- Cult Group Controversies:
- Conceptualizing "Cult"
- Available on this page:
- I. Key Definitions
- CHURCH: a conventional religious organization
- SECT: a deviant religious organization with traditional
beliefs and practices.
- CULT: a deviant religious organization with novel
beliefs and practices. Stark and Bainbridge, 1987: 124
- Key concepts for the study of religious movements are examined
in my lecture Concepts of Our Inquiry. This lecture follows the
conceptual framework initially set forth by Rodney Stark and
William Sims Bainbridge in an article entitled "Of Churches,
Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious
Movements" which appeared in the Journal for the Scientific
Study of Religion in 1979 2
. These two authors further elaborated these concepts in subsequent
work. For additional readings that incorporate this conceptual
perspective, see: Melton (1986) 3
and Hexham and Poewe (1997) 4.
- II. The Concepts "Cult"
and "Sect" in Scholarly Research and Public Discourse
- The concept cult carries a heavy burden of cultural prejudice
in public discourse, and the concept sect is only a little less
pejorative. This is not something new, although the cry to abandon
the use of the concepts may be.
- So unpleasant is the popular meaning of the concept cult
that no group or member of that group accepts this designation
without protest. Similarly, few people feel unperturbed when
the religious organization with they are affiliated is identified
as a sect.
- Because there is such a gaping chasm between popular usage
and the language of social scientific inquiry, I offer here a
few words of explanation and rationale for why social scientists
should not succumb to the easy and politically correct decision
to vacate these concepts.
- First and foremost, these concepts have fairly precise meaning
and important utility for the construction of social science
theory. "Cults" and "sects," along with a
set of derivative concepts (e.g., audience cult, client cult,
cult movement, sect movement, etc.) carry clear meanings and
tell us a lot about the origins, development and likely futures
- To abandon the concepts "cult" and "sect,"
would likely result in an abdication of a good bit of the theoretical
insight these concepts have spawned. That popular culture usage
of these terms in inappropriate is not a reason to send science
back to the drawing board in search of new words to convey the
intellectual content of their theories. This, in my view, would
be very bad science.
- Forsaking or surrendering the use of perfectly good conceptual
tools to those who seek to discredit, or even destroy, the groups
these concepts define, is to allow scientific inquiry to be bludgeoned
by a conceptual Gresham's law.
- Social scientists do have a responsibility to communicate
clearly the meaning of their concepts. And, some social scientists
would argue, a responsibility to expose the agendas of those
who exhibit intolerance for religious pluralism
- During the 1970s, in the midst of the high visibility of
sects and cults as part of the youth counterculture, many social
scientists sought to desensitize the negative sentiments that
the concepts conjure in popular culture by substituting the concept
new religious movement (NRM).
- I applauded this effort. Simply on the face of it, "new
religious movements" appears to be a more value neutral
term. In this respect, thus, the concept seemingly has considerable
utility. I use the concept regularly as witnessed by the title
of my course and this web site.
- There are clearly proper occasions to use the concept "new
religious movement." It is an appropriate overarching concept
when discourse means to communicate information that would be
true of both cults and sects. It is not appropriate when we mean
to communicate explicit knowledge about either "cults"
or "sects." I think it is questionable whether it should
be used as a surrogate for "cult" simply because "cult"
is loaded with negative implications. Such usage, I would assert,
is not appropriate for publications that are written for scholarly
- As an analytical tool, new religoius movements has not proven
to be nearly as robust as the concepts cult and sect. Putting
aside for a moment the question of whether the concepts "cult
and "sect" are critical for the advancement of science,
I am not convinced, that "new religious movements"
achieves the goals that those who introduced it had in mind.
- It doesn't communicate profoundly important information that
is carried by the separate concepts.
- Its introduction invited a proliferation of additional concepts:
"new religions," "contemporary new religions,"
"novel religions," etc., without adding anything to
the conceptual clarity. The development of science is not served
when every scholar behaves as an entrepreneur with his or her
own preferred terms.
- The use of the concept "new religious movements"
in public discourse is problematic for the simple reason that
it has not gained currency. Speaking bluntly from personal experience,
when I use the concept "new religious movements," the
large majority of people I encounter don't know what I'm talking
about. I am invariably queried as to what I mean. And, at some
point in the course of my explanation, the inquirer unfailing
responds, "oh, you mean you study cults!"
- Occasionally, I feel my use of the concept NRM has provided
an opportunity to make a slight dent in the shield of prejudice
that blocks otherwise open and intelligent minds from understanding
the fascinating phenomena of cults and sects in human societies.
Most of the time, however, I feel that what I have done is substitute
a word that is not known for one that is and, thus, blocked an
opportunity for meaningful communication.
- In my own search for a method to create meaningful communication,
I have found that telling people I study "weird" religions
opens minds more readily than either the language of new religious
movements or cults and sects. When I use the word "weird,"
lots of different religious groups enter people's consciousness.
- Only occasionally do I get a puzzled look, or a probe to
ask me to explain what I mean. Rather, people come right back
with "oh, you mean like the [insert name]." To me,
it is significant that the groups people select, and the sentiments
they express often do not rouse the negative feelings that almost
invariable accompany the use of the concept cult.
- Employing this unconventional approach, often affords me
an opportunity to add a further comment or two rather than terminating
meaningful conversation. I try to speak to my teaching objectives.
- I tell them that I try to help students understand why
these groups are usually not so weird as they seem. It is understandable
that all religious traditions outside of one's own faith can
seem a little strange. If Moonies seem a little more peculiar
than Methodists, this is probably because we are more familiar
with the latter than the former.
- But, I say, there is an additional factor which clouds our
ability to understand many unfamiliar religious groups. I refer
to systematic propaganda disseminated by organizations who are
committed to making certain religious groups look bad.
- Understanding this phenomenon of "trashing" many
religious traditions is perhaps better understood in a broader
social context. Almost everyone, at some point in their life,
experiences difficult relations with other individuals and with
institutions with which they are affiliated. When this happens,
friendship are broken, marriages are dissolved, and ties to organizations
- Parting of ways can produce a considerable degree of acrimony,
but most people soon get over their unhappiness and get on with
their lives. But there are always a few who cope with their loss
by engaging in an ongoing battle with individuals or organizations
which with they were formerly affiliated.
- Much of the mischief of the popular meaning of the word "cult"
results from the organized efforts of disgruntled former members.
These anti-cultists are joined by parents who blame "cults"
for the decisions of their (usually) adult children to join groups
that did not meet with their approval.
- A therapeutic community has aligned itself with these persons,
allegedly for the noble cause of assisting "victims"
to get over the psychological damage inflicted upon them while
they were affiliated with a "cult." Some members of
this therapeutic community are credentialed, but many are merely
self proclaimed "cult experts."
- All of the so-called "cult experts" speak a language
that purports to be scientific, but there is very little empirical
evidence to support the large majority of their claims. But as
frequently happens in politics, evidence can be overwhelmed by
- For almost two decades, the claims that cults engage in "brainwashing,"
"mind control," "sinister manipulation,"
"creation of environments of totalism," etc. went virtually
unchallenged. During the 1990s, the tide has begun to change--at
least in the judicial system. In Califonia, a Federal District
Court disallowed expert testimony about mind control because
the content of the testimony was not grounded in scientific knowledge.
This had the impact of sharping curbing suits against new religions
that were brought by disgruntled former members at the encouragement
of the anti-cult movement.
- In another important legal case, a jury leveled a heavy financial
judgment against a leading anti-cult organization, forcing it
into bankruptcy. The anti-cultists are far from defeated as was
evidenced by their high visibility as "experts" in
the news coverage of the mass suicide of the members of the UFO
cult, Heaven's Gate.
- The contemporary anti-cult movement is a fairly recent phenomenon
and, as noted, it proclaims science and rational thought as the
foundation of its endeavors. The cause of the anti-cultists gains
great support from another organized effort against cults and
sects which can be identified as a counter-cult movement.
- Counter-cultists find legitimacy for their cause in the belief
that they alone exhibit fidelity to the faith. In the United
States, at least, the counter-cultists are members of Christian
sects. While they alone possess "true" or "correct"
belief, the minions of heresy seem to be everywhere. The counter-cultists'
cause is to reclaim the souls of those who have deserted the
true faith for some false belief.
- Interestingly, the counter-cultists are often harsher on
"waywardness" within their faith tradition than they
are of groups outside of their tradition. For example, one counter-cult
web site that I recently reviewed devoted twenty-one pages a
critique of the "Promise Keepers," a sectarian parachurch
movement created by former University of Colorado football coach,
Bill McCarthy. By contrast, Eckankar, a non-Christian and thoroughly
controversial cult of the 1970s, received a scant two pages.
- The counter-cultists and anti-cultists speak to different
audiences. The counter-cultist aim their message at conservative
Christian groups. They are prolific producers of books and pamphlets,
as well as audio and video tapes from Christian radio and television.
Most Christian book stores have a special section of cult literature.
Some of the counter-cult groups focus their attention on a specific
- The Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists,
for example, are groups frequently singled out for attention.
These ministries define their role as (a) support for persons
who have left the errant group, and (b) getting others within
the erring tradition to return to the true faith.
- The anti-cultists are prone to define all "cults"
(which in their vocabulary includes both cults and sects) as
dangerous. While providing therapeutic support for ex-members,
their broader goal is to reach the public about the dangers of
cults. The mass media is their preferred mode of communication.
Many of them are skilled communicators and they are often permitted
to present their views virtually unchallenged to large television
- If scholars abandon the use of the concepts cult and sect,
they capitulate to the anti-cultists and counter-cultists. They
would also effectively be abdicating the theoretical ideas that
these concepts have spawned.
- I do not believe that any social scientist qua social
scientist has a duty to defend the rights of cults and sects
against their adversaries. The only duty of the social scientist
qua social scientist is to strive for objectivity which
will hopefully lead to insight and understanding about the subject
of his or her inquiry.
- Some social scientists may claim a duty to defend
cults and sects because they believe that the First Amendment
of the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees the
right to establish and practice religion, should not be abridged.
I unapologetically count myself in that number. But defense of
religious liberty is no less for the established denominations.
- So long as cults and sects do not act in ways that demonstrably
diminish the rights of other citizens, they are entitled to the
full protection of the Constitution to believe and practice as
- Anti-cultists argue that "cults" do diminish the
rights of those who enter their orbit and, further, they often
use inappropriate techniques to draw people in. Most social scientists
would not quarrel with the proposition that many religious movements
use techniques of influence both to recruit and retain members.
- What we do dispute is the idea that these techniques of influence
are any different than the methods of influence that are widely
used in ever sector of human society. However personally deplorable
I may find advertising to entice people to by lottery tickets,
it is not illegal.
- Social scientists also dispute the proposition that individuals
are helpless to break free of this influence without intervention.
We have an abundance of empirical knowledge which demonstrates
that the average person who joins a cult remains only a short
while. People enter unconventional religious groups of their
own volition, and when the group ceases to serve the purpose
that initially attracted them to the group, they leave.
- Many, if not most, students who come to my course assume
the validity of the propaganda of the anti-cultists. Some come
from evangelical Christian traditions where they learned views
consistent with the views of counter-cultists. In the course
of a term, I present them with the evidence as I understand it.
Cult and sect formation are a normal part of religious life.
So, also, is the response of the host culture to these new groups.
This response is also fodder for our investigation.
- I understand that people visit this site for a whole variety
of reasons. The average person, most likely, has some limited
objective. This site is being developed as a resource which will
help people fulfill many different objectives. But this site
is also being created as a resource to assist people in better
understanding the so-call "cult controversies."
- My class lecture notes, along with selected readings, offer
a systematic examination of a large number of questions that
can help one better understand why "cults" are so controversial.
How are cults and sects different? How do they form and develop?
How central is the role of charismatic leader? Who joins and
why? Is conversion a useful concept, or might we be better served
by other concepts? What factors contribute to enhanced commitment
or gradual disengagement? When and why do people leave? Why does
the death of a founding leader result in a crisis of succession,
and how is this usually resolved? Why are cults controversial,
and what is the pathway that eventually leads some of them into
the mainstream of society?
- My notes are often abbreviated and truncated. Eventually
they will be expanded so that they can stand alone without the
benefit of the extemporaneous elaborations in the class room.
I initially put the notes up for the benefit of students in my
classes who seemed compelled to try and write down every word
that appeared in my Power Point lectures. I subsequently determined
to make the notes available to anyone on the Internet rather
than wait until the notes were "polished."
- The assigned readings that go with each lecture are critical
to a comprehensive understanding of the argument I set forth
in the course. There is a consistency in the use of key concepts
in my lectures and the core readings. Naturally, this consistency
breaks down when one utilizes the hundreds of hyperlinks available
from this site.
- In addition, I offer a selection of supplemental recommended
readings. Everything assigned to my students, and most of the
recommended materials, can be found in most college and university
libraries. I hope eventually to be able to make these reading
available on line to, but copyright and fair use prohibit doing
- One factor that frequently differentiates cults and sects
from the established religious traditions of a culture is the
belief of the latter that they are in possession of the truth,
or at the very least, unique truths that other traditions to
not have or have not accepted.
- What is being created on this web site is not the truth
or enlightenment as religious movements would understand
these concepts. Rather, I seek to present a way for gaining
insight about many questions relating to the growth and development
of religious organizations and religious beliefs that may not
readily be accessible from other perspectives. I try to do so
with an open mind to all perspectives including the anti-cultists
- My hope is this page will provide a model which will help
realize the enormous potential of the Internet for learning.
- III. REFERENCES
- 1. Stark, Rodney, and William
Sims Bainbridge, 1987.
- A Theory of Religion . New York: Peter Land. [Reprinted,
1996 by Rutgers University Press]
- 2. Stark, Rodney, and Williams
Sims Bainbridge, 1979.
- "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts
for a Theory of Religious Movement." Journal for the
Scientific Study of Religion. 18:2; 117-131.
- 3. Melton, J. Gordon, 1986.
- Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America . New York:
Garland Publishing. pp. 3-20.
- 4. Hexham, Irvine, and
Karla Poewe, 1997.
- New Religions as Global Cultures . Boulder, CO: Westview
Press. pp. 27-40.
- 5. Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge, 1985.
- The Future of Religion . Berkeley: University of California