The term cult apologist is used by the Anti-cult movement to describe social scientists, religious scholars, and other persons who write about cults and new religious movements whose writings they consider as uncritical or not sufficiently critical. Scholars have referred to the term as "derisive" and a "handy ideological tool". Sociologists Ben Zablocki and Thomas Robbins say the term is used by critics of new religious movements to devalue scholars whose writings they consider too sympathetic or tolerant of such groups.
Scholars accused of being cult apologists reply to the criticism in various ways, including expressing their concern for religious freedom and tolerance. Douglas E. Cowan wrote that he had been referred to as a cult apologist, along with Eileen Barker, Massimo Introvigne, Jeff Hadden, Irving Hexham, Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley, and Gordon Melton. Cowan stated that he felt this characterization was "inaccurate and insulting", and that these individuals actually stand for the values of religious tolerance.
Cowan and Bromley have stated that the use of the cult apologist label was part of a response by the anti-cult movement, notably the American Family Foundation (now the International Cultic Studies Association) and the old Cult Awareness Network, to the lack of academic support for the brainwashing hypothesis, and employed as a strategy to undermine social scientists' credibility. Cowan also refers to the term as a "pejorative" with potentially unhelpful consequences. Michael Kropveld agrees with Cowan that the term "cult-apologist" is pejorative but also adds "Anti-Cult Movement", "Pro-Cult Movement", and "anti-cultist" to a list of divisive labels that are not constructive towards productive dialogue between academics, and should be avoided.
Gordon Melton also dismisses these criticisms by stating that the usage of the term "cults" by what he calls "anti-cultists" reflects the negative evaluation that new religious movements have endured. He also objects to being personally labeled an "apologist" by the "anti-cult movement".
Anson Shupe has defined cult apologist as a "derogatory term employed by anticultists to refer to scholars and civil libertarians whose research conclusions and views disagree with the anticult movement's own suspicions or conclusions, to wit, that many religious movements are necessarily subversive to society and dangerous to individuals who join them."
The expression "cult apologist" was used in a different manner than its current usage by the evangelical Christian countercult movement writer Walter Martin in 1955, in Martin's Christian handbook The Rise of the Cults. Martin used the neologism in a positive and self-referential way to identify ministries that evangelize those involved in cults. He used the term again in his next book The Christian and the Cults (Zondervan 1956, p. 6). The positive use of the term cult apologetics by evangelicals recurs in the book by Robert and Gretchen Passantino, Answers to the Cultist at Your Door and also by Alan Gomes in his contributory chapter in the first posthumous edition of Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults.
- Robbins, Thomas (2004). "Introduction: Alternative Religions, the State and the Globe". In Philip Lucas. New Religious Movements in the Twenty-First Century: Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective. Routledge. p. 15. ISBN 0-415-96577-2.
- Lewis, James R. (2004). "Introduction". In James R. Lewis. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-19-514986-6.
- Zablocki, Benjamin; Robbins, Thomas. Misunderstanding Cults, Introduction, p. 26, University of Toronto Press, ISBN 978-0-8020-8188-9
- From Parchment to Pixels: The Christian Countercult on the Internet, Douglas E. Cowan, Center for Studies on New Religions, 2001, Conference, London.
- Bromley, David G.; Cowan, Douglas (2007). "The invention of a counter-tradition". In Lewis, James R.; Hammer, Olav. The Invention of Sacred Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-86479-8.
- Cowan, Douglas E. "Cult Apology: A Modest (Typological) Proposal", Paper presented to the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference “Boundaries and Commitments in NRM Research” November 1-3, 2002, Salt Lake City, Utah, p. 3.
- Kropveld, Michael (June 2002). "An Example for Controversy: Creating a Model for Reconciliation" (DOC). American Family Foundation Annual Conference. Orlando, Florida: International Cultic Studies Association.
The use of terminology such as “Anti-Cult Movement” (ACM) and “Pro-Cult Movement” (PCM), “anti-cultist” and “pro-cultist” or “cult apologist” are examples of divisive labels that are hardly conducive to encouraging dialogue or discernment.
- Melton, Godon J., Modern Alternative Religions in the West. pp.610, Penguin (1997), ISBN 0-14-013599-5
- Combatants in Cult War Attempt Reconciliation: Peacemaking conference is held near Seattle, San Francisco Chronicle, Don Lattin, May 1, 2000.
- Shupe, Anson; Darnell, Susan E. (2006). Agents of Discord. New Brunswick (U.S.A.), London (U.K.): Transaction Publishers. p. xv. ISBN 0-7658-0323-2.
- Passantino, Robert (1981). Answers to the Cultist at Your Door. Harvest House. p. 13.
- Martin, Walter (1997). The Kingdom of the Cults. Bethany House Publisher. p. 333.
- Amitrani, Alberto and Di Marzio, Rafaella: Blind, or Just Don't Want to See? Brainwashing, Mystification, and Suspicion
- Benjamin Beith-Hallahmi: O Truant Muse': Collaborationism and Research Integrity, in Zablocki and Robbins (ed.): Misunderstanding Cults, 2001, ISBN 0-8020-8188-6
- Janja Lalich: Pitafalls in the Sociological Study of Cults, in Zablocki and Robbins (ed.): Misunderstanding Cults, 2001 ISBN 0-8020-8188-6
- Susan J. Palmer: Caught up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a Canadian Researcher, in Zablocki and Robbins (ed.): Misunderstanding Cults, 2001
- Thomas Robbins: Balance and Fairness in the Study of Alternative Religions, in Zablocki and Robbins (ed.): Misunderstanding Cults, 2001 ISBN 0-8020-8188-6