Sociology Index


Cult as a concept was originally developed as one component of a typology: churches, denominations, and sects. Cults were religious forms and expressions which were unacceptable or outside cultural norms and thus seen as the first stage of forming a new religion. The term cult now has a rather negative meaning, suggesting strange beliefs like cargo cults, charismatic leadership, manipulation of members, strong emotional bonding, and slavish devotion to the group. Cults may arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. Methods of thought reform commonly used by cults are milieu control, mystical manipulation, the demand for purity, a cult of confession, sacred science, loading the language, doctrine over person, and dispensing of existence.

The current historical context of dislocation from organizing symbolic structures, decaying belief systems concerning religion, authority, marriage, family, and death, and a "protean style" of continuous psychological experimentation with the self is conducive to the growth of cults. The use of coercion, as in certain forms of "deprogramming," to deal with the restrictions of individual liberty associated with cults is inconsistent with the civil rights tradition. We also have cult of domesticity.

The book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, is unique in that it includes contributions from scholars who have been labeled as "anti-cult", as well as those who have been labeled as "cult apologists."

The Cadre Ideal: Origins and Development of a Political Cult - Janja Lalich, Alameda, California.

Abstract: A little-explored sector of the cult world is the political cult. Those who join such cults are usually seeking to change society in some fundamental way -- right or left -- and are thereby willing to make great sacrifices to attain their lofty goals. This idealistic commitment is abused by political cult leaders who skillfully exploit the members' desire to serve.

This paper, adapted from a work-in-progress, dissects the founding and development of a now defunct political cult. The article shows how thought reform was achieved through the group's indoctrination and training methods, carried out under the pretense of "working for the greater good," and details specific manipulative techniques that served to create and uphold a cultic environment and a harsh and exclusionary life-style.

Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect 
Roy Wallis, University of Stirling. Prevailing conceptions of the cult are criticized. A new typology of religious collectivities is elaborated and related to a theory of the development of cults. This theory claims that a central feature of the cult is 'epistemological individualism'. The central characteristic of the sect on the other hand is 'epistemological authoritarianism'. The process of sectarianization therefore involves the arrogation of authority typically on the basis of a claim to a new and superior revelation. Sectarianization is portrayed as a strategy with particular appeal to the leaders of cults faced with the problems of managing and maintaining a fragile institution.

Cult Formation - Robert J. Lifton.
Cults represent one aspect of a worldwide epidemic of ideological totalism, or fundamentalism.