The word 'cult' is never benign in religious terminology as it is in the world of art, where Johnny Stonenoggin filmster extraordinaire may cult-ivate a cult following for his eccentricity in artistry. Eccentricity in religion, if recent enough, is rarely welcomed with approving nods. And when eccentricity is welcomed by followers of a novel religion, those followers never designate the new religion as a cult. Such is the denigrating power of the word cult for religion.
Oddness in an ancient religion is no longer perceived as eccentric. No matter how implausible and bizarre a religious idea might be, if its pedigree is old, if generations are raised with that weird idea from youth, then that bizarre idea will become as believable, as commonplace, as immune to critical thought as a simple statement of fact about the color of summer grass.
If the idea had been taught for a thousand years that we may inhale the actual aroma of our God through the ritual of setting clover alight, we would accept that idea and practice it without scruple.
In the late twentieth century some scholars of religion offered the term 'new religions' or 'new religious movements' (NRM) as a benign substitute for 'cults.' These scholars had grown weary of encountering a bias found in every stratum of society from nickel-plated broom pushers to copper-plated Ivy League Ph.Ds. It is a bias that may be put into bumper-sticker brevity:
Old Good, New Bad
Familiarity Good, Strangeness Bad
Old-Time Religion Good, New-Fangled Religion Bad
Or, as old-moneyed religionists say, 'I have a religion, you have a sect, she has a cult.'
Prejudice against idea innovation, although the common coin of all conservative religiosity, should not be found in the higher arts of intellection, said these scholars who offered the fresh and unharmful term 'new religions.'
After some decades, 'new religions' and 'NRM' caught on in higher education and doctorates were granted in the study of such things, and academic journals were established and entitled with that name. As the new term gained acceptance, there was an attending decrease in bias against novel religions among academics. However, the term 'cult' got mislaid in the shakeup, as all new religions were deemed as worthy as any other religion.
Hold your ponies! Aren't some new religions harmful, hateful, distasteful, and downright wacky? Yes. And therefore 'cult' and 'cultism' are yet a needful terms.
There are cults out there, and they do not deserve benign inclusion in the 'new religions' taxonomy. If a new religion resorts to coercion, if it invites adoration of human personalities, if it welcomes sexual favors for its leaders, if it suggests isolation from family and friends, if it embraces money-making schemes, call a pickaxe a pickaxe: the new religion is a cult.
Trouble is, a few of the older religions sometimes meet the cult criteria. But not many people would dare call these pickaxes pickaxes.