Cults popped into my head this morning, quite uninvited, but I welcomed them all the same. I am an hospitable person. A few years back, a student reading a chapter from Peter Ackroyd's biography of Thomas More, commented that the Catholic services as described were 'like a cult'. The chapter they had to read is entitled 'Holy, Holy, Holy' and describes Catholic London in More's time, with an emphasis on ritual.
Since then, I have occasionally mulled around in my mind the concept of a 'cult' vs. a 'religion'. Our animus against cults began, I think, with Charles Manson's family of bizarre murderers. Since that time, the media have had a dark romance with 'cults', a romance shared by readers, listeners and viewers - a modern day collective boogie man with which to scare both children and adults.
Where is the line between religion and cult, however? To this student (and to a few others who made the same comment in other semesters), what makes a cult appears to be ritual, but more specifically ritual chanting, the mass repetition of formal words in a communal context. Darkness, or half light helps, as do material objects like candles or paintings barely seen in this glimmering haziness. I would guess too that this opinion was another manifestation of a latent anti-Catholicism found among students, even where they themselves and even their parents, have long since abandoned Protestant Christianity. Anti-Catholicism did become integral to English cultural forms in the Early Modern era. This anti-Catholicism was exported alongside the political British Empire to most of the English-speaking world, where it resides in this truncated form today.
Oxford defines cult this way: A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members...
I surfed around academic Anthropology sites, as well as leafing through indices in my own collection of Anthropology texts, but by and large Anthropologists seem uninterested in 'cults' of the sort Oxford defines. Most often Anthropologists of religion see the term 'cult' as being related to ritual, but without the 'strange' or 'excessive control' features noted in the above definition.
Nonetheless, my students who saw late mediaeval Catholicism as cult-like were unconsciously using the Oxford definition. The problem, of course, is that Catholics were not a small group of people, and 'excessive' control is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the word 'strange' is the key.
In the modern sense, derived from Manson, a cult must be comprised of a small group of people, holding beliefs that vary essentially from those of the dominant culture. Whether this cult involves ritual behaviour also as a necessary part I am not sure - ritual is common in all sorts of activities (doing the wave at a football game, crowds singing their team's song in European football/soccer, that first sip of coffee in the morning, and so on).
Well, back to work! Problem unsolved!