OF RELIGION Field Guide to the

Cult, Occult, New Age—
What's the difference?




A Cult is a …


Group of People…


… who share an intense dedication to a particular individual or belief system.


This simple definition of cult can be applied to almost any type of group, whether focused on a religious belief system or not. Until recent times, the word was seldom heard outside of the academic world. Historians would use it to label aspects of ancient societies, such as the "Cult (or Latin cultus) of the Emperor" in Rome. Sociologists would use it, sometimes interchangeably with the word "sect," to indicate a small religious group outside the mainstream of "historical Christianity." A few decades ago, one might even hear it used humorously to describe the fanatic devotion of some admirers of entertainers, such as the "Cult of Elvis."


However, all that changed in November 1978 when over 900 followers (including children) of a religious leader named Jim Jones committed mass suicide—and murder of the children—at Jones’ command in their religious compound in Jonestown, Guyana. In reports of this startling situation, Jones’s group was often referred to in the media as a cult. The grisly images of the death scene on international television and in print news left an indelible impression on most who saw them. From that point on, the public became more and more familiar with the word cult, as it was frequently used in the media to describe unconventional religious groups.


Although the original word has no specific negative connotation to it, its common use now in our society carries the negative baggage of the Jonestown massacre and numerous other subsequent troubling incidents connected to the activities of unconventional religious groups. One such was another mass suicide of 39 adults in 1997 involving a non-Christian group calling itself "Heaven’s Gate." Although not as many individuals were involved, the circumstances of the deaths were so bizarre that reporting on this event also dominated the news for quite some time.


There is really no use in attempting to avoid use of the word cult, as it is so pervasive in our society now. Nor is there a need to insist that it must be completely confined to its totally neutral definition above. The reality is that it is no longer a neutral word. We may as well use it, but carefully define it in the context in which we choose to communicate.


For the purposes of this website,


a modern religious cult will be defined as


a group of people established by one leader or a small group of leaders,


to whom they are intensely dedicated and obedient,


and who have such a significantly unique set of beliefs


that they are cut off from religious fellowship


with all others outside their own group.


Given this definition of modern religious cults, the following observations may be helpful when evaluating the potential for serious spiritual harm of any given such cult. (These observations include reference to the words New Age and occult. Definitions and descriptions of those terms follow this list.)



Religious cults frequently:



Many religious cults do not:



Some religious cults may:





The Occult is the …


   Collection of Beliefs and Practices …


   …that are based on the idea that there is a supernatural world


   that Man can tap into in order to


   control the environment or other people through


   Secret, special knowledge and rituals.



Even though they sound similar, the words occult and cult do not have the same root origin, and are not specifically related. Therefore:




Examples of occult activities and beliefs:



New Age is an adjective that describes the…


Collection of Beliefs and Practices …


… that are based on the idea that Mankind is about to enter into a "new age"


of peace, prosperity and spiritual enlightenment


brought about by Man's own efforts to change himself.



Many "New Age" teachers believe Man will be able to do this as a result of contact with "higher spiritual beings" who will teach him to be "at one" with the universe.



Examples of New Age ideas and practices:




***** Some occult and New Age practices and ideas may be counterfeits of actual Biblical ideas and practices. However—


Many serious Bible students are concerned that occult and New Age ideas and practices are creeping into television preaching that is called "Christian" and being spread by books and tapes available in Christian Book Stores.


Many sincere Christians are worried about having loved ones involved in cults such as the Branch Davidians or the Heaven's Gate group. They can see the danger of these cults clearly, when the results are so violent.


But when there are new teachings being offered by "regular Christian" teachers, these same Christians may let down their guard and accept ideas and practices that are every bit as un-Biblical and spiritually dangerous.


And when there are those who teach much sound doctrine who, at the same time, use some of the methods of a cult to get or retain members, and who may even be using subtle variations of occultic and New Age ideas masquerading as Christian, Biblical principles, sincere Bible students may be swept along into un-Biblical bondage by involvement with such teachers.


Let us "search the scriptures daily, whether these things be so," for John warned:


Dear Friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world.     I John 4:1 (NIV)


One of the goals of this website is to call attention to those ideas and methods used by some well-known "Christian" teachers and groups which may be disguised variations of occultic and New Age concepts.







Unless otherwise noted, all original material on this Field Guide website

is © 2001-2011 by Pamela Starr Dewey.


Careful effort has been made to give credit as clearly as possible to any specific material quoted or ideas extensively adapted from any one resource. Corrections and clarifications regarding citations for any source material are welcome, and will be promptly added to any sections which are found to be inadequately documented as to source.


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