Over the years the word “cult” has gotten a bad rap. People tend to think of cults as a group that has been brainwashed by the twisted leader to do anything and everything. And indeed, this is one definition of the word “cult”. It’s also one of the most popular uses of the term. However, within comparative religion, one may come across the term used in a more positive way; for example, Gardner referred to his religion as a “witch-cult”.
But not all cults are like that. One of the dictionary definitions of the word cult (see below) is a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols, or even, simply, formal religious worship. Under that definition, many religions can be considered cults. Another definition of cult is an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing; we use this colloquially in the context of “cult films” and so on as well as in relation to religions.
The term “cult” can also refer to the external or observable aspects of a religion, and a religion for which the neglect of these aspects would be considered impious.
Though there is often cause to bristle with indignation if one’s religion is referred to as a “cult”, it is important not to leap to the defensive when the word is used. The person using the word may not have intended any offence after all. The definition being used may not be apparent from context, so check before flaring up.
As an aside – it is wise to familiarise oneself with the signs of a dangerous cult. Not every group that identifies itself to you as, for example, Wiccan, is in fact a Wiccan group. The Cult Danger Evaluation Frame linked below should help you ascertain whether a group is a cause for worry, and if you don’t feel comfortable, stay away.
The Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (with the pleasing acronym of ABCDEF)