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[content warning: descriptions of spiritual abuse]

I prefer the phrase “spiritual abuse” to the word “cult” for several reasons.

First, spiritual abuse is less discrete. Either a religion is a cult or it is not; however, the same religion may be spiritually abusive to some people in some contexts while not spiritually abusive to other people in different contexts. For instance, some Alcoholics Anonymous groups isolate their members, tell them not to take psychiatric medication, and pressure them into sex; however, a lot of people find AA an invaluable resource in getting sober. The Catholic hierarchy covered up pedophilia, and a lot of people are faithful Catholics whose lives have been tremendously improved by the church.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s okay to go “well, we’re not literally one hundred percent always spiritually abusive, so there’s no problem here!” Part of one’s religious or spiritual organization being spiritually abusive ought to be an enormous wake-up call to examine what led to the spiritual abuse and how it can be prevented in the future. But I also think that you can say “wow, spiritually abusive AA groups are horrifying, I wonder how we can prevent thirteenth-stepping in our groups” while also saying “my AA group is great”. You can’t say “wow, AA is a horrifying cult” and also say “my AA group is not a horrifying cult.” It does not work that way.

Second, “cult” tends to be applied disproportionately to new religious movements.

Now, there is a good reason to be suspicious of new religious movements. The Catholic Church has been around for a long time and although it has caused quite a bit of harm it is also a known quantity. We know the circumstances in which the Catholic Church directly causes mass murder and have secularism laws in place to prevent this. A new religious movement might unexpectedly lead to mass murder in a way we don’t have laws to prevent.

On the other hand, it is not exactly like the Catholic Church has never been spiritually abusive, between the coverup of the sexual abuse of children, the Magdalene Laundries, churches in which women are pressured into having far more children than they can handle to prove they don’t have a contraceptive mentality, traditional Catholics who teach that it is a sin to refuse sex, and relationships in which Catholic teaching on Hell and sin is used as a tool of abuse. Even if mainstream religions are less likely to be abusive than new religious movements, spiritual abuse in the former affects more people than the latter– after all, they’re bigger! I think “cult” gives a mistaken idea that old religions that aren’t New Agey are safe from spiritual abuse, when in reality every religion has been touched by spiritual abuse.

(I suspect this is historical– “cult” originated from the Christian countercult movement which conflated spiritual abuse and heresy, while “spiritual abuse” originated from survivors of fundamentalist Protestant spiritual abuse. Naturally, the latter is more willing to admit that mainstream religions can be spiritually abusive.)

Third, “cult” is a word which a lot of times gets used against harmless weirdos.

I actually find the broad use of the term ‘cult’ wildly offensive. Like, you do realize that people get PTSD from spiritual abuse, right? “Cult” is not a cool shiny term to use about every group you don’t like. Here are some things that are not, in and of themselves, spiritually abusive:

  • Normal groupthink and ingroupy behavior.
  • Donating money that you can afford to spend to charities other people in the group approve of.
  • Weird but consensual sexual behavior.
  • Fervently holding beliefs that outsiders think are weird.
  • Having rituals.
  • Having group houses.

Here is a list of things that are actually spiritually abusive:

  • Isolating people from friends and family who aren’t members of the group.
  • Requiring people to make financially unsustainable donations to be part of the group that go solely to finance the group leader’s lavish lifestyle.
  • Coercing people into sexual behavior they don’t consent to.
  • Not letting people disagree with the orthodoxy.
  • Encouraging people to think of themselves as evil, wrong, or shameful.
  • Physical assault.

The difference between these two lists is whether it causes harm. A person who thinks they were abducted by aliens who gave them a message of peace and love to share with the Earth: weird but harmless to themselves and others. A person who spends hours screaming insults at people who like the peace and love message but are skeptical of the aliens thing: very damaging to other people! Like, honestly, if you can’t see the difference between “lots of people in this group live in housing situations which are kind of like cult compounds if you squint” and “people who disobey in this group are physically assaulted,” I am kind of worried about you.

A lot of people who sling around the word ‘cult’ have a missing mood. You’d think they’d feel sad that people have been deceived into an ideology that hurts them; after all, the primary people that any spiritually abusive situation hurts are, you know, the people being spiritually abused. Instead, a lot of people’s response is something like this: “Ha ha! I think you’re a victim of psychological and possibly physical abuse! I have so much contempt for you! I’m going to laugh at you for being terrible now!” I am not sure whether these people enjoy laughing at and blaming victims of abuse, or they know perfectly well that the people they’re talking to aren’t spiritual abuse victims but they enjoy making light of the experiences of actual victims in order to insult people they don’t like. Neither one speaks very well of their moral character.