March 26, 2008

What is a Cult?

Lowney picture

By Kathe Lowney
Guest Contributor, Valdosta State University
I admit it, I’m a political junkie. Campaign season is my favorite time of the year. And these last few months have been quite the ride, haven’t they? We have seen the rise of Huck’s Army, heard Obama Girl sing about her crush, watched McCainiacs be thrilled at their candidate’s stunning comeback, and witnessed the persuasiveness that a ringing phone at 3 a.m. might have had with Texas and Ohio voters. 

But I’m not just an avid consumer of political news; as a sociologist, I’m also a media analyst. And something has been bothering me as this presidential campaign has played out: the frequency that the media have talked about the “cult of Obama” (see this Time magazine story, and this Los Angeles Times op-ed for just a few of the many media examples of this worry; and also this blog by a supporter that might offer some evidence for the media’s concern). 

It’s the word “cult” that troubles me. Media commentators seem to imply that the enthusiasm and energy of the Senator’s supporters, their commitment to his vision for America, the world, and each other, is somehow worrisome and menacing. j0433119 

It’s made me realize once again that sociology is not only a way of thinking about the social world we live in, but that as sociologists, we talk in a distinct – and distinctive – way. For students learning sociology, I think that learning our sociological way of talking can sometimes be hard. Doesn’t it seem like sometimes we sociologists use a lot of words to make some rather simple points? I think that too once in a while! I believe, however, that it’s sociologists’ scientific preciseness that fuels our wordiness – at least that is my hope! 

“Cult” is one of those words that means one thing to sociologists and often quite different things to non-sociologists. Here’s how the text for my Sociology of Religion class defines it: 

A cult is similar to a sect in its rejection of the religious patterns and formulations of denominations–or of whatever the society’s dominant form(s) of religion happens to be. Cult members were either not attracted to dominant religious groups in the first place or, like sectarians, became disenchanted with commonly-accepted religious forms. The cult differs from the sect, however, in that it does not call for a return to the original, pure religion, but rather emphasizes the new–a new revelation or insight provided by a supernatural power, say, or the rediscovery of an old revelation that had been lost and unknown for many years (and which is, therefore, new to this age) (Johnstone 2007:78)

But is this what you think about when you hear the word “cult”? I doubt it. Since the 1970s, popular culture, led by the press, has come to define the word as a religion that many people do not like; one which uses recruitment techniques unlike many traditional Protestant denominations (i.e., “brainwashing”) in order to ensnare impressionable young adults in its grasp. Cults are often portrayed as being “alien” to the U.S., run by manipulative messianic figures who are really all about lavishly spending the monies their followers raise. 

image In fact, this pop culture definition of “cult” has even altered our sociological vocabulary. Nowadays sociologists of religion tend to use the term “new religious  movement” instead of “cult” because we recognize how pervasive this pop culture definition has become. 

So when commentators write about the “cult of Obama,” they are both tapping into this negative connotation while simultaneously helping it persist. I find it interesting that it is Senator Obama’s followers who have come under such media scrutiny and not, for example, Huckabee’s Army of college-aged activists. Barack Obama is the upstart, the unexpected Democratic candidate who has more delegates than the presumptive nominee has. He is the candidate who, because of his parents’ cultural backgrounds and nationalities, has had his patriotism questioned by some opponents (i.e., the worry about an “alien” cult leader, resurfacing). 

If words matter – and as a sociologist, I absolutely believe that they do – how social institutions such as the press talk can shape the public’s social construction of reality. Words like “cult” are now perceived to be, in our culture, inflammatory. So next time you read a headline or hear political commentators talk about “the cult of Obama” – think about it for a moment. What is that reporter/analyst trying to get you to believe? And perhaps more importantly, why? How does such a negative construction of Senator Obama’s followers shape the political environment of this presidential campaign? Who might the construction help? 

[Full disclosure: In my state’s primary, I did not vote for Senator Obama.]


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I have two distinct reactions to this. The first is that, as a fluent speaker of language, I am adequate to the task of keeping multiple definitions and nuances in my head for particular word uses. It’s a terrible example, but if you were to use the word "bitch" to describe first your pet, then your daughter, and then your son, I would not have to make any particularly gymnastic intellectual effort to understand your different meanings. Therefore, I haven’t any trouble parsing the difference between a positive and negative use of the word “cult”.

That said, my midline understanding of the word does not include all of the negativity and suspicion of your populist example (per se), even while it also lacks the formality of the sociological. I think of "cult" as indicating a group of faith-based nonconformists. If anything, I think the negativity you are registering comes from the comparison of Mr. Obama's supporters with any type of new religious movement. This method of removing the healthy skepticism from the mindsets of a parade of possibly nutcase followers is how we frequently cartoon those who think differently from us. It's an indication that we think the new thing takes itself too seriously, takes its mandates too far, and relies on justifications too ephemeral. It is unnecessary, actually, for something to be all that new for us to pour scorn in this way. Socially, we seem to feel this about any belief system that isn't the very one we ascribe to, and therefore our comparison to belief systems is, by default, socially insulting.

Calling the followers of Mr. Obama a "cult of" is, in my opinion then, and to my ears, no worse than referring to them as a "sect of" (or as a "denomination" a "world-order" a "church of" or even a "congregation", were that word to be also used in its religious sense at the same time). The very same words would all come off as bad from a detractor and just fine from a supporter.

Mr. Cavin,

However, you do have to admit that there is a generally negative image associated with the word "cult." And for most of the country, they do not keep their minds open enough to see the alternate definition. For those that just flip through the headlines to get the gist of what is going on, the word "cult" would be more than enough to implant the stereotyped and frightening image into their minds of Obama supporters. In the general American mind, cult is a very extreme version of a sect, not the same thing. Many people don't go flipping through the dictionary or a social psychology textbook to see the actual definition. They use the societal association that is now implanted in their mind.

In this case, the use of a word like "cult" that does instill a negative perception, is the use of propaganda. The reason the article's author picked the title was to not only draw in a reader, but to also evoke a specific emotion in the typical reader before the article even begins. This is called pre-persuasion.

Therefore, you must agree that our culture makes cults out to be evil and menacing, hence that title is propaganda.

It is important for us readers to question the strategically picked words. Our first instinct is to go with our first impressions, but we must fight that urge and question. We should question the use, by whom it is used, and why, to form a truly informed opinion. These titles serve to mislead, to create biases. Decisions like who should be the president should be carefully thought out. We should know who we are putting in office for four years rather than be surprised by their stupidity or incompetence once they are already there.

Hello everyone,

Following your post about cults I would like to tell you something more about the Grinberg Method...

I'm 32 years old, I’ve and MBA and I’m Export Manager and I live and work in Barcelona (Spain) and I've had my life changed and ruined by the Grinberg Method Association last year.

Almost two years ago, EVA, my beloved ex girlfriend, the girl with whom I had been sharing my life for 5 unforgettable years, was "caught" by these people by accident…

Everything happened during a dinner we had with a couple of friends of her (he was 46 years old and she was 26…sigh…) who convinced her to try the Grinberg Method in order to improve the results of her knee rehabilitation process.
I remember that they started talking about the meaning of energy and that man, who was a 3rd level Grinberg practitioner, ”sold” EVA the story of the Grinberg Method and she finally decided to try a free trial session…she was caught with the simplest and dumbest marketing strategy, the one of “ Please come and try…it’s free and if u don’t like it u can always give up…”

Well, in order to put things forward I would like to tell you that we are not talking about a silly teenager without any kind of culture whatsoever…on the contrary we’re talking about a 28 years old girl with a Master in Biology and with a brain who was actually working pretty good during that time!!!

Anyways, she went to the first free trial session and she was shocked by the way in which her practitioner touch her feet and discovered things about her personality and so forth…she enjoyed so much that after one month she decided to become a practitioner. She said that she was feeling so good after the foot massage and other things she was doing during the sessions!!!

She asked me what I was thinking about it and, even though I’m against all these kind of esoteric techniques, I was seeing her happy and since her happiness was my happiness I told her to go for it…she finally enrolled to the first year of classes and it works basically like this:

In order to become an actual teacher of Grinberg Method you’ve to pay 3.000,00 Euros per year and a part from that there’re one or two compulsory weekend’s session per month which cost around 150 Euros each. The first year is composed by 5 weeks classes and at the end of every year there’s a small exam but the most important thing is to gain at least 5 customers during the first year.

Soon my girlfriend became completely focused on these people and she started explaining me some things about it but she was reticent in telling me exactly what this all method was really about…
She said that it was forbidden to talk about the method in depth with close friends and relatives….at that time I was just too focused on my job and I trusted her so much that I just wanted to stay in peace with myself and that’s it…I saw her changed but I loved her and probably my love made me blind!!

Anyways….a friend of mine tried a free session and he told me that the practitioner’s aim is to make people believe with very stupid and simple assumption that they’ve some problems by only watching their feet… then they start saying that the repetitive and routine daily life things are evil and they’re the reason of most of our mental and physical sickness…
At this point there’s a big jump into a more psychological level in which the practitioner analyzes and/or invents fears of his/her customer in order to make him/her weaker and weaker and easier to be manipulated…the customer is considered a person to be slaved by them and one of the most important thing is that they teach you to manage the changes in life…

The teach you a very individualistic kind of life in which everything is black or white and the main aim is to become a practitioner of the method…at the end of the day the aim of the practitioner is to get more customers and from those customers some potential practitioner…I remember that my girlfriend she was speaking as a sales person with her customers and I was shocked by the way in which she was defending her assumptions…well…I’m a sales person as well but that was just rubbish and she was talking with despise about the people who didn’t believe the Grinberg Method and so forth…

After one year of classes she came one day in our flat and she told me that she wanted to break up and when she was speaking I could see the way in which she was breathing and acting it was completely faked and I could see that she was playing a really nice script with which she could have won an AWARD!!!
She then left me and I almost never seen her again cos I was so shocked and sad than I didn0t know the way in which I could behave in order to have her back…

She left me in may 2009 and since then I started a big research about this method and I also open up a facebook page about this matter (BEWARE OF GRINBERG METHOD)to share experiences about the method…

Well…I’d like to know if you know something more about these people…



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