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!'T" ~W\ I ~~: twx1 ~ s fJrp, ~~ I 0Vfl1/JS I~ ~~~ Avu-?'&t'{p.., ~ >. f3:l1 wT""t f Jl~~ _po-P~il1 fR.UI1.h U kAPJ 1'18~ !, TOE SEVERAL MEANINGS :: OF "CULT" A PROBLEMATIC TERM A The common use of the word "cult" for new religious movements within our own society has entailed certain problems of under~nding. This is, first, because the term is capable of several different definitions, and, sec- ond, because (like comparable racist labels) it automatically evokes pre- packaged stereotypes and emotional reactions, both usually negative. (No one calls his or her own religious group a cult; this is inevitably a name given a group by an outsider.) Our purpose in this discussion will be to attempt to sort out these meanings and, in the process, endeavor to advance authentic comprehension of the movements behind the word. First let us look at the dictionary. All standard lexicons agree that the word has several different meanings which, though centering around the original significance of cultus, worship, its Latin source, have varying emo- tional and value-laden overtones that could lead to trouble if misapplied. First, it simply means worship in a more or less neutral sense, generally with reference to the worship of a particular object within a larger system, v ~ Chapter I, "The Several Meanings of 'Cult,''' originally appeared as an article of that title by Robert S. Ellwoodin Thought, Vol. LXI, No. 241 (June 1986),pp. 212-24. It is here reproduced, with minor editorial changes, by kind permission of Thought, a publication of Fordham University Press. Copyright @ 1986 by Fordham University. Fo;Of THE SEVERAL MEANINGS OF "CULT" 19 as in speaking of "the cult of iliiris" or "the cult of the Sacred.. Heart." Second, the same use can be extended to seculaI.-Ol>jects,as in "tlIe cult of Nae2!eon." Third, the same ~eanin9, can ~~ extende~ furth~r ~~imply an excessive or unbala,!!ed dev~n or q~e for any.thmg, as 10 the c!:!lLaf disco dancing" or "the cult: of.1;ucc~s." t ~n relative to religio~ouPs, the word can mean (1) any set of people bound together by devotis.m to a particular sacred..person, o.b$ct, or id~gy, and (2) any religion considered false, unorthodox, or spurious. Not seldom one of these two religious group meanings is linked up with one of the word's broader meanings, to suggest that a religion regarded as spurious .is als? both faddish and fanat~cal; or, if ~ ~ore P?sitive. con- notation IS desired, that what some consider a cult IS simply lI}dulgmg a preference for a certain cultus or worship no less legitimate than any other. Turning to more extensive wri~wg by stud~ts and socWlggists of reli~n on the sort of groups commonly designated cults, we find the same bi(un;ation. Some have proposed a neutral meaning for the term focused around certain sociological and psychological characteristics. Others attach to the t~rm features they obviously expect the reader to regard negatively.... View Full Document

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