I was involved in a discussion recently about what differences, if any, existed between those beliefs that we label as religion and those we label as cults. The formal definition of the word cult (as given by Merriam-Webster) seems to cover religion as well since it says: “1: formal religious veneration, 2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; 3: a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; 4: a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator, 5 a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b: the object of such devotion c: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion.”
Apart from definition 4, which struck me as a rarely-used meaning of the word, the rest of the definitions seemed to cover religions as well, with the only possible distinctions arising from the words ‘usually small’ in 5c and ‘unorthodox or spurious’ in 3. Is a cult then merely a religion that has not (yet) attracted a large number of followers or something that is simply looked down upon for no objective reason?
But while there may not be a clear dictionary distinction between a cult and a religion, it is clear that the words have a different emotional impact, with the word religion having a neutral flavor to it, while the word cult definitely has pejorative connotations.
The question of cults versus religions came up in the context of speculations about Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2008. It turns out that he is a Mormon and some have suggested that the country is not ready for a Mormon president, alleging that the Church of the Latter Day Saints is a cult.
Take, for example, this exchange between Hugh Hewitt and Christopher Hitchens. Hewitt asked Hitchens his opinion of the incoming senate majority leader Harry Reid, who is also a Mormon.
CH: A Mormon mediocrity, and extraordinary, sort of reactionary, nullity.
HH: Now isn’t that bigoted to say a Mormon mediocrity, Christopher Hitchens?
CH: No, no. I’m always in favor of pointing out which cult people belong to.
HH: You see, I think that is very, very harsh and offensive, but I will allow the Mormon listeners to call you on that.
CH: No, he’s a Smithite, for Heaven’s sake. I mean, he believes that some idiot found gold plates buried in the ground.
HH: But it is religious bigotry to call that out. And do you make similar comments…
CH: No, it’s not me who says he’s a Mormon. Excuse me, it’s he who says it.
HH: I know that, but I still think…
CH: I say that anyone who believes that stuff is an idiot.
HH: I know you believe that, but isn’t it sort of randomly bigoted to bring that out and throw it onto the table?
CH: Not at all, no. It’s essential to point out…
HH: I disagree.
CH: Especially at a time when people are always saying it’s the Republican Party that’s run by religious crackpots and nutbags. And it’s very important to point out these people have a big foothold in the Democratic Party, too.
HH: I think that’s terribly religiously bigoted. I think that is up there with, like, saying about Jesse Jackson that he’s African-American in the course of commenting on him.
CH: Well, I don’t really see how he could keep that a secret, how one could…
HH: Well, it’s not a secret that he’s a Mormon. It’s just sort of a random attack on a guy’s faith. I don’t like Reid at all, but…
CH: No, I think less of him because of the stupid cult of which he’s a member. I would say the same if he was a Scientologist.
There are millions of religious Americans who would never vote for an atheist for president, because they believe that faith is necessary to lead the country. Others, myself included, would not, under most imaginable circumstances, vote for a fanatic or fundamentalist—a Hassidic Jew who regards Rabbi Menachem Schneerson as the Messiah, a Christian literalist who thinks that the Earth is less than 7,000 years old, or a Scientologist who thinks it is haunted by the souls of space aliens sent by the evil lord Xenu. Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.
By the same token, I wouldn’t vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in “reformed” Egyptian hieroglyphics—a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. If you don’t know the story, it’s worth spending some time with Fawn Brodie’s wonderful biography No Man Knows My History. Smith was able to dictate his “translation” of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don’t want him running the country.
The attitudes of Hitchens and Weisberg that Mormonism and scientology are beyond the pale of ‘respectable’ beliefs are apparently shared by many people and in the next post we will see how well they withstand close scrutiny.