Cult Definition

Cult Definition: What is a cult?

Do you know the definition of a cult? In other words, what is a cult?

Sometimes it seems that question has as many answers as there are, well, cults.

Yet the term ‘cult’ has a precise definition — or rather, several precise definitions.

Which definition is the right one largely depends on the context in which the term ‘cult’ is applied.

A ‘cult wine’ is, after all, something different than a ‘religious cult.’  A rock band with a ‘cult following’ differs greatly from a ‘suicide cult.’   And a ‘cult following’ is not necessarily the same thing as ‘following a cult.’

Cult Definition

Let’s first look at the definition of the term ‘cult’ as provided by a dictionary:

1 : formal religious veneration : worship
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b : the object of such devotion
c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
– Source: Merriam-Webster dictionary 1

The dictionary also explains the term’s etymology: French & Latin; French culte, from Latin cultus care, adoration, from colere to cultivate.

Cult: Meanings Vary

The term is confusing because it is ambiguous — infused with a variety of meanings depending on who uses it — and for which purpose it is used.

For example, the term ‘cult’ can be used in a theological and/or a sociological sense. The word takes on different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.

  • Theological
    The theological sense is used when discussing major religious differences: a group or movement is theologically a cult if it identifies itself as belonging to a mainstream, recognized religion — and yet rejects or otherwise violates one or more of the central, essential teachings of that religion.

    Essential teachings are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence.

    A silly example, but one that illustrates this concept:

    You cannot call something a tomato sauce if it does not include tomatoes — because tomatoes are a central, essential ingredient (‘teaching‘ or ‘doctrine‘) of tomato sauce.

    A sauce that is made with apples instead of tomatoes but is sold as ‘tomato sauce’ is a ‘cult of tomato sauce’, because it rejects one of the essential ingredients of tomato sauce, and thus misrepresents itself as something it is not.

    See for instance, What is a cult of Christianity?

  • Sociological
    The sociological sense is used when discussing behavior or other sociological aspects: a group or movement may be a cult if it acts in ways that are illegal or otherwise unacceptable in a civilized society.

    Silly example:

    A restaurant that serves a perfectly acceptable, genuine tomato soup by pouring it into your lap is sociologically a cult restaurant.

Destructive Cults

When most people hear the term ‘cult,’ they tend to think about destructive cults they have read or heard about. For instance, Scientology, Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, Peoples Temple, Solar Temple, the Manson Family, and so on.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., said that cults can be identified by three characteristics:

  1. a charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. a process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie. 2

Louis West and Michael Langone defined a ‘totalist’ cult as follows:

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 judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear 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.[…]

Totalist cults are likely to exhibit three elements to varying degrees:

(1) excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment to the identity and leadership of the group by the members,

(2) exploitative manipulation of members, and

(3) harm or the danger of harm.

Totalist cults may be distinguished from “new religious movements,” “new political movements,” and “innovative psychotherapies” (terms that can be used to refer to unorthodox but relatively benign groups), if not by their professed beliefs then certainly by their actual practices.
– Source: Cultism: A Conference for Scholars-Policy Makers, Cultic Studies Journal, 1986, Volume 3, Number 1, pages 85-96 3

The characteristics of a destructive cult:

  1. Authoritarian pyramid structure with authority at the top
  2. Charismatic or messianic leader(s) (Messianic meaning they either say they are God OR that they alone can interpret the scriptures the way God intended…..the leaders are self-appointed.
  3. Deception in recruitment and/or fund raising
  4. Isolation from society — not necessarily physical isolation like on some compound in Waco, but this can be psychological isolation — the rest of the world is not saved, not Christian, not transformed (whatever) — the only valid source of feedback and information is the group
  5. Use of mind control techniques (we use Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s criteria from chapter 22 of his book Thought Reform & the Psychology of Totalism to compare whether the eight psychological and social methods he lists are present in the group at question)

– Source: Characteristics of a Destructive Cult, reFOCUS 4

Read Cult Formation, by Robert Jay Lifton
Read Ideological totalism: “Isn’t this just like brainwashing?” by Robert Jay Lifton

Cults Are Not Always Destructive

Not all groups that could in one way or another be defined, sociologically, as cults are necessarily destructive. For instance, not every high-demand group requires its members to cut off normal contact with friends and family.

A good initial check is to ask: how does this group impact a person’s health, wealth, and/or personal relationships?

Demanding Total Commitment

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) utilizes Benjamin Zablocki’s definition of the term cult: “an ideological organization held together by charismatic relations and demanding total commitment.” 5

Russel H. Bradshaw — who together with his wife works for ICSA’s New York Educational Outreach Committee — notes:

Even in cultic groups that score at the high end of the control/demand continuum, however, not all members are abused or equally affected. […]

In general, some people in the same cultic group will be hurt more than others, some may not be affected at all, and some may actually benefit. Groups change over time and from one branch or subgroup to another; leaders’ personalities change, as do the personalities of various members.11 Even persons with secure and intelligent personalities may encounter problems at times, especially during times of transition and crisis—and they may become vulnerable to unethical psychosocial influence and control.

As a result of all these interwoven variables, it is very difficult to say that a particular group, in all branches, at all times, affects all members in a particular way. Nevertheless, trained social workers and therapists know a dangerous cultic group environment when they encounter it—and so treat former members in various degrees of suffering.12 These helping professionals know it is the intense psychosocial dynamic of these high-demand/high-control cultic groups and their charismatic (and often narcissistic) leaders that are at the core of their clients’ sense of abuse and trauma.
– Source: Russell H. Bradshaw: What is a cult? Definitional Preface, ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2015, 8-9

What Do You Mean When You Say ‘Cult’?

Many people consider ‘cult’ to be a pejorative or derogatory term — one that is often used abusively in ad hominem attacks.

Some researchers therefore use the term High Demand Group or High Control Group instead.

Others have pushed the use of New Religious Movement (NRM), Alternative Religious Movement (ARM), or Minority Religion — terms they view as ‘value neutral’ or ‘unbiased.’

But as the articles in the first two links underneath this section show, the term ‘cult’ — properly applied — remains useful.

Using the term abusively is self-defeating at best.

Likewise, when using the term cult in describing a group, church, organization, or movement — without qualifying what you mean by that word — you cause confusion.

At the very least, the term should be placed in context. For example:

  • XYZ is a cult in the theological sense, because…”, or 
  • 123 is a cult in the sociological sense, because…”

See also: The Definitional Ambiguity of Cult and ICSA’s Mission — an important article that acknowledges the ‘fuzziness’ of the term
See also: On Using the Term “Cult”
See also: Characteristics of cults

What is a sect?

The term sect is often used to indicate a group or movement that — while often still considered part of the faith it identifies with — has doctrines or practices not in line with the historical, commonly accepted teachings of that religion.

Unfortunately, the term ‘sect’ itself is also ambiguous — so much so that it is often used instead of the term ‘cult.’

‘Sect’ has long been used in Europe and elsewhere to denote groups or movements elsewhere referred to as ‘cults.’ Since the term ‘cult’ has taken on a negative — some would say ‘pejorative — connotation, US media have also started to substitute the term ‘sect.’

Cults both theologically and sociologically

A fair number of groups and movements can be identified as cults in both the theological and the sociological sense of the term.

A prime example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a full-blown cult (as defined sociologically) is the Children of God, now called The Family International.

Another example of a cult of Christianity (as defined theologically) that developed into a cult (as defined sociologically) is the International Churches of Christ — a notorious example of an abusive church.

The Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, whose members are referred to as Jehovah’s Witnesses, theologically is a cult of Christianity, and sociologically has countless cult-like elements as well.

Many abusive churches fall in this category as well.

That said, spiritual abuse is not limited to groups that are, theologically, cults of Christianity. Quite a few churches that adhere to the central doctrines of the Christian faith nevertheless engage in abusive practices.

See also: Cult-like tendencies in churches

Variety of Cults

Groups said to be ‘cults’ are not necessarily religious.

Such is the case with, for instance, political cults (e.g. Lyndon LaRouche), psycho-spiritual or self-improvement workshops (LGAT, Large Group Awareness Training), and hate groups (e.g. Ku Klux Klan, White Supremacists).

Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, in their book, ‘Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace,’ say

In the United States, there are at least ten major types of cults, each with its own beliefs, practices, and social mores. The list below is not exhaustive, but most cults can be classified under one of the following headings:

  1. Neo-Christian religious
  2. Hindy and Eastern religious
  3. Occult, witchcraft, and satanist
  4. Spiritualist
  5. Zen and other Sino-Japanese philosophical-mystical orientation
  6. Racial
  7. Flying saucer and other outer-space phenomena
  8. Psychology or psychotherapeutic
  9. Political
  10. Self-help, self-improvement, and life-style systems

An Example From Religion

Those who deal primarily with the sociological characteristics of groups and movements usually find little to nothing in Mormonism and the Mormon Church that would cause them to apply the term ‘cult’ — because their evaluation is based largely on how the group or movement acts, rather than on what it beliefs. 6

But Christian theologians consider the Mormon Church to be theologically a cult of Christianity.

Here is a concise definition of a cult of Christianity:

A cult of Christianity is a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
– Source: Alan Gomes, Cult: A Theological Definition, in “Unmasking The Cults 7

Central (or key, essential) doctrines of the Christian faith are those doctrines that make the Christian faith Christian and not something else.

A comparison with historic, Bible-based Christianity, shows that the Mormon Church rejects, changes or adds to the central doctrines of the Christian faith to such an extend that Mormonism must be regarded as having separated itself from the faith it claims to represent, and instead having established a new religion that is not compatible with Christianity.

The ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) — the official name of the Mormon Church — claims to be not only:

a) Christian in nature, but also

b) the only true expression of historical Christianity. 8

In reality, the teachings and practices of the LDS church — as well as the documented history of Christianity — shows that Mormonism has plagiarized and usurped Christian terminology and scriptures, creating a new religion that is different from Christianity in key doctrines and practices.

Attempts to present Mormonism as Christian (e.g. the ‘restored’ church) are as false and wrong as it would be to pass off a fake watch as a Rolex.

Just like you cannot turn a Volkswagen into a Rolls-Royce by placing the latter’s iconic ornament on the Volkswagen’s hood, you cannot turn Mormonism into Christianity merely by appropriating Jesus Christ and portions of the Bible.

Not a Sect or Denomination

That means the Mormon Church can also not be considered a Christian denomination — nor a sect of Christianity.

In Christian theology the term sect is often used to indicate a group or movement that has doctrines or practices not in line with those of historical Christianity, but usually not to such an extend that it must be considered a different religion altogether.

From a Christian perspective that religion fits meaning #2 in the dictionary definition quoted above, since it is a “religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.”

Note: In its turn, the Mormon Church likewise does its best to distinguish itself from groups that it considers to be separate religious movements — even while those movement claim to represent historical Mormonism (and are in fact, for the most part, closer in theology and practice to early Mormonism than the current-day LDS Church is).

Important: be aware that the term ‘sect‘ itself is also ambiguous, and — to make things even more confusing — is often used instead of the term ‘cult.’ 9

Cults in Other Religions

Cults — as defined theologically — can be offshoots of any religion. The definition holds, as long as a certain group claims to be part of, or representative of, a religion while at the same time violating that religion’s essential doctrines.

Remember: Essential doctrines are those doctrines that define a given religion’s basic essence. Much the same way, say, a tuna salad must include tuna, religions have basic, essential ingredients (doctrines), without which they would be something else.

Cult Experts

Cult experts come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

While some cult specialists who approach cults from a sociological view generally do not address theological issues, those who deal with cults from a theological perspective often also address sociological issues.

In our view the latter is a better approach, since people’s actions are informed by their beliefs.

Religion Scholars

Scholars of religion usually shun the use of the term cult. Most consider it to be a pejorative term — a ‘label’ that indicates a certain bias.

Most religion scholars prefer to present their own approach as unbiased.

Unfortunately, some religion scholars have presented cults or cult-like groups in such a positive light that they have been referred to — rightly or not — as cult apologists. 10

There has been an ongoing tension between those who actively counter cults 11 and those who claim to merely provide ‘accurate and unbiased’ information 12

That said, since the end of the last century the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) 13 has promoted the benefits of dialogue “between the so-called ‘anticult movement’ (ACM) and an interest group of academics, the so-called ‘procultists’.”

Additional Research Resources

  • More information about cults can be obtained at our Cult FAQ web site.
  • If you think you may need the help of a cult expert, check — information that will help you find a reliable cult specialit
  • Cult Information Search Engine: find information about cult experts, (religious) cults, cult-like organizations, — as well as paranormal-, New Age, and pseudo-scientific claims — across 260+ websites, blogs and forums dedicated to cult research, spiritual abuse, ex-cult counseling & support

Articles of interest

  • Cult or Commune? How Utopian Communities Turn Dangerous, by Elizabeth Yoko, Rolling Stone, November 10, 2016: “What’s the difference between a group of people that live and work together to achieve a certain standard of physical, mental and spiritual well-being, and a full-fledged cult?”
  • The power of cults, by Devanie Angel, Chico News and Review, August 12, 2004: How Professor Janja Lalich went from cult member to author-expert
  • When Spirituality Goes Awry: Students in Cults, Professional School Counseling, June 1, 2004: Adolescents are objects of recruitment for religious cults. Identifying new religious movements, cults, and dissenting religious groups, understanding their practices, and discovering reasons for their attractiveness to some students are helpful to the school counselor. Suggestions are offered as to how to identify which cults are destructive, and how professional school counselors can assist students involved with such group.

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Definition of the term cult

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  1. Other dictionaries have similar descriptions
  2. Robert Jay Lifton, Cult Formation, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Volume 7, Number 8 February 1981, reprinted in AFF News Vol. 2 No. 5, 1996
  3. The term “totalist” is used in the sense of Robert J. Lifton in Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 1963).
  4. See also: Dr. Robert Lifton addresses destructive cults
  5. B. Zablocki, Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues (paper presented to a conference, May 31, 1997, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as cited in Russell H. Bradshaw: What is a cult? Defenitional Preface, ICSA
  6. That is not to say the Mormon Church does not have certain cult-like sociological aspects. Many would say it does, but not to the extent that it is a full-blown cult sociologically.
  7. Take a closer look at this definition
  8. Mormons claim that the early Christian Church fell into apostasy, and that the LDS Church is God’s way of restoring the Church.
  9. ‘Sect’ has long been used in Europe and elsewhere to denote groups or movements often referred to as ‘cults.’ Since the term ‘cult’ has taken on a negative connotation, US media have also started to substitute the term ‘sect.’
  10. Alternatively, cult defenders or cult sympathizers. Apologetics is the study and practice of the intellectual defense of a belief system. An apologist is someone “who speaks or writes in defense of a faith, a cause, or an institution.”
  11. whether or not associated with the so-called anti-cult or counter-cult movements
  12. usually with the stated motive of ‘defending religious freedom.’
  13. ICSA is the primary network of lay and professional cult experts. It is the world’s largest and foremost cult education organization.