Differences between sect and cult: Short Notes

Sect and cult are two words which, in today’s world are considered derogatory, are omitted by many scholars. But, their usage was originally considered scholarly. Even in French, German, Italian and Spanish, this word is not really used anymore. Let’s now understand what exactly these two words are.


The word ‘Sect’ is derived from ‘secta’, a Latin word which refers to the School of thought. Sects are a part of all religions. Sects can be understood as branches of the religions. For example, Hinduism is divided into Vaishnava and Shaiva sects; Christianity is divided into Baptism and Lutherans; Islam is divided into Sunni and Shia sects.

Sects are smaller parts of larger groups and follow a particular doctrine. They have their own ideas and beliefs. Sects could also be non-religious. There are the capitalists and communists in Economics and there are the Freudians and Jungians in Psychiatry. So, sect could either refer to religious denominations or to groups that don’t have anything to do with religion at all.

Ernst Troeltsch believed that sects were those groups that parted away with the church since they were not happy with its teachings as well as its actions. Troeltsch said they sects are small groups and are mostly comprised of people belonging to the marginalized communities. Sects are headed by a leader upon whose demise the sect might decline and this is the reason why sects are short-lived.


The word ‘Cult’ is derived from the Latin word ‘cultus’, which means worship, reverence or labor. It came to the English language through ‘culte’, a French word which means ‘a particular form of worship’. In English, it refers to devotion towards a person or thing. This word, though, has a negative connotation since the members obey every single thing the leader says even if it is an extreme step. Members believe that this is the only way in which one can attain salvation and that everything they don’t do is evil.

A cult has unconventional ideologies and the members practice very different rituals. The members live isolated from society and do as their leader commands them to. The members of a cult isolate those family members that don’t believe in all this in order to make them even more dependent on the cult. They also try to break them psychologically.

Christians believe that cults are those groups that are a heretic and challenge the conservative Christian beliefs and preach the same. According to Steven Hassan, a cult could be economical or secular. He also highlights it that cults are not religious groupings. He also propounded the BITE acronym which can help one understand what kind of control a leader has over the members of a cult (i.e., Behavior control, Information control, Thought control and Emotional control).

To conclude, a sect is a branch that arises out of religion while a cult is an organization of people who aren’t associated with religion. While the members of a sect lead normal lives in the mainstream society, members of a cult live away from those who don’t believe in the cult. Also, sects have been accepted by governments but many cults aren’t.





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An undergraduate student of Arts, Uma Sathwika is studying in the University of Delhi. She is ardent about writing things- things that truly matter with great intricacy