- For the original sense of "religious practice", see Cult (religious practice). For religious groups with modern origins see New religious movement and List of new religious movements. For other uses see Cult.
In the sociological classifications of religious movements in English, a cult is a religious or social group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices. However, whether any particular group's beliefs and practices are sufficiently deviant or novel is often unclear, thus making a precise definition problematic. In the English speaking world, the word often carries derogatory connotations, but in other European languages, it is used as English-speakers use the word "religion", sometimes causing confusion for English-speakers reading material translated from other languages. The word "cult" has always been controversial because it is (in a pejorative sense) considered a subjective term, used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices, which lacks a clear or consistent definition.
Beginning in the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. Certain groups have been labelled as cults and have been opposed by the Christian countercult movement for their unorthodox beliefs. Since the 1970s, some groups have been opposed by the anti-cult movement, partly motivated in reaction to acts of violence committed by members of some groups. Some of the claims by the anti-cult movement have been disputed by other scholars and by the news media, leading to further controversy. Public and governmental reactions to the cult issue have also been a source of controversy.
- Terminological history 1
- New religious movements 2
- Scholarly studies 3
Anti-cult movements 4
- Christian countercult movement 4.1
- Secular anti-cult movement 4.2
- Stigmatization and discrimination 5
- Doomsday cults 6
- Political cults 7
Destructive cults 8
- Criticism of the term 8.1
- Destructive cults and terrorism 8.2
Government policy 9
- Cults and US law 9.1
- See also 10
- Footnotes 11
- References 12
- Bibliography 13
The word "cult" was originally used not to describe a group of religionists, but for the act of worship or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, borrowed via the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship). This, in turn, was derived from the adjective cultus (inhabited, cultivated, worshiped), based on the verb colere (care, cultivate). The word "culture" is also derived from the Latin words cultura and cultus, which in general terms refers to the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group. Most of the Romance languages currently use various spellings of the word "cult" (such as "culto") to refer to worship or sometimes to a ritual without any pejorative meaning at all, resulting in a class of false friends.
While the literal sense of the word in English is still in use, a derived sense of "excessive devotion" arose in the 19th century. The terms cult and cultist came to be used in medical literature in the United States in the 1930s for what would now be termed faith healing, especially for the US Holiness movement. This experienced a surge of popularity at the time, but extended to other forms of alternative medicine as well.
The concept of a "cult" as a
- Langone, Michael: Cults: Questions and Answers 
- Lifton, Robert Jay: Cult Formation, The Harvard Mental Health Letter, February 1991 
- Robbins, T. and D. Anthony, 1982. "Deprogramming, brainwashing and the medicalization of deviant religious groups" Social Problems 29 pp 283–97.
- James T. Richardson: "Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative" Review of Religious Research 34.4 (June 1993), pp. 348–356.
- Rosedale, Herbert et al.: On Using the Term "Cult" 
- Van Hoey, Sara: Cults in Court The Los Angeles Lawyer, February 1991 
- Zimbardo, Philip: What messages are behind today's cults?, American Psychological Association Monitor, May 1997 
- Aronoff, Jodi; Lynn, Steven Jay; Malinosky, Peter. Are cultic environments psychologically harmful?, Clinical Psychology Review, 2000, Vol. 20 #1 pp. 91–111
- Barker, E. (1989) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London, HMSO
- Bromley, David et al.: Cults, Religion, and Violence, 2002, ISBN 0-521-66898-0
- Enroth, Ronald. (1992) Churches that Abuse, Zondervan, ISBN 0-310-53290-6 Full text online
- Esquerre, Arnaud: La manipulation mentale. Sociologie des sectes en France, Fayard, Paris, 2009.
- House, Wayne: Charts of Cults, Sects, and Religious Movements, 2000, ISBN 0-310-38551-2
- Kramer, Joel and Alstad, Diane: The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, 1993.
- Lalich, Janja: Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, 2004, ISBN 0-520-24018-9
- Landau Tobias, Madeleine et al. : Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, 1994, ISBN 0-89793-144-0
- Lewis, James R. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements Oxford University Press, 2004
- Lewis, James R. Odd Gods: New Religions and the Cult Controversy, Prometheus Books, 2001
- Martin, Walter et al.: The Kingdom of the Cults, 2003, ISBN 0-7642-2821-8
- Melton, Gordon: Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, 1992 (Search inside), ISBN 0-8153-1140-0
- Oakes, Len: Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities, 1997, ISBN 0-8156-0398-3
- Singer, Margaret Thaler: Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace, 1992, ISBN 0-7879-6741-6
- Tourish, Dennis: 'On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, 2000, ISBN 0-7656-0639-9
- Zablocki, Benjamin et al.: Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, 2001, ISBN 0-8020-8188-6
- OED, citing American Journal of Sociology 85 (1980), p. 1377: "Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from a some variety of deprivation."
- Dr. Chuck Shaw – Sects and Cults – Greenville Technical College – Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 13: Social Psychology". pp 320 
- Olson, Paul J. 2006. "The Public Perception of 'Cults' and 'New Religious Movements'." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (1): 97–106
- Dr. Chuck Shaw - Sects and Cults - Greenville Technical College - Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- Bromley, David Melton, J. Gordon 2002. Cults, Religion, and Violence. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.
- Erwin Fahlbusch, Geoffrey William Bromiley – The Encyclopedia of Christianity: P-Sh, Volume 4 page 897. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
- culture - Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 25 May 2014.
- In W. S. Taylor, 'Science and cult', Psychological Review, Vol 37(2), March 1930, cultist is still used in the sense that would now be expressed by "religionist", i.e. anyone adopting a religious worldview as opposed to a scientific one. In the New York State Journal of Medicine of 1932, p. 84 (and other medical publications of the 1930s; e.g. Morris Fishbein, Fads and Quackery in Healing: An Analysis of the Foibles of the Healing Cults, 1932), "cultist" is used of those adhering to what was then called "healing cults", and would now be referred to as faith healing, but also of other forms of alternative medicine ("cultist" (in quotes) of a chiropractor in United States naval medical bulletin, Volume 28, 1930, p. 366).
- Richardson, 1993 p. 349
- Stark and Bainbridge, 1987 p. 25
- Stark and Bainbridge, 1987 p. 124
- The Chaos of Cults, by J.K.van Baalen, 1938, 2nd revised and enlarged ed. 1956. "cult" in the sense of "heresy" is also found in J.Oswald Sanders, Heresies Ancient and Modern (1948).
- e.g. Walter Martin, The Christian and the Cults: Answering the Cultist from the Bible, The Modern cult library series, Division of Cult Apologetics, Zondervan Publishing House, (1956) invokes Satan as instigator of "cults" on pp. 77, 113f. and 142.
- A European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism was set up in 1994.
- "This book tells you why the propaganda about and misrepresentation of Witches as evil, Satan-worshipping cultists is absolutely false" Scott Cunningham, The Truth about Witchcraft (1992).
- Paul J. Olson, The Public Perception of “Cults” and “New Religious Movements” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; Mar2006, Vol. 45 Issue 1, 97-106
- so Margaret Singer, Janja Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (1995), in reference to Eileen Barker. See also Tim Stafford, "The Kingdom of the Cult Watchers", Christianity Today (October 7, 1991).
- The new nobility : the restoration of Russia's security state and the enduring legacy of the KGB, Author: Andreĭ Soldatov; I Borogan, Publisher: New York, NY : PublicAffairs, 2010. pages 65-66
- Elijah Siegler, 2007, New Religious Movements, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0131834789
- Eileen Barker, 1999, "New Religious Movements: their incidence and significance", New Religious Movements: challenge and response, Bryan Wilson and Jamie Cresswell editors, Routledge ISBN 0415200504
- Elijah Siegler, 2007, New Religious Movements, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0131834789, page 51
- Weber, Maximillan. Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Chapter: "The Nature of Charismatic Authority and its Routinization" translated by A. R. Anderson and Talcott Parsons, 1947. Originally published in 1922 in German under the title chapter III, § 10Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (available online)
- Wallis, Roy The Road to Total Freedom A Sociological analysis of Scientology (1976) available online (bad scan)
- Wallis, Roy Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect abstract only (1975)
- Eugene V. Gallagher, 2004, The New Religious Movement Experience in America, Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313328072, page xv.
- The Early Unification Church History, Galen Pumphrey
- Conversion, Unification Church, Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary
- Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: African diaspora traditions and other American innovations, Volume 5 of Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, W. Michael Ashcraft, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN 0-275-98717-5, ISBN 978-0-275-98717-6, page 180
- Exploring New Religions, Issues in contemporary religion, George D. Chryssides, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001 ISBN 0-8264-5959-5, ISBN 978-0-8264-5959-6 page 1
- Dawson, Lorne L.. Cults in context: readings in the study of new religious movements, Transaction Publishers 1998, p. 340, ISBN 978-0-7658-0478-5
- Robbins, Thomas. In Gods we trust: new patterns of religious pluralism in America, Transaction Publishers 1996, p. 537, ISBN 978-0-88738-800-2
- Sipchen, Bob (17 November 1988). "Ten Years After Jonestown, the Battle Intensifies Over the Influence of 'Alternative' Religions", Los Angeles Times
- Cowan, 2003
- J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York/London: Garland, 1986; revised edition, Garland, 1992). page 5
- Walter Ralston Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, Bethany House, 2003, ISBN 0764228218 page 18
- Walter R. Martin, The Rise of the Cults, rev.ed. Santa Ana: Vision House, 1978, pp. 11-12.
- Richard Abanes, Defending the Faith: A Beginner's Guide to Cults and New Religions,Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997, p. 33.
- H. Wayne House & Gordon Carle, Doctrine Twisting: How Core Biblical Truths are Distorted, Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.
- Garry W. Trompf, "Missiology, Methodology and the Study of New Religious Movements", Religious Traditions Volume 10, 1987, pp. 95-106.
- Walter R. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, rev.ed. Ravi Zacharias ed. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2003, pp.479-493.
- Ronald Enroth ed. Evangelising the Cults, Milton Keynes: Word, 1990.
- Norman L Geisler & Ron Rhodes, When Cultists Ask: A Popular Handbook on Cultic Misinterpretations, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997.
- Richardson and Introvigne, 2001
- T. Robbins and D. Anthony (1982:283, quoted in Richardson 1993:351) ("...certain manipulative and authoritarian groups which allegedly employ mind control and pose a threat to mental health are universally labeled cults. These groups are usually 1) authoritarian in their leadership; 2)communal and totalistic in their organization; 3) aggressive in their proselytizing; 4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination; 5)relatively new and unfamiliar in the United States; 6)middle class in their clientele")
- Barker, Eileen: New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: Her Majesty's Stationery office, 1989.
- Cowan, 2003 ix
- Galanter, Marc (Editor), (1989), Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association, ISBN 0-89042-212-5
- Bader, Chris & A. Demaris, A test of the Stark-Bainbridge theory of affiliation with religious cults and sects. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 285–303. (1996)
- Pilgrims of Love: The Anthropology of a Global Sufi Cult. By Pnina Werbner. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. xvi, 348 pp "...the excessive use of "cult" is also potentially misleading. With its pejorative connotations"
- Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative, James T. Richardson, Review of Religious Research, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Jun. 1993), pp. 348–356 "the word cult is useless, and should be avoided because of the confusion between the historic meaning of the word and current pejorative use"
- Schoolboy avoids prosecution for branding Scientology a 'cult' Daily Mail, 23 May 2008
- Protesters celebrate city's 'cult' stance – Edinburgh Evening News, 27 May 2008
- Amy Ryan: New Religions and the Anti-Cult Movement: Online Resource Guide in Social Sciences (2000) 
- , 1999Defining Religion in American LawCasino. Bruce J.,
- Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth, On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
- Janja Lalich "On the Edge" (review), Cultic Studies Review (online journal), 2:2, 2003 
- Tourish and Wohlforth, 2000
- Introduction to ‘Ideological Intransigence, Democratic Centralism and Cultism’
- John Mintz, "Ideological Odyssey: From Old Left to Far Right", The Washington Post, 14 January 1985 
- Alisa Solomon, "Commie Fiends of Brooklyn", The Village Voice, 26 November 1996.
- Janja A. Lalich, Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004 
- Rothbard's essay was later revised and printed as a pamphlet by Liberty magazine in 1987, and by the Center for Libertarian Studies in 1990.
- This chapter is a revised version of
- David North, Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, Mehring Books, 1991. ISBN 0-929087-58-5. Does not define the group as a cult but draws parallels to Scientology and provides a detailed account of Healy's descent into personal authoritarianism.
- Tourish and Wohlforth, "Gerry Healy: Guru to a Star" (Chapter 10), pp. 156–172, in On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000
- "Cults, Sects and the Far Left" reviewed by Bob Pitt, What Next? ISSN 1479-4322 No. 17, 2000 online
- Library Journal Dec 1990 v115 n21 p144(1) Mag.Coll.: 58A2543.
- "Tracing India's cult of thugs". Los Angeles Times. 3 August 2003.
- Dr. Zablocki, Benjamin  Paper presented to a conference, Cults: Theory and Treatment Issues, 31 May 1997 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- Kranenborg, Reender Dr. (Dutch language) Sekten... gevaarlijk of niet?/Cults... dangerous or not? published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 31 Sekten II by the Free university Amsterdam (1996) ISSN 0169-7374 ISBN 90-5383-426-5
- Hubert Seiwert: Freedom and Control in the Unified Germany: Governmental Approaches to Alternative Religions Since 1989. In: Sociology of Religion (2003) 64 (3): 367–375, S. 370. Online edition
- BVerfG, 1 BvR 670/91 dd 26 June 2002, Rn. 57, 60, 62, 91–94, related press release (German)
- Steven J. Stern (ed.), Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998
- David Scott Palmer, Shining Path of Peru, New York: St. Martin's Press, second ed., 1994
- Gérard Chaliand, Interview in L'Express (French)
- Elizabeth Rubin, "The Cult of Rajavi", The New York Times Magazine, 13 July 2003
- Karl Vick, "Iran Dissident Group Labeled a Terrorist Cult", The Washington Post, 21 June 2003
- Max Boot, "How to Handle Iran", Los Angeles Times, 25 October 2006
- "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the Mojahedin Khalq Camps", Human Rights Watch 
- Lewis, 2004
- Davis, Dena S. 1996 "Joining a Cult: Religious Choice or Psychological Aberration" Journal of Law and Health.
- Richardson and Introvigne, 2001 pp. 144–146
- Benjamin Penny, "The Religion of Falun Gong", (University of Chicago Press, 2012), ISBN 978-0-226-65501-7, p. 6
- Freedom House, "Report Analyzing Seven Secret Chinese Government Documents", 11 February 2002.
- Edelman, Bryan and Richardson, James. "Falun Gong and the Law Development of Legal Social Control in China". Nova Religio 6.2 (2003).
- Restall, Hugo. "What if Falun Dafa is a 'cult?'". The Asian Wall Street Journal, 14 February 2001.
- John Turley-Ewart, "Falun Gong persecution spreads to Canada", The National Post, 20 March 2004.
- Richardson, 1993
- T. Jeremy Gunn, The Complexity of Religion and the Definition of “Religion” in International Law
- or "sects" in German-speaking countries, the German term Sekten (lit. "sects") having assumed the same derogatory meaning as English "cult".
- Austria: Beginning in 2011, the United States Department of State's International Religious Freedom Report, as released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor no longer distinguishes sects in Austria as a separate group.
- Belgium: The Justice Commission of the Belgian House of Representatives published a report on cults in 1997. A Brussels Appeals Court in 2005 condemned the Belgian House of Representatives on the grounds that it had damaged the image of an organization listed.
- France: a parliamentary commission of the National Assembly compiled a list of purported cults in 1995. In 2005, the Prime Minister stated that the concerns addressed in the list "had become less pertinen" and that the government needed to balance its concern with cults with respect for public freedoms and laïcité.
- Germany: The legitimacy of a 1997 Berlin Senate report listing cults (Sekten) was defended in a court decision of 2003 (Oberverwaltungsgericht Berlin (OVG 5 B 26.00) 25 September 2003), and the list is still maintained by Berlin city authorities (Sekten und Psychogruppen - Leitstelle Berlin).
- Anti-cult movement
- Cult following
- Cult of personality
- Cults and new religious movements in literature and popular culture
- List of new religious movements
- New religious movement
- Sociological classifications of religious movements
In the United States religious activities of cults are protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits governmental establishment of religion and protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. However, cult members are not granted any special protection against criminal charges.
Cults and US law
At the height of the counter-cult movement and ritual abuse scare of the 1990s, some governments published lists of cults. Since the 2000s, some governments have again distanced themselves from such classifications of religious movements.
The application of the labels "cult" or "sect" to religious movements in government documents signifies the popular and negative use of the term "cult" in English and a functionally similar use of words translated as "sect" in several European languages. While these documents utilize similar terminology they do not necessarily include the same groups nor is their assessment of these groups based on agreed criteria. Other governments and world bodies also report on new religious movements but do not use these terms to describe the groups.
Sociologists critical to this negative politicized use of the word "cult" argue that it may adversely impact the religious freedoms of group members. In the 1980s clergymen and officials of the French government expressed concern that some orders and other groups within the Roman Catholic Church would be adversely affected by anti-cult laws then being considered.
For centuries, governments in China have categories certain religions as xiejiao (邪教) The term is sometimes translated as "evil cult", but a more literal translation is "heterodox teaching". The classification of a religion as xiejiao did not necessarily mean that a religion’s teachings were believed to be false or inauthentic, but rather, the label was applied to religious groups that were not authorized by the state, or that were seen as challenging the legitimacy of the state. In modern China, the term xiejiao continues to be used to denote teachings that the government disapproves of, and these groups face suppression and punishment by authorities. Fourteen different groups in China have been listed by the ministry of public security as xiejiao. In addition, in 1999, Chinese authorities denounced the Falun Gong spiritual practice as a heretical teaching, and began a campaign to eliminate it. According to Amnesty International, the persecution of Falun Gong includes a multifaceted propaganda campaign, a program of enforced ideological conversion and re-education, as well as a variety of extralegal coercive measures, such as arbitrary arrests, forced labour, and physical torture, sometimes resulting in death. The Chinese government has sought to legitimize its treatment of Falun Gong by adopting the language of the Western anti-cult movement, but Western scholars familiar with the group say that Falun Gong does not meet the definition of a cult.
France and Belgium have taken policy positions which accept "brainwashing" theories uncritically, while other European nations, like Sweden and Italy, are cautious about brainwashing and have adopted more neutral responses to new religions. Scholars have suggested that outrage following the mass murder/suicides perpetuated by the Solar Temple as well as the more latent xenophobic and anti-American attitudes have contributed significantly to the extremity of European anti-cult positions.
In the 1970s, the scientific status of the "brainwashing theory" became a central topic in U.S. court cases where the theory was used to try to justify the use of the forceful deprogramming of cult members. Meanwhile, sociologists critical of these theories assisted advocates of religious freedom in defending the legitimacy of new religious movements in court. While the official response to new religious groups has been mixed across the globe, some governments aligned more with the critics of these groups to the extent of distinguishing between "legitimate" religion and "dangerous", "unwanted" cults in public policy.
If you ask me: are all cults a terrorist organisation? My answer is no, as there are many peaceful cults at present around the world and in the history of mankind. But if you ask me are all terrorist organisations some sort of cult, my answer is yes. Even if they start as [an] ordinary modern political party or organisation, to prepare and force their members to act without asking any moral questions and act selflessly for the cause of the group and ignore all the ethical, cultural, moral or religious codes of the society and humanity, those organisations have to change into a cult. Therefore to understand an extremist or a terrorist organisation one has to learn about a Cult.
Former Mujaheddin member and now author and academic Dr. Masoud Banisadr stated in a May 2005 speech in Spain :
The Shining Path guerrilla movement active in Peru in the 1980s and 1990s has been described variously as a "cult" and an intense "cult of personality". The Tamil Tigers have also been qualified as such by French magazine L'Express' The People's Mujahedin of Iran, a leftist guerrilla movement based in Iraq, has been controversially described as a political cult and as a movement that is abusive towards its own members.
In an article on Al Qaida published in The Times, journalist Mary Ann Sieghart wrote that al-Qaida resembles a "classic cult", commenting: "Al-Qaida fits all the official definitions of a cult. It indoctrinates its members; it forms a closed, totalitarian society; it has a self-appointed, messianic and charismatic leader; and it believes that the ends justify the means."
At a 2002 meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), anti-cultist Steven Hassan said that Al Qaida fulfills the characteristics of a destructive cult. He added: "We need to apply what we know about destructive mind-control cults, and this should be a priority with the war on terrorism. We need to understand the psychological aspects of how people are recruited and indoctrinated so we can slow down recruitment. We need to help counsel former cult members and possibly use some of them in the war against terrorism."
In the book Jihad and Sacred Vengeance: Psychological Undercurrents of History, psychiatrist Peter A. Olsson compares Osama bin Laden to certain cult leaders including Jim Jones, David Koresh, Shoko Asahara, Marshall Applewhite, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro. And says that each of these individuals fit at least eight of the nine criteria for narcissistic personality disorder. In the book Seeking the Compassionate Life: The Moral Crisis for Psychotherapy and Society authors Goldberg and Crespo also refer to Osama bin Laden as a "destructive cult leader".
Destructive cults and terrorism
In 2002, the German government was held by Germany's Federal Constitutional Court to have defamed the Osho movement by referring to it, among other things, as a "destructive cult" with no factual basis.
Writing in the book Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, contributor Julius H. Rubin complains that the term has been used to discredit certain groups in the court of public opinion. In his work Cults in Context author Lorne L. Dawson writes that although the Unification Church "has not been shown to be violent or volatile", it has been described as a destructive cult by "anticult crusaders".
Some researchers have criticized the usage of the term "destructive cult", writing that it is used to describe groups which are not necessarily harmful in nature to themselves or others. In his book Understanding New Religious Movements, John A. Saliba writes that the term is overgeneralized. Saliba sees the Peoples Temple as the "paradigm of a destructive cult", where those that use the term are implying that other new religious movements will have similar outcomes.
Criticism of the term
In the opinion of 
John Gordon Clark cited totalitarian systems of governance and an emphasis on money making as characteristics of a destructive cult. In Cults and the Family the authors cite Shapiro, who defines a "destructive cultism" as a sociopathic syndrome, whose distinctive qualities include: "behavioral and personality changes, loss of personal identity, cessation of scholastic activities, estrangement from family, disinterest in society and pronounced mental control and enslavement by cult leaders".
"Destructive cult" has generally referred to groups whose members have, through deliberate action, physically injured or killed other members of their own group or other people. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance limit use of the term to specifically refer to religious groups that "have caused or are liable to cause loss of life among their membership or the general public". Psychologist Michael Langone, executive director of the anti-cult group International Cultic Studies Association, defines a destructive cult as "a highly manipulative group which exploits and sometimes physically and/or psychologically damages members and recruits".
In 1990 Lucy Patrick commented: "Although we live in a democracy, cult behavior manifests itself in our unwillingness to question the judgment of our leaders, our tendency to devalue outsiders and to avoid dissent. We can overcome cult behavior, he says, by recognizing that we have dependency needs that are inappropriate for mature people, by increasing anti-authoritarian education, and by encouraging personal autonomy and the free exchange of ideas."
In his book Les Sectes Politiques: 1965–1995 (translation: Political cults: 1965–1995), French writer Cyril Le Tallec considered some religious groups as cults involved in politics, including the League for Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Cultural Office of Cluny, New Acropolis, Sōka Gakkai, the Divine Light Mission, Tradition Family Property (TFP), Longo-Mai, the Supermen Club and the Association for Promotion of the Industrial Arts (Solazaref).
In Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party, a Trotskyist group led by the late Gerry Healy and strongly supported by actress Vanessa Redgrave, has been described by others, who have been involved in the Trotskyist movement, as having been a cult or as displaying cult-like characteristics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is also described as such by Tourish and Wohlforth in their writings. In his review of Tourish and Wohlforth's book, Bob Pitt, a former member of the WRP concedes that it had a "cult-like character" but argues that rather than being typical of the far left, this feature actually made the WRP atypical and "led to its being treated as a pariah within the revolutionary left itself". Workers' Struggle (LO, Lutte ouvrière) in France, publicly headed by Arlette Laguiller but revealed in the 1990s to be directed by Robert Barcia, has often been criticized as a cult, for example by Daniel Cohn-Bendit and his older brother Gabriel Cohn-Bendit, as well as L'Humanité and Libération.
 The followers of
The LaRouche Movement and Gino Parente's National Labor Federation (NATLFED) are examples of political groups that have been described as "cults", based in the United States; another is Marlene Dixon's now-defunct Democratic Workers Party (a critical history of the DWP is given in Bounded Choice by Janja A. Lalich, a sociologist and former DWP member).
The word cult is not a term of abuse, as this paper tries to explain. It is nothing more than a shorthand expression for a particular set of practices that have been observed in a variety of dysfunctional organisations.In a separate article Tourish says that in his usage: A political cult is a cult with a primary interest in
"Doomsday cult" is an expression used to describe groups who believe in Apocalypticism and Millenarianism, and can refer both to groups that prophesy catastrophe and destruction, and to those that attempt to bring it about. A 1997 psychological study by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter found that people turned to a cataclysmic world view after they had repeatedly failed to find meaning in mainstream movements. Leon Festinger and his colleagues had observed members of a small UFO religion called the Seekers for several months, and recorded their conversations both prior to and after a failed prophecy from their charismatic leader. The group's members believed that most of the Western Hemisphere would be destroyed by a cataclysmic flood on 21 December 1955. Their work was later published in the book When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World.
Sociologist Amy Ryan has argued for the need to differentiate those groups that may be dangerous from groups that are more benign. Ryan notes the sharp differences between definition from cult opponents, who tend to focus on negative characteristics, and those of sociologists, who aim to create definitions that are value-free. The movements themselves may have different definitions of religion as well. 
In the United Kingdom, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Edinburgh City Council have ruled that the word "cult" is not "threatening, abusive or insulting" as defined by the Public Order Act, and that there is no objection to its use in public protests.
At the same time, she adds, labeling a group a "cult" makes people feel safe, because the "violence associated with religion is split off from conventional religions, projected onto others, and imagined to involve only aberrant groups". This fails to take into account that child abuse, sexual abuse, financial extortion and warfare have also been committed by believers of mainstream religions, but the pejorative "cult" stereotype makes it easier to avoid confronting this uncomfortable fact.
Catherine Wessinger (Loyola University New Orleans) has stated that the word "cult" represents just as much prejudice and antagonism as racial slurs or derogatory words for women and homosexuals. She has argued that it is important for people to become aware of the bigotry conveyed by the word, drawing attention to the way it dehumanises the group's members and their children. Labeling a group as subhuman, she says, becomes a justification for violence against it.
Because of the increasingly pejorative use of the words "cult" and "cult leader" since the cult debate of the 1970s, some academics, in addition to groups referred to as cults, argue that these are words to be avoided.
Stigmatization and discrimination
Some scholars favour one particular view, or combined elements of each. According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
While some psychologists were receptive to these theories, sociologists were for the most part sceptical of their ability to explain conversion to NRMs. In the late 1980s, psychologists and sociologists started to abandon theories like brainwashing and mind-control. While scholars may believe that various less dramatic coercive psychological mechanisms could influence group members, they came to see conversion to new religious movements principally as an act of a rational choice.
Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. According to anti-cult group ICSA, methods of control employed by some cults may involve intensive ideological indoctrination, psychological intimidation, social humiliation and punishment, limitation of access to information, and outright deception. All of these methods may be applied by one member upon another, but they are often also internalized to such an extent that members do not believe that any coercion is actually taking place, as is common in many forms of social control.
In the mass media, and among average citizens, "cult" gained an increasingly negative connotation, becoming associated with things like kidnapping, brainwashing, psychological abuse, sexual abuse and other criminal activity, and mass suicide. While most of these negative qualities usually have real documented precedents in the activities of a very small minority of new religious groups, mass culture often extends them to any religious group viewed as culturally deviant, however peaceful or law abiding it may be.
In the early 1970s, a secular opposition movement to groups considered cults had taken shape. The organizations that formed the secular "anti-cult movement" (ACM) often acted on behalf of relatives of "cult" converts who did not believe their loved ones could have altered their lives so drastically by their own free will. A few psychologists and sociologists working in this field suggested that brainwashing techniques were used to maintain the loyalty of cult members, while others rejected the idea. The belief that cults brainwashed their members became a unifying theme among cult critics and in the more extreme corners of the anti-cult movement techniques like the sometimes forceful "deprogramming" of cult members became standard practice.
Secular anti-cult movement
Countercult literature usually expresses doctrinal or theological concerns and a missionary or apologetic purpose. It presents a rebuttal by emphasizing the teachings of the Bible against the beliefs of non-fundamental Christian sects. Christian countercult activist writers also emphasize the need for Christians to evangelize to followers of cults.
The Christian countercult movement asserts that Christian sects whose beliefs are partially or wholly not in accordance with the Bible are erroneous. It also states that a religious sect can be considered a cult if its beliefs involve a denial of what they view as any of the essential Christian teachings such as salvation, the Trinity, Jesus himself as a person, the ministry of Jesus, the Miracles of Jesus, the Crucifixion of Jesus, the Death of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Rapture.
In the 1940s, the long held opposition by some established Christian denominations to non-Christian religions and/or supposedly Christian countercult movement in the United States. For those belonging to the movement, all religious groups claiming to be Christian, but deemed outside of Christian orthodoxy, were considered cults. Christian cults are new religious movements which have a Christian background but are considered to be theologically deviant by members of other Christian churches. In his influential book The Kingdom of the Cults (first published in the United States in 1965), Christian scholar Walter Martin defines Christian cults as groups that follow the personal interpretation of an individual, rather than the understanding of the Bible accepted by mainstream Christianity. He mentions The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarian Universalism, and Unity as examples.
Christian countercult movement
Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist noted for his writings on the brainwashing controversy, has defended some so-called cults, and in 1988 argued that involvement in such movements may often have beneficial, rather than harmful effects: "There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."
In the early 1960s, sociologist John Lofland lived with South Korean missionary Young Oon Kim and some of the first American Unification Church members in California, during which he studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled: "The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes", and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion.
Pioneering sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) found that cults based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma. Sociologist Roy Wallis (1945–1990) argued that a cult is characterized by "epistemological individualism", meaning that "the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member". Cults, according to Wallis, are generally described as "oriented towards the problems of individuals, loosely structured, tolerant [and] non-exclusive", making "few demands on members", without possessing a "clear distinction between members and non-members", having "a rapid turnover of membership" and as being transient collectives with vague boundaries and fluctuating belief systems. Wallis asserts that cults emerge from the "cultic milieu". In their book Theory of Religion, American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of cults can be explained through the rational choice theory. In The Future of Religion they comment "...in the beginning, all religions are obscure, tiny, deviant cult movements".
Scholars usually consider the mid-1800s as the beginning of the era of new religious movements. During this time, spiritualism and esotericism were becoming popular in Europe and North America. Scholars have estimated that new religious movements, of which some but not all have been labelled as cults, number in the tens of thousands worldwide, most of which originated in Asia or Africa. The great majority have only a few members, some have thousands and only very few have more than a million. In 2007, religious scholar Elijah Siegler commented that, although no new religious movement had become the dominant faith in any country, many of the concepts which they had first introduced (often referred to as "New Age" ideas) had become part of worldwide mainstream culture.
Using the term new religious movement instead of cult does not remove all negative perceptions. In a survey study containing 258 participants, negative perceptions of the terms "new religious movement", "cult" and "satanic cult" were found. However, these perceptions differed significantly (i.e., not due to chance) in how negative the participants perceived them. "New religious movement" was found to be the most favourable term, followed by "cult" and then "Satanic cult".
Most sociologists and scholars of religion also began to reject the word "cult" altogether because of its negative connotations in mass culture. Some began to advocate the use of new terms like "new religious movement", "alternative religion" or "novel religion" to describe most of the groups that had come to be referred to as "cults", yet none of these terms have had much success in popular culture or in the media. Other scholars have pushed to redeem the word "cult" as one fit for neutral academic discourse.
New religious movements
Also from the 1990s, as part of the discrimination discourse at the height of the US "culture war", US neopagan religions, especially Wicca, began to protest through literature over the classification of these movements as cults as discriminatory, because of this usage of "cult" began to be discouraged in favour of the neutral new religious movement in sociological literature. Proponents of such an approach within the study of new religious movements have in turn been denounced as "procult apologists" by adherents of the Christian anti-cult movement. An anti-cult movement comparable to the one in the United States originated in Russia in the 1990s. In 2008, the Russian Interior Ministry prepared a list of "extremist groups", which included groups adhering to militant Islamism and "Pagan cults".
By the late 1930s, the Christian countercult movement began using the term cult to what would formerly have been termed heresy. From this time (i.e., from the perspective of the Christian anti-cult movement), the term "cultist" acquired the connotation of Satanism. This usage became mainstream by the 1960s, via the best-selling The Kingdom of the Cults (1965). This terminological development, which had so far been characteristic of the religious sociology of the United States, entered international use with the "ritual abuse" moral panic of the 1980s, which originated in the United States. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the international spread throughout most of the Anglosphere and some parts of Europe.
 arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.cults beliefs and practices, while traditional and therefore maintain a continuity with schism are products of religious sects In this sociological terminology,  This is often thought to lead to a high degree of tension between the group and the more mainstream culture surrounding it, a characteristic shared with religious sects. religious groups "deriving their inspiration from outside of the predominant religious culture".deviant Later sociological formulations built on these characteristics, placing an additional emphasis on cults as