Religious Cult : No Such Thing

One of the best things you can do for yourself as an honest student of religion is to throw away the common concept of a ‘religious cult’.


The porch of caryatids at the Erechtheum in Athens, the civic cult of Athena.


The student who has accepted my notion of  Modern Religion and has discarded the concept of religious cult (or ‘secte’ in French) as a rogue religion, will be able to explore these religions, whether or not these religions function within accepted laws or cultural norms and regardless of their modern expression, denomination, or relationship to the state.

The ‘cult of a god’ is a term that goes to the heart of all religion, both the living traditions and those that are extinct.


All recently founded religions, for example, Scientology,  Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, Mahikari No Waza or The Summit Lighthouse, (and there are many, many more) fit well into a category of Modern Religions.

In addition, those religions that have ended in tragedy, for example, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidian and The People’s Temple of Jim Jones, should also be introduced and studied as Modern Religion.

There are many hundreds of modern religions and they share much more in common than just their late origins.  modern religion

Knowledge of the term ‘cult’ is essential for the study of religion and must be understood from its Latin origin cultum or culta, as this Roman term describes the perpetual conduct and practice at the center of all religion.

At the outset of any serious religious studies, we need to isolate the use of the term ‘cult’ as routinely applied in common American English. This pertains to the term ‘secte’ in common French usage, and in similar use in other European languages.

The word ‘sect’ in both French and English must be restored to its original meaning: ‘branch of a religion’ or ‘subgroup of an existing group’.

The ‘cult of a god’ in antiquity is the forefather of all religion, and all religion resembles this single ancestor.

The members of the cult distinguished themselves from other cults by their specific lifestyle, their behavior, and their festival practices. Every cult had a calendar and interdictions, rules, laws and instructions for making their god happy.

The devotion of the members of any cult of antiquity was expressed primarily in caring for the god’s ‘needs’ with a home (temple), food (sacrifice) and song, praise and obedience.

In addition to our need to recuperate this valuable term, it is equally important to avoid the mutual disapproval between religions. Every religion looks out at other religions and declares them invalid in some way. This is the true purpose of the contemporary use of the term “religious cult”.

There is no such thing as a cult; this defamation of another’s religion is contrary to the fundamental principle of religious studies. The term ‘cult’, with the specific derogatory meaning of ‘rogue religious group’ should be dismissed entirely by the diligent student of religion.


Filed under Origins, Religious Controversy, Religious Literacy

14 responses to “Religious Cult : No Such Thing

  1. Pingback: Religious Cult – No Such Thing? | Mental Health News

    • ‘Mental Health News’ seems to be a Scientology blog.


      • Antonella

        no Scientology blog is


      • Thank you Antonella. The WordPress blog entitled “Mental Health News : Current Events in the Mental Health Field” seems to contain exclusively anti-psychiatry and anti-psychology content, accompanied by a list of books by L.Ron Hubbard from the Scientology library. In the ‘about’ section there are no names to indicate the author of the blog. Do you know who is the author of the Mental Health News blog? Are you responsible for the Mental Health News blog?


  2. I, too, refrain from the use of ‘cult’ because it has so many negative connotations associated with it that really do nothing more than bias my study of religion. In order for me to study religion as a phenomenon, I must be able to strip away biases and attempt to put myself into the perspective or worldview of the ‘object’ I am studying. I had never really thought about there being no such thing as a religious cult, and I’m not sure I completely agree. It’s just that the word itself has been misused and sensationalized in popular culture. At any rate, your thoughts were refreshing, and certainly not a perspective I had considered.


    • Thank you for visiting, reading and especially for your thoughtful comment. I urge the student of world religions to use the term ‘cult’ in the ancient, rather than the modern meaning. If you maintain that there might be such thing as a ‘religious cult’ (in the modern American use of the term) can you think of an example?


      • I cannot think of a modern ‘religious cult.’ Indeed, I would agree with your clarification between ancient and modern meaning. I utilize the term new religious movements (NRM). Do you identify a difference between an NRM and a modern religion? Or would you consider them different labels for same/similar groups? I appreciate your follow up.


      • Yeah, that’s it; ‘New Religious Movements’ is a good term. Although, I wonder whether or not the term ‘movement’ is employed to indicate that the group is not quite a religion, but just a movement. And I wonder if there are dates in mind when one uses the word new.
        My category of Modern Religion might prove more useful as it allows the student to separate off every religion that was founded after the beginning of the 19th century.


  3. spyrosillusionist

    If the words ‘cult’ and ‘sect’ are not used, other words could be used or even invented for a group of people or a person who intend to make people fight/disconnect from others, for the purpose of having the sole control over them. I don’t think it’s only religions that can do that. Some political parties tend to do that as well, and I don’t know who else. The problem is, whenever that occurs, you always find stupidity and hostility on the base of the group’s ideas.

    Please don’t think I have something against ‘religion’. Most religions have something against other religions themselves. They are the right ones because they are. And they are the only way too.


    • Thank you for commenting.

      Do you mean to say that stupidity and hostility are at the base of a group’s ideas, if the group promotes discord and disconnection?

      Often it is hard to get to the bottom of the ideas and teachings of a modern religion, or any religion for that matter. But trying to categorize a religion according to its level of hostility or derision would simply be impossible. I tried to visit your blog but it was marked private.


      • spyrosillusionist

        Hi John. Im Greek and liable to make such grammar errors. Yes, I meant at the base.

        Because we talk with the generality ‘religion’, it is hard for me to be specific. So, generally, there can be the ideas of the dogma itself, or the average agreement of what he dogma says. In older times it was only enough for the Pope (or whoever said it)to say ‘inquisition’, for inquisition to exist. It wasn’t part of the Christian dogma. But he made it appear a logical sequence of the Christian dogma. I think Christianity was liable to fall into that because Jesus said he was THE son of God. He was the only one, the truth. So you see how Christians could come at odds with everybody else who embraced other religions –Satan’s religions, according to Christianity, no? Peaceful coexistence of religions is a good idea, but the religions themselves should be open to such a prospect –and I mean be really open, not pretend.

        I closed my blog because I changed views -as I was writing- way too often. And in the end I’d have to revise everything over again. I don’t like to hang on to thoughts. Maybe there will be another some time about not hanging onto thoughts. 🙂


  4. As always, thank you for the post. I wanted to ask are you saying that the current understanding of the word “cult” has a underlining bias that views the religion being called a cult as less than the “dominant” religions of our time. However, if we were to use the word as it was intended, that is the core beliefs and practices at the center of any religion, would it still be considered a taboo for religious studies scholars?

    Would you say that the term cult was converted into a euphemism to convey the disgust for sub cultures who created their own religions? Is this why this term is now loaded with this bias?

    Thanks again.



    • Thank you for your comments and attention to my blog!

      The term ‘cult’ in familiar, conversational English is applied to indicate that a group is not at all a religion, and that the group in question should not be understood as religion. And this is why it is useless for religious studies.

      As to your question concerning the terminology that scholars use, I would hope that scholars would use any vocabulary that they prefer. I would insist that the student of religion is heading off in the wrong direction if they are trying to determine which group is a ‘religious cult’ and which is a ‘real’ religion.

      Your last question belongs to the true student of religion! Go find the answer to that and you will make a contribution to religious studies! My limited understanding of the origins of the modern usage of the term ‘cult’ is that it was once meant to indicate a Christian church that taught heretical views.
      As you probably know, the term ‘cult’ has also been used since the Middle Ages to indicate devotion to church leaders and to the saints of Christianity, for example the ‘cult of Mary’ or the ‘cult of Saint Francis’.


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