Definitions of terms:
Cults, Sects and
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"...if you believe in it, it is a religion or
perhaps the religion;
and if you do not care one way or another
about it, it is a sect;
but if you fear and hate it, it is a
cult." Leo Pfeffer. A humorous quotation, but one
that is uncomfortably close to reality.
There is no generally accepted, single, current definition for the word
"cult," or for many other religious terms. This leads to confusion
over the meanings of certain religious terms, such as Christian, cult hell, heaven, occult, Paganism, salvation,
Witch, Witchcraft, Unitarian,
Universalist, Voodoo, etc. A
reader must often look at the context in which the word is used in order
to guess at the intent of the writer.
In the newsgroup alt.usage.english, terms like this one are
often called "skunk words." They have varied meanings to different
people. In fact, they have so many meanings that they often cause
misunderstandings wherever they are used. Unfortunately, most people do
not know this, and naturally assume that the meaning that they have been
taught is the universal definition of the term.
The term "Unitarian" is a good example:
||Pre-1776 CE: Belief
in a single God and the rejection of the Christian concept of the
- Post-1776: A creedless,
dogma-free religious organization. The Unitarian Universalist
Association, (UUA) is an association of Unitarian groups.
Utter confusion reigns when an author is using one definition of
"Unitarian," while a reader assumes the other meaning.
Misunderstandings also happen when an author assumes that both definitions
refer to the same organization or belief.
Perhaps the most confusing and dangerous religious term is
"Cult". The word is derived from the Latin noun "cultus"
which is related to the Latin verb "colere" which means "to
worship or give reverence to a deity." Thus, in its original meaning,
the term "cult" can be applied to any group of religious believers:
Southern Baptists or Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses or Catholics, Hindus or
Muslims. However, the term has since been assigned at least 7 new and very
different meanings. The original meaning of "cult" remains positive; later
definitions are neutral, negative, or extremely negative:
usage: Oxford English Dictionary defined "cult" as:
reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings"
- "a particular form
or system of religious worship; especially in reference
to its external rites and
- devotion or homage
to a particular person or thing."
This is the historical meaning of the word, but is rarely
today heard outside of religious circles. A reference to the
"Cult of Mary" appeared in a newspaper report on the
Pope's 1999 visit to the Americas. It simply means that the
Pope devotes special attention to the Virgin Mary.
- Neutral Meanings:
usage: A small religious group that exists in a
state of tension with the predominant religion. Hinduism
might be considered a cult in North America; Christianity
might be considered a cult in India.
sociological usage: An innovative, fervent religious
group, as contrasted with more established and conventional
sects and denominations.
- The Observer:
An English newspaper seemed to use the term to refer
to any small religious group, no matter what
its age or teachings. 1
- General religious
usage: A small, recently created, religious
organization which is often headed by a single charismatic
leader and is viewed as an spiritually innovative group. A
cult in this sense may simply be a new religious movement on
its way to becoming a denomination. The Christian religion, as
it existed in 30 CE might be considered a cult involving one
leader and 12 or 70 devoted followers. The Mormon
denomination was started in the 19th century by Joseph
Smith and a few followers; it later grew to become an
- Negative Meanings:
Movement usage: Any religious group which
accepts most but not all of the historical
Christian doctrines (the divinity of Jesus, virgin
birth, the Trinity, salvation,
etc.). The implication is that the cult's
theology is invalid; they teach heresy. Under this definition,
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons),
Church and Jehovah's
Witnesses to be cults. But they would not classify Wicca
as such, because it is not associated with Christianity. The
earliest use of this meaning of the word "Cult" is believed to
be a 1938 book "The Chaos of the Cults" by J.K.
VanBaalen. On the other hand, new religious groups such as the
Mormons, Unification Church and Jehovah's Witnesses generally
regard themselves to be the true Christian church. They view
all other denominations as being in error. Thus, one groups
true church is another group's cult.
Christian usage: Some Fundamentalists would accept the
Evangelical definition of cult defined above. Others might
brand any religious group which deviates from
historical Protestant Christian beliefs as a cult.
This definition would include the Mormon
mainline and liberal Christian denominations, Islam,
and all of the other religions of the world. Over 70% of
humanity would belong to cults, by this definition.
- Mental Health
Groups and anti-cult
movement usage: A small number
of therapists, research psychologists, self-taught
individuals, etc., form the anti-cult movement (ACM) They
attempt to raise public consciousness about what they see as
dangerous and authoritarian mind
control cults and doomsday
cults. Many do not care about the faith group's theology.
They target only what they see as deceptive practices, and
dangerous psychological pressure techniques, such as
brainwashing. The ACM appears to hold opinions about the
effectiveness of brainwashing that are not shared by the
mental-health community generally. They see mind
control/doomsday cults as a widespread social problem.
- Very negative meaning:
usage: (very negative meaning) a small, evil religious
group, often with a single charismatic leader, which engages
in brainwashing and other mind control techniques, believes
that the end of the world is imminent, and collects large
amounts of weaponry in preparation for a massive war. Often
used as a synonym for mind
control religious group or for doomsday
cult. The earliest use of this meaning of the word is
believed to have been in a 1965 book by Walter Martin "The
Kingdom of the Cults" (revised and expanded in 1985).|
We have seen "cult" used to refer to Evangelical denominations,
the Roman Catholic Church, Unification
Church, Church of
Scientology, United Church of Christ, The Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wiccans, other
many other faith groups. The term is essentially meaningless.
Recommended use of the term "cult":
||In 1998-MAY, the
Associated Press decided to avoid the use of the word
"cult" because it had acquired a pejorative aura; they have
since given preference to the term
- In 1990-FEB, an editorial by
Terry Muck in Christianity Today -- the largest Evangelical magazine
in the U.S. -- recommended that Christians should avoid using the
word. He cited three reasons:
||"The spirit of fair
play suggests it is best to refer to groups of people as they
refer to themselves."
- "There is also a
theological reason for avoiding [the label, for it wrongly
implies that certain sinners] are the worst kind."
- "It simply does not
work well to use disparaging terms to describe the people whom
we hope will come to faith in Christ.... In fact, we are
commanded to love them as ourselves."
- We recommend that the word
"cult" be rarely used. We
||Using a term such as
"new religious movement," "alternative religious
movement," "emergent religion or faith group."
These terms are more precise and have not (yet) been burdened
by so many negative connotations, as has "cult."
- Using a term such as
"heretical" or "spiritual counterfeit" to
describe a faith group with whom you disagree on theological
- An even better usage is
to simply refer to the group by its name.
Of course, if you are an author, public speaker or teleminister who
wants to direct public fear and hatred against a new religious group, then
"cult" is an ideal word to use. But the use of the term may be
irresponsible and immoral, depending upon your system of values. We
suspect, but cannot prove, that some Internet web sites, including
groups -- those who mainly attack Christian denominations and sects
which promote novel beliefs, and
groups -- those who attack high-intensity new religious movements
which require a strong commitment from their
intentionally use the term "cult" for manipulative purposes.
They hope that their visitors will bring with them fear and loathing of
dangerous faith groups, like the former Branch
Davidians or Heaven's Gate,
and transfer these negative feelings to such denominations as the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, and the Jehovah's
This web site normally refers only to "doomsday faith
groups" as "cults." We feel that use of the word
"cult" without careful definition in advance leads to confusion and
Meaning of the word
A Denomination is an established religious group, which
has usually been in existence for many years and has geographically
widespread membership. It typically unites a group of individual
congregations into a single administrative body. Denominations differ
greatly in the sharing of power between individual congregations and the
central authority. Baptist churches have historically allowed individual
churches to hold diverse beliefs. (An exception is the Southern Baptists
Convention who reversed centuries of tradition and expelled some
congregations over the homosexual
issue.) Other denominations centralize authority, and allow
congregations little freedom to deviate in beliefs or policies.
Meaning of the word SECT
A Sect is a small religious group that is an offshoot of
an established religion or denomination. It holds most beliefs in common
with its religion of origin, but has a number of novel concepts which
differentiate them from that religion.
Many religions started as Sects. One well-known example was the
Nazarenes. This was an reform movement within Judaism formed by Jesus'
apostles after the execution of Jesus circa 30 CE They were largely
dispersed or killed some four decades later when the Romans attacked
Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.
Perhaps the most obvious North American example of a sect that evolved
into a denomination is the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. Their founder, Joseph Smith, had a
revelation from God that the ministry of Jesus Christ continued after his
crucifixion, as described in what is now called the Book of Mormon. The
Mormon sect has since evolved into the Mormon denomination of Christianity
with the passage of time and the gathering of increasing numbers of
followers. Within a few decades, it is expected to become the dominant
faith group in the American west. When statehood was being considered for
Utah, a major impediment was the beliefs and practices in the Church
regarding polygamy. Shortly after a new revelation from God banned the
practice, statehood was granted. This caused a number of small sects to
break away from the established church, in order to allow their male
followers to continue to have multiple wives. Some of these sects continue
to this day in the United States and Canada, although they have been
excommunicated by the main Mormon Church. A similar crisis occurred in the
mid 1970's when a new revelation from God abolished the church's
institutionalized discrimination against Afro-Americans. This time, the
membership accepted the new ruling; there were no breakaway sects.
Sects can therefore be considered a normal mechanism by which new
religious movements are generated. Most sects die out quickly; others
linger; still others grow and evolve in to a new established religious
movement and are properly called denominations.
There remains a negative connotation for many people to the word sect;
they would much rather refer to their faith group as a denomination.
- An English newspaper, the Observer maintained a page dealing
with what they call "cults". Unfortunately, they mixed together a
variety of new religious groups, dangerous life threatening cults and
small established faith groups. The only common factor among the faith
groups that they describe is that they are all small in membership. Many
of their essays were not particularly accurate. They were at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/observer/cults/a-z-cults/index.html
Unfortunately, this link appears to now be dead. their web site was once
a useful example of the misuse of a emotionally biased word to raise
public fear and hatred against benign religious groups.
Copyright © 1996 to 2003 incl. by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2003-APR-8