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This article does not discuss "cult" in its original sense of "religious practice"; for that usage see Cult (religion). See Cult (disambiguation) for more meanings of the term "cult".

In religion and sociology, a cult is a cohesive group of people (often a relatively small and new religious movement) devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be far outside the mainstream. Its marginal status may come about either due to its novel belief system or because of its idiosyncratic practices.

In common usage, "cult" has a negative connotation, and is generally applied to a group by its opponents, for a variety of possible reasons.


Definitions of "cult"

In English-speaking countries since about the 1960s, especially in North America, the term cult has taken on a pejorative and sometimes offensive connotation. This largely originated with highly publicized cults which purportedly exploited their members psychologically and financially, or which allegedly utilized group-based persuasion and conversion techniques. These techniques may include "brainwashing", "thought reform", "love bombing", and "mind control", whose scientific validity, modern and historical use, and effectiveness (for religious conversion) are discussed within the linked articles.

Understandably, most groups, if not all that are called "cults" deny this label. Some groups called "cults" by some critics may consider themselves not to be "cults", but may consider some other groups to be "cults".

The literal and traditional meanings of the word cult is derived from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration", as "a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same"32. In English, it remains neutral to refer to the "cult of Artemis at Ephesus" and the "cult figures" that accompanied it, or to "the importance of the Ave Maria in the cult of the Virgin." This usage is more fully explored in the entry Cult (religion).

In non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word "cult" are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a case where English speakers might use the word "sect", as in "Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are sects (or denominations) within Christianity". In French or Spanish, culte or culto simply means "worship" or "religious attendance"; thus an association cultuelle is an association whose goal is to organize religious worship and practices.

The word for "cult" in the popular English meaning is secte (French) or secta (Spanish). In German the usual word used for the english cult is Sekte, which also has other definitions. A similar case is the Russian word sekta.

Definition of "cult" in dictionaries

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary lists five different meanings of the word "cult"32. This article quotes the 3rd definition:

  1. a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents

Similarly, the Random House dictionary's 3rd and 4th definitions are:

  1. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist
  2. the members of such a religion or sect

Definition by the Christian countercult movement

Walter Martin, the pioneer of the Christian countercult movement gave in his 1955 book the following definition of a cult:

"By cultism we mean the adherence to doctrines which are pointedly contradictory to orthodox Christianity and which yet claim the distinction of either tracing their origin to orthodox sources or of being in essential harmony with those sources. Cultism, in short, is any major deviation from orthodox Christianity relative to the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith."

Robert Bowman defines cult as

"A religious group originating as a heretical sect and maintaining fervent commitment to heresy. Adj.: "cultic" (may be used with reference to tendencies as well as full cult status)." 33

See also:

Definition by secular cult opposition

Secular cult opponents define a "cult" as a religious or non-religious group which tends to manipulate, exploit and control its members. Here two definitions by Michael Langone and Louis Jolyon West, scholars who are widely recognized among the secular cult opposition:

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.1
"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 judgement, 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." 8

Points of view regarding definitions

According to Professor Timothy Miller from the University of Kansas, in his 2003 Religious Movements in the United States, during the controversies over the new religious movements in the 1960s, the term “cult” came to mean something sinister, generally used to describe a movement that was at least potentially destructive to its members or to society, or that took advantage of its members and engaged in unethical practices. But he argues that no one yet has been able to define “cult” in a way that enables the term to identify only problematic groups.

Miller asserts that “cults” are usually defined by anticultists by a list of attributes they possess (see cult checklist), but that such attributes are perfectly capable of belonging to groups that few would consider “cultic”, such as Catholic religious orders or many evangelical Protestant churches. Miller further argues that if the term does not enable the distiction between a pathological group and a legitimate one, then it has no value and it is in fact the religious equivalent of “nigger”, it conveys disdain and prejudice without having any valuable content.31

Due to the usually pejorative connotation of the word "cult", new religious movements (NRMs) and other purported cults often find the word highly offensive. Some purported cults have been known to insist that other similar groups are cults but that they themselves are not. On the other hand, some skeptics have questioned the distinction between a cult and a mainstream religion. They say that the only difference between a cult and a religion is that the latter is older and has more followers and, therefore, seems less controversial because society has become used to it. See also anti-cult movement and Opposition to cults and new religious movements.

Unification Church member Lloyd Eby calls the third definition of Merriam-Webster problematic, because:

"...then we must ask: regarded as spurious or unorthodox by whom? 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.... This definition is entirely subjective: it means that if you think a religion is unorthodox, then you will call it a cult."28

Cult, NRM and the sociology and psychology of religion

The problem with defining the word cult is that (1) purported cult members generally resist being called a cult, and (2) the word cult is often used to marginalize religious groups with which one does not agree or sympathize. Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as new religious movement (NRM) in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because some religious movements are "new" but not necessarily cults, and some purported cults are not religious or overtly religious. Furthermore, some religious groups commonly regarded as cults are in fact no longer "new"; for instance, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been around for over 100 years in the USA; Scientology is over 50 years old; and the Hare Krishna came out of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a religious tradition that is about 500 years old.

Where a cult practices physical or mental abuse, some psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. The popular press also commonly uses these terms. However, not all cults function abusively or destructively, and among those that psychologists believe are abusive, few members would agree that they suffer abuse. Other researchers like David V. Barrett hold the view that classifying a religious movement as a cult is generally used as a subjective and negative label and has no added value; instead, he argues that one should investigate the beliefs and practices of the religious movement.9

Some psychologists who specialised in group psychology have studied what cognitive and emotional traits make people join a cult and to stay loyal to it. For example, see an analysis in the Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology [1].

Some groups, particularly those labeled by others as cults, view the "cult" designation as insensitive and feel persecuted by their opponents. They often believe their opponents to be part of the anti-cult movement.

Such groups often defend their position by comparing themselves to more established, mainstream religious groups such as Catholicism and Judaism. The argument offered can usually be simplified as, "except for size and age, Christianity and Judaism meet all the criteria for a cult, and therefore the term cult simply means small, young religion."

According to the Dutch religious scholar Wouter Hanegraaff, another problem with writing about cults comes about because they generally hold belief systems that give answers to questions about the meaning of life and morality. This makes it difficult not to write in biased terms about a certain cult, because writers are rarely neutral about these questions. In an attempt to deal with this difficulty, some writers who deal with the subject choose to explicitly state their ethical values and belief systems.

For many scholars and professional commentators, the usage of the word "cult" applies to maleficent or abusive behavior, and not to a belief system. For members of competing religions, use of the word remains pejorative and applies primarily to rival beliefs (see memes), and only incidentally to behavior. It should be noted that there is no clear causal connection between extremist belief and the formation of a so-called destructive cult. Most far-right hate groups are not cults, although they have pathological ideas and are frequently violent. Some groups regarded as cults have quite benign belief systems--the devil is in the details of how the members relate to the cult's founder and inner circle.

In the sociology of religion, the term cult is a part of the subdivision of religious groups into sects, cults, denominations and ecclesias. The sociologists Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge define in their book "Theory of Religion" and subsequent works cults as "deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices", that is as new religious movements that unlike sects have not separated from another religious organization. Cults, in this sense, may or may not be dangerous, abusive, etc. By this definition, most of the groups which have been popularly labeled cults are indeed cults.

Methodological issues and challenges

The field of cults and new religious movements is studied by sociologists, religious scholars, psychologists and psychiatrists. The debates about purported cults are often polarized with widely divergent opinions, not only among current followers of and disaffected former members, but also among scholars and social scientists.

Scholars that challenge the validity of critical former members' testimonies as the basis for studying a religious group include David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, Brian R. Wilson, and Lonnie Kliever. Bromley and Shupe, who studied the social influences on these testimonies asserts that the apostate in his current role is likely to present a caricature of his former group and that the stories of critical ex-members who defect from groups that are subversive (defined as groups with few allies and many opponents) tend to have the form of "captivity narratives" (i.e. the narratives depict the stay in the group as involuntary). Wilson introduces 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. 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. Kliever, when asked by the Church of Scientology to give his opinion on the reliability of apostate accounts of their former religious beliefs and practices, writes that these dedicated opponents present a distorted view of the new religions and cannot be regarded as reliable informants by responsible journalists, scholars, or jurists. He claims that the reason for the lack of reliability of apostates is due to the traumatic nature of disaffiliation that he compares to a divorce and also due the influence of the anti-cult movement even on those apostates who were not deprogrammed or received exit counseling. Scholars who tend to side more with critical former members include David C. Lane, Louis Jolyon West, Margaret Singer, Stephen A. Kent, Benjamin Beith-Hallahmi and Benjamin Zablocki. The latter performed an empirical study that showed that the reliability of former members is equal to that of stayers in one particular group. Philip Lucas found the same empirical results.

According to Lewis F. Carter, the reliability and validity of the testimonies of believers are influenced by the tendency to justify affiliation with the group and the testimonies of former members and apostates are influenced by a variety of factors.21 Besides, the interpretative frame of members tends to change strongly upon conversion and disaffection and hence may strongly influence their narratives. Carter affirms that the degree of knowledge of different (ex-)members about their (former) group is highly diverse, especially in hierarchically organized groups. Using his experience at Rajneeshpuram (the intentional community of the followers of Rajneesh) as an example, he claims that the social influence exerted by the group may influence the accounts of ethnographers and of participant observers21. He proposes a method he calls triangulation as the best method to study groups, by utilizing three accounts: these of believers, apostates and ethnographers. Carter asserts that this is difficult to put into practice 21. Daniel Carson Johnson22 wrote that even this method rarely succeeds in making assertions with certitude.21

James Richardson writes that there is a large number of groups and a tendency among scholars to make unjustified generalizations about them based on a select sample of observations life in cults or the testimonies of (ex-)members. According to Richardson this tendency is responsible for the widely divergent opinions about cults among scholars and social scientists.24

Eileen Barker (2001) wrote that critical former members of cults complain that academic observers only notice what the leadership wants them to see.23

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

Christianity and Cults

Since at least the 1940s, the approach of orthodox or conservative or fundamentalist Christians was to apply the meaning of cult such that it included those religious groups who used (possibly exclusively) non-standard translations of the Bible, put additional revelation on a similar or higher level than the Bible or had practices deviant from those of traditional Christianity. Some examples of sources (with published dates where known) that documented this approach are:

  • Heresies and Cults, by J.Oswald Sanders, pub.1948.
  • Cults and Isms, by J.Oswald Sanders, pub.1962, 1969, 1980 (Arrowsmith), ISBN 0 551 00458 4.
  • Chaos of the Cults, by J.K.van Baalen.
  • Heresies Exposed, by W.C.Irvine.
  • Confusion of Tongues, by C.W.Ferguson.
  • Isms New and Old, by Julius Bodensieck.
  • Some Latter-Day Religions, by G.H.Combs.

In contrast of this, some people consider fundamentalism a cult in itself.

Cults and terrorism

The terrorist waves due to Islamic extremist organizations starting with the 1995 Islamist terror bombings in France and Al-Qaeda's acts of terrorism, have resulted in the comparison of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to the ancient Hassan-i-Sabah cult.

The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, by members of Aum Shinrikyo has also raised awareness on the danger of groups that adopt extreme views commonly associated with destructive cults.

Theories about the reasons for joining a cult

Michael Langone gives three different models regarding joining a cult 30:

"The definitional ambiguity surrounding the term cult has fueled much controversy regarding why people join cults and other unorthodox groups. Three apparently conflicting models attempt to account for conversion to unorthodox groups. The deliberative model, favored by most sociologists and religious scholars, says that people join because of what they think about the group. The psychodynamic model, favored by many mental health professionals with little direct experience with cultists, says that people join because of what the group does for them-namely, fulfill unconscious psychological needs. The thought reform model, favored by many mental health professionals who have worked with large numbers of cultists, says that people join because of what the group does to them- that is, because of a systematic program of psychological manipulation that exploits, rather than fulfills, needs."

According to Gallanter11, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest.

Jeffrey Hadden summarizes a lecture named "Why Do People Join NRMs?" (a lecture in a series related to the sociology of new religious movements12) as follows:

  1. Belonging to groups is a natural human activity;
  2. People belong to religious groups for essentially the same reasons they belong to other groups;
  3. Conversion is generally understood as an emotionally charged experience that leads to a dramatic reorganization of the convert's life;
  4. Conversion varies enormously in terms of the intensity of the experience and the degree to which it actually alters the life of the convert;
  5. Conversion is one, but not the only reason people join religious groups;
  6. Social scientists have offered a number of theories to explain why people join religious groups;
  7. Most of these explanations could apply equally well to explain why people join lots of other kinds of groups;
  8. No one theory can explain all joinings or conversions;
  9. What all of these theories have in common (deprivation theory excluded) is the view that joining or converting is a natural process.

Stark and Bainbridge have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion. They suggest, instead, that the concept of affiliation is a more useful concept for understanding how people join religious groups.13

Cult leadership

According to Dr. Eileen Barker, new religions are in most cases started by charismatic leaders whom she considers unpredictable. According to Mikael Rothstein, there is in many cases no access to plain facts both about historical religious leaders and contemporary ones, though there is an abundance of legends, myths, and theological elaborations. According to Rothstein most members of any new religious movement have little chance of a personal meeting with the Master (leader) except as a member of big audience when the Master is present on stage.

See also Role of charismatic figures in the development of religions

Development of cults

Cults based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma, as described by the German sociologist Max Weber. The death of the founder may lead to a succession crisis.

Relationships with the outside world

Barer wrote that peripheral members may help to lessen the tension that exists between some groups and the outside world. 27

In the case where members live in intentional communities, custody disputes (if one parent leaves and one stays) may be a source of confrontation between the cult and the outside world.

Cults: genuine concerns and exaggerations

The stigma surrounding the classification of a group as a cult stems from the purported ill effect the group's influence has on its members. The narratives of ill effect include threats presented by a cult to its members (whether real or perceived), and risks to the physical safety of its members and to their mental and spiritual growth. Much of the actions taken against cults and alleged cults have been in reaction to the harm experienced by some members due to their affiliation with the groups in question. Members of alleged cult groups have taken pains to emphasize that not all groups called cults are dangerous. Over a period of time, some minority religious organizations that were at one point in time considered cults have been accepted by mainstream society, such as Mormonism, the Amish, and Christian Science in the USA, though the last is faced with renewed opposition lately.

Image:Jim Jones brochure of Peoples Temple.jpg

Certain cults, such as Heaven's Gate, Ordre du Temple Solaire, Aum Shinrikyo, and the Peoples Temple have demonstrated by their actions that they do pose a threat to the well-being of both their own members and to society in general; these organizations are often referred to as doomsday cults by the media, and their mass suicides and mass murders are well-documented. According to John R. Hall, a professor in sociology at the University of California-Davis and Philip Schuyler, the Peoples Temple is still seen by some as the cultus classicus25,26, though it did not belong to the set of groups that triggered the cult controversy in United States in the 1970s. Its mass suicide on November 18, 1978 led to increased concern about cults. Other groups include the Colonia Dignidad cult (a German group settled in Chile) that served as a torture center for the Chilean government during the Pinochet dictatorship.

Certain other groups, while not universally condemned, remain suspect in the minds of the general public, such as Scientology and to a lesser extent the Unification Church and the Children of God. A problem in studying such high-profile groups is to distinguish between a group's public image (which may have become fixed decades earlier) and the group's actual practices in the here and now. This is especially important when one is studying a group whose founder has died or which has splintered, or a group with foreign origins that is gradually integrating itself into another culture.

It is worth noting that despite the emphasis on narratives of "doomsday cults" by the media and the anti-cult movement, the number of cults known to have fallen into that category is approximately ten, which is very few when compared with the total number of new religious movements (including cults that are psychologically destructive but not extremely violent or doomsday-oriented), which E. Barker estimates to be in the tens of thousands.10

According to Benjamin Zablocki, the professor in Sociology at Rutgers University, 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 demanding total commitment.17

There is no reliable, generally accepted way to determine which groups will harm their members. In an attempt to predict the probability of harm, popular but non-scientific cult checklists have been created by anti-cultists for this purpose.

According to Barrett the most common accusation made against alleged "cults" is sexual abuse. See some allegations made by former members.

According to Kranenborg, some groups, like Christian Science and Jehovah's Witnesses are risky when they advise their members not to use regular medical care.15

Barker, Barrett, and the anti-cult activist Steven Hassan all advise seeking information from various sources about a certain group before getting deeply involved, though these sources differ in the urgency they suggest.

Stigmatization and discrimination

Some feel that the terms "cult" and "cult leader" are used pejoratively by opponents of cults, asserting that they are to be avoided to prevent harm. A website affiliated with Adi Da Samraj [2] sees the activities of cult opponents as the exercise of prejudice and discrimination against them, and regards the use of the words "cult" and "cult leader" as similar to the manner in which "nigger" and "commie" were used in the past to denigrate blacks and Communists.

In an essay by Amy Ryan20, the argument is made for the need to differentiate those groups which may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan refers to New Religious Movements: Some Problems of Definition, were George Chryssides identifies two types of definitions: opponents define them in terms of negative characteristics, while scholars attempt to study these groups and be value free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. Chryssides cites a need to develop more appropriate definitions to and allow for common ground in the debate. These definitions have political and ethical impact beyond just scholarly debate. In Defining Religion in American Law, for example, 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."34

Also several authors in the cult opposition are not happy with the word cult. Some definitions used imply that there is a continuum with a large gray area separating "cult" from "noncult". 34 Others authors, e.g. Steven Hassan differentiate by using terms like Destructive cult or Cult (totalitarian type) vs. benign cult.

Leaving a cult

There are basically three ways people leave a cult 18,37

The majority of authors agree that there are some people who experience problems after leaving a cult. There are, though, disagreements regarding the frequency of such problems and regarding the cause.

According to Barker (1989), the biggest worry about possible harm concerns the relatively few dedicated followers of a new religious movement (NRM). Barker also mentions that some former members may not take new initatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, or short-lived, or peripheral supporters of a NRM. Membership in a cult usually does not last forever: 90% or more of cult members ultimately leave their group2,4.

According to Carol Giambalvo, most people leaving a cult do have to a certain degree psychological problems like feelings of guilt or shame, depression, feeling of inadequacy, or fear, independent of their manner of leaving the cult. Feelings of guilt, shame or anger are by her observation worst with castaways, but walkaways can also have serious problems with feeling inadequate or guilty. People who had interventions or a rehabilitation therapy do have similar problems but are usually better prepared to deal with them.37

Bromley and Hadden say that there is lack of empirical support for alleged consequences of having been a member of a cult or sect, and that there is substantial empirical evidence against it such as, the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs do leave, most short of two years, the overwhelming proportion of people leave of their own volition, and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience"14.

Flo and Conway in Snapping described a survey regarding after-cult effects and deprogramming and concluded that people deprogrammed had less problems than people not deprogrammed.: "...Our last block of findings concerned the controversial issue of deprogramming. The numbers confirmed that deprogramming was indeed a vital first step on the road back from cult control. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the people in our survey were deprogrammed, about half voluntarily and half involuntarily. As a group, they reported a third less, and in many cases only half as many, post-cult effects than those who weren’t deprogrammed. Average rehabilitation time was one-third longer--more than a year and a half--for those who weren’t deprogrammed compared to just over a year for those who were. Overall, deprogrammees reported a third fewer months of depression, forty percent less disorientation, half as many sleepless nights--clearly, something in the process worked! ..." 38

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. 36

Burks (2002) in a study comparing Group Psychological Abuse Scale (GPA9 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 which 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). 39

According to Barret, in many cases the problems do not happen while in a movement, but when leaving a movement which can be difficult for some members and may include a lot of trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include conditioning by the religious movement, avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning, having had powerful religious experiences, love for the founder of the religion, emotional investment, fear of losing salvation, bonding with other members, anticipation of the realization that time, money and efforts donated to the group were a waste, and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong. According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.15 According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans there is no uniform post-cult trauma but psychological and social problems upon resignation are not rare but their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the person, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.16

See also Shunning

Criticism by former members of purported cults

Allegations against cults come from a variety of sources including parents, relatives and close friends of cult members (who believe their loved one has undergone a personality change for the worse); victims of scams perpetrated by some cults; people who go to a few meetings and then back away out of fear; researchers who carefully study a cult's published literature; persons raised in cults who left after coming of age; and former adult members.

Usually the most dramatic allegations as well as the most systematic and detailed ones, will come from adult former members (also known by the pejorative term "apostates" in the writings of so-called cult apologists such as Melton) and in some instances from persons who were raised in the cult.

The allegations of former members include sexual abuse by the leader, failed promises and failed prophecy, causing suicides through neglect or abuse, leaders who do not admit nor apologize for mistakes, false irrational or even contradictory teachings, exclusivism, deception in recruitment (by using "front groups"), demands of total immersion in religion at the expense of career, education, family and friends, and more.

The role of former members in the controversy surrounding cults, has been widely studied by social scientists. Former members in this context are those individuals who become public opponents against their former movement. The former members' motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the kinds of narratives they construct, are controversial with some scholars who suspect that at least some of the narratives are strongly influenced by the exit-counseling (or formerly of the deprogramming) process, while other scholars conclude that testimonies of former members are at least as accurate as testimonies of current members.

See also Apostasy in new religious movements.

Allegations made by scholars and skeptics

Other allegations

Prevalence of purported cults

By one measure, between 3,000 and 5,000 purported cults existed in the United States in 1995.6 While some of the more well-known and influential of these groups are frequently labelled as cults, the majority of these groups vigorously protest the label and refuse to be classified as such, and often expend great efforts in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the stigma associated with of the term cult.

In order to maintain a neutral point of view, a list of purported cults presents a listing of groups labeled as cults by various non-related, reasonably unbiased sources.

Cults and governments

For the main article, see Cults and 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 cults, have taken restrictive measures against some of their activities. Those measures were generally motivated by various crimes committed by a string of murderous incidents involving doomsday cults circa 1995. 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, disregard for appropriate medical care. 40

There exists a controversy regarding religious tolerance between the United States and several European countries, especially France and Germany that have taken legal measures directed against cultic groups which violate human rights. The 2004 annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that these initiatives have "...fueled an atmosphere of intolerance toward members of minority religions in France". On the other hand, the countries confronted with such allegations see the United States attitude towards NMRs as lack of responsibility of the state regarding the wellbeing of its citizens, especially concerning children and incapacitated persons, and claim that the interference of the United States in their internal affairs is at least partially due to lobbying of cults and cult apologists with the United States government. 40

See also

External links




  • Langone, Michael: Cults: Questions and Answers [4]
  • Lifton, Robert Jay: Cult Formation, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 1991 [5]
  • Moyers. Jim: Psychological Issues of Former Members of Restrictive Religious Groups [6]
  • Richmond, Lee J. :When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults, Professional School Counseling, June 2004 [7]
  • Rogge. Michael: On the psychology of spiritual movements[8]
  • Shaw, Daniel: Traumatic abuse in cults [9]
  • Rosedale, Herbert et al.: On Using the Term "Cult" [10]
  • Van Hoey, Sara: Cults in Court The Los Angeles Lawyer, February 1991 [11]
  • Zimbardo, Philip: What messages are behind today's cults?, American Psychological Association Monitor, May 1997 [12]
  • 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 8-772887-48-6


  • Note 1: 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.
  • Note 2: Barker, E. The Ones Who Got Away: People Who Attend Unification Church Workshops and Do Not Become Moonies. In: Barker E, ed. Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West'. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press; 1983. ISBN 0865540950
  • Note 4: Galanter M. Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group, American Journal of Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989.
  • Note 8: 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.
  • Note 9: Barrett, D. V. The New Believers - A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions 2001 UK, Cassell & Co. ISBN 0304355925
  • Note 12: Hadden, Jeffrey K. SOC 257: New Religious Movements Lectures, University of Virginia, Department of Sociology.
  • Note 13: 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)
  • Note 14: Hadden, J and Bromley, D eds. (1993), The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc., pp. 75-97.
  • Note 15: 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
  • Note 17: Dr. Zablocki, Benjamin [13] Paper presented to a conference, Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues, May 31, 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Note 18: 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 8772887486
  • Note 20: Amy Ryan: New Religions and the Anti-Cult Movement: Online Resource Guide in Social Sciences (2000) [14]
  • Note 21: Carter, Lewis, F. Lewis, Carriers of Tales: On Assessing Credibility of Apostate and Other Outsider Accounts of Religious Practices published in the book The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements edited by David G. Bromley Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, (1998). ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • Note 22: Johnson, Daniel Carson (1998) Apostates Who Never were: the Social Construction of Absque Facto Apostate Narratives, published in the book The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements edited by David G. Bromley Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, (1998). ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • Note 24: Richardson, James T. (1989) The Psychology of Induction: A Review and Interpretation, article that appeared in the book edited by Marc Galanter M.D. (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
  • Note 25: Hall, John R. and Philip Schuyler (1998), Apostasy, Apocalypse, and religious violence: An Exploratory comparison of Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, and the Solar Temple, in the book The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements edited by David G. Bromley Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, (1998). ISBN 0-275-95508-7, page 145 "The tendency to treat Peoples Temple as the cultus classicus headed by Jim Jones, psychotic megaliomanic par excellence is still with us, like most myths, because it has a grain of truth to it. "
  • Note 26: McLemee, Scott Rethinking Jonestown on the website "If Jones' People's Temple wasn't a cult, then the term has no meaning." [15]
  • Note 27: Barker, E., Standing at the Cross-Roads: Politics of Marginality in "Subversive Organizations" article in the book The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements edited by David G. Bromley Westport, CT, Praeger Publishers, (1998). ISBN 0-275-95508-7
  • Note 28: Edby, Lloyd (1999), Testimony presented to the Task Force to Investigate Cult Activity on the Campuses of Maryland Public Higher-Education Institutions [16]
  • Note 33: Bowman, Robert M., A Biblical Guide To Orthodoxy And Heresy, 1994, [21]
  • Note 34: Casino. Bruce J., Defining Religion in American Law, 1999, [22]
  • Note 36: BBC News 20 May, 2000: Sect leavers have mental problems [24]
  • Note 39: Burks, Ronald, Cognitive Impairment in Thought Reform Environments [27]


da:Sekt de:Sekte es:Secta fr:Secte is:Sértrúarsöfnuður he:כת ja:カルト nl:Sekte pl:Kult religijny sk:Kult sl:Kult fi:Kultti sv:Sekt zh:邪教

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