The term cult has become, since the latter part of the twentieth century, one of the most controversial concepts in the social sciences. The term was originally employed by scholars of religion to signify a system of activities centering on an object of worship, but the concept has been gradually changed by sociologists to identify a particular residual type of religious group that fell outside the boundaries of recognized religious organization. Subsequently, scholarly attempts to redefine or specify the dimensions and implications of cult groups have proliferated, while at the same time the term cult has been appropriated for polemical purposes by opponents of unconventional religious organizations who characterize such organizations under the cult label as dangerous to both individuals and the larger society. The mass media in modern nations have largely adopted and disseminated these morally charged, negative definitions, and thus pejorative notions of the term cult and of the many groups to which it is uncritically attached have become virtually universal among the general public. Many scholars of contemporary religions, especially sociologists, have now chosen to drop the term cult as a descriptor of a type of religious group, concluding that it is a conceptually polluted concept, and replaced it with a morally neutral term, such as new religious movement or alternative religious group. Others have argued that the term cult has a scientifically useful conceptual function and should be retained even though there is not yet a social science consensus on its essential definitional characteristics.
Both Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), and Weber, in The Sociology of Religion (1922), employed a classical conception of cult as designating a ritual system of worship activities. Durkheim focused attention on what he saw as the essential function of cultic activity within a community, namely to periodically renew, through participation in sacred rites, a collective sense of social unity and moral force around a set of shared values that constitute the community itself. Weber emphasized the rationalizing tendencies of cultic organization over time, particularly through the emergence of priestly roles to articulate, elaborate, coordinate, officiate, defend, propagate, and otherwise administer the system of religious practices and doctrines centered on the worship of a god or gods or other super natural entities.
The rationalizing tendencies of religious organization noted by Weber were further elaborated by Ernst Troeltsch’s attempt to specify the characteristics of Weber’s two types of religious community organization: the church (a socially inclusive, less restrictive membership group embracing and embraced by the larger society) and the sect (an exclusive, particularistic, and restrictive membership group that by its strict requirements sets itself apart from and at odds with both the parent religious body and the larger society). In The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (1931) Troeltsch placed the categories of Christian sects and churches along a dynamic, cyclical continuum in which sects were seen as typically breaking away from established churches to reclaim a perceived lost purity of belief or practice, only to gradually accommodate worldly pressures in order to flourish, thereby acquiring church like characteristics that in turn generate a new schismatic cycle. He recognized, however, that even within Christianity not all organized religious expressions fit comfortably within the church–sect continuum, notably religious associations that give priority emphasis to achieving personal, non rational experiences. Troeltsch assigned such expressions to a residual category called mysticism, which was conceptually only vaguely connected to the church–sect continuum.
Howard Becker, in Systematic Sociology (1932), exchanged the term cult for mysticism, resulting in an influential shift in the sociological designation of cult as a particular type of religious group rather than referring only to the structuring of worship activities within all religions. Becker’s definition of a cult included the characteristics of loosely structured, non demanding, non exclusive, and transient associations between individuals in urban settings who share interest in a limited set of esoteric spiritual beliefs typically propounded by a charismatic but not necessarily authoritarian teacher leader. Variations on the defining characteristics of cults as a type of religious group have subsequently proliferated. The greatest stimulus to reconceptualization and study of groups identified as cults occurred in the mid 1960s through mid 1970s as a consequence of certain elements within the hippie oriented youth counterculture (e.g., the Jesus Movement, the New Age Movement, the Communitarian Movement, etc.) and especially the increasing visibility and proselytizing activities of foreign and non Christian religious groups within western nations generally and the US in particular (e.g., the Unification Church, or ‘‘Moonies,’’ the Divine Light Mission, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or ‘‘Hare Krishnas,’’ etc.).
Although some sociologists argued that these contemporary, radically different groups were best seen as extreme variations of religious sects, most concluded that it was useful to expand the cult concept in a way that would account for more dynamic, structured, innovative, and purposive new religious movements that seemed to be more than just dissenting splinter groups from an already established religious tradition. Both Geoffrey Nelson’s Sociological Review article on ‘‘The Concept of Cult’’ (1968) and Milton Yinger’s The Scientific Study of Religion (1970) emphasized the radical break from established religious worldviews characteristic of cults and the potential for cult groups to grow, increase their organizational complexity, and elaborate their own coherent, innovative worldview. From such developments over time, new religious traditions are formed that may, depending on a complex of social and historical conditions (and parallel to the institutional path of some sects), even ascend to the status of institutionalized ‘‘church’’ in the Weberian sense.
This line of thinking on cults was most clearly extended and articulated by Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge in their article ‘‘Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements’’ (1979) and in their more comprehensive book, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Renewal, and Cult Formation (1985). Stark and Bainbridge distinguish cults as religious novel ties that are not the product of schism from the established religions within a particular host society. Cults may originate in one of two ways: either from borrowing or ‘‘importing’’ their essential elements from an alien cultural tradition (i.e., from outside of the host society), or through the religious innovations of charismatic leaders who assert a new order of belief and practice that is substantially independent of established religious traditions. An example of the former would be the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (the ‘‘Hare Krishnas’’) in America (but not in India, where ISKON would be a sect of Hinduism); an example of the latter would be primitive Christianity in ancient Judea and adjacent areas of the Roman Empire. A contemporary cult may be present itself as the kind of amorphous, esoteric, and low commitment social enterprise identified by Becker in either of the two forms. The first form, according to Stark and Bainbridge, is the audience cult – a mystical or spiritually centered set of topics and ideas that are promoted through various media means. Adherents or advocates of these ideas are fundamentally consumers of the occult rather than members of a concrete religious organization. The second form is the client cult, which revolves around a kind of patient–therapist relationship in which adherents seek personal assistance, guidance, or reassurance (psychological, physical, or spiritual) directly from agents who claim access to various supernatural powers. Neither of these forms creates a strong social identity for participants, and both are seen as focused on magi cal manipulations of non empirical forces to achieve desired empirical ends. However, cults may also coalesce into much more distinct membership groups with strict requirements, organizational hierarchies, broadly conceived ideologies, and long term aspirations for growth and influence. Stark and Bainbridge refer to this development as a cult movement and see such movements, in rare cases, as having the potential eventually to become transformed into new religious traditions. Even though the vast majority of cult movements do not succeed in achieving this outcome, cult movements are still seen as significant religious responses within secularized segments of modern society in which the appeal of established faiths has considerably weakened.
Sociological understanding of cults, however, has had little impact on public perceptions. From the 1960s onwards, the apparent proliferation of non conventional or alien religious groups in western societies, which were primarily successful in recruiting young people coming from conventional backgrounds, was deeply disturbing to many parents, mainstream Christian clergy, and various secular groups. From this public consternation emerged new, pejorative, polemical, and non scholarly definitions of cults. For many in the Christian clergy, a cult essentially came to be understood as any religious group that deviates from what are defined as orthodox Christian beliefs and practices – a ‘‘fake’’ religion that tempts people away from ‘‘true’’ religion. Such faith based, ethnocentric definitions considerably widen the category of groups labeled as cults, prominently including such well known American born religious organizations as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the ‘‘Mormons’’), the Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science), and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Secular opponents of various unconventional religious groups (including some academic sociologists but mostly clinical psychologists, a variety of different types of therapists, entrepreneurial and self styled ‘‘cult experts,’’ and several different anti cult organizations), beginning in the early 1970s, emphasized the dangers that cult groups were presumed to pose for both individuals who were snared by them and to the larger society that harbored them. Lists of identifying cult characteristics included (and currently still do) notions of ‘‘brain washing’’ or mind control tactics employed as recruitment and retention devices; fraudulent motives and totalitarian methods of charismatic leaders; exploitation or abuse of duped or cowed members for the benefit of leaders; secrecy and isolation from the outside world; a potential if not an actual tendency toward the use of violence; and so on.
This understanding of cults as dangerous or destructive groups engaging in fraudulent or even illegal activities was (and remains) largely adopted and disseminated by the mass media. Several spectacular and tragic episodes involving unconventional religious groups since the late 1970s have garnered massive media attention (e.g., the People’s Temple slayings and mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; the Rajneeshpuram takeover of a small Oregon community; the prolonged siege and fiery deaths of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas; the subway poison gas attacks by Aum Shinrikyo in Japan; and the mass suicides among followers of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Heaven’s Gate in California). Other highly publicized, controversial groups whose reported activities continue to reinforce the widespread perception of cults as dangerous threats that need to be exposed and suppressed include the Church of Scientology (throughout Europe particularly) and the Falun Gong/Daffa movement (in mainland China).
Anti cult organizations such as the Cult Awareness Network (now defunct) and the American Family Federation have long advanced the claim that cults ‘‘brainwash’’ their members to such an extent that individuals within the group are significantly impeded in exercising full free agency and are thus largely helpless to avoid the abuse to which they are presumably subjected. This claim was bolstered from non random interview samples of ex group members and became the basis for involuntary removal of members from groups labeled as destructive cults by hired ‘‘deprogrammers’’ until the American Psychological Association officially declared ‘‘brainwashing’’ to be an unscientific concept in the late 1980s, and American courts began convicting deprogrammers on charges related to kidnapping.
In contrast, most sociologists of religion continue to advocate a more detached, objective, and analytical understanding of cults and their relationships to conditions in both mainstream religions and society generally. Of the hundreds of groups that can reliably be identified as cult movements, only a very small fraction have or are likely to have violent confrontations with outsiders. Sociologists who specialize in the study of cult movements through field research or direct observations typically find that most groups they investigate, while espousing beliefs or practices that may seem outlandish, restrictive, or otherwise unappealing to outsiders, generally develop a core of sincere and committed followers whose right of religious choice ought not be trammeled by indiscriminate negative labeling. The term new religious movement (NRM) has been widely adopted as a substitute for cult by many sociologists in order to neutralize the negative connotations that have accumulated around the term cult and to emphasize the need to examine every group on its own observable merits rather than simply stigmatizing unconventional religious organizations on the basis of a pejorative stereo type. Nevertheless, controversy over the nature of cults, how cults ought to be studied, whether the term itself ought to be discarded, and what kinds of policies, if any, ought to be adopted toward religiously deviant groups by secular authorities, continues.
- Barker, (1989) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. HMSO, London.
- Bromley, G. & Melton, J. G. (2002) Cults, Religion, and Violence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Bromley, G. & Shupe, A. D. (1982) Strange Gods. Beacon Press, Boston.
- Dawson, L. (1998) Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Elwood, (1986) The Several Meanings of Cult. Thought 61: 212 24.
- Galanter, (1999) Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Melton, G. (1992) Encyclopedia Handbook of Cults in America. Garland, New York.
- Richardson, T. (1993) Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative. Review of Religious Research 34(4): 348 56.
- Saliba, A. (2003) Understanding New Religious Movements. Alta Mira Press,
- Walnut Creek, Zablocki, B. & Robbins, T. (Eds.) (2001) Misunder standing Cults. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
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