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Social Sci LibreTexts

14.6A: Cult

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    8403
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    Cult refers to a religious movement or group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Differentiate cults from sects, according to sociologists

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • In the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior.
    • American sociologist Howard P. Becker created four categories by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination,” and sect into “sect” and “cult”.
    • Cults, for Becker, were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Unlike sects, which are products of religious schism that maintain continuity with traditional beliefs, cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.
    • Those critical of cults share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used by cult leaders to recruit and maintain members.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • apostate: A person who has renounced a religion or faith.
    • denomination: A class, or society of individuals, called by the same name; a sect; as, a denomination of Christians.
    • ecclesia: The congregation, the group of believers, symbolic body or building.

    The word “cult” in current popular usage usually refers to a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre. Originally denoting a system of ritual practices, the word was introduced into sociological classification in 1932 by American sociologist Howard P. Becker. In the 1930s, cults became the object of sociological study in the context of the study of religious behavior. They have been criticized by mainstream Christians for their unorthodox beliefs.

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    Rev. Jim Jones: Jim Jones was the leader of the Peoples Temple, a cult that committed a mass murder-suicide in 1978.

     

    Becker’s Typology

     

    Becker created four categories by splitting church into “ecclesia” and “denomination”, and sect into “sect” and “cult.” Cults, for Becker, were small religious groups lacking in organization and emphasizing the private nature of personal beliefs. Sociologists still maintain that unlike sects, which are products of religious schism that maintain continuity with traditional beliefs and practices, cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices.

    While most scholars no longer refer to any new religious movements as cults, some sociologists still favor retaining the word as it was used in church-sect typologies. Other scholars and non-academic researchers who use the word do so from explicitly critical perspectives, focusing on the relationship between cult groups and the individuals who join them. These perspectives share the assumption that some form of coercive persuasion or mind control is used to recruit and maintain members by suppressing their ability to reason, think critically, and make choices in their own best interest. Mind control refers to a process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated. ”

     

    Opponents

     

    Secular cult opponents like those belonging to the anti-cult movement tend to define a cult as a group that tends to manipulate, exploit, and control its members. Specific factors in cult behavior are said to include manipulative and authoritarian mind control over members, communal and totalistic organization, aggressive proselytizing, systematic programs of indoctrination, and perpetuation in middle-class communities. The role of former members, or ” apostates,” has been widely studied by social scientists. At times, these individuals become outspoken public critics of the groups they leave. Their motivations, the roles they play in the anti-cult movement, the validity of their testimony, and the narratives they construct, are controversial. According to researchers who have studied apostates, there are several cases where hostile ex-members shade the truth and blow minor incidents out of proportion.