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cult

cult, ritual observances involved in worship of, or communication with, the supernatural or its symbolic representations. A cult includes the totality of ideas, activities, and practices associated with a given divinity or social group. It includes not only ritual activities but also the beliefs and myths centering on the rites. The objects of the cult are often things associated with the daily life of the celebrants. The English scholar Jane Harrison pointed out the importance of the cult in the development of religion. Sacred persons may have their own cults. The cult may be associated with a single person, place, or object or may have much broader associations. There may be officials entrusted with the rites, or anyone who belongs may be allowed to take part in them.

The term cult is now often used to refer to contemporary religious groups whose beliefs and practices depart from the conventional norms of society. These groups vary widely in doctrine, leadership, and ritual, but most stress direct experience of the divine and duties to the cult community. Such cults tend to proliferate during periods of social unrest; most are transient and peripheral. Many cults that have emerged in the United States since the late 1960s have been marked by renewed interest in mysticism and Asian religions, but many others have had Christian roots.

Such major U.S. cults as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Hare Krishna, a movement derived from Hinduism, have stirred wide controversy. Cults' insularity and distrust of society sometimes lead to violent conflicts with the law. In 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, followers of Jim Jones killed a U.S. congressman who was investigating Jones, and then Jones and more than 900 others committed mass suicide. In 1993 a gunfight near Waco, Tex., between federal officers and David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers led to a 51-day siege that ended in a blaze that left Koresh and 82 people dead. Other notorious cults have included the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, whose adherents were responsible for a number of murders, including a 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands; the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members died by murder or suicide in Quebec, Switzerland, and France in a series of incidents in the mid- to late 1990s; Heaven's Gate, a group formed in the mid-1970s whose 39 members committed mass suicide in California in 1997; and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a millennialist Ugandan church, more than 900 members of which apparently died by mass murder and mass suicide in 2000.

See D. J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (1995); J. D. Tabor and E. V. Gallagher, Why Waco? (1995); R. J. Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It (1999).

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cult

cult In the anthropological meaning, a cult is a set of practices and beliefs of a group, in relation to a local god. In sociology, it is a small group of religious activists, whose beliefs are typically syncretic, esoteric, and individualistic. Although it is related to the concept of a sect, the cult is not in Western society associated with mainstream Christianity. As a scientific term, it is often difficult to dissociate the idea of a cult from its commonsense pejorative significance, and it does not have a precise scientific meaning. Cultic practices appear to satisfy the needs of alienated sections of urban, middle-class youth. Cultic membership among young people is typically transitory, spasmodic, and irregular. Research suggests that young people often have multiple cult memberships. In Western societies, cults have proliferated in the post-war period, and are often associated with the counter-culture. See also NEW RELIGIONS; SECULARIZATION.

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cult

cult / kəlt/ • n. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object: the cult of St. Olaf. ∎  a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister: a network of Satan-worshiping cults. ∎  a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing: a cult of personality surrounding the leaders. ∎  [usu. as adj.] a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, esp. among a particular section of society: a cult film. DERIVATIVES: cul·tic / -tik/ adj. cult·ish adj. cult·ish·ness n. cult·ism / -ˌtizəm/ n. cult·ist / -tist/ n.

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cult

cult System of religious beliefs, rites and observances connected with a divinity or group of divinities, or the sect devoted to such a system. Within a religion such as Hinduism, many gods have their own cults, notably Shiva. Animals are the focus of some cults, such as the Inuit whale cult. A deified human being may also be the object of worship, as in the emperor cults of ancient Rome. In the 20th century, a ‘cult’ often denotes a quasi-religious organization that controls its followers by means of psychological manipulation. Leaders of cults are usually forceful, charismatic personalities.

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Cult

Cult. A term which refers to many non-traditional religious movements. Academics sometimes contrast cults with sects (see CHURCH-SECT TYPOLOGY) on the grounds that the former (e.g. Cargo cults) are more alienated from traditional religions than the latter (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses); or that cults are more innovatory.

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cult

cult XVII. — F. culte or L. cultus, sb. of action f. colere inhabit, cultivate, protect, honour with worship (see COLONY).

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cult

cult •gestalt • asphalt •belt, Celt, dealt, dwelt, felt, gelt, knelt, melt, misdealt, pelt, Scheldt, smelt, spelt, svelte, veld, welt •fan belt • seat belt • lifebelt • sunbelt •rust belt • Copperbelt • heartfelt •underfelt • backveld • bushveld •Roosevelt •atilt, built, gilt, guilt, hilt, jilt, kilt, lilt, quilt, silt, spilt, stilt, tilt, upbuilt, wilt •Vanderbilt • volte •assault, Balt, exalt, fault, halt, malt, salt, smalt, vault •cobalt • stringhalt • basalt •somersault • polevault •bolt, colt, dolt, holt, jolt, moult (US molt), poult, smolt, volt •deadbolt • Humboldt • thunderbolt •megavolt • spoilt • Iseult •consult, cult, exult, indult, insult, penult, result, ult •adult • occult • tumult • catapult •difficult • Hasselt

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Cult

CULT

The Israelite cult was a system of ritual acts by which the Israelites, individually and collectively, actualized their particular relationship to the God of Israel. In the pre-Exilic period (before 587–586 b.c.e.) this activity took the form of sacrificial offerings of various types. *Prayer as later known existed as a mode of religious expression, but it had not yet attained the status of an independently sufficient means for fulfilling religious obligations or for attaining ritual objectives. After the destruction of the First Temple the greater part of Jewry was dispersed. Since the Temple in Jerusalem was inaccessible to them on a regular basis, substitute ritual forms had to be acknowledged as sufficient, and prayer began to come into its own. It did not fully replace sacrifice until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. After the return from exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, the Jewish communities inside and outside Israel continued to maintain their relationship to the Temple, and considered its cult indispensable to their religious and national life. Most information on the early Israelite cult comes from the Bible. Talmudic and other sources report on later practice in the Second Temple, which undoubtedly bore certain resemblances to the earlier cult. Archaeological excavations have unearthed many installations and vessels intended for cultic use, but it is generally difficult to identify them precisely with those described in the Bible. Uncertainty about the exact dates of the priestly codes of the Pentateuch complicates the problem of ascertaining the exact character of the Israelite cult, since it is from these codes that most information derives. Whatever may be suggested concerning the historicity of the "tabernacle" cult presented in these sources, there can be little doubt that it mirrors the cult of the First Temple in a significant way. The prophet Ezekiel lived at the end of the First Temple period; and in Ezekiel (40ff.) procedures are attested which closely resemble those in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers in much of their detail. The cult may be discussed with respect to diverse elements of Israelite culture. The concern here is to present the praxis of the cult, i.e., the principal types of sacrificial offerings and the manner of their disposition, which involved, in turn, certain vessels and tools.

Sacrifices of Animals and Fowl

The priestly codes prescribe sacrifices of large and small cattle, as well as pigeons and turtledoves (Lev. 1–7). Male animals predominate as sacrificial victims, no doubt because only a fraction of the males needed to be preserved for the reproduction of the herd. Why females are nevertheless prescribed for certain offerings is less obvious. The codes differentiate between pure and impure animals (Lev. 11; Deut. 14). An overall requirement is that sacrificial animals be free from physical defects (Lev. 22:20–25), although an animal with certain minor defects could be designated for "freewill offerings" (Lev. 22:23; see *Blemish). In the case of the paschal sacrifice it is stipulated that the intended victims be observed for four days prior to the festival (Ex. 12:3, 6), a procedure which talmudic sages correctly understood to be for the purpose of discovering possible blemishes (Mekh. Bo, 5). The Bible says nothing of such procedures elsewhere, although they were undoubtedly necessary and widespread in the ancient Near East. Talmudic sources speak extensively of examination for defects, especially in the orders Kodashim and Tohorot of the Mishnah. The selection of sacrificial animals was also governed by consideration of age and, in certain instances, of the previous use of the animal. The requirement of physical perfection extended to the priesthood, and priests with certain physical defects could not officiate in the cult (Lev. 21:21–23; Deut. 15:21; 17:1). Once the animal was declared fit, it was designated a sacrificial animal and assigned as a certain type of offering for a particular time or occasion (cf. Lev. 16:9–10). This assignment normally involved "the laying [from the Heb. verb סמךְ, samakh] of hands" by the officiating priest on the head of the animal (Lev. 1:4; 3:2, 8, 13; et al.). Perhaps this act was accompanied by a declaration which has been lost. The method of slaughtering sacrificial animals was usually described by the verb shaḥaṭ (Ex. 12:6; Lev. 1:5), and in the case of fowl by malak (malaq; "to break the neck"; Lev. 1:15; 5:8). Shaḥaṭ involved the use of a knife or similar sharp instrument that would slit the gullet as well as the jugular vein, resulting in the rapid emission of most of the animal's blood. The Bible never describes the tool employed for this purpose, and the only clue is the term maʾkhelet used in connection with Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac and elsewhere, but which is nowhere described (Gen. 22:6, 19; Judg. 19:29; Prov. 30:14; cf. the verb nataḥ ("to cut into sections") in Lev. 1:6; i Sam. 11:7; i Kings 18:23). This method of slaughtering was associated with the prohibition against eating *blood (Lev. 17:10–11). The blood of the sacrificial victim was caught in bowls (Heb. mizrak; mizraq) for further use in the performance of the sacrifice. In expiatory offerings some of the blood was dabbed or sprinkled on the horns of the incense altar, and in some cases on the parokhet ("curtain"), on the kapporet ("the lid [of the ark]") and elsewhere, as part of ritual procedure, usually designated by the verb kipper ("to perform an act of ritual expiation"; Lev. 4:6–7; 17–18; 16:14, 18–19; et al.), although the corresponding noun kippurim also occurs (Ex. 29:36; 30:10, 16; Lev. 23:27–28; 25:9; Num. 5:8; 29:11; see also *Kipper). In all animal sacrifices most of the blood was poured or dashed against the side of the altar of burnt offerings so that it ran down to the ground (Lev. 1:5; 4:7). In the execution and disposition of sacrifices three principal parties were involved: the donors, the priests, and the deity. The various methods of disposition reflected the relative weight of these parties. There were two major categories of animal sacrifices: the ʿolah ("ascending offering") and the zevaḥ ("slain offering"). The ʿolah was burned to ashes in the altar fire, while most of the meat of the zevaḥ was cooked in vessels, and only certain portions, those assigned directly to the deity, were placed on the altar. According to Leviticus 1:9ff., the ʿolah was holocaust, i.e., an offering entirely consumed by the altar fire. This is also the sense of the term kalil (Lev. 6:15–16; Deut. 33:10; i Sam. 7:9; Ps. 51:21, and cf. Deut. 13:17; Judg. 20:40), although the exact relationship of these two terms is problematic. Some have suggested that kalil is an older term, which was later replaced by the term ʿolah. The two principal types of expiatory offering, ḥaṭṭat and ʾasham, although classified with the ʿolah in certain respects (Lev. 6:18), represented a distinct type of sacrifice since in some cases most of the meat of the ḥaṭṭat was assigned to the priests (Lev. 6:22; 7:6; Num. 18:9–10; Hos. 4:8). This was true of expiatory offerings brought by individuals, and according to rabbinic law also of the ḥaṭṭat of new moons and festivals (Num. 28:15; et al.), whereas certain communal offerings of these types were disposed of in different ways (Lev. 4–5; 16:27–28). The exact procedures are not entirely clear. If any blood of the sacrificial victim had been brought into the tent of assembly, all but the suet and the kidneys of the animal had to be burned separately outside of the altar area, since the animal had become a source of impurity (Lev. 4:12, 20; 6:23; 8:17, 32; 16:27). Problems remain in classifying the expiatory offerings of the Israelite cult, and it is likely that in the course of time the practices were altered. The dynamics underlying the ʿolah and all offerings of which any parts were burned on the altar was that the deity breathed in the smoke of the offering and in that way was considered to have consumed the sacrifice (Gen. 8:21; Lev. 26:31; Deut. 4:28; 33:10; i Sam. 26:19; Amos 5:21). This notion is conveyed in the term iʾsheh reʿah nihoʿaḥ ("a fired offering of pleasing aroma"), which is often used to describe sacrifices (Ex. 29:18; Lev. 3:16; 8:21, 28; et al.). The odor of the burning meat was believed to be pleasing to the Lord (Lev. 1:9; et al.). In cultic terms, the parts of the animal most desired by the deity were the fatty portions (ḥelev) which covered the inwards of the animal (Lev. 3:3; et al.). Such fatty portions were forbidden for human consumption on somewhat the same basis as the prohibition of blood, since the fat belonged to the deity (Ex. 29:13; Lev. 3:16–17; 4:8, 31; 7:23–25; i Sam. 2:15–16; Ezek. 44:7, 15). From non-cultic sources it appears that the consideration of the fatty portions as choice was pervasive in the Israelite cult (Deut. 32:38; cf. Gen. 4:4; Isa. 1:11, 43:24). In addition to separate offerings containing incense, certain aromatic substances were probably cast into the altar fire, a widespread custom in antiquity. For the purpose of burning offered meat, a wood fire was maintained on the altar (Lev. 1:7, 12), and later sources mention a special appointment for supplying this material (Neh. 10:35; 13:31). The zevaḥ was conceived as a sacred meal of which the worshipers and the deity partook in common fellowship. In time, the officiating priesthood appropriated some of what originally had been eaten by the donors of the zevaḥ, i.e., the right shank and the breast (Lev. 7:31–34; cf. Num. 18:18). Perhaps a further stage in this development, affording even more to the priests, is to be seen in the Punic cult at Carthage, as known from inscriptions of the fourth-third centuries b.c.e. The fatty portions of the zevaḥ were consumed by the altar fire (Lev. 4:31; 6:5; Deut. 32:38). The rest was boiled in pots. This is known from early biblical sources independent of the priestly codes (cf. Judg. 6:19), and from the prohibition against this manner of cooking the paschal zevaḥ in favor of broiling, a primitive practice (Ex. 12:9). This method was apparently abolished in Deuteronomy 16:7, where the regular technique of boiling (Heb. bashal) is prescribed. Other sources also speak of boiling the meat of the zevaḥ (Ex. 29:31; Ezek. 46:20, 24; ii Chron. 35:13). That meat was regularly boiled is also presupposed by the prohibition against boiling a kid in the milk of its dam (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21). Those invited to partake of the zevaḥ were termed keruʾim (qeruʾim; "those called"; i Sam. 9:13, 22; cf. Zeph. 1:7). The flesh of certain offerings could be eaten only by those in a state of ritual purity (Lev. 7:19–20; 22:3) in a sacred place (Ex. 29:31; Lev. 6:19; 7:6; 10:13; 24:9; et al.). The Mishnah (Zev. 5–6:1) limits the latter requirement to sacrifices with the status of kodshei kodashim (qodshei qodashim). In certain cases there was also a time limit for eating sacrificial flesh, and what was not consumed by that time had to be destroyed (Lev. 7:18; 19:7). The burnt offering with its blood rites is an historical problem, since outside the sphere of Syria and Palestine it was rarely used until late antiquity. The Ugaritic texts show that it figured in the Ugaritic cult as early as the 14th century b.c.e. In Ugaritic ritual texts šlmm (Heb. shelamim), the most prominent type of zevaḥ, is paired with šrp (Heb. saraf), the burnt offering. Burnt offerings are also mentioned in Ugaritic epics. In Mesopotamia fire was used extensively in magical rites, which were often connected with the cult, but it was not employed for sacrifices until late Babylonian times.

Grain Offerings

Sacrificial offerings of grain prepared in various ways were widespread in the ancient Near East. In the biblical cult the most prominent form of grain offering was the minḥah, a general term. It was prepared from wheat or barley, normally ground into fine flour, and either baked in an oven, fried in pans, or deep fried (Lev. 2:4–7). Oil and frankincense were mixed with the dough or poured over the cakes. In contrast to other ancient Near Eastern cults, no honey was used (Lev. 2:11). As a rule the minḥah was made of unleavened dough (maẓẓah) rather than of leavened dough (ḥameẓ), and the cakes were salted (Lev. 2:11, 13). The priest pinched off a fistful of the dough and placed it on the altar fire as an ʾazkarah. The meaning of this term is uncertain, but it probably conveys the notion that the deity was to be "reminded" by the ascending smoke of the burning cake. Two sizes of cakes, traditional in the ancient Near East, were prepared as minḥah: ḥallot maẓẓot ("loaves of unleavened dough") and rekikei (reqiqei) maẓẓot ("thin cakes of unleavened dough"; Lev. 2:4). The minḥah often accompanied animal offerings. However, other grain offerings were presented alone. These included the two loaves of the Pentecost (Lev. 23:17), the loaves of thanksgiving (Lev. 7:13), and the grain offering of first fruits (Num. 15:17–21). No part of these offerings was placed on the altar and for this reason they could be made of leavened dough. The rule was that no leaven could be placed on the altar (Ex. 23:18; 34:25; Deut. 16:3), but the converse was not consistently applied. This notion was somewhat related to the laws of Passover forbidding the eating of leaven (Ex. 12:15; 13:3, 7). The priestly codes specify that after the ʾazkarah was detached, the remaining cakes were to be eaten in a sacred place. In certain cases only the priest actually officiating at the rite could partake of the minḥah (Lev. 7:9–10). The minḥah offered on behalf of a priest was designated kalil, meaning that it was to be entirely burned on the altar (Lev. 6:15–16). As the Israelite cult became more standardized, procedures were probably instituted which afforded larger portions of the minḥah to the priests, a process also observed with respect to other types of offerings. The "bread of display" (leḥem ha-panim) represented another type of grain offering (Ex. 25:30; 35:13; 39:36; Lev. 24:5–9; Num. 4:7; i Sam. 21:7; i Kings 7:48; ii Chron. 4:19). Twelve loaves were arranged in two rows on a table especially installed in the tent of assembly (ʾohel moʿed) outside the parokhet (Ex. 40:22–23). The loaves were removed each week to be eaten in a sacred place by the priests. A smoke offering of pure frankincense was offered in connection with these loaves in place of the ʾazkarah that usually accompanied the minḥah, since no part of these loaves was placed on the altar. The antiquity of the practice is attested by a story from the early career of David (i Sam. 21:7) involving the "bread of display" and by its inclusion in the Solomonic temple project (i Kings 7:48). The "bread of display" actually represents a distinct orientation to sacrifice paralleled by the offering of first fruits prescribed in Deuteronomy 26:10. Normally, the Israelite cult operated on the principle that the deity consumed sacrificial materials after they had been converted into smoke on the altar, by breathing in the smoke of the offering (see above). In the case of the "bread of display" and the first fruits the operative principle was the viewing of the offering by the deity, and his seeing it constituted either his acceptance or his actual consumption of it. The offering, therefore, was placed before him. The story of the theophany of Gideon (Judg. 6:19–21) seems to be a shift from the one principle to the other. Gideon first placed his offering before the angel, a divine manifestation, and was then told to make it a burnt offering instead. The method of sacrifice known as tenufah, usually rendered "wave offering," appears only in the priestly writings of the Pentateuch and though extended to mean "levy, tax" (Ex. 35:22; 38:24), its original sense derives from the act of "waving." Tenufah is associated with the common Near Eastern practice of showing the offering to the deity. Upon this method was imposed the more particularly Israelite practice of burning offerings on the altar instead of merely placing them there. Tenufah was utilized for animal as well as grain offerings, but in the case of animal sacrifices, and even of some grain offerings, the waving was only a preliminary to offering up the material on the altar fire, or to boiling part of the meat in pots (cf., eg., Ex. 29:24, 26; Lev. 7:30; 8:27, 29; 9:21; 10:15; Num. 6:20; et al.). Only in some fruit and grain offerings was showing the offering to the deity, in and of itself, a sufficient mode of sacrifice (Lev. 23:11–14, 15, 20). This corresponds with the presentation of the "bread of display." After the deity had had the opportunity to view the offering, it was removed from Him, and assigned to the priests.

Other Types of Sacrifices

libations (nesekh)

Libations normally accompanied other sacrifices (Lev. 23:37; Num. 28:14, 31; 29:6, 11). The priestly codes speak of wine as the material most frequently used in libations. Beer was widely used in the ancient Near East for cultic purposes, and while an interpretation of shekhar as beer in Numbers 28:7 is tempting, it means simply "intoxicant, liquor" and no doubt "wine" (Heb. יָיִן yayin) is to be restored near the beginning of the verse, as attested by some ancient versions (it was omitted due to הַהִין, ha-hin; ibid.; cf. Num. 28:14 and Ex. 29:40). According to the priestly codes, oil was used only for unction and purification, as an ingredient in grain offerings, and for kindling lights, but there are indications that it may have also been used for separate libations (Micah 6:7; Ezek. 16:18–19). The libation was poured from vessels termed kasvah (qaswah; Ex. 25:29; 37:16; Num. 4:7; i Chron. 28:17) and menakkiyyah (menaqqiyyah; Ex. 25:29). There is evidence for a water libation (ii Sam. 23:16 = i Chron. 11:18), and talmudic sources speak of it as an ancient practice (Shek. 6:3; Suk. 4:1, 9; Zev. 6:2, Mid. 2:6).

incense offerings (ketoret, qeṭoret)

As distinct from the other uses of incense, there was a special offering on the "altar of incense," which stood in the tent of assembly. This offering was made by the high priest (Ex. 30:1–10). The altar was of gold and had four horns at the corners. Incense altars have been found in archaeological excavations, and the four-horned altar from Megiddo is of special interest. The high priest kindled incense as part of the tamid or daily sacrifice (Ex. 30:8). Its purpose was to delight the deity with a pleasant aroma. A special blend of incense, designated solely for this purpose, was employed (Ex. 30:34–38). The antiquity of these priestly regulations is not known, and in this respect a distinction should be made between the use of censers (kaf; Num. 7:14) and stationary incense altars.

[Baruch A. Levine]

first fruits (bikkurim)

see *First Fruits.

the regular public offerings

The Torah prescribes a burnt offering of a yearling lamb twice daily – in the morning and evening of every day. Each lamb was to be accompanied by a minḥah of a tenth of an ephah of solet (semolina, the hard particles within wheat grain) and a nesekh of a quarter of a hin of wine (Ex. 29:38–42; Num. 28:3–8). This is called the ʿolat tamid ("regular or constant burnt offering"; Ex. 29:32; Num. 28:3, 10; et al.), and simply the tamid in Daniel 8:11–13; 12:11, and post-biblical literature. Additional offerings (musafim in rabbinic terminology) for Sabbaths, new moons, and annual festivals are listed in Numbers 28–29. There are further requirements in Leviticus 17 and 23. Numbers 10:10 prescribes that sacrifices be accompanied by trumpet blasts "on your seasons and new moons," but the Torah is otherwise silent about cultic music, in contrast to some of the hymns and thanksgiving songs in Psalms and especially to many of the superscriptions to Psalms (see *Psalms; *Chronicles).

[Harold Louis Ginsberg]

bibliography:

G.B. Gray, Sacrifice in the Old Testament (1925), 1–82; F. Blome, Die Opfermaterie in Babylonien und Israel (1934); J.L. Kelso, The Ceramic Vocabulary of the Old Testament (1948); J. Licht, in: em, 2 (1954), 902–4; M. Haran, ibid., 4 (1962), 39–45, 763–86; 5 (1968), 23–30, 883–6; idem, in: vt, 10 (1960), 113–29; R. de Vaux, Studies in Old Testament Sacrifice (1964); B.A. Levine, in: Leshonenu, 30 (1965), 3–11; idem, in: Eretz Israel, 9 (1969), 88–95; R. Rendtorff, Studien zur Geschichte des Opfers im Alten Israel (1967). add. bibliography: R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (1961).

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Cult

Cult ★½ 2007

Dumb college horror. While researching a class project, co-ed Mindy (Miner) becomes obsessed with a Chinese legend about a murdered young girl who took a magical jade amulet to her grave. The amulet has been recovered by a cult leader who is using ritual sacrifice to harness its power. 90m/C DVD . Rachel Miner, Taryn Manning, Joel Michaely, Glenn Dunk, Myke Michaels; D: Joe Knee; W: Benjamin Oren; C: Dave McFarland; M: Tung Thanh Tran. VIDEO

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Cult

Cult

The meanings of the term "cult" in American society underwent a radical transformation during the latter half of the twentieth century. Until the 1960s, cult was generally used to denote a system of religious beliefs and ritual that sometimes included the system's body of adherents. With the growth in religious experimentation that accompanied the counterculture of the 1960s, cult came to be used in a much more pejorative sense. Due in large degree to the efforts of the anticult movement, cult has popularly come to mean a kind of deviant or spurious religious organization characterized by a naive and exploited body of members, unsavory charismatic leaders, and practices of "brainwashing," or systematic psychological indoctrination. This negative characterization of unconventional religions has been used to justify the forcible abduction of members by deprogrammers, who have been employed by worried parents to rescue family members from these religious communities. The 1978 mass suicides and murders at Jonestown, Guyana, greatly accelerated the demonization of unconventional religions in the American news media and led to the current state of affairs in which the term "cult" is popularly used to smear any religion with whose doctrines or practices a person does not personally agree.

Throughout the past thirty years, academic researchers of new religions have developed a large body of empirical data and interpretive insights that have helped to balance the one-sided characterizations of "cults" disseminated by the anti-cult movement and the mass media. Many researchers have challenged the very use of the term "cult" because of its overwhelmingly negative connotations. In its place, terms such as "new religions," "emergent religions," "alternative religions," and "new religious movements" have been substituted in scholarly writing and, increasingly, in media coverage.

Researchers such as Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge have attempted to salvage the term "cult" by using it to distinguish certain religious organizations from others. "Denominations," in their typology, are established Christian churches in America that have their roots in one of the historic European confessions. They tend to be inclusive in their membership, to have professionally trained leaders, and to be positively aligned with the dominant social structure. Examples include Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics.

"Sect movements" are voluntary organizations that begin as offshoots from a denomination. Typically, a small group of members become convinced that their denomination has veered away from its original doctrines and become hopelessly compromised by worldly values. These members break away (and sometimes are expelled) and set about to re-create their former church in its original purity. Sect movements tend to be homogeneous and exclusive in their membership, to espouse strict codes of ethics, to have an egalitarian organizational structure, and to hire leaders distinguished more by personal charisma than by education and training. Examples include Carl McIntire's Bible Presbyterian Church, a sectarian offshoot of the Presbyterian Church, USA; and the Branch Davidians, a sectarian offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventists.

A "cult movement," according to Stark and Bain-bridge, is a religious community that begins independently of any established denomination or sect movement. In other words, it is an original creation—usually by a charismatic leader and his or her early followers—that has no ties to established churches. This does not mean that cult movements do not adopt beliefs and practices from existing traditions, only that they do so in a piecemeal fashion so that the end result does not resemble any established sect or denomination. Both cult movements and sect movements are usually small and have a tightly knit membership. They also exist in some degree of tension with the surrounding culture, since they often consider conventional society to be corrupt.

Stark and Bainbridge also distinguish among "audience cults," "client cults," and "cult movements." Audience cults are loosely organized groups whose primary mode of expression includes lectures, conferences, and meetings through which a variety of esoteric and unconventional teachings are communicated. This form of cultic activity tends to be ephemeral, and its attendees generally remain mere consumers of the audience cults' books, pamphlets, and products. Prominent examples of audience cults include much of what passes for "New Age" religion and various UFO-related groups.

"Client cults" have a higher degree of organization than audience cults, and the relationship between members and leaders resembles the relationship between therapists and clients. Some client cults attract a large number of adherents, but these adherents remain individual consumers of a technique or practice and rarely are organized into a social movement. Indeed, adherents of client cults regularly maintain active commitments to other religious organizations. Prominent examples of client cults are est (Erhard Seminars Training) and its offshoots Lifespring and Actualizations.

"Cult movements," in this limited sense, are comprehensive organizations that try to satisfy all the religious needs of members. Typically, they demand a high level of commitment and personal sacrifice and see themselves as instrumental in bringing about needed changes in society. The longer a member remains in this form of cultic organization, the more difficult it becomes to leave its ranks. Cult movements usually place a high priority on missionary outreach and on the recruitment of new members. Aggressive recruitment practices have been a major focus of societal unease with these movements. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Family, and the Church Universal and Triumphant are prominent examples of cult movements.

Researchers have observed that both sect and cult movements tend to change over time, most often in the direction of increasing accommodation to the norms and values of the larger culture. As one example of such change, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons), a cult movement founded in the 1830s, dropped its practice of polygamy and its proscription of black men in its priesthood in response to societal pressures. The Holy Order of MANS, an independent New Age community founded in 1968, slowly accommodated itself to mainstream Christian norms and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1988.

As recent history has proved, some cult movements can become dangerous both to their own members and to society at large. Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese movement, released poisonous Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing and injuring more than one thousand people. Heaven's Gate, a UFO religion founded during the 1970s, committed mass suicide in 1997 to rendezvous with a spacecraft said to be trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. For people who find themselves involved in such groups, anti-cult organizations such as the American Family Foundation recommend extensive psychotherapy to facilitate disengagement and subsequent reentry into society. The goals of this therapy are: (1) to help ex-members recognize and come to terms with the abuse and manipulation they may have experienced in a cult movement; (2) to help ex-members manage the psychological disorientation and crises of self-esteem that often occur once they have left their former community; and (3) to facilitate the ex-member's reconnection to family, old friends, and personal goals. Some exmembers find a new sense of purpose in their lives by speaking out publicly about their "cult" experience and by warning society of the dangers of unconventional religions.

During the past thirty years, anti-cultists and academic researchers have often found themselves at odds over the putative dangers posed by cult movements to American society. As a result of the anti-cult movement's skillful use of the news media, a great deal of misinformation has been fed to the general public. The common misconceptions concerning cult movements include:

  1. Cult movements have many members and are growing rapidly. In fact, the proportion of the general population who belong to cults at any one time is fairly small. The best evidence available—based on meticulous counting—indicates that there are about 200 viable cult movements at the present time, and their aggregate membership is 150,000 to 200,000 members. Most cults have 200 to 2,000 members, peak in membership within their first 10 to 20 years of existence, and then rapidly decline. The exceptions often go on to become established denominations, such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists.
  2. Cult movements are led by abusive, greedy criminals who exploit their followers for their own personal gain. Certainly, there have been instances in which a group's leader became progressively more abusive and self-serving, but this is not the norm. Most movement leaders sincerely believe in their religious vision, are lawabiding, and are committed to serving humanity along with their followers. No institution in modern life is free of persons with criminal inclinations, but this does not mean that the institution itself is a criminal operation.
  3. The only reliable account of what a cult movement is like comes from ex-members. Although former members can often provide useful insights about the inner workings of a group, their accounts cannot be taken at face value. Often, people in the midst of leaving a relationship of any kind tend to display a selective memory about their past partners and are inclined to amplify negative aspects of a person or group. Moreover, there have been instances in which therapists and anti-cult counselors coached former members to accept a prefabricated "script" concerning their involvement.
  4. Brainwashing has been proved to exist in cult movements. On the contrary, the vast majority of scholars have concluded, from their research in the field, that nothing that resembles the "brainwashing" techniques employed by North Koreans against American POWs exists in cult movements. Rather, they have discovered that people who join cults do so of their own free choice as part of a search for a meaningful way of life. Researchers have also found that most members leave when they want to, in spite of group pressures to have them remain.

Cult movements have long been part of American religious culture. Their growth during the late twentieth century, however, may be one indicator of an increasingly pluralistic religious environment and the continuing breakdown of the Protestant hegemony that began during the early twentieth century.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Belonging, Religious; Brainwashing; Church Universaland Triumphant; Cult Awareness Network; Elvis Cults; Family, The; Freedomof Religion; International Societyfor Krishna Consciousness; Namesand Naming; New Age Spirituality; New Religious Movements; Proselytizing; Psychologyof Religion; Psychotherapy; Religious Communities; Sect.

Bibliography

Beckford, James. Cult Controversies: The Societal Responseto the New Religious Movements. 1985.

Bromley, David G., and Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds. Religion and the Social Order. Vol. 3, The Handbook onCults and Sects in America, Parts A and B. 1993.

Dawson, Lorne. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology ofNew Religious Movements. 1998.

Jacobs, Janet Liebman. Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions. 1989.

Langone, Michael D., ed. Recovery from Cults: Help forVictims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. 1993.

Lucas, Phillip Charles. The Odyssey of a New Religion:The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy. 1995.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. 1985.

Phillip Charles Lucas

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