Cult Definition: What is a cult?
Do you know the definition of a cult? In other words, what is a cult?
Sometimes it seems that question has as many answers as there are, well, cults.
Yet the term ‘cult’ has a precise definition — or rather, several precise definitions.
Which definition is the right one largely depends on the context in which the term ‘cult’ is applied.
A ‘cult wine’ is, after all, something different than a ‘religious cult.’ A rock band with a ‘cult following’ differs greatly from a ‘suicide cult.’ And a ‘cult following’ is not necessarily the same thing as ‘following a cult..’
Let’s first look at the definition of the term ‘cult’ as provided by a dictionary:
1 : formal religious veneration : worship
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b : the object of such devotion
c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
– Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary 1
- The dictionary also explains the term’s etymology: French & Latin; French culte, from Latin cultus care, adoration, from colere to cultivate.
Cult: Meanings Vary
The term is confusing because it is ambiguous — infused with a variety of meanings depending on who uses it — and for which purpose it is used.
For example, the term ‘cult’ can be used in a theological and/or a sociological sense. The word takes on different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
The theological sense is used when discussing major religious differences: a group or movement is theologically a cult if it identifies itself as belonging to a mainstream, recognized religion — and yet rejects or otherwise violates one or more of the central, essential teachings of that religion.
Essential teachings are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence.A silly example, but one that illustrates this concept:
You cannot call something a tomato sauce if it does not include tomatoes — because tomatoes are a central, essential ingredient (‘teaching‘ or ‘doctrine‘) of tomato sauce.
A sauce that is made with apples instead of tomatoes but is sold as ‘tomato sauce’ is a ‘cult of tomato sauce’, because it rejects one of the essential ingredients of tomato sauce, and thus misrepresents itself as something it is not.
See for instance, What is a cult of Christianity?
The sociological sense is used when discussing behavior or other sociological aspects: a group or movement may be a cult if it acts in ways that are illegal or otherwise unacceptable in a civilized society.Silly example:
A restaurant that serves a perfectly acceptable, genuine tomato soup by pouring it into your lap is sociologically a cult restaurant.
When most people hear the term ‘cult,’ they tend to think about destructive cults they have read or heard about. For instance, Scientology, Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Peoples Temple, Solar Temple, the Manson Family, and so on.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., said that cults can be identified by three characteristics:
- a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
- a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
- economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. 2
Louis West and Michael Langone defined a ‘totalist’ cult as follows:
A cult is 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 (e.g., isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.[…]
Totalist cults are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:
(1) excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group by the members,
(2) exploitative manipulation of members, and
(3) harm or the danger of harm.
Totalist cults may be distinguished from “new religious movements,” “new political movements,” and “innovative psychotherapies” (terms that can be used to refer to unorthodox but relatively benign groups), if not by their professed beliefs then certainly by their actual practices.
– Source: Cultism: A Conference for Scholars-Policy Makers, Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 85-96 3
The characteristics of a destructive cult:
- Authoritarian pyramid structure with authority at the top
- Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (Messianic meaning they either say they are God OR that they alone can interpret the scriptures the way God intended…..the leaders are self-appointed.
- Deception in recruitment and/or fund raising
- Isolation from society — not necessarily physical isolation like on some compound in Waco, but this can be psychological isolation — the rest of the world is not saved, not Christian, not transformed (whatever) — the only valid source of feedback and information is the group
- Use of mind control techniques (we use Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria from chapter 22 of his book Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism to compare whether the eight psychological and social methods he lists are present in the group at question)
Read Cult Formation, by Robert Jay Lifton
Read Ideological totalism: “Isn’t this just like brainwashing?” by Robert Jay Lifton
Cults Are Not Always Destructive
Not all groups that could in one way or another be defined, sociologically, as cults are necessarily destructive. For instance, not every high-demand group requires its members to cut off normal contact with friends and family.
A good initial check is to ask: how does this group impact a person’s health, wealth, and/or personal relationships?
Demanding Total Commitment
The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) utilizes Benjamin Zablocki’s definition of the term cult: “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” 5
Russel H. Bradshaw — who together with his wife works for ICSA’s New York Educational Outreach Committee — notes:
Even in cultic groups that score at the high end of the control/demand continuum, however, not all members are abused or equally affected. […]
In general, some people in the same cultic group will be hurt more than others, some may not be affected at all, and some may actually benefit. Groups change over time and from one branch or subgroup to another; leaders’ personalities change, as do the personalities of various members.11 Even persons with secure and intelligent personalities may encounter problems at times, especially during times of transition and crisis—and they may become vulnerable to unethical psychosocial influence and control.
As a result of all these interwoven variables, it is very difficult to say that a particular group, in all branches, at all times, affects all members in a particular way. Nevertheless, trained social workers and therapists know a dangerous cultic group environment when they encounter it—and so treat former members in various degrees of suffering.12 These helping professionals know it is the intense psychosocial dynamic of these high-demand/high-control cultic groups and their charismatic (and often narcissistic) leaders that are at the core of their clients’ sense of abuse and trauma.
– Source: Russell H. Bradshaw: What is a cult? Definitional Preface, ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 8-9
Is the term ‘cult’ pejorative?
When it comes to discussing certain groups and movements, some experts – on all sides of the debate over cults – object to the use of the word ‘cult,’ considering it to be a pejorative term designed to trigger a negative response. Dictionaries define ‘pejorative’ as “expressing contempt or disapproval.”
In particular, some religion scholars who have gained a reputation as Cult defenders tend to accuse their opponents of using the term ‘cult’ to convey negative images.
However, fact is that while a few people may indeed misuse the term that way, the vast majority of cult experts do not use ‘cult’ in a pejorative way – even though they may well view groups or movements thus identified in a negative light.
See, for example, this statement at the website of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA):
Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term “cult.” No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of AFF (American Family Foundation), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone). In order to help others who have asked questions about the term “cult,” we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.
Even though the term “cult” has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitive manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.
– Source: On using the term “cult”, Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 4-6
It should, of course, be noted that a primary reason why the term ‘cult’ has taken on a negative image is the behavior of various groups identified as ‘cults.’ Mass murder and/or suicide (e.g. the Peoples Temple, Order of the Solar Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate), collection of weapons (e.g. Church Universal and Triumphant), murder and terrorism (e.g. the murders and gas attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo), unethical behavior (such as the hate and harassment activities promoted and committed by the Scientology organization), coercive tactics such as those known as “brainwashing” (for which the Unification Church, among others, became known), et cetera, all have contributed to the negative image the term ‘cult’ conveys.
Certain sociologists and scholars of religion claim that the term ‘cult’ has taken on too many negative connotations (for which they tend to blame anti-cult and counter-cult movements, the government, ex-cult members, parents and friend of cult-members, and the media – but seldom, if ever, the movements and cult-members themselves).
They advocate replacing the word ‘cult’ with what they consider to be the ‘value-neutral’ (or politically-correct) terms such as, ‘New Religious Movement,’ ‘Alternative Religious Movement,’ or ‘Minority Religion.’
Jeffrey K. Hadden, who was notorious for his defense of such movements, himself illustrated why that approach has not worked:
The use of the concept “new religious movements” in public discourse is problematic for the simple reason that it has not gained currency. Speaking bluntly from personal experience, when I use the concept “new religious movements,” the large majority of people I encounter don’t know what I’m talking about. I am invariably queried as to what I mean. And, at some point in the course of my explanation, the inquirer unfailing responds, “oh, you mean you study cults!”
– Source: Conceptualizing “Cult” and “Sect”, Jeffrey K. Hadden, The Religious Movements Page.
Other scholars argue for the continued use of the term ‘cult,’ at least by scholars of religion. See, for example, this article by Michael York, of the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs, Bath Spa University College, Bath, UK:
This paper traces the use of the term ‘cult’ by academics, the public and the mass media, from its early academic use in the sociology of religion to recent calls for the term to be abandoned by scholars of religion because it is now so overladen with negative connotations. But scholars of religion have a duty not to capitulate to popular opinion, media and governments in the arena of the ‘politics of representation’. The author argues that we should continue using the term ‘cult’ as a descriptive technical term. It has considerable educational value in the study of religions.
– Source: Abstract, Defending the Cult in the Politics of Representation, Michael York, DISKUS Vol.4 No.2 (1996)
It is, in fact, useless to abandon (and to advocate against the use of) the term ‘cult.’ After all, if deservedly controversial groups and movements like Aum Shinrikyo, the Church of Scientology, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were identified as, say, ‘pineapples,’ the term ‘pineapple’ would take on a negative connotation the moment people realize that you are using the term as a euphemism for ‘cult.’
A better solution to the problems surrounding the use of the term ‘cult,’ is to make sure people know what you mean.
What Do You Mean When You Say ‘Cult’?
Many people consider ‘cult’ to be a pejorative or derogatory term — one that is often used abusively in ad hominem attacks.
Some researchers therefore use the term High Demand Group or High Control Group instead.
Others have pushed the use of New Religious Movement (NRM), Alternative Religious Movement (ARM), or Minority Religion — terms they view as ‘value neutral’ or ‘unbiased.’
But as the articles in the first two links underneath this section show, the term ‘cult’ — properly applied — remains useful.
Using the term abusively is self-defeating at best.
Likewise, when using the term cult in describing a group, church, organization, or movement — without qualifying what you mean by that word — you cause confusion.
At the very least, the term should be placed in context. For example:
- “XYZ is a cult in the theological sense, because…”, or
- “123 is a cult in the sociological sense, because…”
See also: The Definitional Ambiguity of Cult and ICSA’s Mission — an important article that acknowledges the ‘fuzziness’ of the term
See also: On Using the Term “Cult”
See also: Characteristics of cults
What is a sect?
The term sect is often used to indicate a group or movement that — while often still considered part of the faith it identifies with — has doctrines or practices not in line with the historical, commonly accepted teachings of that religion.
Unfortunately, the term ‘sect’ itself is also ambiguous — so much so that it is often used instead of the term ‘cult.’
‘Sect’ has long been used in Europe and elsewhere to denote groups or movements elsewhere referred to as ‘cults.’ Since the term ‘cult’ has taken on a negative — some would say ‘pejorative — connotation, US media have also started to substitute the term ‘sect.’
Cults both theologically and sociologically
A fair number of groups and movements can be identified as cults in both the theological and the sociological sense of the term.
A prime example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a full-blown cult (as defined sociologically) is the Children of God, now called The Family International.
Another example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a cult (as defined sociologically) is the International Churches of Christ — a notorious example of an abusive church.
The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, whose members are referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses, theologically is a cult of Christianity, and sociologically has countless cult-like elements as well.
Many abusive churches fall in this category as well.
That said, spiritual abuse is not limited to groups that are, theologically, cults of Christianity. Quite a few churches that adhere to the central doctrines of the Christian faith nevertheless engage in abusive practices.
See also: Cult-like tendencies in churches
Variety of Cults
Groups said to be ‘cults’ are not necessarily religious.
Such is the case with, for instance, political cults (e.g. Lyndon LaRouche), psycho-spiritual or self-improvement workshops (LGAT, Large Group Awareness Training), and hate groups (e.g. Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacists).
Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, in their book, ‘Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace,’ say
In the United States, there are at least ten major types of cults, each with its own beliefs, practices, and social mores. The list below is not exhaustive, but most cults can be classified under one of the following headings:
- Neo-Christian religious
- Hindy and Eastern religious
- Occult, witchcraft, and satanist
- Zen and other Sino-Japanese philosophical-mystical orientation
- Flying saucer and other outer-space phenomena
- Psychology or psychotherapeutic
- Self-help, self-improvement, and life-style systems
An Example From Religion
Those who deal primarily with the sociological characteristics of groups and movements usually find little to nothing in Mormonism and the Mormon Church that would cause them to apply the term ‘cult’ — because their evaluation is based largely on how the group or movement acts, rather than on what it beliefs. 6
But Christian theologians consider the Mormon Church to be theologically a cult of Christianity.
Here is a concise definition of a cult of Christianity:
A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
– Source: Alan Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, in “Unmasking The Cults“ 7
Central (or key, essential) doctrines of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.
A comparison with historic, Bible-based Christianity, shows that the Mormon Church rejects, changes or adds to the central doctrines of the Christian faith to such an extend that Mormonism must be regarded as having separated itself from the faith it claims to represent, and instead having established a new religion that is not compatible with Christianity.
The ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) — the official name of the Mormon Church — claims to be not only:
a) Christian in nature, but also
b) the only true expression of historical Christianity. 8
In reality, the teachings and practices of the LDS church — as well as the documented history of Christianity — shows that Mormonism has plagiarized and usurped Christian terminology and scriptures, creating a new religion that is different from Christianity in key doctrines and practices.
Attempts to present Mormonism as Christian (e.g. the ‘restored’ church) are as false and wrong as it would be to pass off a fake watch as a Rolex.
Just like you cannot turn a Volkswagen into a Rolls-Royce by placing the latter’s iconic ornament on the Volkswagen’s hood, you cannot turn Mormonism into Christianity merely by appropriating Jesus Christ and portions of the Bible.
Not a Sect or Denomination
That means the Mormon Church can also not be considered a Christian denomination — nor a sect of Christianity.
In Christian theology the term sect is often used to indicate a group or movement that has doctrines or practices not in line with those of historical Christianity, but usually not to such an extend that it must be considered a different religion altogether.
From a Christian perspective that religion fits meaning #2 in the dictionary definition quoted above, since it is a “religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”
Cults in Other Religions
Cults — as defined theologically — can be offshoots of any religion. The definition holds, as long as a certain group claims to be part of, or representative of, a religion while at the same time violating that religion’s essential doctrines.
Remember: Essential doctrines are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence. Much the same way, say, a tuna salad must include tuna, religions have basic, essential ingredients (doctrines), without which they would be something else.
Anticult / Countercult / ‘Value-Free’
Organizations and individuals deal with cults operate from various perspectives. In large lines we recognize the following approaches:
- organizations and invididuals generally fight cults for reasons other than theological ones (i.e. their approach is sociological – they look at a group’s behavior, rather than at its theology).
Countercult organizations and invididuals usually oppose cults for religious, doctrinal reasons. As bad doctrine leads to bad behavior, they also look at behaviorial issues.
Self-proclaimed “value-free,” “neutral,” or “non-sectarian” organizations range from, essentially, consumer protection agencies to cult apologist organizations.
Anticult organizations and individuals usually have a secular perspective. In evaluating groups and movements they use sociological criteria, such as common cult characteristics.
Most countercult organizations operate from an orthodox, Christian perspective. They evaluate groups, movements, churches, pastors, teachers and leaders using theological standards. 10 Their intend is to
- educate Christians and non-Christians on the dangers of heretical movements (sometimes referred to as “boundary maintenance” – the practice of defining which doctrines are central/essential to the Christian faith, and must therefore be adhered to in order for a group, movement or person to legitimately refer to itself or himself as “Christian.”),
- to help Christians counter the theological claims of such groups (for the purpose of “boundary maintenance” and/or evangelism),
- and to provide cult-members with information that may help them leave those movements (often, but not always, including a presentation of the Christian gospel).
Since they operate from different perspectives, anticult and countercult professionals do not always agree on what constitutes a cult. Again, the former evaluate movements using sociological criteria, while the latter do so using theological standards.
Not surprisingly, this sometimes leads to different conclusions. For example, some anti-cultists see Mormonism as just another form of Christianity, while Christians consider it to be a heretical cult of Christianity.
Often, though, concerns overlap. For instance, a movement like the International Churches of Christ is considered cultic by those who evaluate it sociologically, as well as by those who consider theology only.
Note that Christian countercultists are more apt to also look at a movement’s sociological aspects, whereas non-Christian anticultists are – understandably – not nearly as willing to include theological considerations.
“Value-free,” “neutral,” or “non-sectarian”
A third group of organizations or individuals claims to provide “value-free,” “neutral,” or “non-sectarian” information. This is a mixed bag. It includes
- organizations run by cult apologists, who seldom – if ever – acknowledge the sociological and/or theological problems with the movements they study. (If and when they do make note of them, those problems generally are glossed over or minimized). Often, these type of organizations appeal to “academic” standing.
- organizations that attempt to act like “consumer information agencies.” They let people know what’s available, but tend to refrain from making value judgements. Thus they claim they are as likely to send someone to a ‘new religious movement’, as they are to refer someone to an exit counselor.
- interfaith organizations that affirm the legitimacy and equality of all religions.
- government task forces, or organizations set up on the recommendation of such task forces. Having acknowledged and studied the cult problem, these organizations act much like “consumer protection agencies.”
Cult apologist organizations divide the latter into two categories, of which they consider one to be more neutral than the other. They rail against those government task forces that include information from anticult- or countercult organizations in their evaluations, and reluctantly “praise” the ones whose evaluations are, or appear to be, more in line with those of the cult apologists themselves.
While some cult specialists who approach cults from a sociological view generally do not address theological issues, those who deal with cults from a theological perspective often also address sociological issues.
In our view the latter is a better approach, since people’s actions are informed by their beliefs.
Scholars of religion usually shun the use of the term cult. Most consider it to be a pejorative term — a ‘label’ that indicates a certain bias.
Most religion scholars prefer to present their own approach as unbiased.
That said, since the end of the last century the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) 14 has promoted the benefits of dialogue “between the so-called ‘anticult movement’ (ACM) and an interest group of academics, the so-called ‘procultists’.”
Additional Research Resources
- More information about cults can be obtained at our Cult FAQ web site.
- If you think you may need the help of a cult expert, check CultExperts.org — information that will help you find a reliable cult specialit
- Cult Information Search Engine: find information about cult experts, (religious) cults, cult-like organizations, — as well as paranormal-, New Age, and pseudo-scientific claims — across 260+ websites, blogs and forums dedicated to cult research, spiritual abuse, ex-cult counseling & support
Articles of interest
- Cult or Commune? How Utopian Communities Turn Dangerous, by Elizabeth Yoko, Rolling Stone, November 10, 2016: “What’s the difference between a group of people that live and work together to achieve a certain standard of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and a full-fledged cult?”
- The power of cults, by Devanie Angel, Chico News and Review, August 12, 2004: How Professor Janja Lalich went from cult member to author-expert
- When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults, Professional School Counseling, June 1, 2004: Adolescents are objects of recruitment for religious cults. Identifying new religious movements, cults, and dissenting religious groups, understanding their practices, and discovering reasons for their attractiveness to some students are helpful to the school counselor. Suggestions are offered as to how to identify which cults are destructive, and how professional school counselors can assist students involved with such group.
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- Other dictionaries have similar descriptions ↩
- Robert Jay Lifton, Cult Formation, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume 7, Number 8 February 1981, reprinted in AFF News Vol. 2 No. 5, 1996 ↩
- The term “totalist” is used in the sense of Robert J. Lifton in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1963). ↩
- See also: Dr. Robert Lifton addresses destructive cults ↩
- B. Zablocki, Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues (paper presented to a conference, May 31, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as cited in Russell H. Bradshaw: What is a cult? Defenitional Preface, ICSA ↩
- That is not to say the Mormon Church does not have certain cult-like sociological aspects. Many would say it does, but not to the extent that it is a full-blown cult sociologically. ↩
- Take a closer look at this definition ↩
- Mormons claim that the early Christian Church fell into apostasy, and that the LDS Church is God’s way of restoring the Church. ↩
- ‘Sect’ has long been used in Europe and elsewhere to denote groups or movements often referred to as ‘cults.’ Since the term ‘cult’ has taken on a negative connotation, US media have also started to substitute the term ‘sect.’ ↩
- Countercult organizations are also found in other religions. For example, there are a number of Jewish organizations that actively oppose ‘missionaries’ (Christian or otherwise) ↩
- Alternatively, cult defenders or cult sympathizers. Apologetics is the study and practice of the intellectual defense of a belief system. An apologist is someone “who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution.” ↩
- whether or not associated with the so-called anti-cult or counter-cult movements ↩
- usually with the stated motive of ‘defending religious freedom.’ ↩
- ICSA is the primary network of lay and professional cult experts. It is the world’s largest and foremost cult education organization. ↩