A personal response from Jarron.
In the 1600s, the word “cult” used to mean “A particular form or system of religious worship” or simply to “worship” (Oxford English Dictionary, “Cult” hereafter cited as OED). Later, around the 1700s and into the 1800s the word came to mean “Devotion or homage to a particular person or thing” (OED). Using these definitions, all religions are cults. All religions have particular ways they worship and show devotion to some person or thing whether it be a man or a god or the one true God. But that was a long time ago, and it doesn’t make much sense to apply an old definition to what we do today. What does the word mean now? It means a “group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister” (OED) or, “a religion or sect considered to be false” (dictionary.com). Once again, this definition applies to all religions. Muslims think it is strange that Jews do not believe in the Qur’an; Jews think it is false that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God, etc. The list goes on. Furthermore, because the Oxford English Dictionary uses the phrase “religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister,” even those who are agnostic or atheist are members of a cult: those who consider themselves to be religious think agnostics and atheists are strange, false, and perhaps a bit sinister. Hence, by this definition of cult all religions and/or belief systems must therefore be cults.
But being called a member of a cult makes me cringe, and you probably feel the same way.
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word cult? KKK? The Manson Family? Some weird organization with bizarre beliefs and peculiar practices? All of the above? Yeah, me too. That’s the problem with the word: when it comes to organizations such as the ones we are speaking of, cult has negative connotations; we automatically tend to think of hate groups that thrive off of violence when we hear the word cult.
Because of this, we become victims of the logical fallacy known as “poisoning the well.” This fallacy is an act of deception by the speaker or writer. It occurs when a speaker or writer uses “emotionally charged language to discredit or bash an argument or position before arguing against it” (Paul Herrick, The Many Worlds of Logic, 2 ed. Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 272). In the case of calling Mormonism—or any other religion or belief system—a cult, the writer attempts to insinuate the reader into disliking the religion. The writer does this by using a word that makes the reader think of other organizations that have a negative emotional appeal and therefore “poisons the well” before even coming up with an argument against the organization.
Hence, James T. Richardson, a scholar and sociologist, has written, “the term cult is useless, and should be avoided because of the confusion between the historic meaning of the term and current pejorative use” (Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 34, No. 4 [Jun., 1993], pp. 348-356). The question that we should be asking is not one that is laced with negative emotional repulsion, but one that inspires us to seek out what is right and good and true.
I could end here, but we can go a bit further than this. There is another problem with talking about whether or not Mormonism or any other religion is a cult: all religions are partial to their own, and each religion thinks all other religions are somewhat “out of the ordinary” to a degree. In other words, how can a person belonging to one religion or sect really know that they are chosen by the Lord “to be a peculiar people” (Deuteronomy 14:2), if everybody thinks everybody else is peculiar?
Because each religion believes other religions to be a bit strange, it therefore does not make any sense to go to a person who belongs to one sect and ask them what a different sect believes. If you want to learn about Judaism, you go to a Rabbi or, if you can’t find one, you make friends with a Jew; you don’t go to a member of the KKK or the Third Reich. You can’t go to your pastor to find out what Mormons believe.
But if all religions think all other belief systems are not as good as their own, then how does one know what really true? Will not all religions try to persuade you that theirs is the correct one? I think most probably would. This forces us to go back to where we were before. We must seek out what is right and true and good. “[T]ruth is knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:24) and “everything which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moroni 7:16). This is also how we know if we really are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, [and] a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9).
There is only one source that cannot lie, and that source also happens to be all-loving and all-knowledgeable. He is the Truth, even God the greatest of all. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).
There is something, however, that I can address. There are several definable reasons why some others think Mormonism is a cult. First, some other Christians accuse Mormons of worshipping a “different Jesus.” That question has been addressed elsewhere on this site. Mormons believe in the biblical Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God, Creator and Savior of mankind. Second, Mormons have added scripture. Mormons are Bible-believing Christians and fortunate enough to realize that God speaks to His children whenever they open their hearts to receive His words. The heavens are not closed. (Read more about scriptures.) Third, many people think that Mormons worship Joseph Smith. This is false. Fourth, some people think that the Mormon Church is somehow coercive, forcing its members to follow blindly the dictates of the prophet. The opposite is true. Mormonism teaches that free agency is an eternal principle and the center of the Plan of Salvation. Mormons pray for and receive their own confirmation for any truth placed before them.
As a member of the Mormon Church, I know that there is a God in heaven who loves all of His children. I know this because I have asked Him in prayer, and I know that He hears and answers prayers. He has commanded us to love Him and serve Him, and also to love those who choose to walk in a direction that may seem strange to us. To love others is not to use a negatively connoting phrase to describe an organization that differs from one’s own.
For more on this subject, click here.