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A cult is a term for a religion or community of belief that is regarded as illegitimate, heretical, or far outside mainstream beliefs. Although some consider it to be a statement of opinion, "cult" has well-defined meanings.

Some religions labeled "cults" are dangerous, and in rare but well-publicized cases have proven to be fatal, such as Jim Jones' group in the late 1970s in Guyana (see Jonestown Massacre).

Sect vs. Cult

Strictly speaking, the terms "cult" and "sect" are not synonymous, although some people use the two terms interchangeably. Although many groups consider themselves sects, naturally no group considers itself to be a cult.

Definitions of "cult"

In a general sense, a cult is a group which exercises mind control over its followers.[1]

In a Christian sense, a cult is a group which claims to be Christian but which has major doctrinal differences to normal Christianity.[1]

The word "cult" is not in the Bible but its direct corollary is heresy or heretic. Other Biblical terms are false teachers, false prophets and false brethren.[2]

Josh McDowell and Don Stewart list typical characteristics of cults, although not all cults have all these characteristics.[3]

  • They claim to have a new revelation from God.
  • They claim to have an exclusive interpretation of Scripture.
  • They have a source of authority that supersedes the Bible.
  • They have a view of Jesus contrary to biblical teaching.
  • They reject orthodox Christianity as having departed from what it should be.
  • They say one thing publicly but something different internally.
  • They reject or have a distorted view of the trinity.
  • They keep changing their teaching.
  • They have a strong leader who considers himself the messenger of God.
  • They require "works", and never teach that salvation is simply by placing one's faith in Christ.
  • They make false prophecies.

Catholic usage

In the Catholic Church, 'cult' can also be used to describe a follower's particular devotion to a saint or another aspect of the faith, e.g. the cult of St Mary or of the Holy Cross.[4] This usage does not have the negative connotations of the more common meaning described on this page. It is much less commonly used in the present day to avoid confusion with dangerous cults. By no means is a cult of devotion or deeply reverent respect for those persons and things precious to God intended as a form of worship of them as gods and substitutes for the One True God. (See Fallacy of analogy.)

Atheist cults

See also: Atheist cults

Within the atheist religion, there are and have been a number of atheist cults and atheist groups which have had a cultish following. Some of these cults/groups still exist today. In 2015, FtBCon which is an online conference organized by the Freethought Blogs network, recognized that nonreligious/secular cults exist (for example, the atheist cult of objectivism).[5][6]

Communist Party as a cult

Communist Party members were constantly working in the interests of the Soviet Union, and at the dictates of the Soviet Union, while lying to and manipulating their friends and co-workers about their motives. They misrepresented their political positions as independent radical opinions when in reality those positions were dictated from elsewhere.


There have been cults which have claimed to be Christian, as well as cults which claim some other religious affiliation, or no affiliation at all. One notable example of a cult is the "People's Temple" operated by Jim Jones. Jones' insistence that all his true followers drink poisoned fruit punch led to the deaths of 913 of his converts at their enclave of Jonestown in Guyana. Another example is the cult of Maratreanism.


The process of attempting to "rescue" people from cults, and reverse perceived or actual mind control, is known as deprogramming, and is controversial from both a legal and social perspective.

See also

Specious reasoning


  1. 1.0 1.1 About Cultwatch
    What is a Cult? (Watchman Fellowship)
    Cult FAQ (
  2. What is a Cult? (Watchman Fellowship)
  3. McDowell, Josh, and Stewart, Don, "Handbook of Today's Religions", Here's Life, 1983, ISBN 978-0840735010
  4. For example at The Cult of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages
  5. Reminder: Secular Cults Panel at FtBCon Tonight!, January 24, 2015 by Adam Lee
  6. FtBCon3: Secular Cults

External links