Cults, Movements, World Religions


The modern religious landscape appears increasingly confusing, even strange or frightening. No matter how strong in faith and regular in religious practice our families may be, we are not insulated from contact with a bewildering variety of religious expressions, a Babel of “prophetic” voices and a dizzying array of competing world views.

Questions Abound in Confusing Religious Landscape

Insulation is not what our lay vocation is about, anyway. Instead of insulation, what we seek is contact, the contact which makes the electric presence of Christ-in-us available to light our world.

What, though, is the lay of the land which is our field of mission? What species of faiths are we likely to encounter? What are we to make of the religious variety flourishing around us?

We may be familiar, to some extent, with mainline Protestant sects. But it is the increasing presence of cults, movements and world religions — some alarmingly aggressive — which give rise to questions like these:

“Our daughters both have steady boyfriends now; one is a Baptist and the other is Mormon. Do these relationships threaten their Catholic faith? If so, are they both the same kind of threat? How do we speak to our daughters about the spiritual implications of these relationships?”

“I just got the strangest letter from my sister. She says that her family is not going to celebrate Christmas this year, something about ‘pagan origins’. This is just going to give my mother heart failure. What should I do?”

“I thought it was great when my son said he was joining a campus Bible study. I was glad he was making Christian friends at school, even if they were Protestant. But now he says he is going to quit college to devote himself to fund-raising for this group’s outreach program. When I asked him where he thought he was going to live if he did this, he said it was no problem. Apparently this group has some kind of commune in a renovated old house and they have invited him to live there. I am furious that he would consider throwing away his education like this. He seems to have suddenly abandoned all the dreams he has pursued for years. Who are these people and what have they done to my boy?”

“There is a new woman at my job and I am going to be working with her a lot. She says she is Muslim. She sometimes refers to “the will of God” in conversation. I wonder: When she says ‘God’ what she is thinking? Does she pray to the same God I pray to?”

“Last week some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my house. They were very nice. It was great to have someone visit me. I’m beginning to feel cut off from everything, stuck here in the house all day alone with this baby. I hope they come back. I could sure use some friends. They offered me a ‘free home Bible study’; there can’t be any harm in that, can there?”

“My cousin has always been a little eccentric, but she’s a lot of fun. Recently she told me that Jesus proved that death is not real and she says weird stuff, like ‘I invented that situation,’ when we were talking about some problem. Where is she getting these ideas?

“My brother and I had an argument about whether it is possible to be a Catholic and a Buddhist at the same time. He says you can, if you view Jesus as an “Ascended Master”. I thought we were supposed to view Jesus as God Almighty. The more I talk to my brother the more confused I feel. I don’t want to be disloyal to the Catholic Church, but I don’t like to think my brother could go to hell just because of his sincere convictions. Can someone help me sort all this out?”

Making sense of all of this and answering the questions of our family members and friends, requires that we make some distinctions between cults, movements and world religions.

How Do We Define a Cult?

Let’s begin by clearing up confusion about the word “CULT”:

Do not get good “CULT” mixed up with bad “CULT”.

“Cult” (from Latin for worship) has the simple meaning of “devotion”, as in the Catholic usage referring to the “cult” of a particular saint or as used secularly e.g. when a movie is said to have a “cult following.” Within the past thirty years another meaning has evolved — the use of the word to describe a group, usually religious, which places certain destructive demands upon its members’ thinking and behavior.

Do not get “CULT” mixed up with “OCCULT”.

“Occult” (from Latin for covered or concealed) refers to those arts which are supposed to reveal hidden or secret knowledge i.e. astrology and various kinds of divination. Some cults do involve their members in overtly occult practices but this is, by no means, true of many groups which are correctly designated cults. Occult practices are not, in themselves, a factor in so labeling a group.

Identifying a cult requires the use of, and almost always combines, a theological definition and a psycho/sociological definition.

Theological definitions identify a cult based upon its doctrines.

Theologically we distinguish cult groups from Christian groups by those very things in which we and our separated brethren agree, in particular the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Thus we identify as cults those groups which deny the Christian doctrine of God, even though they may call themselves Christians and may use the Bible. Other United States cults are splinter groups from Eastern (world) religions or may represent attempts to fuse pagan beliefs with Christianity. Note however, that European Christians use the word “sects” to mean what Americans refer to as “cults”.

Psycho/sociologically cults are identified by behavior.

Whatever its doctrines, if a group uses deception in recruiting and retaining members, it is identified as a cult. Authority within a cult group is abusive and is maintained by manipulative communication and coercive control. Isolation, either physical or psychological, contributes to the siege mentality and paranoia of cult members — while it fosters pride in the exclusivity of membership in the group. Many cults actively recruit Christians — especially targeting youths and the aged — although no age group or social class is immune.

How a Movement Differs from a Cult.

Movements lack the tight organizational structure of cults; they do not usually foster exclusivity and isolationism. Rather, a movement is promoted by loosely-associated teachers through various media channels. Movements often exhibit the nature of fads — great initial enthusiasm and interest soon fades — or a movement may be assimilated into the common way of life. The movements focusing on health and exercise within the past couple of decades are examples of this and demonstrate that some movements are theologically neutral or benign. However, other movements can be dangerous to Christians.

A movement may lead people away from the Christian faith and lead them to believe and promote error. This can be an insidious process. No one could be, for example, an active Mormon and an active Presbyterian at the same time or be a member of a Catholic parish while identifying as a Jehovah’s Witness. Yet someone can be part of a movement (i.e. the “New Age” movement) while maintaining active membership in a local Christian congregation. Thus it is that movements have the potential to quickly spread false teaching among Christians. Even when doctrine is not an issue, the faddish nature of movements can be destabilizing, distracting and wasteful — but when a movement promotes bad doctrine, the effects can be disastrous. Some recent religious movements have resulted in the formation of new cults.

One example of this is the formation of the Internation Christian Churches, formerly called International Church of Christ (not to be confused with the fundamentalist Protestant Evangelical Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ). This cult group, which recruits so heavily on college campuses that some colleges have had to ban their activities, formed out of the “shepherding” movement within Protestantism.

What Makes a Religion World Class?

When we refer to the “world religions” we are acknowledging the world class status and global influence of several belief systems, some of which are of great antiquity. The major world religions apart from Christianity and Judaism are: Hinduism; Buddhism; Confucianism; Shintoism and Islam. Although authentic representatives of these religions live in the United States, for the most part what we find in this country are variants which have been revised for consumption by Westerners. Many lesser known religious, ethical and philosophical systems have promoters in this country.

More than size and antiquity are needed to qualify, however. A world religion must contain a belief system of enough richness and complexity that it is capable of supporting a civilization. It has to give an account of life that can sustain people in all walks of life, deal with the real complexities of human relationships, absorb new ideas and discoveries, and enter into conversation with the other great human traditions. A look at the list shows that such belief systems do not come along often in history. The last one to appear in the list above is Islam in the 7th century.

We are seeing in America the development, over the past 100 years, of what may be the next world religion. That is Mormonism. To the question of whether Mormonism is substantial enough of a belief system to support a civilization, we must admit that it already supports an entire state in the United States, an entity already larger than many countries. It is interesting to observe that if Mormonism does indeed become another world religion, it and Islam would both owe their vitality to the great amount of Jewish and Christian thought they appropriated.

Cults, Movements and World Religions —Why be Concerned?

The variety of religious contexts which have formed our neighbors have given rise to many religious dialects and languages. As religious pluralism increases, so do religious languages proliferate and we may discover ourselves at a loss to find shared meaning when it comes to discussing those things which matter most to every human being. Some knowledge of these groups can help us to build bridges to our neighbors, bridges over which some of them may be graced to cross into the Catholic faith. This knowledge can also protect us and our loved ones from deception.

Such acquaintance must, of necessity, make use of labels and consider people as members of groups. There are some advantages to this; a group identity is a kind of shorthand. That someone identifies himself or herself as a Christian Scientist, a Unitarian or a Seventh Day Adventist does say something about his or her constellation of beliefs. But it would be a mistake to conclude that we know a great deal about a particular individual once we know a religious label. Rather, our awareness of the religious affiliation should help us find a way to open up personal communication.

(© 2011 Mary Kochan)


About Author

Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is one of the founders and Editor-at-large of Raised as a third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996. Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at

  • nickkname

    So that’s what the Catechism meant by “sects” in #67.

  • Mary Kochan

    Yes. That is what they mean. I have been at international conferences on the subject and the Europeans use “sect” — technically I think “sect” should refer to a group that breaks away from a larger group, but that isn’t how they use it.