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Cult Group Controversies:
Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect"
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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 1
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 of groups.
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 journals.
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.
  1. It doesn't communicate profoundly important information that is carried by the separate concepts.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 are severed.
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 smooth rhetoric.
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 wayward group.
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 audiences.
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 they choose.
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 this now.
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 and counter-cultists.
My hope is this page will provide a model which will help realize the enormous potential of the Internet for learning.
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 Press.