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What is the meaning of the term 'cult'?

This piece of writing has been inspired by the ongoing efforts of some people and organisations to label some other organisations and activities as a ‘cult’. I have a degree in Social Anthropology from many years ago and remember using the term ‘cult’ during my studies.

This prompted a re-examination of the term ‘cult’ and how it is used by our current mass and social media.

The Oxford English dictionary describes a cult as "a system of religious worship esp. as expressed in ritual’ or as ‘devotion or homage to a person or thing". In academia much of the study and debate regarding so-called ‘cults’ takes place within Sociology and Anthropology. In both subjects the word cult does not necessarily carry any negative connotations but just refers to a system of beliefs with rites and ceremonies. In fact, many sociologists and anthropologists see all world religions as different forms of ‘cult institutions’, although as we shall see, the majority of respected academics have long since abandoned this term.

One of the most accepted definitions of the term ‘cult’ is by Professor Meredith McGuire (2002) who defines a ‘cult’ in relation to a ‘sect’ as:

". . . characterised by acceptance of the legitimacy claims of other groups but a relatively negative tension with the larger society . . . like sectarian collectives, cultic groups are a form of social dissent; however, their dissent is likely to be less extreme because of their pluralistic stance" [towards other groups].

This is a specific sociological definition and is nothing like the definition we see in modern media. Most academics find the term ‘cult’ to be very controversial, largely because it has been so difficult to agree on a consistent definition and because of the way it has been used by the mainstream media.

Many have instead opted for the term ‘New Religious Movement’ (NRM), for example the charity website 'Inform' was founded by Professor Eileen Barker, Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, to ensure there is accessible and accurate information in relation to so-called cults, sects and new religious movements.

Some sociologists have explored how the term has been used and adopted within society by mainstream groups to label and effectively stigmatise, attack and undermine groups with differing beliefs and practices. It is suggested that the popular and current mainstream usage of the term ‘cult’ can be traced back to the fear, anxiety and hostility generated by violent acts by groups with a particularly charismatic leader. For example, Manson, Jones, Asahara, Heaven’s Gate, etc . . . these groups and people committed violent acts and also had some form of religious or spiritual belief. As a result of this usage the term carries strong, forceful and emotive connotations within mainstream society, primarily based on fear and anxiety.

A quick online search came up with perhaps the simplest definition of ‘cult’ as used by mainstream society and media: "a small group with religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or imposing excessive control over members" (

It appears to fit most neatly with the mainstream usage, but is also problematic and raises several questions regarding how we define and deal with difference and our own biases and prejudice.

However, it appears to me that the key element and the one which generates the most attention is regarding the imposition of excessive control over members, where the terms ‘imposition’, ‘excessive’ and ‘control’ are value judgements exercised by one group over another.

It is interesting to note that when any devout religious person is observed in practice it could be suggested that their religion imposes excessive control. For example, we could consider the behaviour of Monks, Priests, Imams, Rabbis, Orthodox, Sadhus, Devotees, Fanatics . . . the list goes on.

I remember when visiting Nepal many years ago I saw people in various stages of pilgrimage to religious sites, such as Pagodas or Stupas. This often involved only moving forward, sometimes over hundreds of miles and many months and years, through prostrating themselves on the ground, going from standing to lying prone to standing, mile after mile. At the time I was stunned by the level of devotion this entailed. However, this does raise the point that the question of imposing excessive control is not just about so-called cults but has a much wider religious and cultural application, and that we see such behaviour in all accepted religions worldwide.

We could also look at non-religious practices that could be seen to impose excessive control over its members.

For example, the army/navy/air force, athletes and any professional/amateur sporting activities, the academic world and study (sitting for long hours reading to gain knowledge), video gamers, TV addicts, workaholics etc. It appears to me that whenever a person commits or devotes themselves to achieving something, then it could be suggested that there is an element of excessive control over their behaviour.

We could go further and explore so-called non-religious practices that could be interpreted as religious or ‘cultic’, for example the ‘cult’ or ‘worship’ of celebrity, politics or sport and their associated idols. We can see that there are innumerable examples where people are, to all intents and purposes, worshipped or idolised, or where incredibly controlling lifestyles are imposed on individuals (athletes, the army, academics, high achievers, etc).

It is also important to consider what the term ‘impose’ means in this context. The dictionary definition states that it means to ‘force’ something on someone or someone to do something.

Is this how it is being used in the above definition of a ‘cult’? If there is an element of ‘imposition’ within ‘cultic’ groups in our society then we should consider how this relates to our choice to belong to different groups and our freedom to leave any groups. There are some societies where leaving groups may be more difficult, but for most of the western world we are free to affiliate with or leave groups freely. Peer pressure and a sense of belonging and identity have a large part to play within this idea of ‘imposition’, but this could be said to be true of any definable group.

So, what makes so-called ‘cults’ special and, more importantly, how do we identify and define a ‘cult’?

When we consider non-mainstream groups throughout history we can see that usually they have been subjected to ridicule or harassment through the mass media or state institutions. For example, consider the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s, the civil rights movement in the USA, the strikes that took place throughout the UK in the 1970’s, the McCarthy witch-hunts, apartheid, this list goes on . . . It appears to me that nearly every dissenting or protest movement/group has been subject to negative media and state involvement. We should also note that many of these groups are now widely accepted as part of the mainstream and upheld as beacons of inspiration and perseverance in the face of obstacles and challenges, and something we should aspire to.

What I have learned so far is that it is not necessarily the activity or behaviour of ‘imposing excessive control’ that defines a so-called ‘cult’, it is the context the activity/behaviour takes place in, as defined by other ‘dominant’ groups within society.

The real question, as it appears to me, is why some groups seek to define and label other groups in certain ways.

Professor Eileen Barker (London School of Economics) is perhaps one of the most respected academic authorities on ‘cults’ and ‘new religious movements’. She founded the charity the ‘Information Network on Religious Movements’ (INFORM) in 1988. The Inform website states, the term ‘cult’

"[has] come to be used as [a] pejorative label in popular parlance, often telling us more about the attitude of the speaker than about the movement in question. For this reason, Inform prefers not to label a particular group or movement as a ‘cult’, but instead to use more neutral terms such as ‘minority religion’ or ‘movement’ as a starting point."

From this we can see that one of the most respected authorities and academic authors on ‘cults’ has significant problems with the term and doesn’t find it useful.

Dr George Chryssides (University of Birmingham) points out that "academics, of course, have long since abandoned the word ‘cult’ as a descriptor" (1997).

The main issue being that whenever the term ‘cult’ is being used freely it raises far more questions about the agenda of whoever is using it than the organisation being referred to.

The popular and mainstream usage of the term ‘cult’ has clearly problematised and eroded its original definition. In its original usage, it applied generally to a system of beliefs with rites and ceremonies. However, the way it has been picked up and used by the mainstream media and groups with vested interests and political leanings to promote, to apply to people and groups who may not share their interests or beliefs, has corroded any useful definition of the term.

As a result, the term ‘cult’ has now been abandoned by the majority of respected academics.

What we currently have is a controversial, subjective and emotive term without a clear definition. This means the term ‘cult’ is open to manipulation and can be very useful for those with vested interests, leanings or beliefs in seeking to demonise certain groups.

There have always been groups with spiritual and religious beliefs and groups who differ from the majority. From my brief exploration of this term it is clear to me that the term ‘cult’ is largely redundant now as it has been used to target and label such vast swathes of people and groups because of the bias, prejudice and vested interests of dominant groups that it no longer continues to hold any useful value or clear definition.

Instead, what it does is expose the motivations, interests, prejudice, bias and agendas of those who do continue to use such an emotive and value-laden term.

Filed under

AccountabilityCultureTruth in mediaReligionPersecution

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