Define cult and briefly discuss what differentiates it from other organizational forms of religion.


Religion, Sociology

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Cults are a distinct form of religion, and in today’s society the word has negative connotations (due to conflicts with the general population involving legal interpretations).  Basically a cult is a gathering of persons following the teachings of a charismatic leader, and usually living in a communal society that excludes non-followers; in this interpretation, Christianity, at least in its foundational beginnings, would fill the definition of a “cult”, as would Islam (followers of Mohammad) and to an even greater extent, Mormonism.  The main features of this cultist form of religion (as opposed to such religions as Confucionism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Taoism) are:

1.      a charismatic human leader

2.      a living arrangement in which personal rights are subsumed under group behavioral “rules”

3.      a document from which the leader claims his authority and which spells out the rules of behavior (subject to the leader’s interpretation)

4.      a policy of exclusivity that does not allow “outsiders” to participate or interfere

5.      the sacrifice of any personal wealth to the cult’s leader

6.      the suspension of social equalities, especially gender roles


The geographic site where the group lives and worships is often at odds with the general population surrounding it (resulting in legal, even armed, conflict); the source of income for the group is often questionable, sometimes considered marginally illegal.  Note that in this definition is very little attention to “religious” matters (salvation, good behavior, personal relation with God, etc.).  Cults use a tyrannical, dictatorial form of government, the opposite of democratic.


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