Copyright © 1996 BEACON All rights reserved.

The 'C'-Word Debate:
What Is a C-U-L-T?

Whether a religious group like Jehovah's Witnesses qualifies for being defined as a cult is an on-going debate, even among former members of the religion. To some people, the word 'cult' conjures up images of strange-dressed people with shaved heads and tamborines chanting on a busy street-corner, or a small band of extremists holed up in a remote farm house, or the mass suicide of a group of religious zealots with a charismatic leader. Yet by other definitions, even Jesus and His disciples would ostensibly be described as a cult among the Jews in their day. Generally speaking, dictionary definitions of the word make little distinction in meaning from merely a 'sect' or any group of adherents to a particular belief system. Acknowledging this diverse perception about cults, The Watchtower Society responded to charges made by some anticult organizations that Jehovah's Witnesses are a 'cult' in the February 15, 1994 Watchtower. In an article titled: "Cults--What Are They?" on page 4, we read:

What Is a Cult?
The term "cult" is used loosely by many who may not be fully aware of its connotations. To prevent confusion, some theologians actually avoid using the term.
The World Book Encyclopedia explains that "traditionally, the term cult referred to any form of worship or ritual observance." By that criterion, all religious organizations could be classified as cults. However, in general usage today, the word "cult" has a different meaning. The same encyclopedia notes that "since the mid-1900's, publicity about cults has altered the meaning of the term. . . . Occasionally, anticult organizations and the media have referred to Jehovah's Witnesses as a cult. A number of recent newspaper articles lump the Witnesses with religious groups known for their questionable practices. But would it be accurate to refer to Jehovah's Witnesses as a small fringe religious group? Cult members often isolate themselves from friends, family, and even society in general. Is that the case with Jehovah's Witnesses? Are the Witnesses using deceptive and unethical techniques to recruit members?
Cult leaders are known to use manipulative methods to control the minds of their followers. Is there any evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses do this? Is their worship cloaked in secrecy? Are they following and venerating a human leader? Pointedly, are Jehovah's Witnesses a cult?
So it is in this "general usage today" meaning of the word that the Watchtower Society asks whether it is fair to label Jehovah's Witnesses as a 'cult.' (Jehovah's Witnesses should be as discretionary about the word 'apostate' as they are about the word 'cult'--but that is a topic for another time). It will not be our objective here to draw a conclusion on the issue of whether Jehovah's Witnesses qualify as a bonafide 'cult,' but rather to present information and allow readers to make their own determination.

Before examining the questions cited by Jehovah's Witnesses themselves in the above article, let us give thought to not only the World Book Encyclopedia definition, and conversely The Watchtower's definition of 'cult,' but also what leading experts in the field of "cult-awareness" say. One such professional, Steven Hassan, a former Moonie and author of the best-selling book, Combatting Cult Mind Control, maintains that just because a group is perceived by the public to be a cult does not mean the members are in fact subjects of mind control.

As mentioned, Hasson was himself a member of the Unification Church (better known as the "Moonies") for several years. After being taken from them and deprogrammed, he was motivated by the experience to make an exhaustive study of what he calls the "cult phenomenon" and has since become a prominent exit counselor and authority on the subject in America. On page 35 of his book he notes:

"Over nine hundred people--men, women, and children; white and black--lying face down in the mud at Jonestown, Guyana. Mention "cults" to someone and these are the image you'll evoke. . . Yet these images do not represent the overall destructive cult phenomenon as it has become today."
Nevertheless, on page 37 he states:
"Not all groups which might be called "cults" because they appear to incorporate strange beliefs and practices are necessarily destructive. A destructive cult distinguishes itself from a normal social or religious group by subjecting its members to persuasion or other damaging influences to keep them in the group."
Hasson identifies four qualifying components of mind control and stresses the point that "Mind control is not brainwashing."
[p.55] On page 66 of his book, he outlines four components of mind control:
Behavior control, thought control, emotional control, and information control: each form of control has great power and influence on the human mind. Together, they form a totalistic web, which can manipulate even the strongest-minded people. In fact, it is the strongest-minded individuals who make the most involved and enthusiastic cult members. No one group does everything described in this section.
Bearing in mind that people under the influence of mind control are not aware of it, the following is a list of observations gleened from Hasson's book about his experience as a Moonie in the Unification Church, and some of his conclusions about "destructive cults".

Reflections of a former Moonie
Gleenings from the best-selling book by Steven Hasson
Combatting Cult Mind Control

Some basic principles of Social Psychology and Group Dynamics: