June 14, 2004

"Controversial cult" given state OK in Texas?

Like other Unitarians, Rivka at Respectful of Otters was outraged when Texas Controller Carole Keeton Strayhorn denied a tax exemption to the Red River Unitarian Church in Denton, and pleased when the decision was reversed. I'm not sure whether she'll be amused or apalled to read the reversal described in the following terms by the Agape Press Christian News Service:

Texas officials have reversed an earlier decision denying tax-exempt status to a controversial religious cult in that state. The state's comptrollers office initially ruled that the Red River Unitarian Universalist Church was not a religious organization for tax purposes since it did not have one unified system of belief. However, after a review by the agency's general counsel, that ruling was reversed.

Cult is one of those words, like terrorist, that gets people worked up, either because they think it's being used where it's not appropriate, or because they think it isn't being used where it's deserved.

It's easy to see why, given the American Heritage Dictionary's primary definition "A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader." Encarta agrees, more or less, giving as the first sense "a system of religious or spiritual beliefs, especially an informal and transient belief system regarded by others as misguided or unorthodox" (though "informal" strikes me as an odd choice for a characteristic feature of cults).

The strongly negative connotations are fairly recent, since the OED's definitions are considerably more neutral:

1. Worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings. Obs. (exc. as in sense 2).

2. a. A particular form or system of religious worship; esp. in reference to its external rites and ceremonies.
b. Now freq. used attrib. by writers on cultic ritual and the archæology of primitive cults.

3. transf. Devotion or homage to a particular person or thing, now esp. as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers.

The free online Merriam-Webster splits the difference, putting the "unorthodox or spurious" stuff in third place:

1 : formal religious veneration : WORSHIP
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

As further evidence for the shift in meaning, Webster's 2nd unabridged (1913) has

1. Attentive care; homage; worship.

2. A system of religious belief and worship.

whereas Webster's 3rd (1961) has a much expanded entry, with the "unorthodox or spurious" stuff starting in sense 4:

1 : religious practice: WORSHIP

2 : a system of beliefs and ritual connected with the worship of a deity, a spirit, or a group of deities or spirits

3 a : the rites, ceremonies, and practices of a religion : the formal aspect of religious experience
b Roman Catholicism : reverence and ceremonial veneration paid to God or to the Virgin Mary or to the saints or to objects that symbolize or otherwise represent them (as the crucifix or a statue) --- called also cultus --- compare DULIA, HYPERDULIA, LATRIA

4 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious
also : a minority religious group holding beliefs regarded as unorthodox or spurious: SECT

5 : a system for the cure of disease based on the dogma, tenets, or principles set forth by its promulgator to the exclusion of scientific experience or demonstration

6 a : great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing
esp : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad or fetish
b : the object of such devotion
c (1) : a body of persons characterized by such devotion
(2) : a usu. small or narrow circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to some artistic or intellectual program, tendency, or figure (as one of limited popular appeal)

Other information on what cult has come to mean in the 21st century, at least to some people, can be found here, here, here, and so on. It hardly seems appopriate to use the word in reference to the Unitarians, who are about as far as one can get from the fervor, authoritarianism, dogmatism, charisma and coercion that the anti-cult sources point to -- unless cult is just taken to mean "religion that I dislike", in which case the Agapeans have as much right to call the Unitarians names as others do to apply the same terms to the denominations that the Agapean favor. However, if I were a Unitarian, I think I'd respectfully draw the attention of my Agapean brothers and sisters to Mathew 7 and John 8.

[link to Agape Press sent in by a Philadelphia Unitarian of Texan origin]

[Update 6/15/2004: Rivka explains in detail why some evangelical Christians call UU a "cult" (because they define "cult" as "any group of people that worship anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ, and believe anything contrary to His word or the Word of God according to the Bible"), and also links to a Southern Baptist's thoughtful article on how to evangelize Unitarians.

The same author (Cky J. Carrigan) also has an articles on converting Mormons and Baha'i, and on dealing with Pokemon, among many other topics. His home page explains that his first name "Cky" "is pronounced 'Ky' which rhythms with 'Why'", but doesn't explain where it comes from. Google is not helpful here because the returns for "Cky" are dominated by a very unchristian rock band, a TV station in Winnipeg, the code for the airport in Conakry, Guinea, and (of course) the parsing algorithm. Dr. Carrigan's parents are said to be "full time evangelists and missionaries" rather than computational linguists, so I guess that the unusual name must come from some missionary experience.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 14, 2004 07:12 PM