CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


An Answer and an Open Letter about TED's Video on Cults



Dear TED:

We are scholars of new religious movements, sometimes labeled as "cults," with substantial academic experience in this field.

We are concerned about the video you posted at https://ed.ted.com/lessons/why-do-people-join-cults-janja-lalich.

While admittedly well realized and entertaining, the video proposes a notion of "cult" that only a tiny minority of scholars would find acceptable today, and may have potentially harmful effects on religious liberty.

It starts by omitting a key point, i.e. that Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, responsible for the suicides and homicides in Guyana in 1978, was not technically a new religious movement but a political activist movement within a mainline Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ. To its bitter end, it was listed as such in the Disciples of Christ’s yearbook. Its full name was "The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ."

This is not a pedantic detail, because it would have collapsed the idea that you can clearly distinguish between cults, separated from mainline society, and religions, which started as cults but eventually integrated into the larger society. In fact, some of the movements creating real harm exist within mainline religions: rings of pedophile priests within the Catholic Church, terrorist groups within fringes of Islam, etc. The Jonestown group was part of the Disciples of Christ, and there are videos where the Dalai Lama and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka declare Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of 1995, as a legitimate part of mainline Buddhism.

The description of a cult in the video could be easily applied to the Jesuits and many other religious orders within the Catholic Church, both male and female, and to ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, which obviously separate members from secular society.

We do agree that there are religious movements, both old and new, harming their followers and society through physical violence, sexual abuse, and financial exploitation. We do oppose, however, the cavalier use of the word "cult" for all groups whose lifestyle is different from the mainline’s, whose founders are regarded as endowed with divine powers (not unlike Jesus Christ for the Christians or Buddha Sakyamuni for the Buddhists), and which ask substantial sacrifices to their followers (not unlike most Catholic, Buddhist, or Hindu religious orders).

We hope that such a prestigious organization as TED would agree to post a video of the same length on "Cult: A Controversial Notion," in the format you prefer, where one or more mainline scholars of new religious movement may offer their criticism of this category.

A copy of this letter, together with your reply (if any), will be posted on the Web site of the Center for Studies on New Religions.

Yours sincerely,

Massimo Introvigne
Managing Director
CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), Torino, Italy

J. Gordon Melton
Distinguished Professor of American Religious History
Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Milda Alisauskiene
Associate Professor
Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania

Eileen Barker
Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Religion
London School of Economics, London, England

David Barrett
Sociologist of religion and author
London, England

David G. Bromley
Professor of Religious Studies and Sociology
Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia

George Chryssides
Honorary Research Fellow
York St John University, York, UK

Angela Coco
Senior Lecturer and Director of Higher Degree Research Training
Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, Australia

Carole Cusack
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Sydney, Australia

Dyron Daughrity
Professor, Religion and Philosophy Division
Pepperdine University, Malibu, California 

Raffaella Di Marzio
Executive Board Member
Italian Society for Psychology of Religion, Rome, Italy

Bernard Doherty
Course Director, School of Theology
Charles Sturt University, Sydney, Australia

Holly Folk
Associate Professor of Liberal Studies
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington

Eugene Gallagher
Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus
Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut

Rosalind I. J. Hackett
Professor and Head, Department of Religious Studies
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee

Julie Ingersoll
Professor of Religious Studies and Religious Studies Program Director
University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida

Phillip Lucas
Professor of Religious Studies
Stetson University, DeLand, Florida

Timothy Miller
Professor of Religious Studies
University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

Sarah Pike
Professor of Comparative Religion
California State University, Chico, California

Jeremy Rapport
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio

James T. Richardson
Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies
University of Nevada, Reno, Nevada

Burke Rochford
Professor of Religion
Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont

Richard Salter
Professor of Religious Studies
Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York

Donald A. Westbrook
Lecturer, Center for the Study of Religion
University of California Los Angeles, California

Stuart Wright
Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice
Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas

Benjamin E. Zeller,
Associate Professor and Chair of Religion
Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois

PierLuigi Zoccatelli
Professor of Sociology of Religion
Pontifical Salesian University, Torino, Italy