Contemporary Definition

Today, a cult is considered to be a group that deviates considerably in doctrine and practice from a host religion. As a result, cults can be considered to exist as derivatives of an already established religious institution. The reasons underlying a personal decision to join a cult are varied, but common elements can be discerned. The desire to belong, the search for a deeper meaning in life, or the quest for physical or spiritual health have all been rationales for why cults continue to attract members.


Cults, often referred to as charismatic groups, have several basic characteristics in common. First among these is authoritarian leadership. The leader of a cult typically exercises complete control over members’ behavior. Considered a living prophet, the leader’s word is deemed the ultimate truth. Cults also share the common characteristics of exclusivism, isolationism, opposition to independent thinking, fear of exclusion from the group, and threats of Satanic attack. Members are expected to exist as a shared community, reflecting the ideals of the cult in their behavior, mode of dress, thought, and expression, with little tolerance for individualism. The cult leader may use fear, threats, or intimidation as tactics for maintaining control over the group.

Additional characteristics include excessive zealotry and mind-altering practices such as meditation, chanting, use of drugs, or speaking in tongues. Teachings tend to focus on an exalted end or apocalyptic future. Cults are generally preoccupied with attracting new members and making money, and members are expected to devote extraordinary amounts of time to achieving the exalted end predicted by the leader. Psychologists have categorized many zealous religious sects—some highly cohesive self-improvement groups, certain political action movements, and select terrorist groups—as having cult characteristics.

Well-Known Cults

In recent history, several well-known cults and charismatic leaders have been highlighted by the news media. Among the more infamous are the Manson Family, Branch Davidians, Peoples Temple, and Heaven’s Gate. These groups operated under the guidance of a charismatic leader who combined an apocalyptic end-of-times rhetoric with claims of divinity and premonition. While there are countless other cults that have existed throughout time or are currently in operation, very few have become as notorious as those listed here.

Regarded by many as the first modern cult, the Manson Family was founded by Charles Manson in 1967 in San Francisco, California. Manson and his followers did not rely on religious tenets as motives for their actions. Rather, Manson prophesied a race war in which blacks would emerge victorious but would eventually turn to whites for leadership. It was his intention to remain in hiding and then surface after the war to lead the victors. On August 9, 1969, the Family brutally slayed coffee heiress Abigail Folger, actress Sharon Tate, hairstylist Jay Sebring, and writer Wojciech Frykowski and killed supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary the following evening in an effort to instigate the race war by attempting to frame blacks as the suspects. The Family wrote the words “Helter Skelter,” “Rise,” and “Death to Pigs” in blood on the walls and refrigerator of the LaBianca home as cryptic messages to the authorities.

David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian cult, earned infamy for his alleged sexual relationships with underage girls, his espousal of a radical apocalyptic end to humankind, and the Branch Davidians’ amassed armory of illegal weapons. A botched raid on the Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms resulted in a subsequent 51-day siege by federal authorities. The compound erupted in flames on April 19, 1993, after the federal authorities used tanks to penetrate and insert tear gas into the compound. At the culmination of events, more than 70 Branch Davidian adults and children and four agents of the bureau were dead.

The Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, or Peoples Temple, was founded in San Francisco in 1955 by Jim Jones. Abuse allegations levied by former members drew media attention, prompting Jones to move his group to Guyana in an effort to create a socialist paradise and sanctuary called the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project. After Congressman Leo Ryan, who had traveled to the project’s farm to investigate the claims of abuse, was shot dead on November 17, 1978, Jones feared further intrusion by legal authorities. The following day, Jones instructed his followers to commit mass suicide by ingesting a cyanide-laced grape drink. In the end, more than 900 people, including 303 children and adolescents, were dead.

Heaven’s Gate drew the attention of news media and police authorities after its leader, Marshall Applewhite, directed his followers to commit suicide to enable them to travel up to an alien spacecraft hidden in the tail of Comet Hale-Bopp. On March 26, 1997, Applewhite and 38 of his followers were found dead in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Heaven’s Gate members believed in a fusion of Christian apocalyptic thought and concepts popularized in science fiction. They believed in the presence of unidentified flying objects, which were to appear and whisk away selected individuals for existence on a higher plane.

Wendy L. Hicks

See also Anarchism ; Authoritarianism ; Civil Liberties ; Civil Rights Movement ; Deviance ; Domestic Terrorist Groups ; Ethics ; Free Speech ; Freedom of Expression ; Internet Pornography ; Narcissism

Further Readings

Bowden, Hugh. Mystery Cults of the Ancient World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Dawson, Lorne L. Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.

Galanter, Marc. Cults, Faith, Healing and Coercion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Goldwag, Arthur. Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Free Masons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and Many, Many, More. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2009.

Jenkins, Philip. Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Martin, Walter. The Kingdom of the Cults. Ada, MI: Bethany House, 2003.

Nichols, Larry A. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions: Revised and Updated Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.

Singer, Margaret T.Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.