The word cult comes from the French culte, and is rooted in the Latin cultus, which means "care" and "adoration." That idea comes from the Latin cultus - the past participle of colere, which means "to cultivate."
The word was used in the sense of "to worship or give reference to a deity." (Note 1)
Nowadays the term 'cult' has a variety of meanings, as evidenced by this dictionary entry:
- : formal religious veneration : worship
- : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
- : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
- : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults >
- a: great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad
b: a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion
Positive, Negative, or Neutral?
The term 'cult' can be used in a positive, negative, or neutral sense. Examples:
- Postive sense:
How much would you pay for a bottle of wine? $20? $40? How about $500 or $1,000? That's how much collectors have been paying for California's so-called "Cult Wines." But why? Source: What Makes A Cult Wine? KRON TV, Feb. 7, 2002
You may also have heard of, for example, cult films, cult bands, or cult hits. Here the term 'cult' refers to a relatively small but devoted following.
- Negative sense:
The Church of Scientology is a vicious and dangerous cult that masquerades as a religion. Its purpose is to make money. It practices a variety of mind-control techniques on people lured into its midst to gain control over their money and their lives. Its aim is to take from them every penny that they have and can ever borrow and to also enslave them to further its wicked ends. Source: Operation Clambake present: What is Scientology?
You may also have heard of other destructive cults, such as David Koresh's Branch Davidians, Shoko Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo, or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.
Here the term 'cult' refers to a movement that claims to be a religion - and which may indeed have all the trappings of a religion - but which in reality is harmful to its followers and/or to others.
...while Mormons profess to be Christians, they are outside orthodox Christianity and the Mormon Church is considered to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity. Source: Mormon Church, Apologetics Index entry
Here the term 'cult' is used to indicate that the group in question has separated itself from the mainstream religion it claims to represent. (In this case, given that the theology and practice of the Mormon Church violates essential Christian doctrines, Mormonism does not represent historical, Biblical Christianity, is not a Christian denomination, and is not in any way part of the Christian church.)
- Neutral sense:
We have chosen to use the concepts "cults" and "sects" in the title of this volume for two reasons. First, the concepts do have more or less precise meanings as employed by social scientists. Second, it has become abundantly clear that after nearly two decades, the concept new religious movements has virtually no recognition either in the mass media or the general public. By calling attention to the concepts as they are used by social scientists, we hope to begin the long process of educating the mass media and public regarding the non-pejorative meaning of these words. Source: Introductory essay, Religion and the Social Order: The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America by David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden
The late sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden has stated that"[t]he concepts "cult" and "sect" do have precise meaning as they are used by sociologists, and are free of prejudice."
While that is true, some scholars - Jeffrey Hadden en David Bromley included - have unfortunately forsaken neutrality in favor of becoming 'academic supporters of alternative religions.'
For further reading: