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.


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