cult, ritual observances involved in worship of, or communication with, the supernatural or its symbolic representations. A cult includes the totality of ideas, activities, and practices associated with a given divinity or social group. It includes not only ritual activities but also the beliefs and myths centering on the rites. The objects of the cult are often things associated with the daily life of the celebrants. The English scholar Jane Harrison pointed out the importance of the cult in the development of religion. Sacred persons may have their own cults. The cult may be associated with a single person, place, or object or may have much broader associations. There may be officials entrusted with the rites, or anyone who belongs may be allowed to take part in them.
The term cult is now often used to refer to contemporary religious groups whose beliefs and practices depart from the conventional norms of society. These groups vary widely in doctrine, leadership, and ritual, but most stress direct experience of the divine and duties to the cult community. Such cults tend to proliferate during periods of social unrest; most are transient and peripheral. Many cults that have emerged in the United States since the late 1960s have been marked by renewed interest in mysticism and Asian religions, but many others have had Christian roots.
Such major U.S. cults as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Hare Krishna, a movement derived from Hinduism, have stirred wide controversy. Cults' insularity and distrust of society sometimes lead to violent conflicts with the law. In 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, followers of Jim Jones killed a U.S. congressman who was investigating Jones, and then Jones and more than 900 others committed mass suicide. In 1993 a gunfight near Waco, Tex., between federal officers and David Koresh and his Branch Davidian followers led to a 51-day siege that ended in a blaze that left Koresh and 82 people dead. Other notorious cults have included the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo, whose adherents were responsible for a number of murders, including a 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands; the Order of the Solar Temple, whose members died by murder or suicide in Quebec, Switzerland, and France in a series of incidents in the mid- to late 1990s; Heaven's Gate, a group formed in the mid-1970s whose 39 members committed mass suicide in California in 1997; and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a millennialist Ugandan church, more than 900 members of which apparently died by mass murder and mass suicide in 2000.
See D. J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco (1995); J. D. Tabor and E. V. Gallagher, Why Waco? (1995); R. J. Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It (1999).