For other uses, see Cult (disambiguation).
The term cult usually refers to a social group defined by its religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object or goal. The term itself is controversial and it has divergent definitions in both popular culture and academia and it also has been an ongoing source of contention among scholars across several fields of study. In the sociological classifications of religious movements, a cult is a social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices, although this is often unclear. Other researchers present a less-organized picture of cults on the basis that cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. Groups said to be cults range in size from local groups with a few members to international organizations with millions.
Beginning in the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. From the 1940s the Christian countercult movement has opposed some sects and new religious movements, and it labelled them as cults for their "un-Christian" unorthodox beliefs. The secular anti-cult movement began in the 1970s and it opposed certain groups, often charging them with mind control and partly motivated in reaction to acts of violence committed by some of their members. Some of the claims and actions of the anti-cult movements have been disputed by scholars and by the news media, leading to further public controversy.
The term "new religious movement" refers to religions which have appeared since the mid-1800s. Many, but not all of them, have been considered to be cults. Sub-categories of cults include: Doomsday cults, political cults, destructive cults, racist cults, polygamist cults, and terrorist cults. Various national governments have reacted to cult-related issues in different ways, and this has sometimes led to controversy.
Further information: Cult (religious practice), Sociological classifications of religious movements, Holiness movement, Faith healing, Anti-cult movement, and ritual abuse panic
English-speakers originally used the word "cult" not to describe a group of religionists, but to refer to the act of worship or to a religious ceremony. The English term originated in the early 17th century, borrowed via the Frenchculte, from Latincultus (worship). The French word, in turn, derived from the Latin adjective cultus (inhabited, cultivated, worshipped), based on the verb colere (to care, to cultivate). (The word "culture" also derives from the Latin words cultura and cultus; "culture" in general terms refers to the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a religious or social group.)
While the literal original sense of the word in English remains in use, a derived sense of "excessive devotion" arose in the 19th century. The terms cult and cultist came into use in medical literature in the United States in the 1930s for what would now be termed "faith healing", especially as practised in the US Holiness movement. This usage experienced a surge of popularity at the time, and extended to other forms of alternative medicine as well.
In the English-speaking world the word "cult" often carries derogatory connotations. It has always been controversial because it is (in a pejorative sense) considered a subjective term, used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices.
New religious movements
Main article: New religious movement
A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or spiritual group of modern origins (since the mid-1800s), which has a peripheral place within its society's dominant religious culture. NRMs can be novel in origin or part of a wider religion, in which case they are distinct from pre-existing denominations. In 1999 Eileen Barker estimated that NRMs, of which some but not all have been labelled as cults, number in the tens of thousands worldwide, most of which originated in Asia or Africa; and that the great majority of which have only a few members, some have thousands and only very few have more than a million. In 2007 the religious scholar Elijah Siegler commented that, although no NRM had become the dominant faith in any country, many of the concepts which they had first introduced (often referred to as "New Age" ideas) have become part of worldwide mainstream culture.
Sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) found that cults based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma.
The concept of a "cult" as a sociological classification was introduced in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker as an expansion of German theologian Ernst Troeltsch's church-sect typology. Troeltsch's aim was to distinguish between three main types of religious behavior: churchly, sectarian and mystical. Becker created four categories out of Troeltsch's first two by splitting church into "ecclesia" and "denomination", and sect into "sect" and "cult". Like Troeltsch's "mystical religion", Becker's cults were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Later sociological formulations built on these characteristics, placing an additional emphasis on cults as deviant religious groups "deriving their inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture". This is often thought to lead to a high degree of tension between the group and the more mainstream culture surrounding it, a characteristic shared with religious sects. In this sociological terminology, sects are products of religious schism and therefore maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.
In the early 1960s, sociologist John Lofland lived with South KoreanmissionaryYoung Oon Kim and some of the first American Unification Church members in California, during which he studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled: "The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes", and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion.
Sociologist Roy Wallis (1945–1990) argued that a cult is characterized by "epistemological individualism", meaning that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member". Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant [and] non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership" and as being transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems. Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu".
In 1978 Bruce Campbell noted that cults are associated with beliefs in a divineelement in the individual. It is either Soul, Self, or True Self. Cults are inherently ephemeral and loosely organized. There is a major theme in many of the recent works that show the relationship between cults and mysticism. Campbell brings two major types of cults to attention. One is mystical and the other is instrumental. This can divide the cults into being either occult or metaphysical assembly. On the basis that Campbell proposes cults, they are non-traditional religious groups based on belief in a divine element in the individual. There is also a third type. This is service-oriented. Campbell states that "the kinds of stable forms which evolve in the development of religious organization will bear a significant relationship to the content of the religious experience of the founder or founders." 
Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist known for his criticism of brainwashing theory of conversion, has defended some so-called cults, and in 1988 argued that involvement in such movements may often have beneficial, rather than harmful effects, saying "There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part, the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."
In their 1996 book Theory of Religion, American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of cults can be explained through the rational choice theory. In The Future of Religion they comment "...in the beginning, all religions are obscure, tiny, deviant cult movements". According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
Main article: New religious movements and cults in popular culture
Beginning in the 1700s authors in the English-speaking world began introducing members of cults as antagonists. Satanists, sects of the Latter Day Saint movement, and Thuggees were popular choices. In the Twentieth century concern for the rights and feelings of religious minorities led authors to most often invent fictional cults for their villains to be members of. Fictional cults continue to be popular in film, television, and gaming in the same way; while some popular works treat real cults and new religious movements in a serious manner.
Christian countercult movement
Main article: Christian countercult movement
In the 1940s, the long held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions and/or supposedly heretical, or counterfeit, Christian sects crystallized into a more organized Christian countercult movement in the United States. For those belonging to the movement, all religious groups claiming to be Christian, but deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy, were considered cults. Christian cults are new religious movements which have a Christian background but are considered to be theologically deviant by members of other Christian churches. In his influential book The Kingdom of the Cults (first published in the United States in 1965), Christian scholar Walter Martin defines Christian cults as groups that follow the personal interpretation of an individual, rather than the understanding of the Bible accepted by mainstream Christianity. He mentions The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarian Universalism, and Unity as examples.
The Christian countercult movement asserts that Christian sects whose beliefs are partially or wholly not in accordance with the Bible are erroneous. It also states that a religious sect can be considered a cult if its beliefs involve a denial of what they view as any of the essential Christian teachings such as salvation, the Trinity, Jesus himself as a person, the ministry of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Rapture.
Countercult literature usually expresses doctrinal or theological concerns and a missionary or apologetic purpose. It presents a rebuttal by emphasizing the teachings of the Bible against the beliefs of non-fundamental Christian sects. Christian countercult activist writers also emphasize the need for Christians to evangelize to followers of cults.
Secular anti-cult movement
Main article: Anti-cult movement
In the early 1970s, a secular opposition movement to groups considered cults had taken shape. The organizations that formed the secular "anti-cult movement" (ACM) often acted on behalf of relatives of "cult" converts who did not believe their loved ones could have altered their lives so drastically by their own free will. A few psychologists and sociologists working in this field suggested that brainwashing techniques were used to maintain the loyalty of cult members. The belief that cults brainwashed their members became a unifying theme among cult critics and in the more extreme corners of the anti-cult movement techniques like the sometimes forceful "deprogramming" of cult members was practiced.
Secular cult opponents belonging to the anti-cult movement usually define a "cult" as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. In the mass media, and among average citizens, "cult" gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.
While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part sceptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. In the late 1980s, psychologists and sociologists started to abandon theories like brainwashing and mind-control. While scholars may believe that various less dramatic coercive psychological mechanisms could influence group members, they came to see conversion to new religious movements principally as an act of a rational choice.
Reactions to the anti-cult movements
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the words "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some academics, in addition to groups referred to as cults, argue that these are words to be avoided.Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the word "cult" represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanises the group's members and their children. Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it. She also says that labeling a group a "cult" makes people feel safe, because the "violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups". This fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative "cult" stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.
Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. George Chryssides also cites a need to develop better definitions to allow for common ground in the debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, Bruce J. Casino presents the issue as crucial to international human rights laws. Limiting the definition of religion may interfere with freedom of religion, while too broad a definition may give some dangerous or abusive groups "a limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted legal obligations".
American Psychological Association report
Main article: APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control
In 1983, Margaret Singer, a leading anti-cultist who also had studied the political brainwashing of Korean prisoners of war, was asked by the American Psychological Association (APA) to chair a taskforce called the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC) to investigate whether brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" did indeed play a role in recruitment by cults.  It came to the following conclusion:
Cults and large group awareness trainings have generated considerable controversy because of their widespread use of deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control. These techniques can compromise individual freedom, and their use has resulted in serious harm to thousands of individuals and families. This report reviews the literature on this subject, proposes a new way of conceptualizing influence techniques, explores the ethical ramifications of deceptive and indirect techniques of persuasion and control, and makes recommendations addressing the problems described in the report.
On 11 May 1987, the APA's Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology (BSERP) rejected the DIMPAC report because the report "lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach necessary for APA imprimatur", and concluded that "after much consideration, BSERP does not believe that we have sufficient information available to guide us in taking a position on this issue."
"Destructive cult" generally refers to groups whose members have, through deliberate action, physically injured or killed other members of their own group or other people. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance specifically limits the use of the term to religious groups that "have caused or are liable to cause loss of life among their membership or the general public".PsychologistMichael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits".
John Gordon Clark cited totalitarian systems of governance and an emphasis on money making as characteristics of a destructive cult. In Cults and the Family the authors cite Shapiro, who defines a "destructive cultism" as a sociopathicsyndrome, whose distinctive qualities include: "behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders".
In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, destructive cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power. According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against destructive cults is sexual abuse. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care. This may extend to physical and psychological harm.
Some researchers have criticized the usage of the term "destructive cult", writing that it is used to describe groups which are not necessarily harmful in nature to themselves or others. In his book Understanding New Religious Movements, John A. Saliba writes that the term is overgeneralized. Saliba sees the Peoples Temple as the "paradigm of a destructive cult", where those that use the term are implying that other groups will also commit mass suicide.
Writing in the book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, contributor Julius H. Rubin complains that the term has been used to discredit certain groups in the court of public opinion. In his work Cults in Context author Lorne L. Dawson writes that although the Unification Church "has not been shown to be violent or volatile", it has been described as a destructive cult by "anticult crusaders". In 2002, the German government was held by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court to have defamed the Osho movement by referring to it, among other things, as a "destructive cult" with no factual basis.
Main article: Doomsday cult
"Doomsday cult" is an expression which is used to describe groups that believe in Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and it can also be used to refer both to groups that predict disaster, and to groups that attempt to bring it about. In the 1950s American social psychologistLeon Festinger and his colleagues observed members of a small UFO religion called the Seekers for several months, and recorded their conversations both prior to and after a failed prophecy from their charismatic leader. Their work was later published in the book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. In the late 1980s doomsday cults were a major topic of news reports, with some reporters and commentators considering them to be a serious threat to society. A 1997 psychological study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that people turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements.
A political cult is a cult with a primary interest in political action and ideology. Groups which some writers have termed "political cults", mostly advocating far-left or far-right agendas, have received some attention from journalists and scholars. In their 2000 book On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth discuss about a dozen organizations in the United States and Great Britain that they characterize as cults. In a separate article Tourish says that in his usage:
The word cult is not a term of abuse, as this paper tries to explain. It is nothing more than a shorthand expression for a particular set of practices that have been observed in a variety of dysfunctional organisations.
The LaRouche Movement and Gino Parente's National Labor Federation (NATLFED) are examples of political groups that have been described as "cults", based in the United States; another is Marlene Dixon's now-defunct Democratic Workers Party (a critical history of the DWP is given in Bounded Choice by Janja A. Lalich, a sociologist and former DWP member).
The followers of Ayn Rand were characterized as a "cult" by economist Murray N. Rothbard during her lifetime, and later by Michael Shermer. The core group around Rand was called the "Collective" and is now defunct (the chief group disseminating Rand's ideas today is the Ayn Rand Institute). Although the Collective advocated an individualist philosophy, Rothbard claimed they were organized in the manner of a "Leninist" organization.
In Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party, a Trotskyist group led by the late Gerry Healy and strongly supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave, has been described by others, who have been involved in the Trotskyist movement, as having been a cult or as displaying cult-like characteristics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also described as such by Tourish and Wohlforth in their writings. In his review of Tourish and Wohlforth's book, Bob Pitt, a former member of the WRP concedes that it had a "cult-like character" but argues that rather than being typical of the far left, this feature actually made the WRP atypical and "led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself".Workers' Struggle (LO, Lutte ouvrière) in France, publicly headed by Arlette Laguiller but revealed in the 1990s to be directed by Robert Barcia, has often been criticized as a cult, for example by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his older brother Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, as well as L'Humanité and Libération.
In his book Les Sectes Politiques: 1965–1995 (translation: Political cults: 1965–1995), French writer Cyril Le Tallec considered some religious groups as cults involved in politics, including the League for Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Cultural Office of Cluny, New Acropolis, Sōka Gakkai, the Divine Light Mission, Tradition Family Property (TFP), Longo-Mai, the Supermen Club and the Association for Promotion of the Industrial Arts (Solazaref).
In 1990 Lucy Patrick commented: "Although we live in a democracy, cult behavior manifests itself in our unwillingness to question the judgment of our leaders, our tendency to devalue outsiders and to avoid dissent. We can overcome cult behavior, he says, by recognizing that we have dependency needs that are inappropriate for mature people, by increasing anti-authoritarian education, and by encouraging personal autonomy and the free exchange of ideas."
Cults that teach and practice polygamy, marriage between more than two people, most often polygyny, one man having multiple wives, have long been noted, although they are a minority. It has been estimated that there are around 50,000 members of polygamist cults in North America. Often, polygamist cults are viewed negatively by both legal authorities and society, and this view sometimes includes negative perceptions of related mainstream denominations, because of their perceived links to possible domestic violence and child abuse.
In 1890, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, issued a public declaration (the Manifesto) announcing that the LDS Church had ceased performing new plural marriages. Anti-Mormon sentiment waned, as did opposition to statehood for Utah. The Smoot Hearings in 1904, which documented that the LDS Church was still practicing polygamy spurred the church to issue a Second Manifesto again claiming that it had ceased performing new plural marriages. By 1910 the LDS Church excommunicated those who entered into or performed new plural marriages. Enforcement of the 1890 Manifesto caused various splinter groups to leave the LDS Church in order to continue the practice of plural marriage. The Church of Jesus Christ Restored is a small sect within the Latter Day Saint movement based in Chatsworth, Ontario, Canada. It has been labeled a polygamous cult by the news media and has been the subject of criminal investigation by local authorities.
Sociologist and historian Orlando Patterson has described the Ku Klux Klan, which arose in the American South after the Civil War, as a heretical Christian cult, and he has described its persecution of African Americans and others as a form of human sacrifice. Secret Aryan cults in Germany and Austria in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had a strong influence on the rise of Nazism. Modern Skinhead groups in the United States tend to use the same recruitment techniques as destructive cults.
In the book Jihad and Sacred Vengeance: Psychological Undercurrents of History, psychiatristPeter A. Olsson compares Osama bin Laden to certain cult leaders including Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, and he says that each of these individuals fit at least eight of the nine criteria for people with narcissistic personality disorders. In the book Seeking the Compassionate Life: The Moral Crisis for Psychotherapy and Society authors Goldberg and Crespo also refer to Osama bin Laden as a "destructive cult leader".
At a 2002 meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), anti-cultist Steven Hassan said that Al-Qaida fulfills the characteristics of a destructive cult. He added: "We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism."
In an article on Al-Qaida published in The Times, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart wrote that al-Qaida resembles a "classic cult", commenting: "Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means."
The Shining Pathguerrilla movement active in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s has variously been described as a "cult" and as an intense "cult of personality". The Tamil Tigers have also been qualified as such by French magazine L'Express'
The People's Mujahedin of Iran, a leftist guerrilla movement based in Iraq, has controversially been described as a political cult and as a movement that is abusive towards its own members. Former Mujaheddin member and now author and academic Dr. Masoud Banisadr stated in a May 2005 speech in Spain: "If you ask me: are all cults a terrorist organisation? My answer is no, as there are many peaceful cults at present around the world and in the history of mankind. But if you ask me are all terrorist organisations some sort of cult, my answer is yes. Even if they start as [an] ordinary modern political party or organisation, to prepare and force their members to act without asking any moral questions and act selflessly for the cause of the group and ignore all the ethical, cultural, moral or religious codes of the society and humanity, those organisations have to change into a cult. Therefore to understand an extremist or a terrorist organisation one has to learn about a cult." In 2003, the group ordered some of its members to set themselves on fire, two of whom died.
The application of the labels "cult" or "sect" to religious movements in government documents signifies the popular and negative use of the term "cult" in English and a functionally similar use of words translated as "sect" in several European languages. Sociologists critical to this negative politicized use of the word "cult" argue that it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members. At the height of the counter-cult movement and ritual abuse scare of the 1990s, some governments published lists of cults. While these documents utilize similar terminology they do not necessarily include the same groups nor is their assessment of these groups based on agreed criteria. Other governments and world bodies also report on new religious movements but do not use these terms to describe the groups. Since the 2000s, some governments have again distanced themselves from such classifications of religious movements. While the official response to new religious groups has been mixed across the globe, some governments aligned more with the critics of these groups to the extent of distinguishing between "legitimate" religion and "dangerous", "unwanted" cults in public policy.
For centuries, governments in China have categorized certain religions as xiejiao (Chinese: 邪教; pinyin: xiéjiào) – sometimes translated as "evil cult" or as "heterodox teaching". In imperial China, the classification of a religion as xiejiao did not necessarily mean that a religion’s teachings were believed to be false or inauthentic, but rather, the label was applied to religious groups that were not authorized by the state, or that were seen as challenging the legitimacy of the state. In modern China, the term xiejiao continues to be used to denote teachings that the government disapproves of, and these groups face suppression and punishment by authorities. Fourteen different groups in China have been listed by the ministry of public security as xiejiao. In addition, in 1999, Chinese authorities denounced the Falun Gong spiritual practice as a heretical teaching, and they launched a campaign to eliminate it. According to Amnesty International, the persecution of Falun Gong includes a multifaceted propaganda campaign, a program of enforced ideological conversion and re-education, as well as a variety of extralegal coercive measures, such as arbitrary arrests, forced labour, and physical torture, sometimes resulting in death.
In 2008 the Russian Interior Ministry prepared a list of "extremist groups." At the top of the list were Islamic groups outside of "traditional Islam," which is supervised by the Russian government. Next listed were "Pagan cults". In 2009 the Russian Ministry of Justice created a council which it named "Council of Experts Conducting State Religious Studies Expert Analysis." The new council listed 80 large sects which it considered potentially dangerous to Russian society, and mentioned that there were thousands of smaller ones. Large sects listed included: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, and what were called "neo-Pentecostals."
In the 1970s, the scientific status of the "brainwashing theory" became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was used to try to justify the use of the forceful deprogramming of cult members. Meanwhile, sociologists critical of these theories assisted advocates of religious freedom in defending the legitimacy of new religious movements in court. In the United States religious activities of cults are protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits governmental establishment of religion and protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. However, no religious or cult members are granted any special immunity from criminal charges.
France and Belgium have taken policy positions which accept "brainwashing" theories uncritically, while other European nations, like Sweden and Italy, are cautious about brainwashing and have adopted more neutral responses to new religions. Scholars have suggested that outrage following the mass murder/suicides perpetuated by the Solar Temple as well as the more latent xenophobic and anti-American attitudes have contributed significantly to European anti-cult positions. In the 1980s clergymen and officials of the French government expressed concern that some orders and other groups within the Roman Catholic Church would be adversely affected by anti-cult laws then being considered.
- ^ abZablocki, Benjamin David; Thomas Robbins (2001). Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field. University of Toronto Press. p. 474. ISBN 0-8020-8188-6.
- ^ abRichardson, James T. (1993). "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative". Review of Religious Research. Religious Research Association, Inc. 34 (4): 348–56. doi:10.2307/3511972. JSTOR 3511972.
- ^Stark, Rodney; Bainbridge, William Sims (1996). A Theory of Religion. Rutgers University Press. p. 124. ISBN 0-8135-2330-3.
- ^OED, citing American Journal of Sociology 85 (1980), p. 1377: "Cults [...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from a some variety of deprivation."
- ^Chuck Shaw – Sects and Cults – Greenville Technical College – Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- ^Olson, Paul J. 2006. "The Public Perception of 'Cults' and 'New Religious Movements'." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (1): 97–106
- ^Stark, Rodney; Bainbridge, William Sims (1987). The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-05731-9
- ^ abEileen Barker, 1999, "New Religious Movements: their incidence and significance", New Religious Movements: challenge and response, Bryan Wilson and Jamie Cresswell editors, RoutledgeISBN 0-415-20050-4
- ^Erwin Fahlbusch, Geoffrey William Bromiley – The Encyclopedia of Christianity: P-Sh, Volume 4 p. 897. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- ^"Definition of CULT".
- ^culture – Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
- ^Compare the Oxford English Dictionary note for usage in 1875: "cult:[...] b. A relatively small group of people having (esp. religious) beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members. [...] 1875 Brit. Mail 30 Jan. 13/1 Buffaloism is, it would seem, a cult, a creed, a secret community, the members of which are bound together by strange and weird vows, and listen in hidden conclave to mysterious lore." "cult". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- ^In W. S. Taylor, 'Science and cult', Psychological Review, Vol 37(2), March 1930, "cultist" is still used in the sense that would now be expressed by "religionist", i.e. anyone adopting a religious worldview as opposed to a scientific one. In the New York State Journal of Medicine of 1932, p. 84 (and other medical publications of the 1930s; e.g. Morris Fishbein, Fads and Quackery in Healing: An Analysis of the Foibles of the Healing Cults, 1932), "cultist" is used of those adhering to what was then called "healing cults", and would now be referred to as faith healing, but also of other forms of alternative medicine ("cultist" (in quotes) of a chiropractor in United States naval medical bulletin, Volume 28, 1930, p. 366).
- ^Compare: T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 13: Social Psychology". pp 320  - "Cult is a somewhat derogatory term for a new religious movement, especially one with unusual theological doctrine or one that is abusive of its membership."
- ^Chuck Shaw – Sects and Cults – Greenville Technical College. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- ^Bromley, David Melton, J. Gordon 2002. Cults, Religion, and Violence. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
- ^Clarke, Peter B. 2006. New Religions in Global Perspective: A Study of Religious Change in the Modern World. New York: Routledge.
- ^Elijah Siegler, 2007, New Religious Movements, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-183478-9
On Using the Term "Cult"
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
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 ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association, founded as American Family Foundation in 1979), 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.
Review of Definitions
According to the "Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary"(1971) the term, "cult," originally referred to "worship; reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings...a particular form or system of religious worship; especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies...devotion or homage to a particular person or thing." More recently, the term has taken on additional connotations:
3 : A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious...
4 : A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator...
5 a. great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work...b. a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion." (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 1994)
Robbins's (1988) review of recent sociological contributions to the study of cults identifies four definitional perspectives:
(1) cults as dangerous, authoritarian groups;
(2) cults as culturally innovative or transcultural groups;
(3) cults as loosely structured protoreligions;
(4) Stark and Bainbridge�s (1985) subtypology that distinguishes among "audience cults" (members seek to receive information, e.g., through a lecture or tape series) "client cults" (members seek some specific benefit, e.g., psychotherapy, spiritual guidance), and "cult movements" (organizations that demand a high level of commitment from members). The Stark and Bainbridge typology relates to their finding that cult membership increases as church membership decreases.
Rutgers University professor Benjamin Zablocki (1997) says that sociologists often distinguish "cult" from "church," "sect," and "denomination." Cults are innovative, fervent groups. If they become accepted into the mainstream, cults, in his view, lose their fervor and become more organized and integrated into the community; they become churches. When people within churches become dissatisfied and break off into fervent splinter groups, the new groups are called sects. As sects become more stolid and integrated into the community, they become denominations. Zablocki defines a cult as "an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and demanding total commitment." According to Zablocki, cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members, in part because members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributes to their becoming corrupted by the power they seek and are accorded.
Definitions proposed at various times by associates of ICSA tend to presume the manifestation of what is potential in Zablocki's definition. These definitions tend to emphasize elements of authoritarian structure, deception, and manipulation and the fact that groups may be psychotherapeutic, political, or commercial, as well as religious. One of the more commonly quoted definitions of "cult" was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985:
Cult (totalist type): 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. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119-120)
Because this and related definitions imply high levels of psychological manipulation, many students of the field have associated cults with the concept of thought reform (Lifton, 1961; Ofshe & Singer, 1986; Singer & Ofshe, 1990). Although there are many similarities between these concepts, a cult does not necessarily have to be characterized by thought reform, nor does a thought reform program necessarily have to be a cult. Nevertheless, the two seem to go together often enough that many people mistakenly see them as necessarily linked.
Definitions advanced by ICSA associates imply that the term "cult" refers to a continuum, in which a large gray area separates "cult" from "noncult," or add qualifiers to the term "cult," such as "destructive." These definitions suggest that there may be some debate about the appropriateness of the term as applied to a specific group, especially when available evidence indicates that the group is in or near the gray area of the continuum. This debate can become more acute when the group in question is one that varies among its geographic locations, has different levels of membership with correspondingly different levels of commitment, has changed over time in the direction of greater or less "cultishness," or is skilled at public relations.
Because they tend to focus on certain practices and behaviors, the definitions advanced by ICSA associates are implicitly interactionist. Like all psychologically based models, they presume that different people will respond differently to the same group environment, much as twins can respond differently to the same family environment. Cults are not all alike. Nor are all cult members affected in the same way, even within the same group. Nevertheless, a huge body of clinical evidence leads ICSA associates to contend that some groups harm some members sometimes, and that some groups may be more likely to harm members than other groups.
Using the Term: Considerations
The concept "cult," as with other concepts (e.g., "right wing," "left wing"), is a theoretical type against which actual groups are compared as best as one can with the information at one's disposal. The theoretical type should serve as a benchmark, not as an organizing structure that selects only those observations that confirm a stereotype. It is vital that each case be evaluated individually with regard to the group environment and the person(s) interacting within and with that environment.
Much as people may wish that it were so, the fact is that, at least at present, no scientific "test" incontrovertibly establishes whether or not a group is indeed a "cult." Although ICSA's Group Psychological Abuse Scale (Chambers, Langone, Dole, & Grice, 1994) is a useful and promising tool for assessing groups scientifically, this self-report measure needs further psychometric development and should be supplemented by observational measures yet to be devised. Cult research is in a stage similar to that of depression research when the first objective measures of depression as a mental and emotional state were being developed. The lack of objective measures didn�t nullify the utility of definitions of depression then in use, but the development of such measures enhanced definitional understanding and classification reliability. In the years ahead, we hope to see similar progress in cultic studies.
Because of the current ambiguity surrounding the term "cult," ICSA does not produce an official list of "cults," even though some people mistakenly interpret any list (e.g., a list of groups on which we have information) as a list of "cults." Such a list would have little utility because there are thousands of groups about which people have expressed concern, yet scientific research has been conducted on few groups. A list could even be misleading because some people might mistakenly think that the label "cult" implies that the group in question has all the significant attributes of the hypothetical type "cult," when in fact it has only some of those attributes. Conversely, some people may mistakenly assume that because a group is not on the list, they need not be concerned. Thus, when inquirers ask us, "Is such and such a cult?� we tend to say, "Study our information on psychological manipulation and cultic groups, then apply this information to what you know and can find out about the group that concerns you." Our goal is to help inquirers make more informed judgments and decisions, not to dictate those judgments and decisions.
We try to direct inquirers� attention to potentially harmful practices, rather than to a label. In essence, we say: "These are practices that have been associated with harmful effects in some people. To what, if any extent, are these practices found in the group in question? And how might you or your loved one be affected by these practices?" One of us (Langone) tries to focus a family�s concerns by saying: "Assume, even if only for the sake of argument, that your loved one were not in a `cult.' What if anything about his or her behavior would trouble you?" After the troubling behaviors are identified, then the family can try to determine how, if at all, these behaviors are related to the group environment. A label tends to be superfluous at this point in the analysis.
Thus, we advocate a nuanced, evidence-based approach to definition and classification. We do not ignore or disparage evidence indicating that some groups may closely approach the theoretical type, �cult.� Nor do we deny the necessity to make expert judgments about whether or not a particular set of group processes harmed a specific person or persons, a judgment that mental health clinicians and other professionals sometimes have to make in therapeutic or forensic contexts. We do, however, advocate that these kinds of judgments should rest on careful analyses of structure and behavior within a specific context, rather than a superficial classification decision.
Such analyses sometimes result in the conclusion that some groups that harm some people are not necessarily cults. A new age group that is neither manipulative nor authoritarian might harm some people because it advocates a medically dangerous diet or psychologically harmful practices. A church may harm some believers because its pastor is domineering and abusive. A psychotherapist may harm some patients because she or he doesn't adequately understand how memory works and may, with the best of intentions, induce false memories in clients. These are all examples of individual harm related to interpersonal influence. They are all examples of situations that might understandably arouse the concern of the harmed person's family and of ICSA. But these situations are not necessarily "cult" situations, even though they may have a family resemblance to the concept "cult." On the other hand, because appearances can deceive, especially in cults, further investigation of such cases may reveal the presence of cultic dynamics. The important point to keep in mind is that classification decisions should be based on the best available evidence and should always be subject to reevaluation.
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, exploitative 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.
Chambers, W., Langone, M., Dole, A., & Grice, J. (1994). The Group Psychological Abuse Scale: A measure of the varieties of cultic abuse. Cultic Studies Journal, 11(1), 88-117.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. New York: Norton.
Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary, tenth edition. (1994). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated.
Ofshe, R., & Singer, M. T. (1986). Attacks on peripheral versus central elements of self and the impact of thought reforming techniques. Cultic Studies Journal, 3(1), 3-24.
Robbins, T. (1988). Cults, converts, and charisma. London: Sage.
Singer, M. T., & Ofshe, R. (1990). Thought reform programs and the production of psychiatric casualties. Psychiatric Annals, 20, 188-193.
Stark, R., & Bainbridge, W. (1985). The future of religion: Secularization, revival and cult formation. Berkeley: University of California (cited in Robbins, 1988).
The compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. (1980). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
West, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134.
Zablocki, B. (1997). Paper presented to a conference, �Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues,� May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Langone, Michael: " History of the American Family Foundation"
Zimbardo, Philip, Ph.D.: "What messages are behind today's cults?"
+ AFF News, 02.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report From the President"
+ AFF News, 03.06: Rosedale, Herb: "Annual Report: Letter From the President"
Langone, Michael, Ph.D.: "On Using the Term "Cult"
Rosedale, Herb: "Legal Analysis of Intent As a Continuum Emphasizing Social Context of Volition"
Rosedale, Herb: "Legal Chapter.pdf"
Rosedale, Herb: "AFF Statement Mass Wedding of Sun Myung Moon"
Rosedale, Herbert L., Esq.: "Legal Considerations: Regaining Independence and Initiative"
Rosedale, Herbert, Esq.: "Cult Litigation Doesn't Threaten Religion"
Rosedale, Herbert, Esq.: "Women and Cults: A Lawyer's Perspective"
� Rosedale, Herbert L.: "NPR One-sided on Moon Movement", CO 11-4, 1994
Ω Conference 1997: PA Presenter
Ω Conference 2003 CA: Presenter
√ Child Abuse in Cultic Groups - IP03
√ Giambalvo, Carol: "Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the ICC"
√ Video: "Symposium - Theory and Cults: In search of the Perfect Explanation, Sociological Theories, Psychological Manipulation: The Abuse of Women Conference"