This article discusses abusive or destructive cults. See also: cult film, cult television, cult radio.

The literal and traditional meaning of the word cult, from the Latin cultus, meaning "care" or "adoration", is "a system of religious belief or ritual; or: the body of adherents to same." In formal use, and in non-English European terms, the cognates of the English word "cult" are neutral, and refer mainly to divisions within a single faith, a purpose to which "sect" is put in English. Hence, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant are cults within Christianity.

Since the 1960s, in English-speaking countries, especially in North America, most English speakers have adopted the term in a pejorative sense to denote groups, many of them with religious themes, that exploit their members psychologically and financially using group-based persuasion techniques (sometimes called "mind control"). Unlike legitimate religious movements, cults are characterized by high levels of dependency, exploitation, and compliance with demands of leadership that are unrelated to religion.

The term cult has a technical meaning in the sociology of religions, referring to a religious group with novel beliefs and with a high degree of tension with the surrounding society. This meaning is purely neutral.

90% or more of cult members ultimately leave their group. [2,3]

Table of contents
1 Definitions of the term "cult," and alternative language
2 Important Word Usage Consideration
3 Historical Examples
4 Prevalence
5 Shared Practices
6 External Links
7 See also
8 References

Definitions of the term "cult," and alternative language

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]

Cult: 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 . . . designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. [7]

The best characterisation of use of the term cult is that it remains controversial.

Some critics have tried to apply the cult label to legitimate religious movements in an effort to discredit them. Some conservative Christian writers have been particularly quick to call any religious movement that they disagree with a cult. There are also some spiritually abusive churches that have many cultlike characteristics, but are not cults. The largest cults are well-financed and have active, ongoing public relations efforts. A major goal of these efforts is to load the language (see below) by broadening the popular definition of a cult to the point where the term becomes meaningless.

Such groups often defend their position by comparing themselves to more established, mainstream religious groups such as Catholicism and Judaism. The argument offered in this case can usually be simplified as, "Christianity and Judaism can also be defined as cults under some definitions of the term, therefore the term cult is superfluous and useless."

Some serious researchers of religion and sociology prefer to use terms such as new religious movement in their research on cults. Such usage may lead to confusion because there do exist fringe religious movements that are not abusive, and some groups appear non-religious or deny similarities to religion.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals use the terms cult, abusive cult, or destructive cult. These are also the most common terms in the popular press.

In their defense, groups labeled as cults often see themselves as persecuted by the anti-cult movement, which (they claim) consists of a number of groups working together to suppress their religious beliefs. Critics of these groups counter with the claim that the popularization of the term "anti-cult groups" is an attempt to construct an elaborate conspiracy theory aimed at fostering pity and support for alleged cult groups.

In French, culte just means "worship"; an association cultuelle is just an association whose goal is to organize worship (and is eligible for tax exemption). The word for "cult" is secte. See false friend.

Important Word Usage Consideration

There is often a marked difference between a word's definition and a word's usage. The definition of the word "cult" applies to all religions; the usage of the word (since the 1960s) applies to a sub-set of religions and groups - those that engage in abusive or criminal behavior, and/or deny their members civil and human rights.

For scholars and professional commentators, the usage of the word "cult" applies to maleficent behavior, and not to belief. For members of competing religions, use of the word is pejorative and applies primarily to rival beliefs (see memes), and only incidentally to behavior. This has caused some religious scholars to prefix the word "abusive" in front of the word "cult" when they write or speak about abusive religious groups.

Historical Examples

Some extreme examples of destructive cults follow:


As of 1995, between 3,000 and 5,000 cults existed in the United States. [5] The majority of these groups vigorously protest the label "cult" and refuse to be classified as such, but the more well-known and influential of these groups are often viewed as "cults" by the public at large. These groups often expend large amounts of energy and money engaging in public relations campaigns to rid themselves of the association with the term "cult." A number of these groups appear in the Wikipedia list of purported cults.

Shared Practices

While the religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs vary widely from one cult to the next, the actions of cults show striking similarities. Many published checklists of cult behavior have appeared, and sources differ in the terminology they use and how they group the behaviors together. [1,3,5] Some common items that set abusive cults apart from other organizations include:

Additionally, many cults have the following characteristics, though they are not as unique to cults as the ones listed above:

  • Authoritarianism -- Control of the organization stems from an absolute leader or a small circle of elite commanders. Often the cult's leadership is glorified with a vast personality cult. The leader may be recognized as divine, or even as God.
  • Secret doctrines - certain "secret" (esoteric) teachings that must not ever be revealed to the outside world
  • Promised Ones - members of the cult are encouraged to believe they were chosen, or made their choice to join the cult, because they are special or superior
  • Fire-and-Brimstone - leaving the cult, or failing at one's endeavor to complete the requirements to achieve its panacea, will result in consequences greater than if one had never joined the cult in the first place.
  • Shunning -- members who leave may not contact members who remain.

External Links

Note: The Internet offers a great deal of material beyond the following list:

See also


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 3 Galanter M. "Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group". Am J Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989.
  • 4 Enroth, Ronald. Churches that Abuse
  • 5 Singer, M with Lalich, J (1995). Cults in Our Midst, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • 6 Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. "Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?" Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91-111
  • 7 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.