Religious cults are groups with deviant or novel beliefs and practices. In research papers, the word cult is often used in a pejorative sense, and it carries negative connotations. Famous examples of religious cults include what are classified as Doomsday cults, such as the following:
- Branch Davidians, headed by David Koresh
- The Heaven's Gate cult
- Jim Jones' Peoples Temple, which led to the mass murder-suicide of 909 people in Guyana in 1978
- Some claim that Scientology is a cult
Good topics to discuss for your research project on religious cults include the following:
- Offer an overview and analysis of religious subcultures and their relationship with the concept of the cult.
- Explore the problematic issue of defining religious subcultures and cults.
- Give a summary of the sociological study of religious cults and the evolution of the field over the course of the twentieth century.
- Provide an overarching assessment of the significance of the relationship between new religious movements, religious subcultures, and religious cults will be presented.
The word cult originally referred to the act of worship within a particular religion. By the 19th century, the word was being used to describe faith healing. In 1932, sociologists Howard P. Becker began using the word to distinguish between three major types of religious behavior. Becker defined cults as small religious groups that had little organization. Later sociologists added the dimension of deviance; as such groups take their religious inspiration from sources outside the mainstream.
Max Weber and others studied the phenomenon whereby religious cults have a charismatic leader at their center. By the 1970s, many believed that cults "brainwashed" their members, and religious cults became associated with a variety of negative behaviors, including kidnapping, sexual abuse, and mass suicide. Today, many sociologists refrain from using the word "cult" because of such negative connotations.
Many people consider Jehovah's Witnesses a religious cult. It has several aspects that can define it as such. Charles Taze Russell, the founder has the opposite agenda when he proposed his ideas.
In the United States, the concept of religious freedom is a key aspect of the political and social landscape. Because of the history of religious persecution that compelled the emigration of America's earliest European settlers, those who adhere to unorthodox religious practices have often been afforded a substantial degree of latitude. While it must be acknowledged that some bias and bigotry pertaining to religious practices persists in the United States, particularly toward adherents of nontraditional faiths, the foundation of religious tolerance has played an important role in shaping the view of religious practices in American culture.
In this context, much of the controversy surrounding the sociological study of nontraditional religions can be more clearly understood. Following the move towards cultural relativism that revolutionized anthropological study in the mid-twentieth century, sociologists have attempted to adopt a value-neutral analytical perspective in the study of nontraditional religious practices.
However, the boundary dividing benign religious practices from potentially deleterious "cults" has become increasingly obscure, prompting anti-cult advocates to decry the relativism that has come to characterize the sociological study of new religious movements and other nontraditional religious practices. The schism created by this controversy continues to resonate in the recent scholarship on the subject, although it appears that the value-neutral approach has attained more widespread acceptance than the approach that broadly identifies such groups as potentially dangerous cults.
Howard Baker, an influential early sociologist, first popularized the use of the term "cult" in the social sciences in the early twentieth century. Although the criteria that Baker set forth for the use of "cult" as a specific category of religious practice were detailed and complex, the term soon became detached from these conditions and entered into the scholarly lexicon as an abbreviated means of referring to any non-traditional religious group that exhibited significant deviation from widely accepted orthodox belief systems and practices. Soon afterward, this term gained a similar connotation in general usage.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the activities and prevalence of so-called religious cults were minimal, and social scientists were able to closely observe the dynamics and structures of several such groups. To the current-day reader, much of the observation and analysis hailing from this period appears to be hopelessly mired in the subjective biases of the researchers of the era, many of whom were pro-conformity and fundamentally critical of unorthodoxy in any form. However, by the 1950s, the idea of cultural relativism and the importance of value-neutral analysis had gained broader acceptance, which resulted in increasingly sophisticated, nuanced studies of nontraditional religions and so-called cults.
Trends in the larger culture would serve to provide a major impetus for change in the study of religious subcultures and cults in the post-World War II period. The advent of the countercultural movement that was initiated on the fringes of American society in the 1950s achieved widespread prevalence in the mid-1960s. In an environment that became increasingly tolerant of religious experimentation, unorthodoxy, and nonconformity, alternative religions underwent a veritable explosion in the United States.
As the mainstream's view of what constituted traditional and nontraditional religious practice was impacted by the growing ubiquity of alternatives to long-established traditions, sociologists were forced to reassess and modify the analytical rubric that they had employed in the study of cults throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In addition, the liberalization of American culture and, in particular, many academic scholars, initiated a shift in which nontraditional and countercultural practices were no longer regarded with inherent hostility.
In this climate, alternative theories of religious participation began to be devised, many of which were more sympathetic to individuals who exerted a great deal of time and effort into their personal quests for spiritual enlightenment. Whereas earlier sociological theories had regarded this type of unorthodox behavior as inherently indicative of imbalance or personality disorders, many post-1960s social scientists came to regard religious "seekership" as a valid mode of personal and spiritual expression.