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The historical usage of the term sect in Christendom has had pejorative connotations, referring to a group or movement with heretical beliefs or practices that deviate from those of groups considered orthodox.Wilson, Bryan Religion in Sociological Perspective 1982, ISBN 0-19-826664-2 Oxford University Press page 89
"In English, it is a term that designates a religiously separated group, but in its historical usage in Christendom it carried a distinctly pejorative connotation. A sect was a movement committed to heretical beliefs and often to ritual acts and practices like isolation that departed from orthodox religious procedures."

Although in past it was mostly used to refer to religious groups, it has since expanded and in modern culture can refer to any organization that breaks away from a larger one to follow a different set of rules and principles. The term is occasionally used in a malicious way to suggest the broken-off group follows a more negative path than the original.

A sect as used in an Indianmarker context refers to an organized tradition.


The word sect comes from the Latin noun secta (from the verb sequi, to follow), meaning "(beaten) path", and figuratively a (prescribed) way, mode, or manner, and hence metonymously a discipline or school of thought as defined by a set of methods and doctrines. The present gamut of meanings of sect has been influenced by confusion with the homonymous (but etymologically unrelated) Latin word secta (the feminine form of the past participle of the verb secare, to cut), as sects were scissions cut away from the mainstream religion. Note that in other languages the same word is used for both the meaning sect and the meaning cult, for example in Italian: «setta».

Sociological definitions and descriptions

There are several different sociological definitions and descriptions for the term. Among the first to define them were Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch (1931). In the church-sect typology they are described as newly formed religious groups that form to protest elements of their parent religion (generally a denomination). Their motivation tends to be situated in accusations of apostasy or heresy in the parent denomination; they are often decrying liberal trends in denominational development and advocating a return to true religion. The American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge assert that "sects claim to be authentic purged, refurbished version of the faith from which they split". They further assert that sects have, in contrast to churches, a high degree of tension with the surrounding society. Other sociologists of religion such as Fred Kniss have asserted that sectarianism is best described with regard to what a sect is in tension with. Some religious groups exist in tension only with co-religious groups of different ethnicities, or exist in tension with the whole of society rather than the church which the sect originated from.

Sectarianism is sometimes defined in the sociology of religion as a worldview that emphasizes the unique legitimacy of believers' creed and practices and that heightens tension with the larger society by engaging in boundary-maintaining practices.

A religious or political cult, by contrast, also has a high degree of tension with the surrounding society, but its beliefs are, within the context of that society, new and innovative. Whereas the cult is able to enforce its norm and ideas against members, a sect normally doesn't strictly have "members" with definite obligations, only followers, sympathisers, supporters or believers. A sect may also have members which choose to leave later, which is allowed whereas a cult uses any means necessary to keep its members (including coercion).

Mass-based socialist, social-democratic, labor and communist parties often had their historical origin in utopian sects, and also subsequently produced many sects, which split off from the mass party. In particular, the communist parties from 1919 experienced numerous splits; some of them, it is argued, were sects from their foundation.

One of the main factors that seems to produce political sects is the rigid continued adherence to a doctrine or idea after its time has passed, or after it has ceased to have clear applicability to a changing reality.

The English sociologist Roy Wallis argues that a sect is characterized by “epistemological authoritarianism”: sects possess some authoritative locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, “sects lay a claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation and “their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as 'in error'”. He contrasts this with a cult that he described as characterized by “epistemological individualism” by which he means that “the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member.”

In Islam

In Hinduism

The Indologist Axel Michaels writes in his book about Hinduism that in an Indian context the word “sect does not denote a split or excluded community, but rather an organized tradition, usually established by founder with ascetic practices.” And according to Michaels, “Indian sects do not focus on heresy, since the lack of a center or a compulsory center makes this impossible – instead, the focus is on adherents and followers.”

In Buddhism

In Christianity

Early Christianity started as a Jewish sect.

Roman Catholic sects

There are many groups outside the Roman Catholic church which are regarded as Catholic sects, such as the Community of the Lady of All Nations, the Palmarian Catholic Church, the Philippine Independent Church, the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church, the Free Catholic Church, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and others.

In countries with strong Orthodox traditions

In some European countries where Protestantism has never gained much popularity, Orthodox churches, both Greek and Roman, often depict Protestant groups, especially smaller ones, as sects. This can be observed, among others, in Bulgariamarker, Republic of Macedoniamarker, Romaniamarker, Russiamarker, Ukrainemarker, Belarusmarker and Polandmarker.

In countries with strong Protestant traditions

The word sect is often use to label groups referred to as cults.

Corresponding words in other European languages

In European languages other than English the corresponding words for 'sect', such as "secte" (French), "secta" (Spanish), "seita" (Portuguese), "sekta" (Polish, Czech, Slovak), "sekt" (Swedish), "sekte" (Dutch), "Sekte" (German) or "szekta" (Hungarian), are used sometimes to refer to a harmful religious or political sect, similar to how English-speakers popularly use the word "cult". In Francemarker, since the 1970s, "secte" has a specific meaning, which is very different from the English word.

See also


  1. Entry sectOnline Etymology Dictionary.
  2. McCormick Maaga, Mary excerpt from her book Hearing the Voices of Jonestown (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998) available online
  3. Stark, Rodney, and Williams Sims Bainbridge (1979) Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18, no 2: 117-33
  4. Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge (1985) The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult formation Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press
  5. Kniss, Fred, and Numrich, Paul (2007) Sacred Assemblies and Civic EngagementRutgers University Press
  6. McGuire, Meredith B. "Religion: the Social Context" fifth edition (2002) ISBN 0-534-54126-7 page 338
  7. Barker, E. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction (1990), Bernan Press, ISBN 0-11-340927-3
  8. Wallis, Roy The Road to Total Freedom A Sociological analysis of Scientology (1976) available online (bad scan)
  9. Wallis, Roy Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect abstract only (1975)
  10. Alex Michaels "Hinduism past and Present" (2004) Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-08952-3, translated from German "Der Hinduismus" (1998) page 319
  11. Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies
  12. Online Journal of Christian Theology and Philosophy
  13. Esquerre Arnaud, "Lutter contre les sectes: l’invention d’un psycho-pouvoir", Le Banquet, n°24, février 2007, p. 199-212

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