Why “Cult” is the Wrong Word


The early 1960s saw a flourishing of fringe religious groups that the press had no other word for than “cults”. It was a simpler time, and the word was meant to describe religious movements that didn’t easily fit into the established religions. The word encompassed hippies experimenting with alternative ideologies, Christian evangelicals, crystal energy healers, and back to the earth types who, might be a little odd, but basically harmless. It was hard to identify exactly what a cult was, except that there were millions of people searching for a personal connection with God. Then, in 1969 everything changed when followers of Charles Mason murdered Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of the director Roman Polanski. They coated the walls in her blood and inked the words “Helter Skelter” above the crime scene. Nine years later 800 followers of the People’s Temple killed a US congressman in Guyana and then took their own lives with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

After that bloody introduction the world took a new perspective on the word “cult”.  Cults weren’t harmless. They were dangerous.  They stole people from their families, brainwashed them with false ideologies and sometimes even took their lives. Today, the word brings to mind the Branch-Davidians in Waco, Texas and the exploitive practices of the Church of Scientology. There is a burgeoning field of anti-cult literature, support groups for former cult members and exit counselors whose main job is to bring people out of these groups and back to their families. It is clear that many of these groups prey on their members, take their money, and often leave them in dire straights with no one to turn to except for their charismatic leader.

When I began researching “A Death on Diamond Mountain,” it was the word on everyone’s lips. Ian Thorson’s family spent tens of thousands of dollars on exit counselors to get him out of what they called a “dangerous cult”.  The press called Michael Roach a cult leader dozens of times. One article, by the New York Times, even had some of Roach’s closest devotees using the word to describe their own practice. And yet, I have resisted calling Diamond Mountain a cult.  People have wanted to know why.

One review on NPR put it succinctly: “It’s hard to read Death on Diamond Mountain and not reach a definite verdict: Cult! But Carney lets this and other questions linger to the end.” Another written by Matthew Remski, a former Roach follower,  charges that I don’t go deep enough into anti-cult literature nor did I devote endless pages Roach’s own profound narcism.

But there is a reason that I don’t slap the “cult” label on Diamond Mountain. It would have just been too easy. Using the word would allow my readers to think of it as something wholly alien to their own religious experience. We all know that cults are inherently crazy, and once we hear the word we begin to distance ourselves from them. We become voyeurs, not participants in the story.  It’s a pejorative term that allows us to not see ourselves in the so-called “cult members.”

We forget that every great religion on earth started as a cult.  The beliefs of early Christianity were no less irrational or steeped in divine explanations that what Roach teaches at Diamond Mountain. The Cult of Mary has tens of millions of followers. The origin story of Mormonism includes golden tablets written by god and discovered by Joseph Smith in Palmyra New York. Smith was even tarred and feathered as he tried to spread the word of his new faith. The Hindu cosmology suggests that the universe sits on the back of a giant tortuous, who in turn is standing on the back of a giant turtle.  Who is to say that one irrational belief is more valid than another?

As I see it, the main difference between a cult and a religion is time. I’ve even make a formula:

Cult + Time = Religion

The great religions of the world are no more free of tragic, and even murderous, events than the cults of our age.  Christians in Salem Massachusetts burned witches at the stake.  The great Aztec faith prospered on human sacrifices. Islam has jihad and, as I recount in my book, even Buddhism had its holy wars. One monastery was happy to destroyed another one when some arcane and esoteric message was on the line.

We use the word “cult” to distance ourselves from what we think of as irrational beliefs in order to not take a good look at ourselves. Of course, many of these groups are sometimes dangerous. Many leaders use spiritual explanations in order to take advantage of their followers. And as my book lays out, Diamond Mountain is extremely problematic. But I won’t call it a cult. Doing so would let my readers off the hook from seeing how every spiritual journey holds the potential for danger.


  1. Jon Kelvey   •  

    You can make an analogy to pathogens. Those that dramatically overwhelm and then kill their hosts are young, brash, and in the early stages of their evolution – it is ultimately counter-adaptive for them to kill their hosts. It’s a byproduct of their finding their ecological and epidemiological niche.

    So also, perhaps, with irrational belief systems, though there seems to be at least one necessary death and the path to maturity: That of the charismatic founder and any worthy successors.

  2. Anagarika Angulimala   •  

    There’s another good reason you refrained from using the word: and that is out of respect for the courageousness of the individual explorer- people like Ian. And a level of dedication that is all the more remarkable on account that the practitioner *accepts* the certainty of suffering en route to the absolute. “Meditation is just one insult after another”, quipped Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. “It’s an appointment with disappointment,” says my teacher, Ven. Dhammajiva Majathero, of Sri Lanka.

    At least that is what I hope was also part of your reasoning. (I think I am getting that from reading your book.)

    Also, the word “cult” is too broad as a narrative tool. It sends the casual reader caroming off into speculation whilst the story of Diamond Mtn. is highly nuanced and paradoxical – e.g., Michael Roach himself. So hard to sentence him to the same cell with Charlie Manson and Jim Jones.

    So I am a bit surprised that you raise it yourself?

  3. mb   •  

    Manson was 1969, Jonestown was 1978 – that’s 9 years apart, not 2 years as you write above.

    • Scott Carney   •     Author

      Apparently I am quite terrible at math. Will fix above.

  4. Wesley   •  

    The alleged witches at Salem were hung, not burned.

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