CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s editors recently met with Ronald M. Enroth of the sociology department of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, Evanston, Illinois. The following is a summary of the interview.

What do you mean by the term “cult”?

Melton: I no longer break groups into cults, sects, and denominations. I find myself saying, “This is a New Thought religion,” “This is an occult religion,” and “These are Hindu-type religions.” In lumping them together, we assume that all cults have similar characteristics, and they don’t. There are some religious groups that deviate from the orthodox Christian norm so much that they are playing a different ballgame. But if you go to India, Methodists and Presbyterians are cult members and treated as false teachers who deserve to be outlawed and have their activities curtailed.

Enroth: The term “cult” is very ambiguous. Yet it has become part of our jargon. Jim Sire of InterVarsity Press asked whether we should stop using it. He answered by saying, “We should if we could, but we can’t; I think we’re stuck with it.” The person in the street identifies with it. For example, I teach a course at Westmont called “New Religious Movements.” But my students still refer to it as “the cult course.”

I distinguish between Eastern mystical and aberrational Christian groups. The latter are the ones I’ve specialized in recently. I also distinguish between the self-improvement or transformational cults, the occult, astrocults, and syncretistic cults.

There are many differences among cults. At the same time, however, there are characteristics that apply to most, if not all, such groups. As a sociologist I am interested ...

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