Are Cults Always Religious?

by Samantha Laros
Scientology, practiced famously by actor Tom Cruise, is considered a cult.

Scientology, practiced famously by actor Tom Cruise, is considered a cult.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The term cult, used interchangeably with sect, was first developed to describe subgroups within the study of religious sociology. As decades passed, the term was expanded by scholars to describe societal groups with unpopular beliefs and unorthodox practices. Today the term cult is used freely in both religious and secular settings.

Religious Origin

The term "sect" was developed by spiritual scholar Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch studied the relationship between his own religion, Christianity, and modern culture in the 1930's. He developed three categorizations for religious life: church, sect and mysticism. He described a sect as a group demanding voluntary commitment from its members. A sect, in Troeltsch's terms, is typically critical of societal norms and aims to correct them.

Modern Religious Cults

Modern religious cults are defined by unorthodox rituals and charismatic leaders. Examples include the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists. The groups differ from Christianity by teaching that salvation is achieved through an individual's actions and not solely through faith in Jesus. Christian scholars believe there are two types of modern religious cults: non-Christian cults, which openly denounce Jesus, and pseudo-Christian cults, which outwardly appear to adhere to the Bible but inwardly lead members astray.

Secular Cults

As the term cult becomes more widely adapted, philosophers now use the term to describe non-religious groups. Secular cults share defining characteristics with religious sects, such as charismatic leaders, voluntary followers and punishment for dissenters. The Center for Inquiry, a scientific educational organization based on evidence-based reasoning, points to Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe as a secular cult. Other social and political groups historically identified as cults include the German Nazi Party and the American Ku Klux Klan.

Artificial Cults

With rapid adaptation and loose regard for its original meaning, the term cult is now often misused to describe societal groups. Hollywood films and individual actors, singers and performers are described as having cult followings because they address taboo topics and inspire a loyal fan base, but the fan groups are not cult members. As the word adopts more and more usages, scholars argue it is becoming obsolete.

About the Author

Samantha Laros is a reporter for the "Daily Globe" newspaper in Shelby, Ohio, where she covers education, breaking news and features. Laros earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.

Photo Credits

  • Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images