Terminology is essential. “Cult” should be translated into other languages as “secta,” “Sekte,” “secte”—and vice versa.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 7.
Several years ago, I was in the Mexican city of Monterrey for a conference. I collect critical literature against “cults” in several languages. When I passed in front of a large Evangelical bookstore, I entered and inquired about the situation of “cults” in Mexico. I was told that there were at least one hundred million members of “cults” in the country.
I was surprised for a moment, until I realized the store clerk was counting among the “cultists” all the Roman Catholics, i.e., a large majority of Mexican citizens. In fact, when I explained I wanted to buy books about “cults,” I was offered a few booklets about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the local Christian new religious movement La Luz del Mundo, and more substantial books about the worst “cult” of them all, the Roman Catholic Church.
This was not the end of the story. On the opposite side of the same square of downtown Monterrey there was another bookstore, this one Catholic. There, I made the same request, and found a panoply of books, booklets, and flyers criticizing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter-day Saints, La Luz del Mundo—but a good half of them dealt with “Protestant cults,” and one even introduced Martin Luther as “the father of all cults.” The two bookstores faced each other like gladiators in an ancient Roman arena. I did not dare to ask whether they also sold books about ecumenical dialogue.
The incident reminded me of a famous statement by Swiss historian Jean-François Mayer: “the cult is the other.” We are not a “cult,” while those we regard as “different” from us belong to a “cult.” But the episode may also be an opportunity to introduce difficult terminological problems.
The first is that Mayer had written, in French, “La secte, c’est l’autre,” and I asked in the Mexican bookstores for books about “sectas.” The word “culto” exists in Spanish, but would not have been understood. Some of my books are translated in several languages, and I always struggle with translators who try to translate the English “cult” with the Italian and Spanish “culto,” the French “culte,” and similar words in other languages—or, vice versa, they translate the Italian “setta,” the Spanish “secta,” the French “secte,” the German “Sekte,” and so on in several different languages, as “sect” in English.
These translations may be at first sight regarded as correct, but they are substantially wrong. In contemporary English language, “cult” is a negative word, indicating an organization that manipulates and harms its followers and whose activities are objectionable and perhaps even criminal. “Sect” is not a negative word. I heard several Buddhists indicate in English that they belong to a certain “Buddhist sect,” i.e., one among the many Buddhist schools. They would strongly object if somebody would accuse them of belonging to a “Buddhist cult.”
In France there is a “Bureau central des [Central office of] cultes,” and in Italy a “Direzione generale per gli affari dei [Central Direction for the affairs of] culti,” both parts of the Ministries of Internal Affairs in the respective countries. They deal with mainline religions recognized by the governments, including the Roman Catholic Church. Both in France and in Italy, there are also official agencies keeping a watch on supposedly dangerous religious organizations called “cults” in English. However, the name used by these agencies for the targets of their surveillance is “sectes” in French and “sette” in Italian, not “cultes” or “culti.”
The unavoidable conclusion, and one reached by academic scholars decades ago, is that the English word “cult” should be translated as “setta,” “secte,” and similar, and these words in turn should be translated into English as “cult,” not as “sect.” For the same reasons, the organizations called in English “anti-cult movements” are called in Italian “movimenti anti-sette,” and the same, again, in other languages where the words designating “bad” religions are similar to “setta.”
This is a consequence of a change in meaning words such as “cult” in English and “secte” in French went through during the 20th century. Originally, “cult” in English simply indicated the practices and beliefs of a religion, and “secte” in French one of the different denominations or organizations constituting a larger religion. In French, one could have said for example that the Baptists constituted one of the “sectes” of Christianity.
Early German sociologists such as Max Weber (1864–1920) or Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923) used the German word “Sekte” in a technical sense, to indicate a young religious organization with few members who were born into it; most members had joined the movement as adults. With the passing of times, these sociologists claimed, “Sekten” either disappear or become religions. These uses—which extended to other languages with words similar to the German “Sekte”—were not derogatory.
Troeltsch was a Protestant theologian, and he stated that Jesus and his early followers, none of whom had been born a Christian, were part of a “Sekte,” which later evolved into a religion. Obviously, Troeltsch was not suggesting that Christianity was a dangerous or criminal organization.
However, starting in the 1940s, but with precedents dating back to one of the founding fathers of their science, the Italian Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), the specialists of a different discipline, criminology, started using the German “Sekte,” the Italian “setta,” the French “secte” and so on to designate dangerous religious groups that had committed or would likely commit serious crimes. The word “cult” went through a similar change of meaning in English.
It was the criminological use that came to be adopted by the media. Today, those who call a religious (and sometimes a non-religious) organization or movement a “cult” in English or a “Sekte” in German, “secte” in French, and so on, do not have Weber or Troeltsch in mind. They mean that the group is dangerous and causes harm to its followers and the society in general.
The coexistence of the two meanings created a confusion. For instance, if somebody would have asked around 1960 in Italy whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a “setta,” a sociologist following the tradition of Weber and Troeltsch might have answered “yes.” At that time (less today), most Italian Jehovah’s Witnesses had converted as adults. They were not born from parents who were already Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, in the 1960s—and much more in later years—a confusion would have been created because the criminological use of “setta” was gaining momentum.
A journalist hearing a scholar stating that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a “setta” might perhaps have understood the word in the technical meaning of the Weber-Troeltsch tradition. But much more likely journalists would have understood “setta” in the criminological sense as a “dangerous group,” and concluded that, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were a “setta,” they were indeed in some way “bad.”
For this reasons, following a proposal by the distinguished British sociologist Eileen Barker, from the last decades of the 20th century most scholars of religious pluralism stopped using the word “cult” in English, or “setta,” “secte” and similar in other languages, and would rather use “new religious movements” (for the newly established groups), or simply “religious minorities.”
Sometimes, opponents of “cults” play in court cases on the co-existence of the criminological and sociological meanings. When they are sued for slander for using the word “cult,” or “secte” and its phonetic equivalents in other languages, they claim that no offense was intended, and they were simply referring to these words in their old, neutral or sociological meaning. Most courts of laws are not fooled by these arguments. They know that today these words are used as a weapon to discriminate against certain religious organization by implying that they are dangerous or harmful.