What is a Cult?

Mary McMahon

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.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

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.

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Discussion Comments


If someone is lucky enough to be able to get out of a cult, there are usually many psychological issues to deal with afterwards. They literally have to go through a rehabilitation period. They have to learn how to take back control of their minds.

The individual may experience a wide variety of symptoms from withdrawal. These symptoms can include: delusions, insomnia, amnesia, hallucinations, guilt, fear of the group, emotional outbursts, and sexual or menstrual dysfunctions.


@dill1971: Anyone is at risk of being coerced into a cult. They can be considered victims once they have joined a cult. There was a study done to look at what kinds of people were more prone to join cults and the results were very interesting.

The most likely recruits will be from an economically sound background, have above average intelligence, and is idealistic. It has been said that most cults can recruit and control an individual in as little as 3 to 4 days. However, leaving the cult is not nearly as easy as joining it.


Are certain people more at risk of being affiliated with a cult than others?

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