views updated May 14 2018



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


views updated May 18 2018


The 1978 Jonestown Massacre, where 913 of the Reverend Jim Jones' followers were forced to commit suicide, marked the high point in America's condemnation of cults. Spread across newspaper front pages and national magazines from coast to coast, the slaughter gave focus to an alarm that had grown throughout the decade. Were cults spreading like wildfire? Were Rasputin-like religious leaders luring the nation's youth into oblivion like modern-day Pied Pipers? The Jonestown coverage reinforced the common perception that, in cults, America harbored some alien menace. The perception could not be further from the truth. In a sense, America was founded by cults, and throughout the nation's history, cults and splinter groups from established religions have found in America a fertile cultural terrain. That modern-day Americans find cults alarming is yet another example of America's paradoxical culture.

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a cult as "a religion regarded as unorthodox and spurious; also: its body of adherents." Cults as they are understood in the popular imagination have some additional characteristics, and can include: any religious organization that spends an inordinate amount of time raising money; any religion that relies on a virulent us-vs.-them dogmatism, thereby alienating its members further from mainstream society; and any religion where the temporal leader holds such sway as to be regarded as a deity, a deity capable of treating cult members as financial, sexual, or missionary chattel to be exploited to the limits of their endurance. In this expanded definition, a Pentecostal such as Aimee Semple McPherson, the Los Angeles preacher, and not technically a cult leader, fits adequately into the definition, as does Jim Jones, Charles Manson, or Sun Myung Moon.

Originally, America was a land of pilgrims, and the Plymouth colonists were not the last to view the New World as a holy land. And as in all times and all religions, religious charlatans were a constant. By the close of the nineteenth century, Americans had founded some peculiar interpretations of Christianity. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses all had their origins in the nineteenth century, and by dint of accretion, they had developed from dubious, persecuted faiths into respectable institutions. In the history of Mormonism one can discover much that is pertinent to understanding modern-day cults; elements of this tale are reminiscent of the histories of Scientology, The Unification Church, and People's Temple, among others. A charismatic leader, claiming divine inspiration and not above resorting to trickery, amasses a following, who are viewed with derision by the general populace. The faith aggressively recruits new members and later attempts to gloss over its dubious origins, building enormous and impressive edifices and going out of its way to convey an image of solidity.

From time to time, waves of religious fervor have swept across America—the Shakers and Pentecostals early in the nineteenth century, for instance, or the Spiritualist and Theosophy movements at century's end. In western New York state, where the Church of Latter Day Saints originated, so many evangelical movements caught fire in the 1820s that it was nick-named the "Burned-over District." The church's founder, Joseph Smith, claimed to have received revelation directly from an angel who left Smith with several golden tablets on which were inscribed the story of Hebraic settlers to the New World. Smith and his band of youthful comrades "was regarded as wilder, crazier, more obscene, more of a threat" writes Tom Wolfe, "than the entire lot of hippie communes put together." Smith's contemporaries called him "a notorious liar," and, "utterly destitute of conscience" and cited his 1826 arrest for fortune-telling as evidence of his dishonesty. But by the time Smith fled New York in 1839, he was accompanied by 10,000 loyal converts who followed him to Nauvoo, Illinois, with an additional 5,000 converts from England swelling their numbers. After Smith began a systematic power-grab, using the Mormon voting block in gaining several elected positions, he was lynched by the locals, and (shades of Jim Jones' flight to Guyana) the Mormons continued westward to Utah, where the only threat was the Native Americans.

An earnest desire to bring people into the fold has often devolved into hucksterism in the hands of some religious leaders. Throughout the twentieth century, Elmer Gantry-esque religious leaders, from the lowly revivalist preacher to the television ministries of a Jimmy Swaggart or Oral Roberts, have shown as much concern with fleecing their followers as with saving their souls. When the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, Mary Baker Eddy, died in 1910, she left a fortune of three million dollars. George Orwell once mused that the best way to make a lot of money is to start one's own religion, and L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, took Orwell's maxim to heart.

A pulp fiction writer by trade, Hubbard originally published his "new science of Dianetics," a treatise on the workings of the mind, in the April, 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Dianetics was a technique for self-actualization and understanding, and Hubbard couched his theories in scientific rhetoric and obscure phraseology to appeal to a well-educated, affluent constituency. Published in book form, Dianetics became an overnight success, and Hubbard quickly set up a "research institute" and began attracting adherents. Dianetics, as practiced by Hubbard, straddled the gap between the self-actualization movements typical of later religious cults, and religion (though Scientology's mythos was not set down until shortly before Hubbard's death). In Dianetics, an auditor ran a potential follower through a list of questions and their emotional response was measured with an e-meter, a simple galvanic register held in both hands. This meter revealed the negative experiences imprinted in one's unconscious in an almost pictorial form called an engram, and Dianetics promised to sever the unconscious connection to negative experiences and allow the follower to attain a state of "clear," an exalted state similar to enlightenment. Hubbard's idea appeared scientific, and like psychotherapy, it was an inherently expensive, time-consuming process.

From the beginning, Hubbard ran into all manner of legal troubles. He squabbled with the I.R.S. over the church's tax-exempt status, and the F.D.A. over the use of the e-meter. Scientology met stiff government opposition in every country in which it operated. An Australian Board of Inquiry, convened in 1965, called Scientology "evil, its techniques evil, its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally, and socially…. Scientology is a delusional belief system, based on fictions and fallacies and propagated by falsehoods and deception"; it was banned from Australia until 1983. The British government banned foreign Scientologists in 1968, and Hubbard was convicted on fraud charges, in absentia, by a Paris court in 1978. The Church lost its tax-exempt status in France and Denmark in the mid-1980s, and has had to seriously curtail its operations in Germany. More than most cults, Scientology's travails appeared to be symptomatic of its founder's mental instability. As an institution, Scientology was marked by an extreme fractiousness and a pronounced penchant for litigation. Ruling in a 1984 lawsuit brought by the church, a Los Angeles judge stated, "The organization clearly is schizophrenic and paranoid, and this bizarre combination seems to be a reflection if its founder."

In many ways Scientology anticipated the tactics of the wave of cult groups that would sweep America in the 1960s and 1970s. There numbers are almost innumerable, therefore, a look at two of the most infamous—the Unification Church and the Hare Krishnas—must suffice to explain this religious revival, what Tom Wolfe termed "the Third Wave." Better known by the pejorative term, Moonies, in 1959, the Unification Church, a radical offshoot of Presbyterianism, founded its first American church in Berkeley. Its founder, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, converted from his native Confucianism as a child, receiving a messianic revelation while in his teens. Moon was expelled from his church for this claim, as well as his unorthodox interpretation of Christianity, but by the late-1950s he had established a large congregation and the finances necessary to begin missionary work abroad. Like many cults, the church's teachings were culturally conservative and spiritually radical. Initially, it appealed to those confused by the rapid changes in social mores then prevalent, offering a simple theology and rigid moral teachings.

The Unification Church was aggressive in its proselytizing. Critics decried its recruitment methods as being callous, manipulative, and deceitful; the charge of brainwashing was frequently leveled against the church. Adherents preyed on college students, targeting the most vulnerable among them—the lonely, the disenfranchised, and the confused. The unsuspecting recruit was typically invited over to a group house for dinner. Upon arrival, he or she was showered with attention (called "love-bombing" in church parlance), and told only in the most general terms the nature of the church. The potential member was then invited to visit a church-owned ranch or farm for the weekend, where they were continually supervised from early morning until late at night.

Once absorbed, the new member was destined to take his/her place in the church's vast fund-raising machine, selling trinkets, candy, flowers, or other cheap goods, and "witnessing" on behalf of the church. Often groups of adherents traveled cross country, sleeping in their vehicles, renting a motel room once a week to maintain personal hygiene, in short, living lives of privation while funneling profits to the church. Moonie proselytizers were known for their stridency and their evasions, typically failing to identify their church affiliation should they be asked. On an institutional level, the church resorted to this same type of subterfuge, setting up dozens of front groups, and buying newspapers and magazines—usually with a right-wing bias (Moon was an avowed anti-Communist, a result of his spending time in a North Korean POW camp). The Unification Church also developed an elaborate lobbying engine; it was among the few groups that actually supported Richard Nixon, organizing pro-Nixon demonstrations up until the last days of his administration. Allusive, shadowy connections to Korean intelligence agencies were also alleged. The church, with its curious theology coupled with a rabid right-wing agenda, was and is a curious institution. Like Hubbard, many Christian evangelists, and other cult leaders, Moon taught his followers to be selfless while he himself enjoyed a life of luxury. But the depth and scope of his political influence is profound, and among cults, his has achieved an unprecedented level of political power.

Like the Unification Church, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishna movement, has drawn widespread criticism. Unlike the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas evince little concern for political exigencies, but their appearance—clean-shaven heads and pink sari—make the Hare Krishnas a very visible target for anti-cult sentiments, and for many years, the stridency of their beliefs exacerbated matters. A devout Hindu devotee of Krishna, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, was charged by his guru with bringing Hinduism to the west. Arriving in America in 1965, Prabhupada's teachings became popular with members of the emerging hippie populace, who adopted the movement's distinctive uniform, forswearing sex and drugs for non-chemical bliss. Hare Krishnas lived in communes, practicing a life of extreme asceticism and forsaking ties with family and friends. Complete immersion in the group was de rigueur. The movement spread rapidly, becoming infamous for its incessant street proselytizing, in which lines of devotees would play percussion instruments while chanting for hours. The sect's frequenting of airports and train stations, importuning travelers with flowers or Prabhupada's translation of the classic Indian text, the Bhagavad-Gita, also drew public scorn. Like the Moonies, the Hare Krishna's fundraising efforts helped turn public opinion against the cult.

In the 1970s, as more and more American joined such groups as the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas, or the "Jesus People" (an eclectic group of hippies who turned to primitive charismatic Christianity while retaining their dissolute fashions and lifestyle), parental concern intensified. An unsubstantiated but widely disseminated statistic held that a quarter of all cult recruits were Jewish, provoking alarm among Jewish congregations. To combat the threat, self-proclaimed cult experts offered to abduct and "deprogram" cult members for a fee, and in the best of American traditions, deprogramming itself became a lucrative trade full of self-aggrandizing pseudo-psychologists. The deprogrammers did have some valid points. Many cults used sleep deprivation, low-protein diets, and constant supervision to mold members into firmly committed zealots. By stressing an us-vs.-them view of society, cults worked on their young charges' feelings of alienation from society, creating virtual slaves who would happily sign over their worldly possessions, or, as was the case with a group called the Children of God, literally give their bodies to Christ as prostitutes.

For those who had lost a child to a cult, the necessity of deprogramming was readily apparent. But in time, the logic of the many cult-watch dog groups grew a bit slim. If anything, the proliferation of anti-cult groups spoke to the unsettling aftershocks of the 1960s counterculture as much as any threat presented by new religions. Were all religious groups outside the provenance of an established church to be equally condemned? Were all religious beliefs that weren't intrinsically exoteric to be rejected out of hand? By stressing conformity, many watch-dog groups diluted their moral authority.

Ironically, while cult watchdog groups focused public outrage on the large, readily identifiable cults—Scientology, ISKCON, the Unification Church—it was usually the smaller, homegrown varieties that proved the most unstable. Religions are concerned with self-perpetuation. When a charismatic leader dies, stable religious groups often grow more stable and moderate and perpetuate themselves (as has the now respectable Church of Latter Day Saints). But smaller cults, if they do not dissolve and scatter, have often exploded in self-destruction. The People's Temple, the Branch Davidians (actually a sect of Presbyterianism), and the Manson Family were such groups. In 1997, Heaven's Gate, a cult with pronounced science fiction beliefs based in California, committed mass suicide in accordance with the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet.

The Jonestown massacre in the Guyanese jungle in 1978 marks the period when cult awareness was at its height, although incidents like the Heaven's Gate mass suicide have kept cults in the headlines. Such is the degree of public suspicion of cults that, when necessary, government agencies could tap into this distrust and steer blame away from their own wrongdoing, as was the case when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the F.B.I. burned the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, to the ground in 1993 after followers of cult leader David Koresh refused to surrender themselves to authorities. At the time of the massacre, media reportage was uniform in its condemnation of Koresh, and vociferous in its approval of the F.B.I.; it was only with the release of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a 1997 documentary on the FBI's mishandling of the situation, that a dissenting note was finally heard.

America is not unique in its war between the "positive," socializing aspects of religion, and the esoteric, ecstatic spiritualism running in counterpoint beside it. "As Max Weber and Joachim Wach have illustrated in detail," writes Tom Wolfe, "every major modern religion, as well as countless long-gone minor ones, has originated not with a theology or set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They have all originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some overwhelming ecstasy or seizure, a 'vision,' a 'trance,' an hallucination; in short, an actual neurological event." This often-overlooked fact explains the suspicion with which mainstream religions view the plethora of cults that rolled over America since its founding, as well as the aversion cult members show to society at large once they have bonded with their fellows in spiritual ecstasy. It is precisely these feelings of uniqueness, of privileged insight, that fraudulent cult leaders work on in their efforts to mold cult members into spiritual slaves. The problem is this: not all cults are the creation of charlatans, but the opprobrium of society towards cults is by now so ingrained that on the matter of cults, there is no longer any question of reconciling the historical precedent with the contemporary manifestation.

But one salient fact can still be gleaned from the history of cults in modern America: to quote H.L. Mencken, "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." Americans are and will continue to be endlessly susceptible to simple, all-encompassing explanations, and what most cults share is a rigid dogmatism that brooks no argument, a hermetically sealed belief-system, eternally vulnerable to exposure from the world-at-large. The rage of a Jim Jones or Charles Manson springs from not only their personal manias, but in their impotence in controlling the world to suit their teachings. When cults turn ugly and self-destructive, it is often in reaction to this paradox. Like a light wind blowing on a house of cards, cults are fragile structures—it does not take much to set them tumbling down. Still, given mankind's pressing spiritual needs, and despite society's abhorrence, it seems likely that cult groups will continue to emerge in disturbing and occasionally frightening ways.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Barrett, David V. Sects, "Cults," and Alternative Religions: A World Survey and Sourcebook. London, Blandford, 1996.

Christie-Murray, David. A History of Heresy. London, Oxford University Press, 1976.

Collins, John J. The Cult Experience: An Overview of Cults, their Traditions, and Why People Join Them. Springfield, Illinois, C. C. Thomas, 1991.

Jenkins, Philip. Stoning the Prophets: Cults and Cult Scares in Modern America. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lane, Brian. Killer Cults: Murderous Messiahs and their Fanatical Followers. London, Headline, 1996.

Robbins, Thomas. Cults, Converts & Charisma. London, Sage Publications, 1988.

Stoner, Carroll, and Jo Anne Parke. All God's Children. Radnor, Pennsylvania, Chilton, 1977.

Wolfe, Tom. Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine: The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening. Toronto, Collins Publishers, 1976.

Yanoff, Morris. Where Is Joey?: Lost Among the Hare Krishnas. Athens, Ohio University Press, 1981.

Zellner, William W., and Marc Petrowsky, editors. Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis. Westport, Connecticut, Praeger, 1998.


views updated May 09 2018


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 .


views updated May 14 2018


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


views updated Jun 11 2018


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.


views updated May 29 2018


There is no clear consensus in the published literature as to which religious groups should appropriately be designated "cults" and which should not. The term can be considered generic, however, and need not pertain exclusively to religious phenomena. Broad fields such as politics, popular culture, psychotherapy, and personal development have produced associations with cult-like characteristics.

In reference to religious groups, the term "cult" has been linked with some or all of the following characteristics: a focus on individual concerns, indifference to the world, privatized and/or ecstatic religious experience, syncretistic doctrines of a mystical, esoteric, or psychic nature, or doctrines that draw inspiration from other than the religion of the tradition in which they exist. Cults are also held to have a charismatic leader, to lack formal criteria for membership, to have weak organizational structure, and to eschew rigorous ethical demands on members. Cults are more tolerant toward other religious groups and are likely to have a transitory or short-lived existence.

Recent scholarship distinguishes types of cults on the following basis: Audience cults generally lack formal

organizations. They give expression to parallelisms of spontaneities in which individuals with common interests, ideas, and experience gather informally for sharing and providing mutual support. Client cults are more formally organized. They promulgate doctrines and services and resemble consultant/client relationships in their organizational structure. Cults of this type often emphasize pragmatic considerations related to self-adjustment and self-mastery.

Cult movements are more explicitly religious and are concerned with meeting the need for various religious rewards and compensations. While sects are potentially schismatic groups seeking to purify or refurbish an established religious tradition, cult movements are a type of religious innovation that rearrange familiar cultural and symbolic patterns, or that import new ones. By so doing, cult movements signal a break with the general pattern of established religious tradition in society.

Why cults form and what factors are conducive to their spread has been the subject of long-standing discussion. Anthropological and psychoanalytic perspectives associate cult formation with charismatic leaders and with messianic, millenarian, or nativistic religious movements that arise where traditional social structures and cultural patterns have broken down and where values, norms and myths from an alien culture have been introduced.

Sociological perspectives have linked cult formation to the presence of entrepreneurial personalities who are adept at developing various spiritual, social, and psychological products by assembling components of preexisting religious systems into new configurations. Sociologists have also linked cult formation with urban areas undergoing rapid social and demographic change, with wide-spread alienation and anomie (especially among the middle-class), with weak established institutional churches, and where individuals are adrift from conventional religious organizations.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the term "cult" came to be associated with a proliferation of non-conventional religions, many of which were of Eastern derivation. In the U.S., the growth of such movements among an affluent, college-educated, youth constituency coupled with dramatic changes in the participant's values, life-styles, and controversies surrounding cult proselytizing strategies and organizational characteristics gave rise to considerable opposition in the form of a loose coalition of anticult groups.

Although the term "cult" is still widely used in public parlance to refer to groups that are small, unorthodox, and culturally anomalous, many scholars consider the term obsolete because of its pejorative connotation and lack of empirical clarity. Academic treatment of marginalized or non-conventional religion has moved in the direction of theories and methodologies derived from resource mobilization and social movement perspectives. Within these frameworks, cults are viewed as movements concerned with transformations in religious meaning, symbolism, and innovation.

See Also: sect.

Bibliography: l. von wiese & h. becker, Systematic Sociology (New York 1932) 621628. a. wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 58 (1956) 264281, p. worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia (New York 1968). b. campbell, "A Typology of Cults," Sociological Analysis 39, 3 (1978) 228240. g. k. nelson, "The Concept of Cult," Sociological Review 16, 3 (November, 1968) 351362. r. stark & w. s. bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization and Cult Formation (Berkeley 1985).

[w. d. dinges]


views updated May 11 2018


"Cult" is not a neutral word in American culture. In common usage, it often refers to a group outside the mainstream—a group with abnormal, crazy, perhaps even sinister ideas or practices. Cults that have gained the most public attention tend to reinforce this image.

Social scientists say that to be labeled a "cult" an organization must meet the criteria of size, doctrine, and time. A cult tends to be small in membership, anywhere from a handful to a few hundred. Cults also tend to have one or more differences in doctrine from established religions—a cult may believe in a different god or may have forms of worship not shared by other churches. Finally, a cult is usually new on the scene, which gives it the status of "outsider."

Christianity was considered a cult by the Romans throughout the first century c.e., until it grew in numbers and attained some longevity. Mormonism was considered cultish by many Americans in the nineteenth century, forcing the church to abandon one of its "deviant" doctrines—polygamy (the practice of having more than one spouse). The Church of Scientology was described as a cult in a Time (see entry under 1920s—Print Culture in volume 2) magazine cover story in the 1990s.

The cults most likely to become prominent in popular culture are those that are destructive—whether of their own members, or outsiders, or both. In 1978, charismatic preacher Jim Jones (1931–1978) took the members of his San Francisco, California, church, known as the People's Temple, to an isolated patch of jungle in British Guyana to create a new society, Jonestown. Rumors of Jones brainwashing his followers and keeping some against their will led to a U.S. government investigation. After a violent confrontation between cultists and the investigators, Jones commanded all of his followers to commit suicide by drinking poison. The reluctant were shot. On November 18, 1978, U.S. officials found the bodies of Jones and 913 followers dead on the ground. The incident was the subject of a 1980 made-for-TV movie, Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. The U.S. government's twenty-two-day siege of the Branch Davidian (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) Church's compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 was the focus of intense news coverage. At the beginning, federal agents trying to serve a warrant were shot at and wounded; by the end the compound burned down, killing those inside, including the group's "Messiah," David Koresh (1959–1993). This tragedy has been the subject of two films: In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco (a 1993 made-for-TV movie) and Waco: The Rules of Engagement (a 1997 documentary that is very critical of the government's actions).

—Justin Gustainis

For More Information

Abgrall, Jean-Marie. Soul Snatchers: The Mechanics of Cults. New York: Algora Publishers, 2000.

Eyre, Anne. "Religious Cults in Twentieth Century America." ARNet: Online Resources for American Studies. (accessed March 29, 2002).

Lewis, James R. Odd Gods: New Religions & the Cult Controversy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York: Northam Publishers, 2000.