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Cult Characteristics - Religious Sect vs. Cult

Updated on March 2, 2013
Cults often involve sacrificial ceremonies like this one.
Cults often involve sacrificial ceremonies like this one. | Source

Sociologists specify 6 characteristics of cults that are important to know. Many people who are new to an organization can have a hard time distinguishing between a cult and a religious sect. By definition, a religious sect is a subdivision of a larger religious group. It is important to know the differences so that you are not sucked into a dangerous situation or lifestyle.

Many times, cults masquerade as a new innovative religion to make their organization appealing to new members. For an organization to be considered a cult, it does not have to have all of the characteristics. In fact, many fundamentalists in every religion can fall into the classification of a cult. These are the extremes you need to be aware of and careful to avoid. A true religion has a foundation of helping it's members, uplifting and supporting them. In general, a religion of faith should allow you to feel better and happier. Before you get involved with an organization, check into these characteristics and examples.

For a full checklist of cult characteristics, visit Cults 101: Checklist.

Authoritarian Leadership

There is one leader or small group of leaders that are considered to be the sole authority. These leaders are typically powerful and charismatic. They make members and potential members trust and respect them so that they will follow anything the leader requests of them.


Cults are their members claim to be the only ones capable of giving or receiving true salvation. In order to not be damned, you must become a part of their organization and follow their rules and proceedings.


Cults often originate or move to an area that is not very heavily populated or even deserted other than it's members. The life of the members in completely contained within the organization. Food, clothing, shelter and relationships are all provided within the community. There is often no communication, by the members, with anyone outside of the organization.

Opposition to Independent Thinking

Cults do not like or tolerate independent thinking. Any member of the organization who challenges or questions the beliefs or rituals of the group is often punished, disowned or even killed.

Fear of Being Cast Out

Cults will threaten to kick you out of their organization if you do not follow certain requirements. Often, a member's entire life is wrapped up in the cult and there is an extreme fear of being cast out. The leadership will use this to keep it's members in line.

Threats of Satanic Attack

Cults use threats of an evil event or satanic attack to keep or gain members. They claim that the only way to avoid this terrible fate is to be a part of their organization. This is also how members are convinced to do certain things within the group, out of fear for their life or safety. They might be convinced that if they do not perform a ritual killing of their own child that Satan will come up through the ground and take their child from them. They do one horrible thing in the hopes of avoiding something more awful.


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    • ShirleyJCJohnson profile image

      Shirley Johnson 3 years ago from Sallisaw, OK

      This can be very helpful for those struggling with finding themselves but actually find themselves in a cult. I liked the above comment about the Catholic church. I would also add that to pray to or worship another other than the One Tue God, as they do so to Mary, the mother of Jesus, could also qualify them as being a cult.

    • Learning in Life profile image

      Megan Sisko 5 years ago from SW Florida

      I completely agree with you on that. Many religions and churches seem cult like to me.

    • janetwrites profile image

      Janet Giessl 5 years ago from Georgia country

      Thank your for outlining the difference between cults and religious sects.

      Though scientology describes itself as a religious community I would say it is one of the most controversial and dangerous cults. All the points you mentioned in your hub apply.

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 5 years ago from Plymouth

      Interesting checklist, so apply it to the Catholic Church.

      A single leader, The Pope followed by a small group of Bishops.

      The only path to salvation is through the Church, all others being heretic.

      The Church resists all challenges to its doctrine.

      There is fear of excommunication and the Inquisition, still part of Church organisation despite they don't burn people any more.

      There is also the threat of Satanic attack and eternal damnation in a hell for those who don't comply.

      Sounds a bit like a cult to me.