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CULTS. Scholars and religious leaders, as well as the public, often have debated the defining characteristics of religious groups known as cults. Many Christian leaders, disturbed by the increase in such groups, label almost all variations from mainstream religion as cults, contending that they have a disruptive effect on society and on their followers. Others divide religious movements into three categories: churches, sects, and cults. All agree that churches represent mainstream religious authority. Mainstream religious leaders disagree on the characteristics of sects and cults. Some contend that sects represent a variation of Western religions and that cults adopt belief systems from non-Western sources. Others argue that all religious movements, Western or non-Western, begin as cults and, as they grow in popularity and power, evolve into sects and, finally, churches. Using this second argument, one could identify the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Mormons, and the Christian Scientists as groups that successfully shed their cult status and acknowledge utopian communities like Oneida, Amana, New Harmony, and the Shakers as religious groups that failed to survive as churches. Basically, the categorization of religious alternatives as cults rests on the extent to which they challenge mainstream religious institutions.

Historically, the United States has seen a variety of religious movements. Since the earliest years of European colonization, tension has existed between members of churches and adherents of smaller and less empowered religious beliefs. The nation's ensurance of disestablishment (that the state would not designate a particular religious group as favored by civil authorities) and the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom allowed a number of alternative religious groups to take root and flourish in the United States. Indeed, the same national guidelines that allowed nontraditional religious groups to establish themselves in the United States also created a climate favorable to religious expression and may account for the generally religious character of most Americans. Religious groups identified as cults proliferated during the twentieth century. Decline of religious authority, increase in contact between people of diverse backgrounds, and development of mass communication allowed cult leaders to gain personal followings through newspapers and other periodicals, radio, television, and computerized mailing lists. Cults appeared in all regions of the United States, often in areas receiving an influx of migrants. In the early 1900s the West Coast, a region experiencing massive immigration, became known for religious experimentation. Mainstream religious denominations were not well established there, and migrants formed groups with beliefs reflecting their new lives. Cults often arose from groups virtually excluded from mainstream denominations and even from society at large, such as people of color, women, the young, and the poor. Marginalized, they found strength through religious alternatives. Cults also appealed to people seeking to restore their physical and mental health, having found little hope from mainstream religion.

One of the first mass cults was Father Divine's Peace Mission Movement. An African American minister who taught the power of positive thinking and encouraged his disciples to recognize him as God, Father Divine built a national and international following beginning in the 1930s and lasting through the 1950s. Known for elaborate ceremonies that often consisted of extravagant banquets, he attracted much attention. Other African American religious leaders, such as Daddy Grace, founder of the United House of Prayer for All People, and Guy W. Ballard, leader of the I AM, came to national prominence during these same years.

Cults increased tremendously in the 1960s and 1970s. In this era of rebellion and reform, many people were inspired to question authority. A variety of faiths appeared, with Eastern mysticism gaining much popularity. Probably the most notable new group was the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had established the ISKCON in India and brought it to the United States in 1965, when he began proselytizing in New York City's Tompkins Square Park and attracted followers associated with the hippie movement. He opened a temple and commenced publication of Back to Godhead, devoted to yoga, meditation, and vegetarianism. A resurgence of interest in Christianity in the 1970s led to the Jesus People movement, which sponsored Bible studies and revivals. Several of its groups established communes. Out of this cult came the Family of Love, better known as the Children of God. A highly controversial group, the Children of God borrowed features from the Christian holiness movement. The cult was accused of recruiting by brainwashing and through a technique

known as flirty fishing, which involved securing converts through sexual favors.

Of all groups to gain prominence during this era, the Unification Church, founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, proved the most controversial. Oriented toward fundamentalist Christianity and politically conservative, the Unification Church supervised the lives and activities of followers and focused on preparing the world for God's kingdom on earth. On joining the church, single members practiced celibacy and devoted themselves to missionary work. At the end of their initiation, church leaders paired members with suitable mates and married them in mass ceremonies. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Unification Church recruited on college campuses and gained a foothold in publishing through ownership of the Washington Times, while building a large portfolio of business investments. Reverend Moon alarmed many members of mainstream churches through the authority he exerted and his claim of being the Lord of the Second Advent, a role analogous to Christ.

An anticult movement developed during this time, targeting so-called destructive cults. According to anti-cultists, destructive cults exhibited three characteristics: demand for unquestioning acceptance of a leader, recruitment through brainwashing, and maintenance of secrecy. Anticultists received enormous attention in the mid-1960s with the publication of The Kingdom of the Cults by an Evangelical Christian author, Walter Martin. The book underwent thirty-six printings between 1965 and 1985 and was still in print in 2001. It heightened concerns about the possible use of brainwashing in cults.

The anticult movement developed methods of de-programming, designed to reorient cult members toward mainstream spirituality, but in many ways the methods of deprogrammers resembled the tactics of the supposed programmers. In the 1970s there were frequent reports of families who hired deprogrammers to kidnap their children from a cult, take them to secluded places, and spend days, sometimes weeks, breaking down their acceptance of cult teachings.

The rise of the anticult movement in the United States led to tensions and sometimes even violence. One of the most alarming incidents occurred in Guyana, South America, where the San Francisco cult minister Jim Jones had relocated his Peoples Temple in the hope of establishing an interracial religious commune and farming cooperative. In November 1978, shortly after U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan and four members of his party were killed by Jones's cult members, Jones presided over a suicide ceremony in which his followers drank cyanide.

Academics who study groups targeted by anticultists prefer the term "new religious movement," to the term "cult" and criticize anticultists for jeopardizing religious freedom in the United States. They emphasize that destructive cults are rare, that few cult members are coerced into joining, and that most cult followers leave groups of their own accord.

Incidents at the close of the twentieth century again increased fears of cult activity. Concern over the dangers presented by cults that stockpiled arms achieved national prominence in 1993 when a clash occurred between federal authorities and the Branch Davidians, a Bible-based cult led by a former rock musician named David Koresh, who claimed to be a messiah. Another armed cult, the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, received attention for its activities and ownership of bomb shelters in Paradise Valley, Montana. The group's presence generated a great deal of hostility from the local population. In March 1997, members of the Heaven's Gate cult engaged in a mass suicide, believing their souls would enter higher beings in a spaceship traveling behind the comet Hale-Bopp. The group, led by Marshall Herff Applewhite, used the Internet to recruit members and supported itself by designing World Wide Web sites. Its use of contemporary technology led many anticultists to fear the potential reach of the Inter-net as the millennium approached, but nothing on the scale of the Heaven's Gate suicides ocurred in the United States between 1997 and 2001.


Bromley, David G., and Anson D. Shupe, Jr. Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare. Boston: Beacon Press, 1981.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America. Rev. and updated ed. Religious Information Systems Series, vol. 7. New York: Garland, 1992.

Melton, J. Gordon, and Robert L. Moore. The Cult Experience: Responding to the New Religious Pluralism. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982.

Washington, Joseph R., Jr. Black Sects and Cults: The Power Axis in an Ethnic Ethic. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1973.

JillWatts/f. b.

See alsoAfrican American Religions and Sects ; Jonestown Massacre ; Nativist Movements (American Indian Revival Movements) ; Religion and Religious Affiliation ; Waco Siege .

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The term cult is derived from a Latin root meaning to break ground, particularly in preparing (cultivating) a field for domesticated crops. The same root is seen in culture, in both a specialized scientific sense (a bacteria culture ) and in a broader social sense (human culture ). By extension, it was originally used in a religious sense, meaning behavior glorifying a deity or saint (the cult of Saint James). By the nineteenth century, the word came to be used pejoratively about those who were excessively devoted to popular authors (the cult of Wordsworth), worshiping them as modern saints. Around 1900, this pejorative use influenced anthropologists to use cult to refer to ancient or allegedly primitive religious practices (as in cult objects or cargo cults).

The popularity of this negative sense makes the term difficult to define objectively, since a cult in an outsiders eyes may well be a new religion to someone inside the group. Both the positive and negative uses of the term, however, agree that a cult is a small religious group that exists in tension with a predominant religion. In particular, such groups are highly cohesive in structure and are headed by a dominant leader who influences members behavior in dramatic ways. They pursue a transcendent goal, claiming that the truths they preserve will transform all of society, and encourage direct religious experience through participation in rituals intended to foster ecstatic or supernatural phenomena. Often (though not always) they are apocalyptic in nature, holding that contemporary society is hopelessly corrupt and will soon be destroyed or transformed through the direct intervention of supernatural forces.

Cult behavior in the ordinary sense needs to be differentiated from the popular image of dangerous cults, drawn from the most extreme cases. In the popular imagination, cult leaders prey on impressionable youth and use mind control, brainwashing, hypnosis, and physical and sexual abuse to entrap and hold them against their will. Cult activity, in the most sensationalized images, includes ritualized sex abuse, self-mutilation, and, in some unconfirmed accounts, animal and human blood sacrifice. Often the agenda of such groups is thought to be to overturn organized religion or to promote the political agenda of evil others. Contributing to such pejorative images is the faux-etymology of cult as derived from occult, although this term, originally meaning hidden or concealed, has a distinct history. Few of these claims have ever held up to skeptical inquiry; nevertheless, popular accounts frequently assume that sociopathic behavior is integral to these cults activities.

Most cults in the historical record have been shortlived, but some persist to become the nuclei of important religious movements. Cults in both senses have been commonplace in European history from ancient times. Mystery cults, common in the Greek and Roman world, clearly were seen as charismatic movements that presented challenges to mainstream religions. Such groups, particularly the Bacchanalia, were frequently accused of being cults in the negative, sociopathic sense. Similarly, the persecution of the early Christian church by Roman authorities was based on persistent rumors that it was a dangerous cult that abducted and cannibalized babies.

During medieval times, Christianity itself fostered the growth of locally based movements devoted to the veneration of a local saint. Many of these developed into cultlike groups, and, while most were limited to a town or region in their influence, some, like the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi (c. 11811226), became important institutions (the Franciscan monks) in their own right. In early modern times, a number of breakaway factions of Protestant Christianity similarly began as small, strongly differentiated cults, and then grew into persistent religious movements. Some of these groups, like the Shakers, eventually declined, while others, like the Amish and Mormons (Church of Latter-day Saints) developed into stable institutions.

During the late twentieth century, rumors of cult activities in the United States especially developed around the development of new religious movements. Rumors that such cults engaged in blood sacrifices, orgiastic sex rituals, or child abuse became especially prevalent in the second half of the twentieth century. The Process, an allegedly satanic organization active in Great Britain and the United States during the 1960s, was repeatedly targeted as a cult in this negative sense, but a detailed sociological study of the group by William Bainbridge (1978) showed that the popular image was misleading.

Yet some cults did engage in violent and abusive acts, giving warrant to these fears. Two notorious examples were the Peoples Temple, founded by James Warren Jones (19311978) in Indianapolis during the 1950s, and the Heavens Gate movement, begun by Marshall Herff Applewhite (19311997) in the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s. Both cults ended their existence in spectacular acts of group suicide, the first in 1978, the second in 1997. Both have been extensively studied, and while both groups came to the same tragic end, the factors leading up to their self-destruction varied considerably. Both can be seen as extreme examples of cult behavior caused by each groups isolation from outside culture and the growing mental instability of their leaders.

Both cults drew much of their ideology from the doomsday worldview prevalent among charismatic groups, which have become an important factor in both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. This ideology emphasizes controlling ones personal and social behavior strictly in preparation for an imminent, violent apocalyptic struggle against demonic forces. This mindset makes such groups potentially dangerous when contacted unwisely by outsiders. The notorious 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, carried out in part by members of the early Mormon Church, and the bloody counterattacks taken by the Branch Davidian enclave (near Waco, Texas) against federal agents in 1993 illustrate two additional cases in which embattled cults turned to violent acts against outsiders.

Such extreme cases should not, however, distract scholars from studying objectively the many cults that continue to arise within mainstream religions and as alternatives to them. However, many more such groups remain diffuse enough that their members involvement in these religious groups does not separate them from their everyday work and social worlds. Such cults have been and will continue to be positive factors in the development of new religions and the modification of mainstream sects in response to the cults challenge. In addition to cults composed of charismatic Christians, many more such groups have become devoted to reviving neo-pagan rituals and investigating paranormal phenomena such as UFOs. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, the numbers of self-proclaimed Wiccans increased nearly seventeen-fold from 8000 to 138,000 during the previous ten years, with an additional 200,000 now belonging to a pagan or new age (Kosmin and Mayer 2001). Such new movements continue to provide individuals with creative means for pursuing religious experience.

SEE ALSO Christianity; Conformity; Groupthink; Mysticism; Religion; Social Dominance Orientation; Suicide; Unidentified Flying Objects


Bainbridge, William Sims. 1978. Satans Power: A Deviant Psychotherapy Cult. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brown, Peter. 1981. The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burkert, Walter. 1987. Ancient Mystery Cults. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Denzler, Brenda. 2001. The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ellis, Bill. 2000. Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Galanter, Marc. 1999. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kosmin, Barry A., and Egon Mayer. 2001. American Religious Identification Survey. The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Quarantelli, E. L., and Dennis Wenger. 1973. A Voice from the Thirteenth Century: The Characteristics and Conditions for the Emergence of a Ouija Board Cult. Urban Life and Culture 1: 379400.

Wojcik, Daniel. 1997. The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in America. New York: New York University Press.

Bill Ellis

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Highly organized groups led by a dynamic leader who exercises strong control.

A cult is a structured group, most of whose members demonstrate unquestioned loyalty to a dynamic leader. The cult leader governs most, if not all, aspects of the lives of his or her followers, often insisting that they break all ties with the world outside of the cult. Such groups are usually thought of in terms of religion, although other types of cults can and do exist.

The proliferation of religious cults in the United States is considered by many experts as symptomatic of the general social discordance that has plagued postwar Western society. Cults offer the allure of an ordered world that is easily understood. Clear rules of behavior are enforced and nagging questions about meaning and purpose are dispelled by the leader, who defines members' lives in service to the cult's interest. It is probably most useful to examine the phenomenon of cults without dwelling on the sensationalistic practices of the flamboyant, the infamous, and the suicidal. When a psychologist examines a cult and its dynamics, what is actually observed is the mental condition of the member; in other words, what is it about the individual that allows them to willingly relinquish themselves to such rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking and living?

To understand this process, consider that many social organizations other than what we traditionally think of as cults require strict adherence to a set of beliefs and, in turn, provide a sense of meaning and purpose to their followers. Behavior that is not normally considered as being cult-like can be seen as having some of the main characteristics of cults. The rigid social contract of the military, for instance, is considered by many psychologists as being cult-like. Other social organizations that have had a profound impact on the lives of its followers include self-help groups , such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where selflessness and devotion to the group are highly valued and rewarded. Certain types of political groups and terrorist organizations are still other examples of "cults" that defy the common definition of the term. Dr. Arthur Deikman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, is one of many psychologists who has observed cultic behavior in many areas of society other than in extremist religious groups. In the introduction to his 1990 book, The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering the Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society, Deikman asserted that "behavior similar to that which takes place in extreme cults takes place in all of us," and suggested that "the longing for parents persists into adulthood and results in cult behavior that pervades normal society."

Because cultic behavior underlies more than extremist religious sects, many psychologists refer to these groups as charismatic groups. Marc Galanter, professor of psychiatry at New York University, defines the characteristics of charismatic groups in his study Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion (1989). According to Galanter, charismatic group members "1) have a shared belief system; 2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness; 3) are strongly influenced by the group's behavioral norms, and4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership." Other psychologists have devised additional theories to explain the drawing power of charismatic groups, and some conclude that people who devote themselves to such groups have not yet achieved the developmental stage of individuation. Still other experts, drawing on the field of sociobiology , suggest that the need to be part of a group has biological, evolutionary roots traceable to that period in human history when to be banned from the dominant hunter-gatherer group meant almost certain death.

Whatever the origins of the psychological need to be a part of a defined group, the fact is most people do not fall under the sway of charismatic groups. Typically, such groups find recruits among young people. Usually, such a young person is approached by friendly, outgoing recruiters for the cult who express a deep interest in the person's life and offer empathy and understanding for the difficulties they may be experiencing. These difficulties may be in relation to a failed romance, an unhappy family life, or an existential crisis of the sort usually associated with late adolescence in which a young person has no idea how they fit in the world. The recruiters are often trained to provide a "friendly ear" to troubled young people, to validate their experiences as being common, and, finally, to suggest that other people (such as themselves) have found solace in their groups.

During the process of initiation, recruits may experience severe psychological disorders as they at once begin and resist immersion into an entirely new system. Abandoning old allegiances and belief systems can bring about intense guilt before the recruit completely immerses him or herself into the charismatic group. Some psychologists believe that such mental illnesses as dissociative identity disorders , pathologic adjustment reactions, major depressive disorders, and others may be attributed to the agonizing process of joining a charismatic group. Once immersed in the cult, members will often cut all ties with their past lives, ending contact with their families and friends as they join a new social order that seems to give them meaning and purpose. This kind of behavior is obviously less true of charismatic groups such as the military and some types of self-help groups, but these symptoms can nonetheless appear in less extreme forms.

Interviews with former cult members have revealed that in extremist religious cults, there are often tremendous obstacles to leaving. These obstacles can come in the form of peer pressure , where loyal cult members will intervene in the case of a member who has doubts about the cult and longs for his or her old life, or the obstacles may be physical ones for those whose cult lives communally in an isolated area. Often, family members of persons in religious cults hire what are called "deprogrammers" to kidnap their loved ones and take them to some neutral place where they can be reasoned with sensibly without the interference of other cult members espousing the group's prevailing ideology.

Most psychologists would probably acknowledge that there exists a deep human need to belong to a group. Often, this need leads people to form what might be viewed as unhealthy allegiances to a person or group who, ultimately, does not truly have the person's interest at heart.

Followers of American-born cult leader Jim Jones left the U.S. to set up the Jonestown commune in the Guyana jungle in South America. After a U.S. Congressman and three journalists investigating the cult were killed, Jones persuaded 911 members of his People's Temple flock to kill themselves with cyanide-laced potions in a mass suicide on Nov. 18, 1978. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, a group that originally split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church during the Depression, led 82 people to their death, when he refused to be served with a search and arrest warrant at the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Koresh's followers believed he was the Messiah, despite reports of child abuse and other questionable behaviors. After an initial gunfight that killed four agents and six Davidians, a 51-day stand-off occurred between federal agents and the Davidians holed up in the compound. When agents launched a tear gas attack on April 19, 1993, to end the siege, a fire burned the compound and killed 82 Davidians, probably in a deliberate mass suicide .

Bodies of 39 similarly dressed men and women were found in San Diego on March 26, 1997, after a mass suicide led by Marshall Applewhite, cult leader of Heaven's Gate. The deaths were triggered by the cult's belief that a flying saucer traveled behind comet Hale-Bopp to take them home, an evolutionary existence above the human level. Articles have appeared about the use of the Internet to recruit Heaven's Gate followers.

Further Reading

Ankerberg, John and Weldon, John. Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 1999.

Deikman, Arthur J. The Wrong Way Home: Uncovering Patterns of Cult Behavior in American Society. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Deutsch, A. "Tenacity of Attachment to a Cult Leader: A Psychiatric Perspective." American Journal of Psychiatry 137 (1980): 1569-73.

Dolan, Sean. Everything you need to know about cults. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 2000.

Hall, J.R. "The Apocalypse at Jonestown." In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, edited by T. Robbins and D. Anthony. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981.

See also Military psychology

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A term used for many years in social science to refer to religious groups whose basic religious beliefs and practices differ markedly from those dominant in the particular culture in which they are found. The term cult has, however, since the 1970s become a pejorative term used to describe unpopular religious groups. Many groups labeled as "cults" are Spiritualist, occult, and metaphysical groups. The Theosophical Society, the Spiritualist movement, Christian Science, and occult groups such as the Rosicrucians were among the first groups so negatively labeled. In social science, the term has been replaced by the less prejudicial terms "new religion," new religious movement, or "alternative religion."

Contemporary use of cult was nurtured for many decades by Evangelical Christian organizations, some organized as late as the 1930s, to oppose groups that deviated from Christian orthodoxy. In the mid-1970s, a more secular anticult movement developed in the United States to oppose several new religions that focused their attention on young adult recruits. The major organization of the contemporary anticult movement is the Cult Awareness Network, which grew out of the older Citizens Freedom Foundation. It has nurtured a number of similar organizations in Europe and South America.

The anticult movement has encouraged the publication of a vast literature denouncing "cults." This literature is characterized by adoption of the "brainwashing" hypothesis to explain the destructive nature of the groups under attack. Such groups are said to have an unusual power to control the minds of their members to the extent that they lose the ability to think straight and evaluate their experience. According to the literature, members have been "programmed" and act like robots following every command of their leaders; they cannot choose to leave the harmful situation in which they have been trapped. This analysis justifies an intrusion into their lives by anticult forces. In extreme cases, such intrusions take the form of "de-programming," a forceful removal of the person from the group and the application of social and psychological pressure to convince the person to break his or her relationship with the group.

In 1987-88, the American Psychological Association examined the issue of brainwashing or mind control in relation to new religions and other groups, such as psychological training groups, that had been accused of using techniques of "coercive persuasion" against their adherents. The association concluded that such theories were based on insufficient scientific data and that the work done was severely flawed methodologically. This opinion was confirmed by the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Most scholars on new religions had rejected the brainwashing hypothesis shortly after its proposal in the early 1980s, and those opinions by the several scholarly bodies have been decisive in moving discussion of the so-called cults to other issues.

The anticult movement has joined the ranks of various opposition groups (anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-Semitic) that have dotted the religious landscape in recent centuries. In the meantime, scholars have noted a radical jump in religious pluralism in Western society.


Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

. Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedic Handbook of the Cults. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992.

Melton, J. Gordon, and Robert L. Moore. The Cult Experience. New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982.

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