The term “cult” was originally employed to describe a group of people who worshiped a common deity. However, in the late twentieth century, the meaning of the word began to evolve. In the modern world, the word is usually used pejoratively, to refer to an extremist religious group which exists on the fringes of society. Concerns about these groups has led to negative associations with the idea of a cult, rather than positive or neutral ones. Examples of famous twentieth century cults include Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, Charles Manson's “Family,” and the Children of God.
The word comes from the Latin cultus, meaning “worship.” Many ancient religions continue to be referred to as cults, because this nomenclature was popular during the period in which these religions were practiced. Among Christians, however, the term began to be used to describe a religious group which had faulty theological doctrine. For many Christians, any group which rejected the teachings of Christianity could be called a cult. Over time, the word began to be used specifically to refer to marginal religious groups. Often, these groups placed heavy restrictions on their members, and appeared, at least from the outside, to be dangerous.
Some cults, such as the Hare Krishnas, are generally believed to be harmless. Their followers ascribe to a specific set of beliefs and engage in practices which they believe to be sacred. However, other cults are unfortunately more sinister, for members of the cult or the outside world in general. A cult which falls into the latter category typically has a highly charismatic leader who demands unquestioning acceptance. In addition, members of the cult are often recruited through brainwashing techniques, and they are expected to maintain highly secretive lives. In some cases, this type of cult will be entirely residential, meaning that members of the cult all live and eat together, cut off from society.
Extremist cult movements have been behind acts of terrorism worldwide, such as the 1995 Tokyo Gas Attack. In addition, mass suicides, such as that committed by the People's Temple at Jonestown, have also been linked with cult activity. Many anti-cult activists are concerned that members of a cult may not be making their decisions independently, because they feel pressure from the cult as a group. For this reason, several organizations exist around the world to “deprogram” people who have been in cults. These groups will also help family members extricate loved ones from potentially dangerous situations, and they work to educate people about the potential danger of cult activity.