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In religious studies, the term "cult" is no longer used to describe groups with unique doctrines and charismatic leaders, which are the two main characteristics for what are now called "New Religious Movements" (NRMs). This term is used because it has less negative connotations and does not call to mind...

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In religious studies, the term "cult" is no longer used to describe groups with unique doctrines and charismatic leaders, which are the two main characteristics for what are now called "New Religious Movements" (NRMs). This term is used because it has less negative connotations and does not call to mind murder, mayhem and brainwashing, though these things can exist in some New Religious Movements. What is important when looking at these groups are the two criteria mentioned above--a charismatic leader and a novel doctrine. With these in mind, the KKK and Wicca are not considered to be NRMs in the field of religious studies. Wicca is a neo-pagan movement that derives its practices and beliefs from pagan religions that existed prior to Christianity. It also has no single charismatic leader. The KKK is not a cult because it is not a religion, but a hate group. Some examples of cults include Heaven's Gate (unique beliefs, for example about the Hale-Bopp comet + charismatic leader Marshall Applewhite), Scientology (unique beliefs, for example about how to "go clear" + charismatic leader Ron Hubbard), and the Branch Davidians (unique beliefs, for example about the prophecies in Daniel + charismatic leader David Koresh).

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In modern popular parlance, the word "cult" has come to refer to a new religious organization, usually small and tightly-knit, whose beliefs and religious practices operate outside the mainstream. Often religious cults are associated, perhaps simplistically, with groups such as the People's Temple, the group led by Jim Jones that committed mass suicide at his behest in Guyana in 1978, or the Branch Davidians, followers of David Koresh who set fire to their own compound near Waco, Texas under assault by state and federal law enforcement officials. Both of these organizations were led by highly charismatic, controlling men, and subscribed to particularly radical variants of Christianity. Because of their actions, and those of other groups such as Heaven's Gate, Aum Shunrikyo, and others, cults have become associated with mind control, strict discipline, and extreme group mentality.

Many sociologists have observed, however, that cult membership is often more closely related to family or close friendship ties with other cult members than to "brainwashing" by a group leader. Additionally, some scholars argue that the negative connotations assigned to the word "cult" stem from the desire of "mainstream" religious practitioners to marginalize members of new religious groups that they find objectionable. Perhaps the most high-profile of these organizations described as "cults" is Scientology, along with many other "new-age" religious movements that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. A less pejorative term used to describe these organizations is "new religious movements."

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