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This article gives a general cultural account of "cult". For its usage in the original sense of "veneration" or "religious practice", see Cult (religious practice). For its use in a scientific, sociological context see New Religious Movement. For other uses, see Cult (disambiguation).

Cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices could be, reasonably or unreasonably, considered strange.[1] The term was originally used to denote a system of ritual practices. The narrower, derogatory sense of the word is a product of the 20th century, especially since the 1980s, and is a result of the anti-cult movement, which uses the term in reference to groups seen as authoritarian, exploitative and possibly dangerous.

The popular, derogatory sense of the term has no currency in academic studies of religions, where "cults" are subsumed under the neutral label of "new religious movement", while academic sociology has partly adopted the popular meaning of the term.[2][3][4]


Historical overview

Origins in sociology

The concept of "cult" was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker as an expansion of 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".[5] Like Troeltsch's "mystical religion" Becker's cults were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs.[6] Later formulations built on these characteristics while placing an additional emphasis on cults as deviant religious groups "deriving their inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture".[7] This deviation 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.[8] Yet sociologists maintain that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism and therefore maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, "cults" arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.[9]

Popularizing the term: Anti-cult movements and their impact

By the 1940s the long held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions and supposedly heretical Christian sects crystallized into a more organized "Christian countercult movement" in the United States. For those belonging to the movement all new religious groups deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy were considered "cults".[10] As more foreign religious traditions found their way into the United States the religious movements they brought with them or gave birth to attracted even fiercer resistance. This was especially true for movements incorporating mystical or exotic new beliefs and those with charismatic, authoritarian leaders.

By the early 1970s a secular opposition movement to "cult" groups 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 lent credibility to their disbelief by suggesting that "brainwashing techniques" were used to maintain the loyalty of "cult" members.[11] 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" became standard practice.[12]

In the meantime a handful of high profile crimes were committed by groups identified as cults, or by the groups' leaders. The mass suicides committed by members of the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana are perhaps the most prominent example in American popular culture. The publicity of these crimes, as amplified by the Anti-cult movement, influenced the popular perception of new religious movements[citation needed]. 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 in fact be.[13][14][15]

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 rational choice.[16][17] Most sociologists and scholars of religion also began to reject the term "cult" altogether because of its negative connotations in mass culture. Some began to advocate the use of new terms like "new religious movement", "alternative religion" or "novel religion" to describe most of the groups that had come to be referred to as "cults",[18] yet none of these terms have had much success in popular culture or in the media. Other scholars have pushed to redeem the term as one fit for neutral academic discourse,[19] while researchers aligned with the Anti-cult movement have attempted to reduce the negative connotations being associated with all such groups by classifying only some as "destructive cults".

The political implications of definition

The difference between the negative and the neutral definition of the word cult has also had political implications. In the 1970s the scientific status of the "brainwashing theory" became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was instrumental in justifying the use of the forceful "deprogramming" of cult members.[3][20] Meanwhile sociologists critical of these theories assisted advocates of religious freedom in defending the legitimacy of new religious movements in court. 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.[11][21] 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.[22] Scholars have suggested that outrage following the mass murder/suicides perpetuated by the Solar Temple[11][23] as well as more latent xenophobic and anti-American attitudes have contributed significantly to the extremity of European anti-cult positions.[24]

Since 1949 the Peoples Republic of China has been classifying dissenting groups as xiejiao, normally translated into English as "evil cults".[25] In recent years the Chinese Government has allied with western anti-cult scholars in order to lend legitimacy to its crackdown on practitioners of Falun Gong. Scientology has also been the target of anti-cult legislation in several countries. This negative politicized use of the term "cult" provides sociologists critical of it with yet another reason to abandon it because, according to them, it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members.[2][20][26][27] Of course, for cult critics the creation of legislation restricting the religious freedom of cults is an objective in itself, since in they view "cults" as harmful or potentially harmful to their members and to society at large.

The Study of cults

While most scholars no longer refer to any new religious movements as cults, some sociologists still favor retaining the term as it was used in church-sect typologies. For this value-neutral use of the term, please refer to new religious movements. Other scholars and non-academic researchers who use the term do so from explicitly critical perspectives which focus on the relationship between cult groups and the individual people who join them. These perspectives share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used to recruit and maintain members by suppressing their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest. However, most social scientists believe that mind control theories have no scientific merit in relation to religious movements.

Mind control

Studies performed by those who believe that some religious groups do practice mind control have identified a number of key steps in coercive persuasion:[28][29]

  1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations;
  2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
  3. They receive unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader;
  4. They get a new identity based on the group;
  5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.[30]

This view is disputed by scholars such as James Gene [31] and Bette Nove Evans [32], among others, while the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion[6][33] stated in 1990 that there was not sufficient research to permit a consensus on the matter and that "one should not automatically equate the techniques involved in the process of physical coercion and control with those of nonphysical coercion and control".

Potential for harm

In the opinion of Benjamin Zablocki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, groups that have been characterized as 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. Zablocki defines a cult here as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and that demands total commitment.[34] According to Barrett, the most common accusation made against groups referred to as cults is sexual abuse. See some allegations made by former members. According to Kranenborg, some groups are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.[35]


Michael Langone gives three different models for conversion. Under Langone's deliberative model, people are said to join cults primarily because of how they view a particular group. Langone notes that this view is most favored among sociologists and religious scholars. Under the "psychodynamic model," popular with some mental health professionals, individuals choose to join for fulfillment of subconscious psychological needs. Finally, the "thought reform model" posits that people join not because of their own psychological needs, but because of the group's influence through forms of psychological manipulation. Langone claims that those mental health experts who have more direct experience with large numbers of cultists tend to favor this latter view.[36]

Some scholars favor one particular view, or combine elements of each. According to Marc Gallanter,[37] 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.[38]


There are at least three ways people leave a cult:

  1. by one's own decision,
  2. through expulsion
  3. through intervention (Exit counseling, deprogramming).[39][40]

Popular authors Conway and Siegelman conducted a survey and published it in the book Snapping regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had fewer problems than people not deprogrammed. The BBC writes that in a survey done by Jill Mytton on 200 former cult members most of them reported problems adjusting to society and about a third would benefit from some counseling.[41]

Ronald Burks, in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA) and Neurological Impairment Scale (NIS) scores in 132 former members of cults and cultic relationships, found a positive correlation between intensity of thought reform environment as measured by the GPA and cognitive impairment as measured by the NIS. Additional findings were a reduced earning potential in view of the education level that corroborates earlier studies of cult critics (Martin 1993; Singer & Ofshe, 1990; West & Martin, 1994) and significant levels of depression and dissociation agreeing with Conway & Siegelman, (1982), Lewis & Bromley, (1987) and Martin, et al. (1992).[42]

Sociologists Bromley and Hadden note a lack of empirical support for claimed consequences of having been a member of a "cult" or sect, and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave do so of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."[43]

According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform post-cult trauma. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.[44]

The Report of the "Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements" (1998) states that the great majority of members of new religious movements derive positive experiences from their subscription to ideas or doctrines which correspond to their personal needs, and that withdrawal from these movements is usually quite undramatic, as these persons leave feeling enriched by a predominantly positive experience. Although the report describes that there are a small number of withdrawals that require support (100 out of 50,000+ people), the report did not recommend that any special resources be established for their rehabilitation, as these cases are very rare.[45]

Stuart A. Wright explores the distinction between the apostate narrative and the role of the apostate, asserting that the former follows a predictable pattern, in which the apostate utilizes a "captivity narrative" that emphasizes manipulation, entrapment and being victims of "sinister cult practices". These narratives provide a rationale for a "hostage-rescue" motif, in which cults are likened to POW camps and deprogramming as heroic hostage rescue efforts. He also makes a distinction between "leavetakers" and "apostates", asserting that despite the popular literature and lurid media accounts of stories of "rescued or recovering 'ex-cultists'", empirical studies of defectors from NRMs "generally indicate favorable, sympathetic or at the very least mixed responses toward their former group."[46]

According to the anti-cult movement

Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to 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.[47]

While acknowledging the issue of multiple definitions of the word,[48] Michael Langone states that: "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."[49] A similar definition is given by Louis Jolyon West:

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 [consequences 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.[50]

In each, the focus tends to be on the specific tactics of conversion, the negative impact on individual members, and the difficulty in leaving once indoctrination has occurred.[51]

Some critics of media sensationalism argue that the stigma surrounding the classification of a group as a cult results largely from exaggerated portrayals of weirdness in media stories. The narratives of ill effects include perceived threats presented by a cult to its members, and risks to the physical safety of its members and to their mental and spiritual growth.

Criticism by former members

The role of former members, or "apostates," has been widely studied by social scientists. At times these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial. Some scholars like David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Brian R. Wilson have challenged the validity of the testimonies presented by critical former members. Wilson discusses the use of the atrocity story that is rehearsed by the apostate to explain how, by manipulation, coercion, or deceit, he was recruited to a group that he now condemns.[52] and that hostile ex-members would invariably shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents.[53] Bromley and Shupe similarly discuss "captivity narratives" that depict the time in the group as involuntary and point out that apostate is likely to present a caricature of his former group.[citation needed] Introvigne found in his study of the New Acropolis in France, that public negative testimonies and attitudes were only voiced by a minority of the ex-members, who he describes as becoming "professional enemies" of the group they leave.[citation needed] Scholars who tend to side more with critical former members are usually critical of cults themselves and include Margaret Singer, Benjamin Zablocki and Philip Lucas. Zablocki performed an empirical study that concludes that the reliability of former members was equal to that of those who stayed in one particular group.[citation needed] Lucas found the same empirical results.[citation needed]

See also Apostasy in new religious movements, and Apostates and Apologists.

Stigmatization and discrimination

Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the terms "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some scholars and groups referred to as cults argue that these are terms to be avoided.[54][55]

Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the term "cult" represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals.[56] 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.[56] Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it.[56] At the same time, she adds, 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."[56] 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.[56]

The concept of "cult" as an epithet was legally tested in the United Kingdom when a protester refused to put down a sign that read, "Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult", citing a 1984 high court judgment describing the organization as a cult. The London police issued a summons to the protester for violating the Public Order Act by displaying a "threatening, abusive or insulting" sign. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that the word "cult" on a sign, " not abusive or insulting and there is no offensiveness, as opposed to criticism, neither in the idea expressed nor in the mode of expression." There was no action taken against the protester, and police would allow future such demonstrations.[57] In Scotland, an official of the Edinburgh City Council told inquiring regular protesters, "I understand that some of the signs you use may display the word 'cult' and there is no objection to this."[58]

Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign.[59] 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.

These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly 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."[60]

Some authors in the cult opposition dislike the word cult to the extent it implies that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating "cult" from "noncult" which they do not see.[60] Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan, differentiate by using terms like "Destructive cult," or "Cult" (totalitarian type) vs. "benign cult."

Relation to governments

In many countries there exists a separation of church and state and freedom of religion. Governments of some of these countries, concerned with possible abuses by groups they deem cults, have taken restrictive measures against some of their activities. Critics of such measures claim that the counter-cult movement and the anti-cult movement have succeeded in influencing governments in transferring the public's abhorrence of doomsday cults and make the generalization that it is directed against all small or new religious movements without discrimination. The critique is countered by stressing that the measures are directed not against any religious beliefs, but specifically against groups whom they see as inimical to the public order due to their totalitarianism, violations of fundamental liberties, inordinate emphasis on finances, and/or disregard for appropriate medical care.[61]

In literature

Cults have been a subject or theme in literature and popular culture since ancient times. There are many references to it in the 20th century.

See also


  1. ^ 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 some variety of deprivation."
  2. ^ a b Richardson, 1993
  3. ^ a b Lewis, 2004
  4. ^ Dawson, Lorne L. (2003). Cults and new religious movements: A reader. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1405101814. 
  5. ^ Swatos Jr., William H. (1998). "Church-Sect Theory". in William H. Swatos Jr. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira. pp. 90–93. ISBN 978-0761989561. 
  6. ^ Campbell., Colin (1998). "Cult". in William H. Swatos Jr. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira. pp. 122–123. ISBN 978-0761989561. 
  7. ^ Richardson, 1993 p. 349
  8. ^ Stark and Bainbridge, 1987 p. 25
  9. ^ Stark and Bainbridge, 1987 p. 124
  10. ^ Cowan, 2003
  11. ^ a b c Richardson and Introvigne, 2001
  12. ^ Shupe, Anson (1998). "Anti-Cult Movement". in William H. Swatos Jr. (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira. p. 27. ISBN 978-0761989561. 
  13. ^ Hill, Harvey, John Hickman and Joel McLendon (2001). "Cults and Sects and Doomsday Groups, Oh My: Media Treatment of Religion on the Eve of the Millennium". Review of Religious Research 43 (1): 24-38. 
  14. ^ van Driel, Barend and J. Richardson (1988). "Cult versus sect: Categorization of new religions in American print media". Sociological Analysis 49: 171-183. 
  15. ^ Richardson, James T. (1993). "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative". Review of Religious Research (Religious Research Association, Inc.) 34 (4): 348-356. 
  16. ^ Ayella, Marybeth (1990). "They Must Be Crazy: Some of the Difficluties in Researching 'Cults'". American Behavioral Scientist 33 (5): 562–577. 
  17. ^ Cowan, 2003 ix
  18. ^ Goldman, Marion (2006). "Review Essay: Cults, New Religions, and the Spiritual Landscape: A Review of Four Collections". Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (1): 87–96. 
  19. ^ Bainbridge, William Sims (1997). The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York: Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 0415912024. 
  20. ^ a b Davis, Dena S. 1996 "Joining a Cult: Religious Choice or Psychological Aberration" Journal of Law and Health.
  21. ^ Edelman, Bryan and Richardson, James T. (2003). "Falun Gong and the Law: Development of Legal Social Control in China". Nova Religio 6 (2): 312–331. 
  22. ^ Richardson and Introvigne, 2001 pp. 144-146
  23. ^ Robbins, Thomas (2002). "Combating 'Cults' and 'Brainwashing' in the United States and Europe: A Comment on Richardson and Introvigne's Report". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40 (2): 169–76. 
  24. ^ Beckford, James A. (1998). "'Cult' Controversies in Three European Countries". Journal of Oriental Studies 8: 174–84. 
  25. ^ Irons, Edward (2003). "Falun Gong and the Sectarian Religion Paradigm". Nova Religio 6 (2): 244–62. 
  26. ^ Barker, Eileen (2002). "Watching for Violence: A comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Types of Cult-watching Groups". in David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton (Eds.). Cults, Religion and Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052166898. 
  27. ^ T. Jeremy Gunn, The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of “Religion” in International Law
  28. ^ Galanter, 1989; Mithers, 1994; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; Singer, Temerlin, & Langone, 1990; Zimbardo & leipper, 1991
  29. ^ Cordón, Popular Psychology 46-47
  30. ^ Psychology 101, Carole Wade et al., 2005
  31. ^ Gene G. James, Brainwashing: The Myth and the Actuality Fordham University Quarterly, Volume LXI, June 1986
  32. ^ Novit Evas, Bette Interpreting the Free Exercise of Religion: The Constitution and American Pluralism, () pp. 91-3, UNC Press, ISBN 0-8078-4674-0
  33. ^ Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, council meeting on the 7th of November 1990 (Online)
  34. ^ Dr. Zablocki, Benjamin [1] Paper presented to a conference, Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues, May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  35. ^ Kranenborg, Reender Dr. (Dutch language) Sekten... gevaarlijk of niet?/Cults... dangerous or not? published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 31 Sekten II by the Free university Amsterdam (1996) ISSN 0169-7374 ISBN 90-5383-426-5
  36. ^ Langone, Michael, "Clinical Update on Cults", Psychiatric Times July 1996 Vol. XIII Issue 7 [2]
  37. ^ Galanter, Marc M.D.(Editor), (1989), Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association, ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  38. ^ Bader, Chris & A. Demaris, A test of the Stark-Bainbridge theory of affiliation with religious cults and sects. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 285-303. (1996)
  39. ^ Duhaime, Jean (Université de Montréal), Les Témoigagnes de Convertis et d'ex-Adeptes (English: The testimonies of converts and former followers, an article which appeared in the book New Religions in a Postmodern World edited by Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg, RENNER Studies in New religions, Aarhus University press, 2003, ISBN 87-7288-748-6
  40. ^ Giambalvo, Carol, Post-cult problems
  41. ^ BBC News 20 May 2000: Sect leavers have mental problems [3]
  42. ^ Burks, Ronald, Cognitive Impairment in Thought Reform Environments
  43. ^ Hadden, J and Bromley, D eds. (1993), The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc., pp. 75-97.
  44. ^ F. Derks and the professor of psychology of religion Jan van der Lans The post-cult syndrome: Fact or Fiction?, paper presented at conference of Psychologists of Religion, Catholic University Nijmegen, 1981, also appeared in Dutch language as Post-cult-syndroom; feit of fictie?, published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 6 pages 58-75 published by the Free university Amsterdam (1983)
  45. ^ Report of the Swedish Government's Commission on New Religious Movements (1998), 1.6 The need for support (Swedish),English translation
    The great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership. They have subscribed to an idea or doctrine which corresponds to their personal needs. Membership is of limited duration in most cases. After two years the majority have left the movement. This withdrawal is usually quite undramatic, and the persons withdrawing feel enriched by a predominantly positive experience.[...]The Commission does not recommend that special resources be established for the rehabilitation of withdraws. The cases are too few in number and the problem picture too manifold for this: each individual can be expected to need help from several different care providers or facilitators.
  46. ^ Wright, Stuart, A., Exploring Factors that Shatpe the Apostate Role, in Bromley, David G., The Politics of Religious Apostasy, pp. 95-114, Praeger Publishers, 1998. ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  47. ^ T. Robbins and D. Anthony (1982:283, quoted in Richardson 1993:351) ("...certain manipulative and authoritarian groups which allegedly employ mind control and pose a threat to mental health are universally labeled cults. These groups are usually 1) authoritarian in their leadership; 2)communal and totalistic in their organization; 3) aggressive in their proselytizing; 4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination; 5)relatively new and unfamiliar in the United states; 6)middle class in their clientele")
  48. ^ The Definitional Ambiguity of "Cult" and ICSA’s Mission
  49. ^ 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.
  50. ^ 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.
  51. ^ A discussion and list of ACM (anti-cult movement) groups can be found at
  52. ^ Wilson, Bryan R. Apostates and New Religious Movements, Oxford, England, 1994
  53. ^ Melton, Gordon J., Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory, 1999
  54. ^ Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult. By Pnina Werbner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. xvi, 348 pp "...the excessive use of "cult" is also potentially misleading. With its pejorative connotations"
  55. ^ Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative, James T. Richardson, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Jun., 1993), pp. 348-356 "the term cult is useless, and should be avoided because of the confusion between the historic meaning of the term and current pejorative use"
  56. ^ a b c d e Wessinger, Catherine Lowman (2000). How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York, NY/London, UK: Seven Bridges Press. p. 4. ISBN 1889119245. 
  57. ^ Schoolboy avoids prosecution for branding Scientology a 'cult' Daily Mail, 2008-05-23
  58. ^ Protesters celebrate city's 'cult' stance - Edinburgh Evening News, 2008-05-27
  59. ^ Amy Ryan: New Religions and the Anti-Cult Movement: Online Resource Guide in Social Sciences (2000) [4]
  60. ^ a b Casino. Bruce J., Defining Religion in American Law, 1999
  61. ^ Kent, Stephen A. Brainwashing in Scientology's Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), 1997 [5]


  • Cowan, Douglas E. (2003). Bearing False Witness? An Introduction ot the Christian Countercult. Westport, CT: Praeger. ISBN 978-0275974596. 
  • Lewis, James R. (2004). The Oxford handbook of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195149866. 
  • Richardson, James T. (1993). "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative". Review of Religious Research 34 (4): 348–356. 
  • Richardson, James T. and Introvigne, Massimo (2001). "'Brainwashing' Theories in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on 'Cults' and 'Sects'". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40 (2): 143–168. 
  • Stark, Rodney and Bainbridge, William Sims (1987). The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520057319. 


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  • Lewis, James R. Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy, Prometheus Books, 2001
  • Martin, Walter et al.: The Kingdom of the Cults, 2003, ISBN 0-7642-2821-8
  • Melton, Gordon: Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, 1992 (Search inside), ISBN 0-8153-1140-0
  • Oakes, Len: Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, 1997, ISBN 0-8156-0398-3 Excerpts
  • Phoenix, Lena: The Heart of a Cult, 2006, ISBN 0-9785483-0-2
  • Singer, Margaret Thaler: Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace, 1992, ISBN 0-7879-6741-6 Excerpts
  • Tourish, Dennis: 'On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 2000, ISBN 0-7656-0639-9
  • Williams, Miriam: (1998) Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years As a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult . William Morrow & Co. ISBN 978-0688155049.
  • Wilson, Colin Rogue Messiahs: Tales of Self-Proclaimed Saviors, 2000, Hampton Roads Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1571741752
  • Zablocki, Benjamin et al.: Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, 2001, ISBN 0-8020-8188-6
  • Szubin, Jensen, Gregg (FBI) : Interacting with "cults" : a policing model [7]
  • Hardin, John W.: Defining a Cult - The Borderline Between Christian and Counterfeit: Article defining a cult by its attributes from a Biblical Christian perspective.[8]
  • Langone, Michael: Cults: Questions and Answers [9]
  • Lifton, Robert Jay: Cult Formation, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 1991 [10]
  • Moyers. Jim: Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups [11]
  • Richmond, Lee J. :When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults, Professional School Counseling, June 2004 [12]
  • Robbins, T. and D. Anthony, 1982. "Deprogramming, brainwashing and the medicalization of deviant religious groups" Social Problems 29 pp 283–97.
  • Shaw, Daniel: Traumatic abuse in cults [13]
  • James T. Richardson: "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative" Review of Religious Research 34.4 (June 1993), pp. 348–356.
  • Rosedale, Herbert et al.: On Using the Term "Cult" [14]
  • Van Hoey, Sara: Cults in Court The Los Angeles Lawyer, February 1991 [15]
  • Zimbardo, Philip: What messages are behind today's cults?, American Psychological Association Monitor, May 1997 [16]
  • Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?, Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91–111
  • Rothstein, Mikael, Hagiography and Text in the Aetherius Society: Aspects of the Social Construction of a Religious Leader, an article which appeared in the book New Religions in a Postmodern World edited by Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg, RENNER Studies in New religions, Aarhus University press, ISBN 87-7288-748-6
  • Phoenix, Lena: "Thoughts on the Word Cult" [17]

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

In religion and sociology, a cult is a cohesive group of people (often a relatively small and recently founded religious movement) devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be far outside the mainstream. Its separate status may come about either due to its novel belief system, because of its idiosyncratic practices or because it opposes the interests of the mainstream culture. Other non-religious groups may also display cult-like characteristics. In common usage, "cult" has a negative connotation, and is more generally applied to a group by its opponents, for a variety of possible reasons.


  • Whenever there is an absolute truth at stake, the manners become careless. This applies both to the owners as well as their opponents of that truth and to all people involved.
    • Dr. Paul Schnabel, Tussen stigma en charisma: nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en volksgezondheid (Between Stigma and Charisma: New Religious Movements and Mental Health) (1982), ISBN 90-6001-746-3 (Deventer, Van Loghum Slaterus), page 343 available on the internet
  • It is both disquieting and even embarrassing that scholars supposedly studying the same phenomenona could have such strong differences of opinion.
    • James T. Richardson, Ph.D., J.D., University of Nevada professor of sociology, "The Psychology of Induction: A Review and Interpretation"; Cults and New Religious Movements (1989), Marc Galanter, ed., American Psychiatric Association
  • Who has or was given this authority to decide what beliefs or practices are orthodox or genuine, and what are unorthodox or spurious? In the realm of religion and belief, one person's or group's norm is another's anathema, and what is regarded as false or counterfeit by one person or group is regarded as genuine and authentic by another.
    • Lloyd Eby, testimony before the Task Force to Investigate Cult Activity on the Campuses of Maryland Public Higher-Education Institutions, June 1999, [1]
  • We conclude . . . that the vast bulk of scientific findings — whatever clinical, field observation or survey methodologies used — never supported the ACM [anti-cult movement] perspective that most "cult" members were duped or psychologically shanghaied into membership, coercively maintained in subservience as slaves or impaired in any meaningful way through their membership.
    • Shupe, Bromley and Oliver, The Anti-Cult Movement in America
  • There was nothing special about our time with Andrew. We've been members in just another cultish group that make its members feel special. Our experiences are fundamentally no different from countless others in spiritual and political groups. We see clearly that corruption is difficult to avoid when a charismatic individual is given absolute power over a group of followers. All authoritarian groups have more or less the same dynamic. The emphasis on surrender, the initial happiness of merging into something bigger, the dogmatism, the rules and regulations, the suppression of doubts, it's the same everywhere.
    • Andre van der Braak, Enlightenment Blues: my years with an American guru (2003), page 215, Monkfish publishing house, ISBN 0-9726357-1-8
    • about how he and another former see their time with Andrew Cohen)
  • Cult leaders succeed in dominating their followers because they have mastered the cruel art of exploiting universal human dependency and attachment needs in others.
  • We often seem most comfortable with people whose religions consist of nothing but a few private sessions of worship and prayer, but who are too secularized to let their faiths influence the rest of the week. This attitude exerts pressure to treat religion as a hobby.
    • Stephen Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion
  • If Jones' People's Temple wasn't a cult, then the term has no meaning.
    • Scott McLemee, "Rethinking Jonestown"
  • I have been a victim of it, despite my rigorous scientific and philosophical training and reams of critical writings. I have published about the methodological failings of various sciences and others systems of thought. So come on, you are not alone.
  • Outsiders often criticize the extreme commitment of group members. But what is really happening is that leader and followers are conspiring to realize a vision that is falsified daily. For the cult is not paradise, and the leader is not God. Hence the follower is embattled; to squarely confront the many failings of the leader and the group is to call into question one's own great work. Only by daily recommitting himself can the follower continue to work toward his ultimate goal. Each follower works out a secret compromise, acknowledging some things while denying or distorting others. Clearly this is a high-risk strategy that may go awry.
    • Dr. Len Oakes, Australian psychologist, Prophetic charisma: The Psychology of Prophetic Charisma, chapter "Followers and Their Quest", page 137; Syracuse University Press (1997 first edition), ISBN 0-8156-2700-9


  • A central issue confronts[ed] at the outset is the definition of a cult. As he rightly points out, one person's cult is another's religion; all religions begin life as cults. An alternative definition is that a cult is a religion which you happen to dislike. . . . "cult" is a four-letter word.
    • Anthony Campbell, review of David V. Barrett's The New Believers
  • Despite all the elegant rhetoric about the Pilgrim fathers...Amerian has not set an exemplary record in the area of religious freedom. The English Calvinists who settled in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay did not come to found a society where spiritual liberty would reign supreme. They came to found a theocracy, as the four Quakers...who were hanged on Boston Common between 1659 and 1661 soon found out. Unpopular and unconventional religious beliefs and practices were not only unwelcome, they were not tolerated. Roger Williams, a Baptist, was hounded into the frozen wilderness. When Henry Dunster, the president of Harvard College, decided not to have his fourth infant baptized because he had come to accept adult baptism, he was forced to retire. Later on, in other parts of the country, Mormons, Jews, Masons, Jesuits, and ordinary Roman Catholics felt the hard edge of harassment and discrimination because of their religious convictions. A couple of generations ago, Jehovah's Witnesses were the main target of prejudice. Now we have the 'cults.' It seems Americans are never really happy unless there is some unfamiliar religious group to abuse. The spirit of theoracy lingers on.
    • Harvey Cox, Thomas Professor of Divinity, Harvard University
  • Actually, it's all quite simple. Like many dramatic terms, "brainwashing" is a metaphor. A person can no more wash another's brain with coercion or conversation than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark. If there is no such thing as brainwashing, what does this metaphor stand for? It stands for one of the most universal human experiences and events, namely for one person influencing another.
    • Thomas Szasz
  • When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you've ever met, and then you learn the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true -- it probably is too good to be true! Don't give up your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow.
    • Jeannie Mills (aka Deanna Mertle), early defector from the People's Temple and co-founder of the Concerned Relatives and the Human Freedom Center

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Simple English

A cult is a religious group of people. It is often a small, newly started religious movement. Cults have beliefs or practices that many people think of as being odd, or that have practices that most people in the world do not practice.

Whether a religious group is or is not a cult is a difficult problem. Personal opinions may change over time. What is at one point in time considered a cult may later be accepted as a religion and what at one point of time is considered an accepted religion may later become a cult.

In order to determine therefore whether a specific religious group is as a cult, an absolute criteria for truth needs to be used to measure the doctrines and beliefs of the group against.

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