The above question was put to me by my son last week-end. He even suggested that I write this Post about it. His interest on the matter was spurred by having watched a TV show about a particular sect that ended in violence and death as is often the case. The broad interrogation as he voiced it is not specific though and well worth an explanation so here we go.

Let me begin by dismissing the dictionary’s standard definition. According to Merriam-Webster for instance, a sect is given as a dissenting or schismatic part of a religion. While this is what the word used to mean, modern examples abound of sects that are entirely distinct from all religions existing prior to them. Besides, if we restrict ourselves to the church vs sect typological dichotomy, then Protestantism, Anglicanism and all the reformed churches are sects in the view of standard/main Christian body centered in Rome. It does give us an idea of linearity from the origins of a given faith though that we’ll need to consider later. Buddhism in reverse fashion uses the word sect less pejoratively to define a division ( Vajrayana, Mahayana and Theravada ) but purists will likely favor the use of schools for these. Apart from the religious context though, sects exist in the modern world which despised a faith base are not recognizably descending from acknowledged religions. In that sense sect refers to cults itself a word that is evolving from its singular value of yore of religious practice to define sociologically a denomination not related directly to a pre-existing faith. It is in that dual interpretation of a group that has entirely left a religion’s historical line and of a group that has no link whatsoever to one particular fate that the modern sense of sect that we’ll attempt to circumscribe is to be understood and not as the Christian sub-divisions mentioned above nor any similar derivative in other cases. [ Ernst Troeltsch & Howard P. Becker sociological classification. ]

So what then defines sect slash cult? In short nothing! Or to say it in clearer terms, no list can suffice and a slide rule is the best tool to calculate the sect factor. We need to examine the traits that make a religion in order of importance in the faith’s relation to the world.

Clergy. – A clergy is a sign of introspection and self-examination for any religion. In a sect / cult there is more often than not the creation of a single individual’s vision. For reasons that vary from not wanting to share power to not having a definite ideology that could withstand scrutiny, cult leaders rarely share the theology of their credo.  This stems from their psychotic nature, something that is understandably difficult to share but also from their desire to control and dominate the adepts. It is sadly accepted by the more credulous and fragile as a sign of their prophetic essence. All religions have some sort of clergy from buddhist monks & brahmin priests to the Roman curia.

Word of God. The existence of a Word of God is not entirely necessary ( as we’ll see in the next category ) but a body of literature that defines a lineage of  relation from the believer to the God serves a similar purpose as clergy. Again, the lack of one is indicative of an incomplete temporal applicable vision. A word of God can be studied and reviewed by the faithful allowing them a personal interpretation of their believing. A sect leader does not wish for adepts to reason but to follow in a way that usually shames even armies. The absence of a founding text permits the leader to change orientations quickly and lead his flock wherever his or her fancy strikes. Main religions may have compendiums instead of Cosmology : Vedas versus Torah or inherited part of their Book : Old versus New Testament in Christianity but a text still exists. This is easily proved by the existence of founding texts to Christian Science ( Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures ) and Scientology ( Dianetics ) or Raelism ( Intelligent Design ) even though other aspects of these point to a cultist sectarian nature. Thus, a word of god text does not a religion make but the absence of one entirely points to a sect.

Cosmology; mythological/religious. A cosmology is, more or less, an explanation of the origin and ensuing development of the Universe. It provides an account of the creation of the world and through it of the situation that is that of the believer in relation to the Deity. Again, without it, the leader may fault the follower in a myriad different ways without having to justify him or herself. It may be very poetic ( a Serpent engrossing a Turtle ) and still extremely representative of pre-Universal forces as the Hindu version or the Jewish derived Christian Fiat Lux that both can be read as representations of the Big Bang or esoteric as the fluctuating Wuji & qi, Chaos and egg delineation brought forth by the legendary inchoate Pangu in Buddhism but it still provides a starting point to belief that is often lacking in sects and cults for the very simple reason that neither is universal.

Each instead relies on the will of its leader and needs not concern itself with before as much as with after. This explains a big part of their self consuming form that usually dies with its founder whereas religions endure for millenia. In psychiatry, this would be a clear sign of the immature essence of the leader and his/her intent; just as teenagers , sects think of themselves as results of parthenogenesis which brings us to our last subject.

Openness to the world / Universality. Religion should bring solace to its members. Atheists or followers of another faith may not agree to the value of this solace but it should fill the believers heart’s with some sort of strength, relief or better yet joy. When that happens, the well intended will want to share the gift with others. There are again exceptions to this rule. Judaism for instance mixes faith and race and is not very proselytic ( which is a major source of its people’s isolation, rejection and suffering ) and yet there are black Jews. But in general, true religion spreads that way. It is not intended to remain the property of small group but to be God’s gift to the World. Thus, the apostolic effort is present in Christianity even down to the Saint of Latter Days and Mormon churches. Or, to give a more potent example, while Islam has continued to gain in numbers past the Conquest era, the sects derived from it do not. Shias for instance are originally a sect since centered on a leader over a Word and history having taken its toll still account for less than an eight of the Muslims. The real Islamic sects are those of the extremists. From Al-Qaeda to Boko Haram, from the talibans to the militias or Sudan and other lands stuck in harsh Sharia rule, none of these are concerned with gaining the hearts of new recruits. These Muslim fringes act as cults. Their foremost concern is the rightfulness of their belief not its righteousness? Contrarily to the normal gentleness and patience of ulemas the world over, they’d sooner force death upon you than Allah’s light! That is very indicative of a sect. A religion should be able to exist in the world; a sect may not even wish to. When sect leaders are cornered by the justice of men, they readily kill their flock and themselves sooner than face reconciliation. When true religious spirits are accused, they profess their unwavering belief and die at the stake, scimitar, cross or ovens sooner than either adjure or fight. Their faith allows them to trust their fate. It is thus the most symptomatic aspect of a sect that it does not belong. Religion should allow one to accept the world and those that live in it. Sects and cults concentrate the fear and the pain and engender withdrawal just as extremism and mental illness do.

As we saw, none of the above are clear markers of a cult and most religions lack one or the other but if a loved one joins a group that calls for it to renounce the love they once held for you, that offers no hope fostering view of the world, that cannot formulate a direction nor relies on a body of thinkers, chances are they joined a sect. As little as it is, may this Post help you make the difference between the two.


Peace out, Tay.



Famous sect example :

James Warren Jones. [Internet]. 2014. The website. Available from: [Accessed 26 May 2014].