A cult is an extremist social group (usually religious) characterised by obsessive interest in unusual rituals or a specific personality (i.e. leader of the cult), or both. Generally members are exhorted to cut themselves off from mainstream society.
There is also an older meaning of cult, commonly used when talking about the pagan religions of ancient societies for example. There, “cult” doesn’t really have the same sinister undertones, and it’s more about a group of people who all prioritise the worship of the same specific deity (or saint, in later times), and generally share common religious or spiritual practices through that. The rest of this page is not about that meaning, lol.
Types of Cults
Wikipedia categorises cults under a few different labels. These are not discrete categories though, a lot of groups fit into multiple.
- Destructive cults: These are cults that are either harmful to members (e.g. practising sexual abuse against them, taking all their money, exhorting them to commit suicide) or preach harm to outsiders. Some do both.
- Terrorist cults: Wikipedia describes Al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/Daesh as examples of this. Members of these groups are isolated from mainstream society, “brainwashed” into worshipping a charismatic leader, and exhorted to go out and commit terrorist attacks.
- Doomsday cults: These are cults that preach that the end of the world is imminent. Some of them see it as their duty to actually try to cause the end of the world. One example would be Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult which notoriously released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
- Political cults: Groups that try to push some political goal, typically of the extreme right but occasionally leftist. The thing that makes them cults and not just political organisations is their destructiveness (see the first dot point on this list).
- Racist cults: I would consider this a subcategory of the above. In these types of cults, the political ideology being pushed involves some kind of racial supremacist politics. Wikipedia places the KKK and the Nation of Islam both under this label, for different reasons.
- Polygamist cults: Cults that insist on practising polygamy in societies where that is not allowed. Mostly they’re controversial because they’re almost always extremely misogynistic, and are popularly linked to child abuse and domestic violence.
Pages About Specific Cults
- Colonia Dignidad: In 20th century Chile, this was a settlement built by a West German cult, which was intimately involved in crimes like torture and murder during the Pinochet dictatorship.
- Unification Church: A Christian cult with staunchly anti-Communist politics, influential in Japan and South Korea.