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ritual observances involved in worship of, or communication with, the supernatural or its symbolic representations. A cult includes the totality of ideas, activities, and practices associated with a given divinity or social group. It includes not only ritual activities but also the beliefs and myths centering on the rites. The objects of the cult are often things associated with the daily life of the celebrants. The English scholar Jane Harrison pointed out the importance of the cult in the development of religion. Sacred persons may have their own cults. The cult may be associated with a single person, place, or object or may have much broader associations. There may be officials entrusted with the rites, or anyone who belongs may be allowed to take part in them.

The term cult is now often used to refer to contemporary religious groups whose beliefs and practices depart from the conventional norms of society. These groups vary widely in doctrine, leadership, and ritual, but most stress direct experience of the divine and duties to the cult community. Such cults tend to proliferate during periods of social unrest; most are transient and peripheral. Many cults that have emerged in the United States since the late 1960s have been marked by renewed interest in mysticismmysticism
[Gr.,=the practice of those who are initiated into the mysteries], the practice of putting oneself into, and remaining in, direct relation with God, the Absolute, or any unifying principle of life. Mysticism is inseparably linked with religion.
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 and Asian religions, but many others have had Christian roots.

Such major U.S. cults as the Rev. Sun Myung MoonMoon, Sun Myung
, 1920–2012, South Korean religious leader. He was an engineering student in Japan and a dockworker before founding (1954) the Unification Church with a doctrine loosely based on Christianity as interpreted by Moon, who declared (2004) himself the "Messiah.
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's Unification Church and Hare Krishna, a movement derived from Hinduism, have stirred wide controversy. Cults' insularity and distrust of society sometimes lead to violent conflicts with the law. In 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, followers of Jim JonesJones, Jim,
1931–78, American religious leader, b. Lynn, Indiana. An influential Indianapolis preacher from the 1950s and onetime head of the city's Human Rights Commission, Jones formed the racially integrated People's Temple (1955), which he eventually moved to Ukiah,
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 killed a U.S. congressman who was investigating Jones, and then Jones and more than 900 others committed mass suicide. In 1993 a gunfight near Waco, Tex., between federal officers and David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers led to a 51-day siege that ended in a blaze that left Koresh and 82 people dead. Other notorious cults have included the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, whose adherents were responsible for a number of murders, including a 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 and affected thousands; the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members died by murder or suicide in Quebec, Switzerland, and France in a series of incidents in the mid- to late 1990s; Heaven's Gate, a group formed in the mid-1970s whose 39 members committed mass suicide in California in 1997; and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a millennialist Ugandan church, more than 900 members of which apparently died by mass murder and mass suicide in 2000.


See D. J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (1995); J. D. Tabor and E. V. Gallagher, Why Waco? (1995); R. J. Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It (1999).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


  1. in both developed and less developed societies, the most informal and often most transient type of religious organization or movement, usually distinguished from other forms of religious organization (see CHURCH-SECT TYPOLOGY) by its deviation from the dominant orthodoxies within the communities in which it operates. Sometimes involving a focus of allegiance to an inspirational or charismatic leader (see CHARISMA AND CHARISMATIC AUTHORITY), cults may combine elements from various religions (SYNCRETISM) or, like SECTS, from which cults are not always sharply distinguished, may result from separation from, or operate alongside, a single more established religion. In preindustrial or transitional societies, cults often coexist with more formally organized religions and perform specialized functions, including magical rites.

    Within both underdeveloped and developed societies it is characteristic of cults that they recruit individuals who make a positive choice to become involved. In this, they are unlike more mainstream religious organizations, where recruitment is normally at birth and by family ties. Cults and cult membership are most common in locations of social disadvantage and/or rapid social change and great social fluidity (e.g. modern California). See also NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS.

  2. within the Roman Catholic church, the beliefs and practices associated with a particular physical location, e.g. a shrine.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

"Cult" is a very subjective term. The dictionary says it is "a system of religious worship; devotion, homage to a person or thing." The classical definition is not negative at all. It merely describes a religious expression unique to a particular locale. Christianity was once considered a Jewish cult. But popular usage conjures up scenes of brainwashing, manipulation of the minds and lives of cult members, and a leader who is usually involved with some kind of sex scandal.

Dr. J. W. West, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, describes a cultic evolutionary process beginning with a charismatic leader who surrounds him/herself with a group of avid followers. As their adulation grows, the leader gradually begins to believe he/she is worthy of all the attention, slowly withdraws, and, enveloped by a veil of secrecy, rules from afar, often pushing the limits of power by demanding all sorts of activities that test the group's devotion.

Religion is powerful. It offers answers to basic questions about individual worth and human destiny. Group dynamics provide family security for people who are searching for love within a caring community. Add to this a strong parental figure who brings both structure and loving concern, and you have a powerful potion for troubled young people from dysfunctional families or at-risk communities.

In the mind of such a person the questions begin: What in the world has gone wrong with my life? Where do I look for peace and love? Who offers love and acceptance? What does the future hold? How do I find meaning in a troubled world?

And the answer comes: Follow the leader. If the leader is strong enough, has a new slant on a religious tradition or a new interpretation of scripture that makes sense, and can articulate that interpretation with enough charisma, a cult is born. It becomes a house of blocks. Each block of teaching may be only a little off, but the cumulative effect of line upon line and precept upon precept eventually brings the whole thing crashing down. To extend the building metaphor, a bridge only needs to be wrong by an inch or so every few feet to completely miss the opposite shore it was aiming for.

Cults that started out with the best of loving intentions have seen their members reduced to suicide in the jungles of Guyana or dying horribly in the flames of Waco.

Cults come and go and are far too numerous to list completely. One estimate is that there are 183,000 in Japan alone. But some have captured the public eye. Taken together, they offer a fairly thorough cross-section of cult life.

Jim Jones and the Jonestown Tragedy

In 1963 Jim Jones was pastor of the People's Temple Full Gospel Church, a Pentecostal church in Indianapolis. It was a rare (for that time) interracial congregation accustomed to faith healing, visions, toe-tapping music, and people being "slain in the spirit." Strangely, considering the church's holiness background, they even received occasional advice from a passing extraterrestrial or two.

So strong was the spiritual clout of Pastor Jones that many elderly worshipers signed over their earthly possessions to the church with the understanding that they would be taken care of as long as they lived. So it was not surprising when Jones moved the whole operation to California, partly to find greener pastures and partly to escape negative publicity that was beginning to appear in local papers.

When the government began investigating Jones's tax records and financial dealings, however, it wasn't long before the church moved to Guyana.

Rumors persist to this day that the cult had shady government ties and involvement with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A former Jones cult member, Phil Kerns, insists that Jones was a Marxist who had numerous contacts with officials of both the Cuban and Soviet governments.

Documents now open to the public reveal CIA operations in Guyana. The famous government-sponsored LSD experiments were supposedly going on at the time. They were supposed to have been discontinued in 1973, but conspiracy theorists are quick to ask if Guyana was far enough away to continue the program in secrecy.

Whatever was going on behind the scenes, Jim Jones had a captive audience in his new home. Stories abound of child molestation, forced sex, and what resembled slave labor. Preaching services continued far into the night, and pity the poor person who fell asleep after working in the fields all day. Jones began to refer to his congregation as his "children." This is common in many Christian congregations who refer to their leader as "Father," sometimes even referring to him as "shepherd," which makes the congregants "sheep." When a leader is so elevated and people so demeaned, it is a sure indication of cultic evolution having reached dangerous levels.

During the first weeks of November 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan, with a small party, came to Guyana to investigate the cult. His whole party was assassinated on Jones's orders.

Apparently realizing that you can't kill a United States congressman, even on foreign soil, without being found out and hunted down, Jim Jones ordered the death of his entire community. On November 18, 1978, nine hundred people drank a mixture of Kool-aid and cyanide. A few, including Jones himself, were shot, either by their own hand or by someone else.

Why did the religious camp just happen to have that much cyanide on hand? What was Congressman Ryan going to report when he got home? Why didn't cult members rise up in unison and say, "Enough!" The facts are unclear. In 1980 the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence finished their investigation of the incident. They found no evidence of CIA involvement in what had become known as the Jonestown Massacre.

David Berg and the Children of God—"The Family"

David Berg began as a Christian missionary, but his ideas soon moved outside accepted Christian theology. Some have called him mad, others have said quirky, but he never seemed to inspire apathy. Even in death he has confused people, because there are those who swear he's still alive.

Working with dissatisfied California "hippies," Berg established a following and soon followed the classic cult pattern of withdrawal, eventually communicating with his followers only through the famous "Mo" letters, which can be still be found on the Internet at

What attracted the public at large to "the Family," as his followers called themselves, was, as is often the case, sex. Berg's controversial encouragement of what he called "flirty fishing" caught the attention of newspapers and provided him his brief fling with fame. Taken from Jesus' words to his disciples, "Come with me and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19), "flirty fishing" was a simple marketing technique given holy approval:

What better way to show them the Love of God than to do your best to supply their desperately hungry needs for love, fellowship, companionship, mental and spiritual communication, and physical needs such as food, clothing, shelter, warmth, affection, a tender loving kiss, a soft embrace, the healing touch of your loving hands, the comforting feeling of your body next to theirs—and yes, even sex if need be! (Letter 79)

To a young person looking for spiritual direction in the sixties, this was something that couldn't be found at a Billy Graham rally! Needless to say, for the small group of people who formed the Family, it was a popular doctrine that encouraged converts, especially during a period when America was loosening up from what many described as sexual repression.

Some who knew Berg called him a warm, self-effacing, loving, and goodhumored individual, with the genteel mannerisms of a kinder era. He constantly advised his followers to "hate the sin but love the sinner." There is no doubt that he began with a sincere effort to win people to Christ, and he probably thought that was what he was doing right up until his death. But because of his rather unique way of going about it, he will be remembered, at least by traditional Christianity, as the leader of a cult.

Heaven's Gate and Hale-Bopp

On March 26, 1997, many people throughout the world thrilled to the sight of the comet Hale-Bopp hanging overhead, its long tail lighting up the night sky. For some it brought delight and awe. For others, death.

A group known as Heaven's Gate, a cult made up of web-page designers and founded and led by a man named Marshall Applewhite, had decided they were being instructed to shed their "earthly containers" in order to be "beamed up" aboard a spacecraft following in the comet's wake. The cult members apparently died in orderly shifts, some helping others to drink a mixture of phenobarbital and vodka. A few, it was later discovered, had undergone voluntary castration in the months before the suicide.

The gate that gave the group its name is the portal through which people of Earth may enter the next sphere, where inhabitants of "the next level" dwell. The name comes from the Bible, Genesis 28:17. Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had fallen asleep at the place he subsequently called Beth-El ("House of God"). He dreamed he saw a ladder reaching up to heaven. Angels, messengers of God, climbed up and down to carry out their ministry. Perhaps inspired by the Ziggurats of the Babylonians, he raised a standing stone, the pillow on which he had slept, and exclaimed, "This is the gate of heaven!"

The thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate cult believed sincerely in the existence of this newest return, or opening, of the gate of heaven. They believed Jacob's experience was probably a contact with members of the higher sphere. Their days consisted of getting up in the morning; praying; dressing in black with severe GI haircuts; doing their work; forgoing sex, drugs, and alcohol; and staring at the heavens through a telescope, trying to spot the space ship that was coming for them.

According to the Heaven's Gate website (a mirror of which can be found at, as the official site is now closed): "The window to Heaven will not open again until another civilization is planted and has reached sufficient maturity (according to the judgment of the next level)."

David Koresh and the Branch Davidians

The Branch Davidians trace their roots back to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, though they were expelled from the denomination as far back as 1930.

At that time Victor Houteff claimed to be a new prophet for the church, similar to the respected Ellen G. White. His claims were discounted and he was expelled from the church, but a number of people followed him. He started a new organization called the "Davidian Seventh-day Adventists" or "The Shepherd's Rod," both names referring back to King David. Houteff had found many prophetic passages in the psalms attributed to the famous "sweet singer" of Israel (see David, King). When he died in 1955, his widow took over his position, but her place was disputed by Ben Roden, who believed God had called him to lead the movement. It seems Mrs. Houteff had incorrectly determined that the world was going to end in 1959. When it didn't, her authority was undermined.

Roden left, taking a group of dissatisfied people with him, and formed the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventists. Like any good fundamentalist preacher, Roden studied his Bible, looking for clues illuminating the plan of God. Finding a lot of typology and symbolism in the Old Testament, he instituted many Hebrew feast days into the church's calendar, especially significant prophetical celebrations like Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. He was convinced these carried special meaning, foreshadowing God's plan for the last days of human history.

When he died in 1978, his wife Lois became president of the church, introducing the idea that the Holy Spirit was the feminine aspect of the Trinity. It was during her leadership, in 1981, that a young man named Vernon Howell joined the group. Two years later he experienced his first vision from God. Although it took a few years and some political infighting, Howell emerged as president of the Branch Davidians, and in 1990 he changed his name to David Koresh.

Branch Davidians believe we are living in the last days of history and that they are God's true church. God has revealed what the future holds by "sealing up" the prophecies that describe the events of these days. In Daniel 12:9-13, the angel Gabriel says to Daniel: "... the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end... none of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand." David Koresh was considered to be one of "the wise." He believed he had found the key to the sealed prophecies by uncovering the truth of the mysterious "seven seals" in the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation. God's plan called for two revelations to humanity, foreshadowed by the two daily sacrifices kept in the Old Testament. The first, the "morning sacrifice," was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The one who unlocks the key to understanding end-time prophecy will fulfill the second, the "evening sacrifice."

Enter David Koresh. His behavior was not that of a typical prophet. Sex and violence were not the hallmark of the "Prince of Peace." But this illustrates the need to understand the mind of a cultist. In the thinking of the Branch Davidians, Jesus was perfect. He was the unblemished sacrifice of the morning, before the day's sins manifested themselves. The evening sacrifice prefigured the Day of Atonement, the "sin offering." In Koresh, God was working through a sinful vessel who, like the prophet Jonah of old, was not chosen for his purity. Koresh was "spiritually blinded" just as Samson was before he died destroying the enemies of God. Koresh's sin merely proves God's choice.

Now, for a moment, enter the mind of a Branch Davidian during the days preceeding February 28, 1993. For months David Koresh has preached a brand new revelation, opening up mysterious scripture passages that no one has yet really explained. It all seems to make such perfect sense. Night after night he brilliantly ties together passages from all over the Bible, showing how Genesis brings out meanings in the Psalms, prophesied by Daniel and intimated in the parables of Jesus. He makes the whole Bible seem alive, uniformly woven of one cloth. And the news of the day seems to mirror exactly the truth you are hearing. The Bible in one hand, the New York Times in the other—history is unfolding right before your eyes. The "mystery of inequity" is at work in the corrupt government that, even now, has your compound under surveillance. This is it—this is the time! Jesus will actually return during your lifetime. The weapons that will be used against the evil one are stockpiled in the basement. If you die, it will be in a holy war against oppression. The "desire of the nations" will soon enter into the atmosphere of planet Earth, and Jesus is coming for you!

And then it all seems to come to a head. Prophecies had stated that the world will end filled with flames, noise, and confusion. There will be "weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth." And that's what was happening outside in February 1993.

It is an absolute tragedy that no one involved with the forces of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) the night of February 28, 1993, seems to have understood the mind of a cultist. To the members of the ATF forces, the cult represented a threat to both the surrounding community and national security. They believed Koresh had stockpiled weapons and explosives. Surrounding the compound and "playing by the book," they had tried to tire the inhabitants by setting up huge loudspeakers and disrupting the cult members' sleep with loud rock music. They had tried reasoning and various psychological ploys. They never understood that they were creating exactly the type of confused scenario that David Koresh had prophesied. The ATF had fulfilled, in miniature, exactly the type of conditions described in the Bible. No one knows why the ATF attacked when they did, or what set off the fires. Some say it was Koresh, others the ATF. But the tanks, the fires, the shooting, and the confusion seemed to duplicate exactly the events of Revelation, chapter 9. To the believers inside, the world was coming to an end. After a fifty-one-day standoff, eighty Branch Davidians died, including seventeen children.

The Branch Davidian movement did not end at Waco. Those who didn't perish in the flames or from gunfire believed there was a good chance that Daniel's prophecy of "2,300 days" (Daniel 8:14) may have kicked in with the death of David Koresh on April 19, 1993. If so, a "cleansing of the sanctuary" would have occurred sometime during the year 2000. That didn't happen. But many believers, who still meet at the Mount Carmel ranch where the siege occurred, feel that somewhere in the Bible, there is an explanation, and they will search for it until they find it.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness/

The Hare Krishna Movement

When Beatles guitarist George Harrison, after writing "My Sweet Lord" as a hymn to Krishna, donated an estate covering approximately twenty acres to the Hare Krishna movement, the society was just about at its apex. Founded in 1966 by Srila Prabhupada, Hare Krishna had an instant appeal to young Americans who were fed up with the Vietnam War and suburban life. When they joined the society, they became part of a strict Hindu sect that had originated in India.

It was powerful and yet, to observers, strange. The long hair they had worn as a badge of rebellion was replaced by shaved heads. Their parents' compulsory skirts and ties gave way to saffron robes. The freedom they had sung about in all-night singalongs melded into the strict discipline of chanting mantras by the hour.

Prabhupada had translated the Bhagavad-Gita, opening new ways of thinking to traditional Western kids. He was the father figure many had never known in the days of "commuter dads." The family of Hare Krishna offered peer support and comfort. For many of the believers, life seemed to make sense for the first time. "Walking through a wall of water" is how the movement describes conversion.

During the 1970s the Hare Krishnas bought acreage in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. They were able to purchase a building in downtown Manhattan and almost a whole city block on Watseka Avenue in Los Angeles. Thanks to the success of the Bhagavad-Gita translation, they had even opened their own publishing business.

But when Prabhupada died in 1977, the movement faced a crisis. He had appointed eleven men to lead zones scattered across the country. But they were not able to inspire the same devotion he had inspired. And with the burst of growth the movement had experienced, donations by frequent flyers at airports just wouldn't pay the bills anymore. Worse yet, rumors began to surface about compulsory sex, child molestation, and abuse. Lawsuits followed. Children had been placed in round-the-clock childcare under Hare Krishna guidance with the understanding they would be given spiritual guidance and training while their parents were free to work for the movement. But when those children grew old enough to talk about their experiences, horror stories abounded. Bankruptcy followed, along with disillusionment and even a few suicides.

Many of those who remain are disheartened, feeling let down by those who lost their idealism. Hinduism is, after all, a rich and ancient spiritual tradition nourishing countless people. It is by no stretch of the imagination a cult. But as we have seen so far, traditional Westerners as different as fervent Pentecostals, buttoned-down web-page designers, and radical Seventh-day Adventists can gather around charismatic leaders. Converted Western Hindus are no different.

Aum Shinri Kyo

In Japan, Shoko Asahara, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, believes the world is coming to an end. That's nothing new. A lot of people believe that. The problem is that he wants to help it happen.

Partially blind from birth, he attended a school for the blind and became an acupuncturist, opening up a folk medicine shop in 1980.

A true ecumenist, he studied Buddhism and Hinduism in the Himalayas, and he used insights gleaned from the book of Revelation in the Christian Bible and the writings of the sixteenth-century mystic Nostradamus to attract some twenty thousand followers worldwide to his movement, Aum Shinri Kyo. The word "Aum" comes from the famous Hindu mantra, "om," chanted by priests in meditation. Shinri Kyo means "supreme truth."

Asahara claims to have talked directly with people from the year 2006. It seems they have survived World War III. The causes for that war were rooted in the materialism exemplified by the United States.

Supreme truth, Shinri kyo, emphasizes traditional Japanese values as opposed to what is seen as the corruption of Western influence. Like most cultic beliefs, a feeling of "us" against "them" pervades the group. They have stockpiled biological and chemical weapons in preparation for the battle of Armageddon. Unfortunately, as reported by the New York Times, they have not been afraid to use them. At least nine attacks have been staged in Japan, with targets including the legislature, the Imperial Palace, the U.S. military base at Yokosuka, and the infamous Tokyo subway attack on March

20, 1995. Twelve people were killed and thousands injured in that attack after being exposed to sarin nerve gas.

More than one hundred members of the group have been arrested, with trials scheduled to last for many years. Membership has dropped to under seven thousand. In 1997 the Japanese government ruled they could no longer justify breaking up the movement since they could only identify about one thousand members, not enough to constitute a national threat.

Falun Gong

In 1999 the Chinese government began a crackdown aimed at "subversive" spiritual and religious groups guilty of "superstition." Falun Gong, until that time a respected organization under the National Qi Gong Federation, found itself the victim of a media propaganda smear campaign.

Qi Gong, sometimes referred to as "Chinese Yoga," is one of a family of physical/spiritual techniques, including martial arts and t'ai-chi chuan. Its purpose is to promote the flow of ch'i (life force) and wellness, and it is a spiritual exercise older than Christianity. Falun Gong is one of many expressions of Qi Gong. Developed by its founder, Li Hongzi, in 1951, Falun Gong took hold to become the largest expression of Qi Gong after Li left the Qi Gong Federation in 1998.

When Falun Gong found itself the victim of a propaganda campaign, however, members reacted with a demonstration with some ten thousand participants, held near the residences of some of China's leadership in Beijing. Because this was the largest demonstration of its kind ever seen in China, the regime reacted by labeling the group a cult, dispersing the demonstration, and declaring further activity unlawful. Further complicating the situation was the fact that some military and low-level political leaders were members of Falun Gong, practicing what had just been declared illegal. Tracts were printed and television personalities raved against the movement. Local leaders were arrested, and China asked the United States to arrest and evict Li, who had immigrated there—a request that was denied because of Chinese human rights abuses.

This would be just another case of civil persecution if it were not for one fact that arguably places Falun Gong within the "cult" category: that it is led by one charismatic figure. Master Li is the only living person authorized to teach the specific exercises of Falun Gong, and he believes Falun Gong to be unique to the "cultivation of Xinxing." This is a spiritual path, based on Buddhism and Confucianism, that promotes the three values of zhen (truthfulness), shan (benevolence), and rhen (forbearance). Li teaches the concepts of reincarnation and Karma as well, with the need to undergo "tribulation" so as to pay off karmic debt. He also believes in good and bad deities, and he thinks some reports about aliens may have confused beings from outer space with demonic forces. Indeed, to practice Falun Gong without recognizing its spiritual component may even induce a demonic element.

The symbol of Falun Gong is a Buddhist swastika in a circle, or disk, surrounded by four yin/yang symbols, the symbols of the Dao. The idea is to awaken and nourish spiritual energy, and practitioners believe that following its five disciplines or sets of exercises may cure some illnesses.

By persecuting Falun Gong, Chinese government officials have become the object of world criticism, and they have probably done more to publicize the movement in the West than its adherents ever would have.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



or worship, religious veneration of objects or of real or imaginary beings, to which supernatural qualities are attributed. In the broad sense, the type of religious relations that developed historically. The components of the cult are acts of religious magic, such as rituals and prayers, and the objects associated with them, such as sacred images, temples, and sanctuaries. These external acts and material accoutrements of the cult are indissolubly connected with more or less distinctly separate systems of religious beliefs, feelings, and corresponding social roles and relationships (the priesthood and the church organization). In the narrower sense, the concept of “worship” refers only to religious systems which are bound up with a belief in higher, supernatural beings and which aim at placating these beings. Worship in that sense does not include the rituals of magic and casting out of spirits (exorcism).

The historical forms of religion have their own corresponding types of cult complexes, such as totemism, the burial cult, craft cults, ancestor and family worship, the shaman cult, and tribal god cults. Cults may be distinguished by their objects, as in cults of the sun, sky, water, animals (zoolatry), plants, fire, ancestors, and the king. Whereas historically earlier forms of religious cult are characterized by their direct association with certain spheres of social life (such as the cults of agriculture and of kingly power), later religions characteristically have a variety of cults directly oriented toward mythological objects (god-man cult), priestly functions (priest cult), or ritualized values (cult of suffering). The orientation, structure, and meaning of religious cults differ substantially in the various historical and regional types of religions. Indirectly, that is symbolically, they are connected with various features characteristic of a number of aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical systems of the past, such as the “cult of strength,” “cult of success,” “cult of man,” and “cult of reason.”

The earliest forms of worship were undoubtedly undisguised acts of magic—for example, gestures of adoration (such as raising the hands and lifting the eyes toward heaven) developed obviously from the simplest body movements used in magic. Primitive magical dances (for hunting and war, for example) later became part of many cults; in present-day India religious dances in the temples serve as a usual form of worship. Prayers—an important manifestation of worship—developed from magical incantations and spells. The offering of sacrifices, an essential element of worship, has a more complex origin. It arose partly from primitive hunters’ meals, partly from a social taboo against touching the fruits until the moment that the taboo was ceremoniously lifted, and partly from the superstitious custom of feeding the dead.

The use of various sacred objects and images, such as icons and church vessels, in religious worship goes back to fetishism, when people attributed supernatural powers to inanimate objects and images. In Christian and Buddhist worship, for example, magical powers are attributed to various material objects, such as miracle-working icons, saints’ remains, holy water, crosses worn on the body, and relics.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a specific system of religious worship, esp with reference to its rites and deity
2. a sect devoted to such a system
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
In a pluralistic social and political order where people belong to various groups based on income, religion, race, profession, interests, social status, and geography, membership cannot be readily equated with cult behavior.
Some religious cults are specifically designed to attract young people, and many of these cults are destructive.
I urge NCR to watch and report on the activities of this cult.
These fatalities have all the makings of an imploding cult. In the case of the Burari family a son assumed authority, claimed favour of a spiritual guide (his late father) and manipulated his family members to death.
Scores were also reportedly injured during the onslaught of violence among rival cult groups in the state.
The pieces help to reify a stubborn simplication of the group to be a cult
Westhill forced a corner of their own but Cults cleared, quickly broke upfield and came close to doubling their lead in 21 minutes.
Ephesians oversaw the celebration of the mysteries of Artemis until the demise of the cult in the third century CE.
Plenty of work has already been done to define the term "cult" and to distinguish cults from non-cults.
The practice of campus secret cults is influenced by the conditions prevalent in Nigerian universities, such as over-crowding, deteriorating facilities, oversized admission, sexual harassment, and inadequate and unchallenging academic programmes (Okebukola, 1998).
In the circumstances, it might be useful to get in touch with the Cult Information Centre and you can either write to BCM Cults, London WC1N 3XX or telephone 0845 4500 868.
However, they do not really add to the rich material already recorded over several decades, even if for some of these movements, such as in Tanna (Vanuatu), very strong millenarian revivals and Cargo cults reminiscences could actually be observed through recent fieldwork (cf my own film, Alors vint John Frum : une tragedie des Mers du Sud, 2005 CREDO, and also my forthcoming book: Une pirogue pour le Paradis: le culte de John Frum a Tanna, Paris: CNRS Ed/MSH ; cf also for a PNG example Andrew Lattas, Cultures of Secrecy: Reinventing Race in Bush Kaliai Cargo Cults, Madison: U.