A service of ApologeticsIndex.org
Cult FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about cults, sects, and related issues

What is a cult?

Definitions: Cult, Cults


Home / What is a Cult?
In This Entry

» Definition: Cult
» Positive, Negative, or Neutral?
» A Pejorative Term?
» 'New Religious Movements'
» Cult? What Do You Mean?
» Sociological vs. Theological Definitions
» Types of Cults
» What is a Sect?
» Anticult / Countercult / 'Value-Free'
» Cult Apologists / Anti-Anti-Cult
» Selecting a counselor/cult expert

Research Resources

» Articles
» Books
» Conferences
   & Seminars

» Counseling
   & Support

» Discuss
» FAQs
» News
» News Archives
» See Also

About This Entry

About this page            Color Key
 Blue border = Quoted material

Introduction

The word cult comes from the French culte, and is rooted in the Latin cultus, which means "care" and "adoration." That idea comes from the Latin cultus - the past participle of colere, which means "to cultivate."

The word was used in the sense of "to worship or give reference to a deity." (Note 1)

Nowadays the term 'cult' has a variety of meanings, as evidenced by this dictionary entry:

  1. : formal religious veneration : worship
  2. : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
  3. : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
  4. : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>
  5. a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
    b : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
Back To Top


Positive, Negative, or Neutral?

The term 'cult' can be used in a positive, negative, or neutral sense. Examples:

  • Postive sense:

    How much would you pay for a bottle of wine? $20? $40? How about $500 or $1,000? That's how much collectors have been paying for California's so-called "Cult Wines." But why?
    Source: What Makes A Cult Wine?Off-site Link KRON TV, Feb. 7, 2002
    Back To Top

    You may also have heard of, for example, cult films, cult bands, or cult hits. Here the term 'cult' refers to a relatively small but devoted following.

  • Negative sense:
    Example 1

    The Church of Scientology is a vicious and dangerous cult that masquerades as a religion. Its purpose is to make money. It practices a variety of mind-control techniques on people lured into its midst to gain control over their money and their lives. Its aim is to take from them every penny that they have and can ever borrow and to also enslave them to further its wicked ends.
    Back To Top

    You may also have heard of other destructive cults, such as David Koresh's Branch Davidians, Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo, or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

    Here the term 'cult' refers to a movement that claims to be a religion - and which may indeed have all the trappings of a religion - but which in reality is harmful to its followers and/or to others.

    Example 2

    ...while Mormons profess to be Christians, they are outside orthodox Christianity and the Mormon Church is considered to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity.
    Source: Mormon Church, Apologetics Index entry
    Back To Top

    Here the term 'cult' is used to indicate that the group in question has separated itself from the mainstream religion it claims to represent. (In this case, given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.)

  • Neutral sense:

    We have chosen to use the concepts "cults" and "sects" in the title of this volume for two reasons. First, the concepts do have more or less precise meanings as employed by social scientists. Second, it has become abundantly clear that after nearly two decades, the concept new religious movements has virtually no recognition either in the mass media or the general public. By calling attention to the concepts as they are used by social scientists, we hope to begin the long process of educating the mass media and public regarding the non-pejorative meaning of these words.
    Back To Top

    The late sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden has stated that "[t]he concepts "cult" and "sect" do have precise meaning as they are used by sociologists, and are free of prejudice."

    While that is true, some scholars - Jeffrey Hadden en David Bromley included - have unfortunately forsaken neutrality in favor of becoming 'academic supporters of alternative religions.'
Back To Top

Previous Page   Next Page   In This Entry   Research Resources



Footnotes

  1. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1879, impression of 1984), p.370 [back]


About This Page:

• Subject: Definitions of the term 'cult'
• First posted: Dec. 9, 1996
• Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2004
• Editors: Anton and Janet Hein-Hudson
• Copyright: Apologetics Index
Disclaimer

Bookmark this entry
Copy entry URL to clipboard
Copyright and Linking Policy
How to use this site


Home / What is a Cult?












CultFAQ.org is a service of Apologetics Index.

• Look, "feel" and original content are © Copyright 1996 - 2007, Apologetics Index.
• Pages on this site may not be framed, and content may not be republished without permission.
Linking and copyright policy