Cults and Terrorism, Part 1 – The Problem of Definition

Cults make the news when there is a large number of deaths of cult members or their victims. Terrorism is also in the news when there is violence or catastrophe, such as the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Not all cults are dangerous but there is a risk and likelihood of violence from terrorists. As their name implies, terrorists intentionally use violence to achieve their goals.

2500 years ago the Chinese sage LaoTse observed that whenever anyone or anything is named it fixes an identity. The same person can be identified as a “cult member” or “terrorist” in one society and at the same time hailed as a “freedom fighter” or “hero” in her of his home country. Cult and terrorist have a negative connotation and those words are avoided by researchers. Cult usually refers to a group with beliefs or practices that differ from the surrounding culture that views it as deviant or threatening. Also refers to fans (fanatic), personality cult, fashion cult, etc.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a cult as

a system or community of religious worship and ritual generally considered extremist or bogus, an obsessive devotion or veneration of a person, principle, or ideal, or an exclusive group sharing an esoteric interest.

Langone (1988) offered a definition that better reflects research findings:

a group or movement with excessive devotion of a person, idea, or thing, using unethical manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group leader to the possible detriment of members, their families or the community. Unethical manipulative techniques include but are not limited to isolation from former friends and family, special methods to increase suggestibility and subservience, group pressure, information management, suspension of critical judgment, promoting total dependency on the leader or group, fear of leaving it, etc.

Researchers in organized religions prefer to refer to cult-like groups as sects or new religions, such as in 1986 The Vatican Report. Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge. Note the choice of words. There is an underlying and unstated truth here. Today’s cult can be tomorrow’s mainstream religion. Quakers and Mormons are two examples of how controversial religious minorities can be assimilated into future mainstream culture. Historically, such groups have been divisions in a sect or have emerged as separate sects differing from traditional beliefs or interpretations of scripture.

In ancient Rome, Christianity was first seen as a cult but by the 5th century it was the state religion. Cult-like movements in ancient times often faded over time as a new religion became the mainstream. Such is the case when Christianity overcame Greek and Roman mystery cults, Isis-Osiris worship in Egypt, and Zoroastrianism in Persia. Ancient polytheistic cultures worshipped gods and goddesses with specific character traits. In ancient Egypt, Osiris was the god of the underworld ought after to lead the deceased after death, and Isis the mother figure who could restore life. In ancient Greece, Asklepios was half god half man who could cure illness, and his priest-physician Hippocrates gave us the “do no harm” oath still used today as the standard for professional ethics. Dionysian cults (to Bacchus in Rome) may be the oldest example of inducing an altered state, using wine in rituals. Mithraism began in Persia about 1000 BCE and spread to Greece, Rome, and India. Popular in the Roman Legion, with seven degrees conferred in rituals, it is an example of “secret societies” we see today in Freemasonry and college campus fraternities and sororities.

Dr. MacHovec authored Cults and Terrorism (available in paperback and ebook) which “describes the psychology of cults and terrorism with examples from ancient and modern history, the psychological concepts involved, how to detect and prevent them and treat its leaders and member-victims.”
The is the first article of a six-part series on Cults and Terrorism. Throughout the week, the remaining articles will be published; Cults and Terrorism – Lessons of History will follow.


Langone, M.D. Cults: Questions and answers. Weston MA: American Family Foundation. 1988.

MacHovec, Frank. Cults and Terrorism. Publisher: Frank Machovec ( 2010. ISBN: 978-0-557-04459-7.

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist who worked 30 years in mental health clinics and hospitals and in private practice. In addition to BA, MA, and PhD degrees, he earned two post-PhD diplomates and was a certified forensics examiner who testified as expert witness in civil and criminal cases.
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