in our congregation.”

That doesn’t sound cult-y.

Not to excuse what he may or may not have done, but Phelps writes a letter to his congregation here that doesn’t make him sound like a cult leader either.

And in case you want to lump all this under a category called “Baptist,” here Wikipedia has a list of over 50 Baptist Associations, Denominations, regions, etc.

CultFAQ.org is a great resource for all things culty. They have a theological definition from Prof. Alan Gomes from his book Unmasking The Cults.

“A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrine system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian Faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.”

That’s a bit vague and one can see how one denomination of Christianity might accuse another of being a cult.  I am sure if there was mass-media in the 1500s, they would have labeled Martin Luther a cult leader. So I think it’s best to then pair it with a sociological/psychological definition like this one from Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, M.D. in The Harvard Mental Health Letter (1981). It’s old, but the abstract wraps it up nicely. Italics are mine.

“Cults represent one aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism.  They tend to be associated with a charismatic leader, thought reform, and exploitation of members.  Among the methods of thought reform commonly used by cults are milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, a cult of confession, sacred science, loading the language, doctrine over person, and dispensing of existence.  The current historical context of dislocation from organizing symbolic structures, decaying belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death, and a “protean style” of continuous psychological experimentation with the self is conducive to the growth of cults.  The use of coercion, as in certain forms of “deprogramming,” to deal with the restrictions of individual liberty associated with cults is inconsistent with the civil rights tradition.”

So, what do you think, was the alleged victim of rape also an alleged victim of a cult? Are some or all IFB churches cults as some claim?



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  2. Here are some varieties of mindless group think that come to mind that aren’t religious:

    Organic food
    Apple products
    Anti-Monsanto rhetoric
    Northface clothing
    Two and a half men
    Coke over Pepsi
    Pepsi over Coke
    Eating meat

    People believe endless things without thinking about them. Fortunately most of these things don’t hurt people… at least too much.

    That lack of reasoning gives way to cult-like behavior.

    In defense of “people” it becomes virtually impossible to rationalize all decisions we make. It’s simply too difficult to thoroughly analyze the choices we make.

  3. “Could a cruel humiliation Phelps allegedly inflicted…” –> “Could a cruel humiliation like Phelps allegedly inflicted…”

  4. Are some or all IFB churches cults as some claim?

    We don’t really have an objective definition of “cult.” It’s in the eye of the beholder. I know someone who was in a religious organization for years, working on a farm for subsistence wages. We all thought she’d fallen for a cult, and I still think so. She left when she concluded that she’s a lesbian, and the organization would not tolerate that. But to this day, she is friends with people in the organization, and does not believe she was exploited, or was in a cult.

    …Phelps writes a letter to his congregation here that doesn’t make him sound like a cult leader either

    (BTW, the URL you link to with this text is missing an initial “h”.) It appears that Phelps is currently on the hook as a potential accomplice after the fact to a sex-crime felony. I would not trust him under those circumstances to represent himself transparently. I only skimmed the letter, but I did not notice where he addressed the allegation that “…Phelps arranged for her to move to Colorado and forced her to write a letter of apology she had to read to the fundamentalist congregation.” In fact, his claim that “…this is not a ‘Colonial Hills Baptist Church’ problem. Colonial Hills Baptist Church was not involved in the situation thirteen years ago and is not tied to the situation today,” looks like infuriating cowardice. He could at least deny the allegation.

    The current Reverend at Trinity Baptist… doesn’t sound cult-y.

    That was now, this is then.

    I’ve been in the trenches on some (Buddhist) aspects of this debate for a few years, now. For me, the question of what constitutes a cult and whether any organization is or is not a cult misses the mark somewhat. It seems as though the key problem with religious organizations is that they arise out of pre-modern modes of thought which sometimes combine with modernist values in ugly, absolutist ways which shut down critical thinking. Lazy, cowardly groupthink is the thing to watch out for in any group, regardless of its religious posture, but there are specific classes of corrupted thinking which are very common in religious organizations.

    Could a cruel humiliation Phelps allegedly inflicted happen in a secular organization? Absolutely. But in most secular organizations, there would be more room for dissent. Apparently, despite showing incredibly bad judgement, Phelps received no censure from his flock, and his role as the notional representative of an all-powerful being surely played a role in this. The trouble is, many people in Church organizations are deeply attached to their religious cosmology, and if they associate the Church leadership with the cosmology, it’s going to be very hard for them to view the leadership critically.

    I’m not saying that all Church organizations are at risk for this kind of corruption, although I would say that’s what probably protected Phelps. And it’s true that secular organizations are at risk for the same kind of corruption, because there are other ways to shut down critical thinking like patriotism, racism, ideology and terror. But I do see this authoritarianism in traditionalist religious practitioners over and over again, at far higher rates than I do in secular contexts. Not that I’ve done any kind of survey, but in my casual experience, the only secular break downs in critical thinking which come close in terms of frequency are right-wing jingoism and free-market fundamentalism. (I’m biased; maybe there are “liberal” modes of lazy thinking which I’m blind to because I engage in them myself…) In my experience, neither of these modes of thinking lead to the same level of blanket authoritarianism as I see in religious practitioners.

  5. Boys, I love you. See my response in the next post and feel free to continue this chat in that blog comment section.

  6. “Lies, misinformation, selfishness, greed, combativeness, intolerance”
    Those are also the founding principles of:

    Maybe its the “grouping” of humans that causes the problem. Give me a group of humans and I probably can find those 6 values as the cornerstone to their growth and survival.

  7. Ugh. Fighting Christians is like tilting at windmills. Who wants to do that?

    I have to take exception with your comment that humans damage society. That’s a given. Humans build and destroy society. Humans are society. By what methods do they build society? information, education, charity, justice, order, etc. All “things” that can be gotten through secular means. By what methods do they destroy society? Lies, misinformation, selfishness, greed, combativeness, intolerance: these are the domain of religion, especially the latter.

  8. Man! I haven’t read an e.e. cummings poem in a while. Thanks for that.

    I would say that it’s humans that damage society. We would need to do a pretty intense study to figure out which group is responsible for the most damage… and what kind of damage are we referring to?

    After watching “Religulous” I was ready to take on every Christian out there… until I looked at my sister-in-law. She is doing no harm to the world. She is not damning me. She just loves her church and her family.

    At that point I decided I’d let fighting Christians go to someone else. I’ll let my sister-in-law have her religion in peace.

  9. I’m just gonna throw this out there with apologies: after re-reading your penultimate paragraph, I have to say that by definition all churches (maybe all religions) are cults. The question is what degree of harm do they do to humanity and individuals. I would argue that, again, all religions and churches harm humanity in some way or another, to varying degrees, as may all philosophies when “mis-applied”. Do they ever do any good? Good and evil are subjective ideas. They may help an individual here and there, or even more widely, but it could never make up for the amount of damage they cause society as a whole. Historically speaking, they may have been more useful to society at a certain point in any individual culture’s develpoment. This seems to no longer be the case. This is, of course, subjective and cynical, but then, so am I!

    o sweet spontaneous
    earth how often have

    fingers of
    prurient philosophers pinched

    , has the naughty thumb
    of science prodded

    beauty . how
    often have religions taken
    thee upon their scraggy knees
    squeezing and

    buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

    to the incomparable
    couch of death thy

    thou answerest

    them only with


    — e.e.cummings

  10. That’s a cool analysis of getting to the bottom of what I cult is.

    I suspect cult leaders can sound totally rational. That’s probably how they get people to follow them in the first place.

    You always have to look at these things on a case by case basis. But based on what you pointed out about how she had to “read a forced written statement of apology about being immoral” that sounds pretty culty.

    But that then sounds like a lot about what I hear about Sharia law. Does that then make all of Islam a cult?

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