Cults and Sects

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CULTS AND SECTS . The terms cult and sect are regarded as stereotype-loaded terms that are associated with new or unpopular religious movements, and these terms are thus mostly avoided by scholars. They are, however, widely used by the media and by groups (especially so-called anticult groups) that perceive certain new religious movements as objectionable and dangerous. In contemporary English, cult functions as the derogatory word, with sect reserved for less controversial groups. In French, German, Spanish, and Italian, the derogatory word is the local equivalent of sect, and the word cult is rarely used. Some dictionaries now translate the French secte and similar non-English words with cult rather than with sect. Originally, however, the English cult and sect were nonpejorative, scholarly terms. Some earlier uses of sect and cult in sociology will be reviewed before discussing the current derogatory uses of these terms.

From Troeltsch to Stark and Bainbridge

Ernst Troeltsch (18651923), a German theologian and sociologist, elaborated in the early twentieth century an influential distinction between churches, sects, and mysticism. Churches, according to Troeltsch, are religious groups well integrated into the larger society. A typical mark of this integration is the fact that most members are born into churches, rather than converted to them. Coming to conclusions similar to those of Max Weber (18641920), Troeltsch saw the sect as a religious movement where most members are first-generation converts. Troeltsch's "sect" refers to a group that is typically hostile or indifferent to the larger society and that may criticize churches as being "this-worldly." Sects prefer to remain poor and comparatively small rather than compromise their integrity. Sects, however, may eventually evolve into churches and move toward the mainstream, being replaced at the margins of the religious field by new sects. This happens less often, according to Troeltsch, with mysticism, which is less structured and organized, and survives as a sum of individual experiences.

Troeltsch's typology remained influential in the sociology of religion until World War II. It was revised and refined in the 1940s and 1950s by J. Milton Yinger, who made further distinctions within the descriptions of both sects and churches. Yinger distinguished between "established sects," "sects," and "cults." The latter are small groups of believers sharing a religious experience but not yet organized into a structure. While some cults eventually disappear, others, according to Yinger, become sects, which he defined as religious organizations mostly made up of first-generation converts and existing in a significant degree of tension with the larger society. When second- and third-generation members appear, the sect moves to the stage of "established sect," a transitional position between the Troeltschian types of sect and church. What really differentiates sects from churches is, according to Yinger, "universalism." A sect, even an established sect, does not (yet) regard itself as universal. It only tries to organize a limited group of members. A "denomination" represents the first stage of the transformation of a sect into a church, because it at least proclaims a universal goal, although in fact it is not able to pursue it. "Ecclesiae" (churches) are more universal than denominations, but only "universal churches" are churches in the fullest sense of the word, having achieved their universal goal in practice and not only in theory. Although within Christianity only the Roman Catholic Church is, according to Yinger, a universal church, theoretically every cult can eventually pass through the various stages and become a church.

Troeltsch and Yinger clearly had in mind Christianity, and Christianity only. After World War II, the media often described as sects and cults movements that were not Christian but derived from Hinduism, Buddhism, or the occult tradition. Some sociologists, such as Bryan R. Wilson, tried to redefine sect as a word not necessarily connected to Christianity. In Wilson's view, the sect may be defined by its goal, which is both more and less ambitious than the typical goal of a mainstream church. A sect, unlike a church, does not aspire to be recognized by the state as an institution, nor as part of the organizational fabric of society. On the other hand, it wants to deeply change the life of its members, and will occasionally claim that this change will result eventually in a revolutionary change of society itself. These goals may be pursued inside or outside Christianity.

The latest influential sociological statement of the differences between church, sect, and cult was included in The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (1985) by American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. A church is defined (following Troeltsch) as a religious group that accepts, and cooperates with, the dominant social milieu, while a sect is a religious group in a situation of tension or hostility with respect to the social mainstream. However, the same group may be regarded at the same time as a sect in one country and a church in another. A sect is by definition a group that exhibits some degree of deviance while remaining within a tradition perceived as nondeviant in a given society. According to this definition, Jehovah's Witnesses are a sect because they are perceived as deviant by mainstream Christianity, yet remain within a (heterodox) Christian tradition that is not perceived as deviant per se in the West. While sects, though deviant, remain within a nondeviant tradition, cults are perceived as both deviant and as belonging to a deviant tradition. For example, Western members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as the Hare Krishnas, are regarded as belonging to a cult rather than a sect because not only are they perceived as deviant, but the Hindu tradition itself is perceived as deviant and nonmainstream by the general public in the West.

Stark and Bainbridge also proposed a vertical model distinguishing between "audience cults," "client cults," and "cult movements." Audience cults are non-organized (much as Troeltsch's mysticism was) and include the following of a popular author or lecturer. Their "members" may pray or meditate in a common way, but they do not feel the need to organize. Client cults are more organized, since they include the "clients" of a religious leader or group of leaders, who sell services (courses or rituals) on a regular basis, and who would like to keep their client constituency through some sort of organization. Only cult movements are full-blown religious movements, where the permanent organization is more important than the transitional leader-client relationship.

Eventually, Stark, Bainbridge, and Wilson all recognized that cult and sect were becoming ambiguous labels and should preferably be avoided. Sociologists may use them in a purely neutral, Troeltschian way, without implying that cults or sects are morally or socially "evil," or less acceptable than "genuine" religions. However, since the media, beginning in the 1970s, were using the words cult and sect to mean dangerous or even criminal religious organizations, most sociologists and historians of religion eventually accepted the proposal by Eileen Barker to use new religious movement as a value-free, nonderogatory substitute for sect or cult. The term new religions had already been introduced by various authors, but had gained more acceptance in literature written in French rather than in English. Although there are problems with the concept of "new religious movement," a large majority of scholars follow Barker's suggestion, and the small minority of academics still using sect or cult is in fact making an implicit statement of sympathy with the goals of the anticult movement.

The Anticult Movement

For the anticult movement, the distinction is simple. Religions and churches are joined out of free will. Cults and sects (the distinction between the two being somewhat blurred) use mind control, or "brainwashing," in order to attract members and keep them within the fold. Although only a tiny minority of academic scholars throughout the world would take this distinction seriously, it has been used in parliamentary reports and laws (particularly in Europe) and is still widely quoted by the news media.

Prominent in the campaign to promote brainwashing theories in reference to new religious movements was Margaret Thaler Singer (19212003), a clinical psychologist who was an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She often appeared in court cases and, in a sense, invented a new profession as a psychologist in the service of anticult lawsuits and initiatives. Based on the brainwashing arguments, private vigilantes started kidnapping adult members of new religious movements on behalf of their families, then subjected them to a sort of "counterbrainwashing" technique, which they called deprogramming. The largest organization of the American anticult movement, the Cult Awareness Network, was often accused of referring families to deprogrammers, although courts were initially tolerant of the practice.

Criticism of the brainwashing model was offered by the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, as well as by several prominent scholars of new religious movements. Scholarly criticism eventually reversed the trend toward belief in brainwashing in U.S. courts, starting in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in United States v. Fishman (1990). Some later decisions deviated in varying degrees from Fishman, so this ruling did not spell out once and for all the death of the brainwashing theory. Nevertheless, an important precedent had been set in the United States that later triggered a chain of events which led to the end of deprogramming and even of the largest American anticult organization, the Cult Awareness Network. Caught in the act of referring a family to deprogrammers, the Cult Awareness Network was sentenced to such a heavy fine that it was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1996 the court-appointed trustee-in-bankruptcy sold by auction the organization's files, name, and logo to a coalition of religious liberty activists led by Church of Scientology members.

Although the brainwashing theory lost its momentum in U.S. courts in the 1990s, the suicides and homicides associated with the Temple Solaire in Switzerland and France in 1994 and 1995 gave the theory new impetus in Europe, where it influenced parliamentary reports (largely unaware of the complicated history of the U.S. controversy) and even resulted in a controversial amendment to the French criminal code in 2001. Paradoxically, although the concept of brainwashing was used during the Cold War in American anticommunist propaganda targeting Chinese Communists, the ideology of brainwashing was used in the People's Republic of China beginning in 1999 to distinguish between "evil cults" and legitimate "religions" in a campaign that initially targeted Falun Gong, but was extended to several underground Christian organizations. The same rationale was applied by the French government's several attempts to prevent "cults" such as the Church of Scientology from operating in France, starting from a parliamentary report published in 1996. In the United States, notwithstanding the prevailing attitude of the courts against the theory of brainwashing, brainwashing metaphors were widely used by the media to provide a quick explanation for why such groups as the Branch Davidians and even al-Qāʿidah should be seen as cults rather than religions.

Although only a handful of academics accept them, distinctions between legitimate "religions" and dangerous "cults" and "sects" remain popular in some European political milieus and in the media, while acquiring a new currency to explain suicide terrorism in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001.

See Also

Anticult Movements; Brainwashing (Debate); Deprogramming; New Religious Movements, articles on History of Study, New Religious Movements in Europe, New Religious Movements in Japan; New Religious Movements in Latin America, New Religious Movements in the United States, and Scriptures of New Religious Movements; Temple Solaire.


Anthony, Dick Lee. "Brainwashing and Totalitarian Influence: An Exploration of Admissibility Criteria for Testimony in Brainwashing Trials." Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1996. The key criticism of the distinction between religions and cults based on brainwashing.

Barker, Eileen. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford, 1984. A case study showing that, in the case of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, distinctions between cults and religions are not easy to apply.

Introvigne, Massimo. Il lavaggio del cervello: Realtà o mito? Turin, Italy, 2003. A summary of controversies about the idea of cults.

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley, Calif., 1985. An early sociological attempt to define the notion of cult.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 2 vols. Translated by Olive Wyon. New York, 1931. An early seminal work about the notion of sect.

Wilson, Bryan R. Religious Sects: A Sociological Study. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1970. Proposes a definition, and a typology, of sects.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion in the Struggle for Power: A Study in the Sociology of Religion. Durham, N.C., 1946. A further work in the course of the definitional history of the term sect.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion, Society, and the Individual: An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion. New York, 1957. Further comments by Yinger on the differences between sects and religions.

Yinger, J. Milton. The Scientific Study of Religion. London, 1970. A final word by Yinger on the notion of sect, taking into account later controversies.

Massimo Introvigne (2005)