What is a sect?

Definition of a sect

In today's world, 'what is a sect?' is an important question. A sect can be defined as:

  • 1. A body of persons adhering to a particular religious faith.
  • 2. A dissenting or schismatic religious body, especially one regarded as extreme or heretical.
  • 3. Religious denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.
  • 4. Any group, party, or faction united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader.

It has its origin in the Latin word 'secta', which means a course of action or a way of life, and this is probably derived from the Latin word 'sectari', which means to pursue or to follow. 

The term was first used in 1931 to describe newly formed religious groups that have broken away from their parent religion because of disagreements over beliefs or ideology. Nowadays, it is often used interchangeably with cult, especially in the context of a destructive group.


When is a sect destructive?

Steven Hassan, in his book Breaking The Bonds, is very clear that destructive sects are not defined by their ideology or beliefs. People should be allowed the freedom to choose what they believe in.

Instead a sect is said to be destructive when it uses deception and mind control techniques to undermine a person's free will, limit their critical thinking and decision making abilities and make him or her dependent on the group's leader.

For Hassan, a destructive sect has authoritarian leadership, deception, and destructive mind control.

Robert Lifton answers the question 'What is a sect? by saying that it's any group that fulfills the following conditions.

- There is a system of thought reform being used on the members.

- The members join because they are interested in some idea but this all becomes distorted into worship of the leader.

- The members are on a genuine quest of some sort, whether it be to better themselves, better the world, follow some path or whatever, and this is exploited by the leadership of the group.


What is a sect? The differences...

When you consider a cross section of the sects in the world, it seems that they are all very different. From religious groups, to groups that sell health products, through martial arts groups to those offering a way to make money, on the surface they all seem to have different ideas, different jargon, different leaders and so on, but when you begin to look closely, the thing that stands out are the similarities.

The new members are interested in finding out about some idea or issue and they are led through a recruitment process where they undergo changes in their beliefs, decision making and behaviors. They perceive the world in the same way as the rest of the group. Their ideas and their reality is altered to be more like that of the leader. Their new personality, or cult personality, then begins to take over and the course of their lives change. They spend more and more time taking care of the group and especially the leader, even if they have never met him or her!

They are coerced into leaving behind their 'old life' and taking on the new one, a life that offers all sorts of possibilities. But, somehow, these possibilities never materialize. They are always just out of reach. The members typically think that they will achieve things next month, or after the next course, or after reaching the next level. It's always in the future, but that future never actually arrives. And the member will believe that it's their own fault. They are not doing things right, or not doing enough things because they firmly believe that the group's techniques work and so if they are not working for themselves, then they themselves are to blame in some way.

If you point out that they are in a sect, they will defend the group and the leader, often quite aggressively, because they have been programmed to do so. If you ask them what is a sect, they will typically not know how to describe it, and at the same time they will be adamant that their group could not be a sect.

Read more about this kind of leadership and control in destructive sects...

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