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What Is a Cult?

Competing Definitions of the Word "Cult"

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Use of the term cult can be highly complicated and problematic. Dictionary.com, for example, gives eight definitions of cult used as a noun. The first five definitions read:

1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies. 2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult. 3. the object of such devotion. 4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc. 5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
Using any of these definitions, all or nearly all religions and spiritual systems could be considered cults.

Using slightly more narrow definitions, the term often highlights smaller religious movements or movements involving particularly intense religious devotion. Within academic texts, for example, one can commonly find the early Christian church referred to as a cult as well as references to such things as the Cult of the Virgin Mary.

Cult As A Derogatory Term

None of these definitions, however, are what people are thinking of when they accuse a group of being cultish. Since about the 1970s, cult has attained much more derogatory, negative and judgmental connotations. Today, many people use the term to refer to any religion he or she deems dangerous. This commonly includes what law enforcement deems dangerous or destructive cults (such as those promoting murder, abuse or suicide).
Read more: What Constitutes A Dangerous Cult?

In addition, religious people sometimes use cult to describe practices deemed to be spiritually dangerous, untrue and/or heretical by the speaker. For some, all religions – and sometimes even all denominations – outside of his or her own are termed cults. Some conservative Protestants, for example, describe the Catholic Church – followed by one-sixth of the world's population - as a cult. This use in particular can become highly confusing when listeners here the word cult being used in a derogatory way and confuse it with dangerous cults.

Use of The Term "Cult" On This Site

Because of the wide varieties of usage for the term, the term shall be avoided whenever possible on this website, outside of the phrases dangerous cult and destructive cult, or when the term is part of a well-accepted phrase such the as the Cult of the Virgin Mary (which is not to imply that the Cult of the Virgin Mary is a destructive cult).

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