A term used for many years in social science to refer to religious
groups whose basic religious beliefs and practices differ
markedly from those dominant in the particular culture in
which they are found. The term cult has, however, since the
1970s become a pejorative term used to describe unpopular religious
groups. Many groups labeled as ‘‘cults’’ are Spiritualist,
occult, and metaphysical groups. The Theosophical Society,
the Spiritualist movement, Christian Science, and occult
groups such as the Rosicrucians were among the first groups
so negatively labeled. In social science, the term has been replaced
by the less prejudicial terms ‘‘new religion,’’ new religious
movement, or ‘‘alternative religion.’’
Contemporary use of cult was nurtured for many decades by
Evangelical Christian organizations, some organized as late as
the 1930s, to oppose groups that deviated from Christian orthodoxy.
In the mid-1970s, a more secular anticult movement
developed in the United States to oppose several new religions
that focused their attention on young adult recruits. The major
organization of the contemporary anticult movement is the
Cult Awareness Network, which grew out of the older Citizens
Freedom Foundation. It has nurtured a number of similar organizations
in Europe and South America.
The anticult movement has encouraged the publication of
a vast literature denouncing ‘‘cults.’’ This literature is characterized
by adoption of the ‘‘brainwashing’’ hypothesis to explain
the destructive nature of the groups under attack. Such
groups are said to have an unusual power to control the minds
of their members to the extent that they lose the ability to think
straight and evaluate their experience. According to the literature,
members have been ‘‘programmed’’ and act like robots
following every command of their leaders; they cannot choose
to leave the harmful situation in which they have been trapped.
This analysis justifies an intrusion into their lives by anticult
forces. In extreme cases, such intrusions take the form of ‘‘deprogramming,’’
a forceful removal of the person from the
group and the application of social and psychological pressure
to convince the person to break his or her relationship with the
In 1987–88, the American Psychological Association examined
the issue of brainwashing or mind control in relation to
new religions and other groups, such as psychological training
groups, that had been accused of using techniques of ‘‘coercive
persuasion’’ against their adherents. The association concluded
that such theories were based on insufficient scientific data
and that the work done was severely flawed methodologically.
This opinion was confirmed by the American Sociological Association
and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Most
scholars on new religions had rejected the brainwashing hypothesis
shortly after its proposal in the early 1980s, and those
opinions by the several scholarly bodies have been decisive in
moving discussion of the so-called cults to other issues.
The anticult movement has joined the ranks of various opposition
groups (anti-Catholic, anti-Mormon, anti-Semitic)
that have dotted the religious landscape in recent centuries. In
the meantime, scholars have noted a radical jump in religious
pluralism in Western society.
Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. Alternative Altars Unconventional and
Eastern Spirituality in America. Chicago University of Chicago
Press, 1979.
———. Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. Englewood
Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Melton, J. Gordon. The Encyclopedic Handbook of the Cults.
New York Garland Publishing, 1992.
Melton, J. Gordon, and Robert L. Moore. The Cult Experience.
New York Pilgrim Press, 1982.

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