Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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There are two rather different uses of the term cult . General usage, as well as that common among anthropologists, implies a body of religious beliefs and practices associated with a particular god or set of gods, or even an individual saint or spiritually enlightened person, that constitutes a specialized part of the religious institutions of a society. It is in this sense of the word that one would refer to the Marian cult within Roman Catholicism or to the Krishna cult within Hinduism.

There is also a distinct sociological usage of the term that, although related to this general one, has developed a more specialized meaning. Here the influential figures are Ernst Troeltsch and Howard Becker. In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1931), Troeltsch distinguished three main types of Christian thought and traced both their interconnections and their implications for social life up to the eighteenth century. His three types were church religion, sect religion, and mysticism, or, more properly, "spiritual and mystical religion." The first two he identified with the dichotomous forms of religious organization, the church and the sect, while he described the third type as a form of antiassociational individualism that, although it did not lead to the formation of religious organizations in the conventional sense, might be the occasion for small, informal, and transient groups. Troeltsch emphasized that this form of religion was extremely individualistic, and that it usually did not lead to organizations, its adherents being bound together by an "invisible church."

The Introduction of "Cult" in Sociology

It was to these small and transient groups, however, that Howard Becker (1932) subsequently attached the label of "cult," stressing the private, personal character of the adherents' beliefs and the amorphous nature of the organization. Becker's usage found favor, with the result that through time sociologists came to employ the term without reference to Troeltsch's original tripartite typology of religious responses; rather, it was used simply to refer to a group whose beliefs and practices were merely deviant from the perspective of religious or secular orthodoxy, and that was characterized by a very loose organizational structure. Typically, such groups are short lived, as small numbers of like-minded seekers gather round some common interest, or charismatic spiritual leaders, before moving on to explore some other area of the cultic milieu.

The term cultic milieu was coined by Colin Campbell to refer to a society's deviant belief systems and practices and their associated collectivities, institutions, individuals, and media of communication. He described it as including "the worlds of the occult and the magical, of spiritualism and psychic phenomena, of mysticism and new thought, of alien intelligences and lost civilizations, of faith healing and nature cure" (Campbell 1972:122), and it can be seen, more generally, to be the point at which deviant science meets deviant religion. What unifies these diverse elements, apart from a consciousness of their deviant status and an ensuing sense of common cause, is an overlapping communication structure of magazines, pamphlets, lectures, and informal meetings, together with the common ideology of seekership .

Seekers among Religious Alternatives

The concept of seekership was originally proposed by Lofland and Stark in 1965. They defined it as a "floundering among religious alternatives, an openness to a variety of religious views, frequently esoteric, combined with failure to embrace the specific ideology and fellowship of some set of believers" (p. 870). This rather negative definition betrays the influence of Judeo-Christian assumptions concerning the nature of religious belief, suggesting as it does that seekership represents an inability to decide between alternatives. In reality, the seeker is someone who is likely to see some truth in all alternatives, while regarding the movement from one doctrine or practice to the next as a genuine advancement in spiritual understanding and enlightenment.

In fact, the concept of seekership is at the heart of Troeltsch's original formulation of spiritual and mystical religion. What he had in mind was not simply the phenomenon of mysticism, which could be an ingredient in any religious tradition, but a religion in its own right, with its own system of beliefs. This form of religion regards religious experience as a valid expression of that universal religious consciousness that is based in the ultimate divine ground, a view that leads to an acceptance of religious relativity as far as all specific forms of belief are concerned as well as to the doctrine of polymorphism, in which the truth of all religions is recognized. Hence not only are the widely differing views of the central truths of Christianity tolerated but all forms of religion are regarded as identical. Nevertheless, its own teachings, which emphasize the truths obtained through mystic and spiritual experience, are regarded as representing the "purest" form of religion. It is because they hold to beliefs of this kind that seekers are able to regard movement from one cult to another as part of a process of spiritual enlightenment rather than as evidence of their own confusion or uncertainty, let alone as a "floundering among religious alternatives."

Cults have proliferated in Europe and the Far East in the postwar period. Often associated with the 1960s counterculture and new religious movements, their increase in numbers has brought into question claims concerning progressive secularization. Indeed, it is possible to see their growth as evidence of the spread of that form of spiritual and mystical religion that Troeltsch judged to be most likely to flourish in the modern world. At the same time, the careless application of the cult concept by both the media and opponents of specific groups has made the social scientific use of the cult concept increasingly difficult (see Richardson 1993).

Colin Campbell


H. Becker, Systematic Sociology (New York: Wiley, 1932)

D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (eds.), The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993)

C. Campbell, "The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization," in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (London: SCM Press, 1972): 119-136: C. Campbell, "The Secret Religion of the Educated Classes," Sociological Analysis 39(1978):146-156

J. Lofland and R. Stark, "Becoming a World-Saver," American Sociological Review 30(1965):862-875

J. T. Richardson, "Definitions of Cult," Review of Religious Research 34(1993):348-356

E. Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (London: Allen and Unwin, 1931).

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