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This article does not discuss "cult" in the sense of "religious practice"; for that usage see cult (religion). This article discusses only religious or sociological cultist groups. See also Cult (disambiguation) for more meanings of the term "cult".
Brochure of the People's temple portraying cult leader Jim Jones as the loving father of the "Rainbow Family".

In religion and sociology, a cult is a group with a religious or philosophical identity, often existing on the margins of society. Its marginal status may come about either due to its novel belief system or due to idiosyncratic practices that cause the surrounding culture to regard it as far outside the mainstream.

In English-speaking countries since about the 1960s, especially in North America, the term cult has taken on a pejorative and sometimes offensive connotation. This is largely originated with highly-publicized cults which were widely believed to exploit their members psychologically and financially, or which were accused of group-based persuasion techniques (sometimes called "brainwashing", "love bombing" or "mind control").

As typified by many of the widely-publicized North American cults from the 1960s and later, the quintessential modern cult is thought to be religion taken to the extreme, usually characterized by high levels of dependency and obedience to the cult's leadership, by separation from family and non-believers, and by the infiltration of religion into nearly every aspect of daily life. Beginning in the 1980s, a movement among conservative and fundamentalist Christians has sought to expand the meaning of cult to include groups practising unique forms of Christianity, whose marginality within society remains highly controversial. Because of the increasingly pejorative connotation of the word cult, most members of these groups find the word offensive when applied to them. See anti-cult movement. On the other hand, some skeptics have questioned the distinction between a cult and a mainstream religion. They say that the only difference between a cult and a religion is that the latter is older and has more followers and as a consequence seems less controversial because society has become used to it.

Definitions of a cult[edit]

The literal and traditional meaning of the word cult, from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration", is "a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same." In French or Spanish, culte or culto simply means "worship"; an association cultuelle is an association whose goal is to organize worship (and which is eligible for tax exemption). The word for "cult" is secte (French) or secta (Spanish). See false friend. In German or Russian the expression totalitarian religious group has a slightly different meaning than the English word cult in addition to the German word Sekte. In formal use, and in non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word "cult" are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a case where English speakers might use the word "sect". Hence Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are cults within Christianity. In English, it remains perfectly neutral to refer to the "cult of Artemis at Ephesus" and the "cult figures" that accompanied it, or to "the importance of the Ave Maria in the cult of the Virgin."

There is no agreed-upon definition of what a cult is; however, several alternative formulations exist, including the following:

Cults are groups that often exploit members psychologically and/or financially, typically by making members comply with leadership's demands through certain types of psychological manipulation, popularly called mind control, and through the inculcation of deep-seated anxious dependency on the group and its leaders [1]
Cult: A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control . . . designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. [7]

The problem with defining the word cult is that (1) purported cult members generally resist being called a cult, and (2) the word cult is often used to marginalize religious groups with which one does not agree or sympathize. Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as new religious movement in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because some religious movements are "new" but not necessarily cults, and some purported cults are not religious or overtly religious. Where a cult practises physical or mental abuse, psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. The popular press also commonly uses these terms. However, not all cults function abusively or destructively, and among those that psychologists believe are abusive, few members would agree that they suffer abuse. Other researchers like David V. Barrett hold the view that classifying a religious movement as a cult has no added value, instead, he argues, that one should investigate the beliefs and practices of the religious movement.

Some groups, particularly those labelled by others as cults, view the designation as insensitive, and feel persecuted by what they call the "anti-cult movement", the existence of which is disputed.

Such groups often defend their position by comparing themselves to more established, mainstream religious groups such as Catholicism and Judaism. The argument offered in this case can usually be simplified as, "Christianity and Judaism can also be defined as cults under some definitions of the term, therefore the term cult is superfluous and useless."

Another problem with writing about cults comes about because they generally hold belief systems that give answers to questions about the meaning of life and morality. This makes it difficult not to write in biased terms about a certain cult, because writers are not neutral about these questions. Some writers who deal with the subject choose to explicitly state their ethical values and belief systems to deal with this difficulty.

For many scholars and professional commentators, the usage of the word "cult" applies to maleficent or abusive behavior, and not to a belief system. For members of competing religions, use of the word remains pejorative and applies primarily to rival beliefs (see memes), and only incidentally to behavior.

Historical examples[edit]

Some examples of cults whose adherents made history include:

  • In 1997, 39 followers of the Heaven's Gate cult died in a mass suicide. Some male members of the cult underwent castration in preparation for the suicide.

Checklists of cult behavior[edit]

While the religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs vary widely from one cult to the next, many believe that the actions of cults show characteristic similarities. Many popular checklists of "cult behavior" circulate, and sources differ in the terminology they use and how they group the behaviors together. Two examples of checklists appear hereunder. [1,3,5]

First example of checklist[edit]

  • Milieu control – Cults seek to control members' sources of information and social interaction. They encourage members to sever communication and relationships with friends and family members.
  • Infallibility, or "The Sacred Science" – Cults teach that the chosen philosophy or experiential panacea forms the only possible path to salvation. Cults discourage critical and rational thinking. Persons who question or challenge what the cult offers are denied access or exiled.
  • Demand for purity – Cults have unreachably high standards for the behavior of their members.
  • Confession – Even trivial violations of the group's demand for purity must be confessed immediately and thoroughly, often to a large group.
  • Loading the language – Cults redefine common words and use glib thought-terminating catchphrases as an answer to questions. The constant use of acronyms and abbreviations by some cults has a similar thought-terminating effect.

Additionally, many cults are described as having the following characteristics, though they are not as unique to cults as the behaviours listed above:

  • Authoritarianism -- Control of the organization stems from an absolute leader or a small circle of elite commanders. Often the cult's leadership is glorified with a vast personality cult. The leader may be recognized as divine, or even as God.
  • Secret doctrines - certain "secret" (esoteric) teachings that must not ever be revealed to the outside world
  • Promised Ones - members of the cult are encouraged to believe they were chosen, or made their choice to join the cult, because they are special or superior
  • Fire-and-Brimstone - leaving the cult, or failing at one's endeavor to complete the requirements to achieve its panacea, will result in consequences greater than if one had never joined the cult in the first place.
  • Shunning -- members who leave may not contact members who remain.
  • Mystical Manipulation - Cults ascribe events to supernatural influences even where such influences do not exist.

Second example of checklist[edit]

The following characteristics need not all apply to every case, but the more of them that do apply, the more likely this is a cult:

  • The group has a firm hierarchical structure and is led by one person or a small group of people who rule absolutely.
  • The leader or leading body is not accountable to anyone (on earth).
  • The leaders claim to have a special mission.
  • The group has a clear view of their enemy.
  • The leaders direct admiration, reverence and maybe even worship to themselves.
  • The group exerts a total control over its members. Thinking and behavior in everyday matters is prescribed.
  • The group applies a double standard (behaves differently towards their own group and towards outsiders).
  • The group portrays itself as something new and exclusive or as the only true version of a larger religion.
  • The teachings of the group are (at least in part) not open to the public but only to members or even only to some inner or advanced circle.
  • New members are introduced to the teachings only gradually.
  • There is a discrepancy between the way the group presents itself to the public and the way it is seen by neutral outsiders.

Total control[edit]

This has four basic aspects:

  • Control of behavior and activities: The way of life is rigidly laid down in detail (dress, food, contacts, music, motion pictures, computer and video games, Web sites, rites to be observed) and members are kept so busy that little spare time remains.
  • Thought control: Cults teach their members techniques to stop thinking processes involving questions or doubts immediately. Criticism is labelled unethical or sinful.
  • Control of emotions and feelings: Members are kept under control by means of feelings of guilt and fear which supposedly can only be relieved by means of the group.
  • Information control: Access to independent information, education and culture is reduced or forbidden. Contact with former members is forbidden.

These techniques make a mature, critical reflection of one's attitudes and the one-sided information given by the group largely impossible.

Common concerns about cult involvement[edit]

The above-mentioned historical examples are extreme and rare. Informed relatives of cult members and ex-members of cults (in the meaning of abusive new religious movements) generally know this and are often concerned about other things than mass suicides or homicides.

Lost time and opportunity[edit]

Cult members pay a lot of time and energy to their involvement, naturally at the expense of career opportunities and friends and family.

Betrayal of trust[edit]

Members usually sincerely believe in the propaganda of cults. When they find out that it was all a sham, then this can be a devastating experience.

Leaving a cult[edit]

Membership in a cult usually does not last forever: 90% or more of cult members ultimately leave their group [2,3]

For various reasons, it can be very difficult to leave a cult. One of the reasons is that a cult belief system and cult involvement can give meaning to life, both philosophically and in daily life. Members may love or feel devotion for the leader. Even if the member knows that something is wrong, leaving the cult and the transition to a life after the cult may be painful and long. The ex-member may either cling to some extent to the old belief system or be completely without any beliefs and value system at all. Besides the member usually loses a lot of friends. In some cases the ex member may lose all his friends and family. Some members live in a commune or ashram, have no money and job outside the cult. For them it may be nearly impossible to leave

Prevalence of purported cults[edit]

By one measure, between 3,000 and 5,000 purported cults existed in the United States in 1995. [5] While some of the more well-known and influential of these groups are frequently labelled as cults, the majority of these groups vigorously protest the label and refuse to be classified as such, and often expend great efforts in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the stigma of the term cult. For a list of groups frequently labelled as cults, see Purported cults.

Cults and governments[edit]

In many countries there exist separation of church and state and freedom of religion. Some governments are however worried about cults and take restrictive measures against them.

  • France has investigated some movements considered to be cults and passed a law (often known as the About-Picard law) making it easier to prosecute organizations for repeated criminal activities of their management, as well as criminalizing the abuse of psychologically weakened persons.
    It must be pointed out that the French government is not concerned in any way with religious doctrine per se, but with the concrete consequences of cult affiliation, especially with respect to children, in the light of past abuse committed in some criminal cults (sexual slavery and mass suicide being the worst).
  • Germany has imposed restrictions on the activities of Scientology and gives general warnings about cults.
  • An extreme form of measures against cults is the case of Falun Gong in China. Many anti-cult activists feel that, even if Falun Gong is a cult, the Chinese government took disproportionate measures against it.

Some countries give cults almost total freedom and undertake action only when the laws are broken, for example: Japan, the Netherlands and the USA. In the Netherlands cults can even found their own schools with money from the government.

There Sathya Sai Baba Organisation in India appears as a notable exception: ther is strong indication that it has seriously broken the law but has not suffered from government persecution.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  • 1 William Chambers, Michael Langone, Arthur Dole & James Grice, "The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A Measure of the Varieties of Cultic Abuse", Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 1994. The definition of a cult given above is based on a study of 308 former members of 101 groups.
  • 2 Barker E. "The Ones Who Got Away: People Who Attend Unification Church Workshops and Do Not Become Moonies". In: Barker E, ed. Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press; 1983.
  • 3 Galanter M. "Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group". Am J Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989.
  • 4 Enroth, Ronald. Churches that Abuse
  • 5 Singer, M with Lalich, J (1995). Cults in Our Midst, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • 6 Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. "Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?" Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91-111
  • 7 West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1985). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism, September 9–11. Weston, MA: American Family Foundation.
  • 8 Barrett, D. V. The New Believers - A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions 2001 UK, Cassell & Co [2]

[[Category:Cults]] [[Category:New religious movements]]