There are cults in religion too. The word cult comes from the same Latin root that brings us culture and cultivate. The Romans cultivated both their fields and their gods.
In religious studies the words “cultus, cultic, cult” refer to formal rituals or acts of worship. All religions have cultic aspects, in this sense of the word. Ritual movements, words, and the handling of sacred objects, among other things, make up the cultus of a religion.
Practitioners of a religion believe they achieve some sort of contact with the divine, sacred, or transcendent during the enactment of the cult. Outsiders might call it magical thinking. In a catholic or orthodox liturgy the “cultic” elements (in the academic sense) are obvious: sacred vestments, incense, and the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In pentecostal church services believers speak in heavenly languages and receive divine healing. In a baptist service lost sinners recite a sinner’s prayer and are born again, transformed forever by the power of God.
When I was a student, back in the seventies, the word “cult” was being used in the sense of a new, unorthodox, and dangerous religion. The primary emphasis was on the deviant beliefs and practices of these religious cults.
In the nineteenth century, several new religions emerged in America as the young country was expanding westward: Christian Science, the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses, various Mormon sects, and Seventh Day Adventists sprung up. These were groups that were usually considered cults back when I was a student. They had in common the complete rejection of traditional Christianity and new revelations and sources of authority.
But in the 1970s and ’80s we began to become aware of newer religious cults, many of them splitting off not from Christianity but from Eastern religions. People became more concerned about the sociology of these groups than their theology.
Cults became religious groups that exerted extreme control over their members. The greatest fear of parents of college-age students was that their kids would fall victim to a cult.
The most gruesome example of the extreme social control practiced by cults was mass suicide of the followers of Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana.
. . . more to come