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Cults (a.k.a. New Religious Movements)


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Quotations about cults:

bullet " person's cult is another's religion; all religions begin life as cults. An alternative definition is that a cult is a religion which you happen to dislike." Anthony Campbell 1

bullet "Cult is a word without much use outside the realm of religious mudslinging."  Philip Kennicott 2

bullet "When someone uses the word 'cult,' it usually says more about them than the group," J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of The Institute for the Study of American Religion. 3

bullet "It's easy to tell the difference - a cult is someone else's religion. Corollary: "A fanatic is someone who believes something more strongly than you do." Jim Heldberg 4

bullet "I have often thought that the difference between a cult and a religion is an IRS ruling." Ron Barrier 4

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Usage of the word "cult:"

The term "cult" is generally used as a hateful snarl word that is intended to intentionally devalue people and the new faith groups that they have chosen to follow.  It tends to associate thousands of benign religious groups with the handful of destructive religious groups that have caused loss of life.  The term often creates fear and loathing among the public, and contributes greatly to religious intolerance in North America. The word "cult," particularly as used by the media, carries a heavy emotional content.  The term suggests that this is a group that you should detest, avoid, and fear.

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Who are the true "cults?"

In reality, the only "crime" of most "cults" is that they they hold different religious beliefs from whomever is doing the attacking. For example, many conservative Christian counter-cult groups consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS; the main Mormon church) to be a cult that is tinged with Gnosticism and teaches beliefs which conflict with historic Christianity. Meanwhile, the LDS teaches that Christianity took a wrong turn in the second century CE and abandoned most of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They regard their own denomination as the true Christian church. Who is the cult and who is the mainline movement depends upon one's viewpoint.

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Fear and dislike of new religious movements, coupled with increased respect for established faith groups with a long history, has been with us for at least two millennia.

bullet During the first century, many people in the Roman Empire rejected Christianity because it was new, and valued Judaism because of its ancient history. Today, some established religions criticize new religions simply because they are new and teach different beliefs.

bullet During the first century, some politicians spread rumors that Christians engaged in orgies during their love feasts, and sacrificed infants to their God. During the 1980s and early 1990s, many Christians believed that Pagans, Satanists, Wiccans, and other small religious groups engaged in orgies and ritual abuse and human sacrifice.

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Meanings of the word "cult:"

Individuals and organizations have assigned many meanings to the word "cult." The result is mass confusion:

bullet The Counter-cult movement (CCM) classifies all non-traditional Christian faith groups as cults simply because their beliefs differ from historical Christian doctrine. The term "cult" has, in many ways, replaced "heretic" or "non-traditional," or "unconventional" within the CCM. Examples of commonly attacked "cults" are: Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. In this website, we simply refer to these groups as denominations, or faith groups.

bullet Some Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians describe most non-Christian religions as cults or as Satanic religions, simply because they are non-Christian. Examples are religions as different as Wicca and Hinduism. We simply refer to these groups by name, as alternative religions or as faith groups.

bullet The largely secular Anti-Cult Movement (ACM) mainly targets religious groups that make high demands on their membership. They are accused of mind control or brainwashing techniques which reduce their members to near zombie-like status, who are unable to think clearly and become trapped within the group. Examples of religions targeted by the ACM are the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Two-by-twos. Studies by mental health researchers indicate that the charges of the ACM have little or no merit. We simply refer to these groups as high-intensity or high demand faith groups who expect great dedication from their members.

bullet Many information sources use the term "cult" to refer to the few destructive, doomsday religious groups whose members have been murdered or committed suicide. Examples are  The Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate. We do refer to such groups as "cults"

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We recommend that people develop a healthy skepticism when they hear someone refer to a religious groups as a "cult". A new faith group may be being attacked:

bullet because they don't believe in the Trinity, or

bullet because they are non-Christian, like two thirds of the world's population, or

bullet because they expect a major commitment from their membership, or

bullet because they are one of those rare, destructive, doomsday groups that have shown themselves to be dangerous to their membership.

We recommend that people refer to religious groups by name. If a term is needed to characterize non-traditional religious groups, we suggest a neutral phrase, like "new religious movement," or "emerging faith group."

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References used to prepare this essay:

These hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Anthony Campbell, "David V. Barrett: THE NEW BELIEVERS, A survey of sects, cults and alternative religions," Book review, 2001, at:
  2. Philip Kennicott, in a Washington Post article that is no longer available online.
  3. Rhonda Parks Manville, "UCSB research of 'new religions' returns surprises," Santa Barbara News-Press, 2004-JUL-30, at:
  4. Quotes extracted from "Heaven's Sake!," at:
  5. Massimo Introvigne, " 'So many evil things:' Anti-cult terrorism via the Internet," Center for Studies on New Religions, 1999-AUG-5, at:

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Site navigation: Home page > Cults > here

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Copyright 1997 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-JUL-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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