Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 25/10/2020

Last modified: 25/10/2020

One of the key aspects of religion – particularly in public discourse – is the relationship between 'organised religion' and small groups of devotees lead by charismatic individuals, commonly referred to as cults.


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One of the key aspects of religion – particularly in public discourse – is the relationship between ‘organised religion’ and small groups of devotees lead by charismatic individuals, commonly referred to as cults.

The term ‘cult’ has a somewhat negative connotation, and conjures images of people submitting to a strange and dangerous pattern of behaviour.

We can see an example of this view in the US television series American Horror Story: Cult, in which a charismatic young man leads a group of disaffected individuals on a progressively more violent campaign to gain political power. The cult leader, Kai, uses a special ritual to initiate new members, during which initiates share personal secrets and often appear to acknowledge Kai’s authority as a result.

Naturally, the television show is gruesome and exaggerated, but nonetheless draws on real world examples for inspiration, as such the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists whose compound at Waco, Texas was besieged by law enforcement, and the Manson Family, led by Charles Manson, which was responsible for several murders. The show even takes the opportunity to recreate some scenes from these events, in order to emphasise the similarity to what is happening in the main narrative.

Historical contexts

However, ‘cult’ has more than just one meaning, and especially in the study of religion it might be used in a neutral way to describe group worship – especially in ancient historical contexts.

In this video from the Religion for Breakfast channel, Andrew Mark Henry contrasts the term ‘cult’ as used by ancient historians with the modern use of the term to describe small, sectarian groups.

Relationships of power

In the field of religion and religious studies, the word cult has sometimes been used to contrast one form of religious activity (small, loosely organised, counter-cultural) with another (large, powerful, organised). In this sense, cults are small groups who rebel or disagree with an existing religious system, and when we see the label ‘cult’, it might be part of the linguistic battle fought between the two groups (e.g. ‘you’re not really religious, you’re just part of a cult’).

In Exploring New Religions, George D. Chryssides (2001, pp.4-8) notes that a number of different scholars have attempted to provide strict definitions for these different terms, but they are often rooted in this dichotomy between organised ‘church’ religion and disruptive ‘cult’ religion, generally as a result of the scholar’s own perspective from a Christian cultural background.

The term ‘sect’ tends to refer to a religious group loosely affiliated with a larger ‘church’ or established religion, but which diverges on some issue or another. For example, one could argue that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is a sect of Christianity, but one would be hard pressed to argue that it’s a cult.

Sects often arise due to individuals attempting to re-interpret scripture or traditions, and often argue that their perspective is the authentic and intended version of the religion from which they split.

In the introduction to Encyclopedia of New Religions, Christopher Partridge notes that:

…sects tend to be revivalist, enthusiastic and ‘fundamentalist’, and can often be identified by their understandings of truth and authority and by their notions of separateness and distinctiveness as sacred communities … they have a strong sense of self-identity with clear ‘insider-outsider’ boundaries…

Partridge, 2006, p.18

Many scholars now refer to smaller, more recent religious groups as New Religious Movements (or NRMs), as this avoids the negative imagery that comes with the term ‘cult’ and more accurately describes the social phenomenon under study – new religious movements!

However, the use of the word ‘cult’ to stigmatise religious systems is still widespread, and sometimes conflicts between religious systems with serious power differences will make use of this language to inject value judgements into the debate.

Even the category of ‘New Religious Movement’ is not immune to these dangers, since there is no strict definition about how ‘new’ is ‘new’, nor why a religious movement is different to a religion.

Writing in The Global Catholic Review, Kate Kingsbury explains that in the African nation of Cameroon, the Bamiléké people have traditional religious practices involving the use of ancestor skulls, which date back thousands of years. The skulls are used to communicate with the dead – provided the skull remains in its place of origin. This practice is, however, criticised by the local representatives of the Catholic Church:

Due to pressure from the officiants of the local Catholic Church, which has labelled the skull cult ‘barbaric’ and even ‘satanic’, the practice has faced demonisation and is thus now often conducted in secret.

Kingsbury, 2018

Kingsbury later points out that this approach by the local Catholic Church is intensely hypocritical, noting that the church itself has

…long adhered to similar practices involving the bones of saints which are ritually perceived as sacred reliquaries. Indeed the process of relic acquisition is the same for both Catholics and the Skull Cult.

Kingsbury, 2018

The politics of spirituality

In some cases, there can be complex relationships between culture, politics, and spirituality, which lead to the formation of New Religious Movements.

For example, the Filipino author José Rizal, who lived during the late 19th century, was a prominent nationalist voice in a period where the Philippine public was pushing for independence from their colonial rulers, Spain. Although he was not personally involved in the Philippine Revolution, his writings were nonetheless found to have been too controversial, contributing in part to the revolution, and he was therefore executed by the Spanish.

Rizal has since been elevated to the status of national hero amongst the Philippines, but for some his importance goes further, and they believe that his non-violent message of love and independence, rooted in Christianity and terminated by execution, was part of a second coming of Jesus Christ – others identify him with a pre-Spanish deity, or consider him a prophet.

There are a variety of religious groups inspired by Rizal, which are collectively referred to as Rizalism, Rizalist cults, or Rizalista religious movements, an example of which is the Iglesia Watawat Ng Lahi (Church of the Banner of the Race).

You can find a description of a Rizalist service here:

Do you think that this describes the activities of a cult, sect, or New Religious Movement? Or perhaps none of them?

There are no ‘correct’ answers to this question, but it’s useful to examine our perspective and our categories. Note that the article uses the term ‘sect’ while the Encyclaedia Britannica opts for ‘cult’ in its article on Rizalism.

In summary, we can see that within the sphere of ‘religion’ or ‘religious activity’, there are further subdivisions that can be made based on the age, structure, and perceived legitimacy of the group, and terms like cult, sect, and NRM are used to codify these differences.

However, the designations almost always emerge from power differences, and can carry within them value judgements that might not be balanced or appropriate. While NRM is reasonably benign in this regard, cult has gained significant cultural baggage and should be used carefully.


Image credits

Photo by Luan Cabral on Unsplash