Part 1 – New Blog Series on ‘Religious Sects & Cults’
Part 2 – Scientology – An Analysis of Scientology’s Beliefs
Welcome to this new series I’ve entitled ‘Religious Sects & Cults.’ Like we’ve previously done with several other series at this blog, we will be examining the topic under study in sequential posts shared in no particular order. And as always it’s probably best to begin with definitions. To them we shall briefly turn.
What is a Religious Sect?
In a religious context a sect is commonly held to be subset of a certain religion’s belief system (1). It usually involves a detachment from a larger, parent group. Importantly, sects share several similar beliefs with the parent religion although the differences held in important areas are most noticeable. Historically, some sects formed when religious believers protested against elements of their parent religion and had gone on to form what would soon become a denomination. These protests and sect formations resulted from perceived heresy in the parent religion’s belief system (2). Similarly, the parent religion would distance itself from the sect and deem their newly formed beliefs heretical and blasphemous. Thus, the term “sect” now carries particularly negative connotations. The late sociologists Bryan Wilson explained that it,
“is a term that designates a religiously separated group, but in its historical usage in Christendom it carried a distinctly pejorative connotation. A sect was a movement committed to heretical beliefs and often to ritual acts and practices like isolation that departed from orthodox religious procedures” (3).
Three main kinds of religious sects have been identified: the “aggressive”, “tolerated” and “assimilating” sect (4). The aggressive sect has a militant appearance, is often persecuted, and ends up decimated. The tolerated sect denies violence and exists unrecognized. The assimilating sect gives in to the pressures of the environment and makes concessions. Often sects can scatter and/or end following the death of the founder whereas they can also continue to grow under new leadership.
A number of sects exist today. Mormonism, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a sect that sprouted from Christianity in the 1820s and is now a full blown religion with followers. Despite many Mormons claiming to be Christians, Mormonism holds to many beliefs and doctrines incompatible with orthodox Christianity. The Community of the Lady of All Peoples, also know as the Army of Mary, within Catholicism is a sect. Jehovah Witnesses are also a well-known Christian sect with several million followers worldwide. The Amish, who follow the teachings of Jacob Ammann, are a sect known for following simple customs and avoiding military service.
What is a Cult?
Some have used the terms “sects” and “cults” interchangeably. However, this portrays a misunderstanding and should be avoided. Cults are typically viewed to be small, extreme groups led by morally questionable leaders (5). Cults also tend to practice intense, manipulative, and/or unethical behaviours (6). Cult members are often entirely invested in a single individual of whom demands total commitment and loyalty from his or her followers. Steve Eichel, a psychologist and a recognized commentator on cults, explains that,
“Most cults are extremely small and very deliberately try to to stay under the radar. Unless they commit a crime, unless they do something that draws attention to them — negative attention and criticism to them — we generally don’t know about them” (7).
Eichel goes on to identify several characteristics common across cults (8). These include having a leader who proclaims him or herself as possessing special powers, special insight, or divinity, a group with a closed inner circle who follow a leader without question and often in secrecy, a method of recruitment that is deceptive, a use of programs for thought reform for members (i.e. “brainwashing”), a tendency to exploit members with this ranging from financial to psychological, emotional, and sexual exploitation, and the ability to put fear in members that bad things will happen to them should they leave the cult.
The infamous Jim Jones, who started the Peoples Temple, is an example of a leader who founded a cult. Jones derived a following despite there being claims about abuse within the group. In his attempt to avoid negative attention he moved his followers to Guyana where he started a colony in the forest. Later, when a congressman and several journalists visited the cult they were shot and killed while trying to leave. After the shootings Jim had 913 followers drink poisoned Flavor Aid after which they all died. The Family was an Australian cult led by a self-appointed mystic Anne Hamilton-Byrne. Hamilton-Byrne, with the assistance of LSD, convinced her followers, which was at 500 at a time, that she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Her practices involved kidnapping children before her arrest.
This blog series will look to examine some of these sects and cults, their belief systems, and their practices. This is an intriguing avenue of study and hopefully this series will prove to be a helpful guide on the basics of these often unknown belief systems.
1. Serva, C. Sect in Religion: Definition & Overview. Available.
2. Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W. 1979. Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 18(2): 117-133.
3. Wilson, B. 1982. Religion in Sociological Perspective. p. 89.
4. Honigseim, P. In Hans Dieter Betz. 2012. Religion: Past and Present. p. 1657.
5. Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W. 1996. A Theory of Religion. p. 124.
6. Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W. 1996. Ibid.
7. Eichel in LaRosa, P. 2018. How to identify a cult: Six tips from an expert. Available.
8. Eichel in LaRosa, P. 2018. Ibid.