Excerpted from SOTT Essay: Cult-ivating Terror: A brief analysis of the origins and effects of the cult phenomena in modern society

[...] One religious professor in 1994 well summarized the popular perspectives concerning the identification of "cults" in an online posting, shortly after the tragedy at Waco, that deserves some consideration:
"As a professor of religious studies who specializes in research, writing, and teaching about America's alternative religions, I can tell all of you that the word "cult" has become an essentially contested concept. That is, like many other words, there is no universally agreed-upon meaning.

"Before one can know what the term means one must know the user and his or her context religiously and socially. I tell my students there are four major approaches to using the term: journalistic (tends to be sensational), theological (defines "cult" by some standard of orthodox truth), sociological (uses "cult" to describe groups that self-consciously oppose the mainstream of culture), and psychological (uses a standard of psychological manipulation and coercion).

"What counts as a cult differs by these varying definitions. All three may agree on a certain group being a "cult" such as Jim Jones' "Peoples' Temple." But a theologian might label the LDS church a "cult" simply because it diverges considerably from standard orthodox Christianity, while a sociologist would say it isn't a cult due to its size and influence."
The theological argument seems to hinge upon interpretation of religious texts, with various groups attempting to define the boundaries of what it means to be truly Christian. The argument is unlikely to be resolved any time soon given that none of the warring factors actually possess any conclusive proof.

For example, the theological approach is taken by the Christian countercult movement. It considers the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) a cult because the church rejects the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, has scriptures in addition to the Bible, and has various other unorthodox beliefs and practices.

In the end, size and influence seem to play a major part in deciding which religious group gets awarded 'cult' status. The Catholic Church, for example, has approximately a 2000 year history, 600 million followers around the world, and vast financial resources at its disposal. It seems that this provides all the protection needed from the threat of 'cult headquarters' ever replacing the term 'Vatican' or 'cult leader' the title of 'Pope.'

Rightly or wrongly then, smaller and newly formed religious groups are much more likely to find themselves the object of scrutiny than larger established mainstream religions, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof for provable 'cultic' behavior (if such a thing even exists from the theological point of view). Of course, given the monotheistic nature and monopoly on belief held by the major organised religions, it is certainly plausible that this situation is most acceptable to them, and that they may even contribute to its perpetuation.

In a recent article for the long established Egypt weekly paper 'AL-AHRAM', Jonathan Cook, a British writer living in Nazareth, makes an interesting point about the similarity of the 'mind programming' effects attributed to 'cults' and the effects of mainstream religion (in this case Judaism). He suggests that the reason the persecution of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military continues unquestioned by the Jewish people is not due to ignorance of the situation but is instead dependent upon various factors, not least of which are the dictates of Judaism, he comments:
"[It depends upon Jews] passing through an education system that transmits historical and moral values of exclusiveness to the religious and the secular alike: premised for the former on a biblical mission to be realised by God's chosen people; and for the latter on the overriding need to provide a sanctuary for a people blighted by centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust.

It also depends on a military rite of passage to adulthood that cements Israelis to their society, itself perceived as their only protection from a hatred, anti-Semitism, to which -- if they are to believe their teachers, media and government -- every gentile in the world is susceptible. This is their unique fate as Jews -- and Israel is their one and only insurance policy.

Israelis who believe this -- and almost all do -- feel that they have no choice but to submit to the collective good. Not a universal good, one of values shared by all mankind, but a collective good reserved only for Jews.

Talk to Jewish anti-Zionists in Israel -- a tiny number of people, barely reaching four figures out of a total Jewish population of five million -- and most will tell you how hard they struggled to overcome the Zionist training they were given from birth. Many say they are still fighting to defeat their own racist assumptions to this day.

Jeff Halper, an academic and leading Israeli activist against army abuses in the occupied territories, recently described to me the decades-long process of "unlearning" his Zionist responses. Deprogramming is what he called it. The kind of thing we read about in the papers when vulnerable youngsters need to be revived from the dangerous ideas implanted by a cult. But how do you loosen the grip of a cult when a whole nation is under its spell?"
The other approach available to 'cult assessors' is the sociological approach. This is the approach taken by most ' and forms the basis of the most serious allegations, as it precludes the theological argument which is fraught with difficulty and in the end coming down to a matter of belief rather than verifiable facts. [...]