Religious Cults

It is interesting to note, especially for the consequences within the fields of the social sciences in general and of sociology in particular, that the term cult shares the same Latin root as the term culture: the recognition of man’s dependence upon the divine, which he expresses in acts of adoration, supplication, and thanksgiving, forms, develops, and is an expression of different social and cultural contexts. It is precisely the different cultures that create and give meaning to the various ways of structuring the time and space of the cult, hence establishing which cult actions are most appropriate, which times are most opportune to celebrate the feasts, and which significant places to erect temples. The expression of the cult therefore depends upon the conception of man and the deity typical of each social and cultural system; the mutual dependence and penetration of a cult and culture not only allows for mutation of the cult in correspondence of the different historical moments, but also highlights how the expressive forms of a given culture, both at a semantic and symbolic level, give the essential frame of reference to elaborate the cult’s actions. In this way a circular process is created, on one hand linking the cult to the expressive forms of a concrete social and cultural context, and on the other underlining how the different forms of a cult influence the development of the social and political life of society.

The semantic passage from religious cult to religious cults testifies to just such a deep bond between religion and the evolution of a social and cultural context in which it is inserted. The expression religious cults tries to describe certain aspects of contemporary beliefs, characterized  by the  relative  loss  of influence of traditional religious institutions, which according to Michel (1994) lose the monopoly of meaning, and by the progressive liberty of the subject in building his own itineraries of meaning in a syncretic manner, according to the logic of the bricolage.

The Cult in the Social Sciences

The notion of cult has always been at the center of scientific studies of religion, both in an anthropologic and ethnographic setting, as even within sociology its use has often been the source of disputes, especially regarding its relationship, and at times its opposition, to the concept of rites. For some exponents of the historical cultural school, such as Robert Will and Sigmund Olaf  Plytt  Mowinckel, the cult represents the clearest manifestation of the religious experience, and as opposed to the magical experience that results in rites: if religion manifests man’s acceptance of a radical dependence on the divine, magic is man’s attempt to control and dominate superhuman forces. Gerardus Van der Leeuw, from a phenomenological point of view, goes beyond the opposition cult religion and rite magic, introducing an equilibrium, represented by the cult, between the human dimension and that of the divine. With Adolf Jensen the superimposition and the identification of the two terms can be seen: the cult and the rite coincide in ritual actions, which are defined as the renovation of a myth of foundation through the experience of being taken by the primordial strength that gives the basis of existence to human culture.

For Durkheim (1965), the cult represented the traditions and the social conditions of a community: the subject of the cult is always the community, and therefore not the individual who finds in the cult the concrete manifestation of his aspirations and religious intentions. Durkheim defines the cult as a system of rites, and differentiates it from the latter because, on top of being a collective experience, it is systematic and stable, while the rite can be individualistic and sporadic, not bound to periodic events of life, such as birth, marriage, or death. According to Durkheim, the peculiarity of religious phenomena resides, other than in their explicit or implicit obligatory aspect, in relation to particular representations that make reference to the sacred, which are nothing more than an allegory of society itself: it is the social world that reproduces the actual symbols, imposing them upon the individual conscience through actions of the cult, which unify the strength of religious beliefs, especially reviving social structures, strengthening the social bond between its members.

The notion of the cult, in anthropology as much as in ethnology and sociology, is strictly connected to the concept of symbol and of belief. According to the intellectualism of E. B. Tylor, magical and religious beliefs are theories which, introducing explanations based on supernatural elements, overcome the limits of empirical explanations offered by observation and common sense. From this perspective, religious beliefs are the intellectual activities that do not differ from man’s other intellectual activities within the sciences; if there is a difference, this consists not in the content, but in the attitude towards the theories: while the scientist is open to criticism in the matters of scientific theories, since he is conscious of the possibility of alter native theories, the religious person is instead closed to every type of criticism, because every questioning of the established beliefs is perceived as an error, as a risk of chaos and of sin. The cult is therefore reduced, according to an intellectualistic approach, to a simple instrumental activity without proper value.

In Durkheim’s symbolistic approach, religious belief and the cult are not simply theoretic constructions of natural and abstract reason that remain the same through time, then becoming modified only from the quantity and quality of data made available to it: for this school of thought, the general idea and the religious idea in particular are social facts that have social motivations, and therefore are historically determined. Therefore, religious beliefs and the actions of the cult receive their strength and legitimation from their social function: they are constructed by society itself because they are socially shared. Religious beliefs are ultimately a symbol of society, and the power of such symbolic acts that become tangible in the cult is the strength of the society itself, which shares and imposes them on successive generations.

Weber’s (1963) contribution goes beyond Durkheim’s symbolistic approach, too rigidly sociocentric, to give space, together with social meaning of religious beliefs and of the cult, even for individual interpretation of the subject, who for its own nature is hard to codify and cannot be reduced in an exclusive way to the logic of a functioning society. According to Weber, religious phenomena even have origins in the attempt, on the part of man, to give meaning to life’s tragic events, such as illness, pain, and death. Therefore, the cult and its creed also have the function of controlling and rendering bear able the anxiety that arises in suffering and unexplainable occurrences.

The two attitudes, of Durkeim and Weber, far from being contradictory, show two useful perspectives on interpreting religious beliefs and the cult: these are the fruit of a dynamic that reciprocally integrates both collective and individual meanings. Religion therefore cannot be reduced to an exclusively obligatory and coercive dimension. According to Valeri (1996), it is above all a system of communication, a place where individual  interpretations  and social structure meet, and it is exactly this communicative role of religion that finds substance mainly in the practices of the cult. The cult can also be thought of in terms of communication between men, the social structure, and the sacred entity. Only within the cult can the relationship between men and the gods become a true relationship, restrained by rules and by most juridical norms, resulting in transformations that are verifiable either on the material or spiritual level. In order to exist the gods need man’s continual participation in the cult, so much so that without the cult the gods become insignificant and die. On the other hand, if they are the objects of the cult, the gods are capable of rewarding those who worship them with devotion. Prayer, sacrifice, divination, possession -all make up a complex circulation of messages that constitute a complex communicative structure, which, in the specific space of Jewish and Christian traditions, is the liturgy.

Elements of the Cult

The history of religions, and in particular ethnology and phenomenology, have revealed the multiple forms of the cult where the diverse religious experiences become tangible, high lighting both specific characteristics and common aspects. The religious man, to whichever culture he may belong, chooses precise places and times to enter in relationship with the divine world as well as people and objects that seem particularly suitable for expressing his religiousness with; he separates them from the daily aspects and from the profanity of life to give them a symbolic value, which is fully expressed in cult and ritual forms.

Both time and space, meaning the feasts and the temples, as well as the people who preside over the cult, become symbolically transfigured once they enter into the religious sphere: such change depends on the fundamental distinction between the sacred and the profane. Durkheim and the French sociology school are credited with the definition of religion based on the division/opposition between the sacred and the profane. Such a dichotomy goes beyond to prove the characteristic absoluteness of the sacred and its complete independence from other types of phenomena, thus reintroducing the distinction between the individual and society. The sacred is in fact a collective representation that classifies and orders the material world not based on natural elements, but on social and cultural conventions. Starting exactly from this dichotomy leads to understanding the various aspects that constitute the cult: temples, feasts, prayers, ministers of the cult, and the rites.

The temple is a privileged place, even if it is not exclusive, where the divine manifests itself; it is a sacred space, separated from profane space, where the cult celebrates. These special areas or religious structures are separate from ordinary space with barriers which can be physical, ritual, or psychological. Sacred enclosures – synagogues, mosques, churches, temples -manifest a discontinuation of space. The same distinction between the sacred and the profane structures time as well, creating the feasts. The religious interpretation of time that is expressed in cultural forms moreover determines the direction and attitude of the believers regarding the meaning of existence. Time can be conceived in a linear way, as a succession of equal instants, or it can be conceived as a progression. Some religions believe time to be circular and therefore static, while other religions perceive it as a degenerative process. The emphasis in the distinction between relativity of historical time and absoluteness of eternal time also differentiates the religious concept of time from the non religious one. The social distinction between sacred and profane defines the role and functions of the people who can get in contact with the sacred universe. Ministers, according to Weber’s indications, are only one of the sacred figures that are appointed for a magical sacred function; specialists legitimized to perform the acts of cult and with a mediating role between gods and men. The role of ministers, however, is not enclosed inside the religious sphere but, as Douglas (1986) observed, also has a noteworthy relevance in the public scene, since it operates as guarantor of stability in social institutions.

From Cult to Cults

In recent years it is possible to record a shift from the term cult to cults. Such grammatical passage from singular to plural is the sign of how, in the last few decades, the religious dimension is changing deeply and, at times, in a contradictory manner. On one hand, the secularization process, which many thought to be inevitable and irreversible, was supposed to bring forth a progressive irrelevance of religion. On the other hand, the dynamicity of certain religious movements calls for a return of the sacred, although in a very different way if compared with traditional society. The various characteristics of traditional cult, as synthetically described in the previous paragraphs, are creatively reinterpreted and often liberally reinvented.

Weber’s renowned thesis, which speaks of society’s disenchantment followed by its reenchantment with religion, is utilized by various authors, such as Peter L. Berger and Niklas Luhmann. For them, religion in contemporary society, far from disappearing, has instead taken on new roles and is fulfilling new functions. It is an evolution which leads the faithful not to refer exclusively to traditional religions, to their coded and immutable heritage of beliefs and symbols, but to undertake a quest founded on the individual’s freedom of choice. This transition is defined by Thomas Luckmann in terms of moving from religion to religiousness, while other authors such as Wuthnow (1998), Roof (1999), and Flory and Miller (2000) prefer to use the dichotomy of religion-spirituality. Such a transition of legitimation of religious beliefs from the institution to the individual brings with it changes even on an organizational level. Traditional churches are overcome by small groups, whose variety mirrors the extreme diversity which characterizes religious phenomena in the contemporary era, putting together apocalyptic   tensions   with   mysticism and spiritualism, or occultism with theosophy and new age.

As Terrin (2001) has observed, starting from World War II, and with a particular acceleration at the beginning of the 1960s, there is a progressive process of religious destructuralization, which led the great traditional religions to lessen their hold over the symbolic boundaries of their belief systems and in the end to the birth of new religions. Such increased circulation of religious symbols, outside their traditional con texts, created a market – a very differentiated market of requests and offers of religious goods. In this context, on the one hand, new figures of religious entrepreneurs arise, such as founders of new cults, spiritual gurus, charismatic leaders, and television evangelists. On the other hand, a new kind of follower was born, who, freed from the control of traditional institutions, constructs his own system of belief, according to the syncretistic logic of bricolage.

The new forms of religiousness that have developed in the western world in the last few decades, among which even new cults are found, give evidence of a deep coherence with the typical features of postmodernity. Individualism and pragmatism become the backbone, which guides the way one believes and belongs to a group. This brings forth a great variety in the kinds of adhesion, a personalization of beliefs which are chosen according to their efficacy, an acceptance of belonging to several groups which answer to the need of authenticity, and to the predominance of experience above the objective truth that one is obliged to believe. Immediate needs, arising from perceptions of one’s emotions, together with a pluralist and tolerant vision of beliefs, are the testing field for today’s various religious options, be they traditional or modern.

The term cults, which usually has a marked negative connotation, is utilized in sociology to designate some of the new religious movements, which embody the characteristics described above. For Robert Wallis, cults are distinguished from other religious organizations by their epistemological orientation and by their more or less difficult relationship with the social contexts in which they are found. While traditional churches and sects ascribe to themselves the exclusive truth of their beliefs, cults are characterized by an epistemological individualism, which is perfectly in tune with the tolerant pluralism of postmodernity. Hence, followers can exercise freedom of conscience in adhering to (or not) the moral and doctrinal contents, and they consider such freedom as legitimate even for the followers of other religious movements. Both cults and sects find themselves in a controversial tension with society, but while sects demand an exclusive faithfulness and exercise a certain amount of control over their members, cults do not request such exclusiveness, and their tension with their surroundings can be seen mainly as alternative therapeutic practices.

Even Stark and Bainbridge (1985) have distinguished between sects and cults on the basis of the fact that the social organization of the latter is very weak and in some cases completely absent. Further, while sects are born from opposition to, and a break with, the traditional church, cults do not have origins in this contraposition. And, from the beginning, cults are independent of any reference or bond with the ecclesiastic world. This total freedom and independence from any reference to the traditional religious   organization   even   raised doubts about whether cults could be considered proper religious communities. Stark and Bainbridge describe some cults that never organized according to any model of a formal group. One such example is the ”audience cult,” whose members are connected to each other and with the spiritual guide through the media alone.

Reference to the concept of religious cults within the sociology of religion, however, has not yet found a consensus which would allow an appropriate and agreed upon use. It describes phenomena ranging from forms of paganism to druidism, from Wicca to a variety of movements which put together psychosomatic therapeutic practices with techniques that enhance personal potential. As Pace (2001) has noted, all these movements of renewal and religious revival, sometimes labeled as cults and at other times as new religious movements, strongly solicit the traditional institutions of beliefs, which no longer seem to be able to control the continuity and coherence of their belief systems. It will be the task of the social sciences to find the conceptual instruments able to describe both theoretically and empirically the new situation of contemporary beliefs and, therefore, to offer a more refined and precise definition of the concept of religious cults.


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