From New World Encyclopedia

In the sociology of religion, a sect is generally a small religious or political group that has broken off from a larger group, for example from a well-established religious body, like a denomination, usually due to a dispute about doctrinal matters. "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 that departed from orthodox religious procedures."[1]

In an Indian context, however, a sect refers to an organized tradition and does not have any pejorative connotations.


The word sect comes from the Latin sects (from sequire "to follow"). It denotes: (1) a course of action or way of life, (2) a behavioral code or founding principles, and (3) a specific philosophical school or doctrine. Sectarius or sectilis also refer to a scission or cut, but this meaning is, in contrast to popular opinion, unrelated to the etymology of the word. A sectator is a loyal guide, adherent or follower.


There are several different definitions and descriptions of the term "sect' used by scholars.[2] For example, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch (1931)[2] articulated a church-sect typology where they described sects as newly formed religious groups created 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".[3] These scholars also assert that sects have, in contrast to churches, a high degree of tension with the surrounding society.[4]

Sectarianism is sometimes defined 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.[5]

Mass-based socialist, social-democratic, labor and communist parties often had their historical origin in utopian sub-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 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.

Difference between Sect and Cult

The English sociologist Roy Wallis[6] argues that a sect is characterized by “epistemological authoritarianism.” In other words, 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 describes as characterized by “epistemological individualism” by which he means that “the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member.”[7][8] A religious or political cult thus 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 norms and ideas against members, a sect normally does not strictly have "members" with definite obligations, only followers, sympathizers, supporters or believers.

However, in European languages other than English, the corresponding words for 'sect', such as "secte," "secta," "seita," "sekta," "sekte" or "Sekte," are used sometimes to refer to a harmful religious or political sect, similar to how English-speakers popularly use the word 'cult'.

In Latin America, the term "sect" is often applied by Roman Catholics to any non-Roman Catholic religious group, regardless of size, often with the same negative connotation that 'cult' has in English. In turn, some Latin American Protestants refer to groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc, as sects. Similarly, 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 Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.

Other Uses

The Indologist Axel Michaels writes 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.” 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.”[9]


  1. Bryan R Wilson, Religion in sociological perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982, ISBN 0198266642), 89.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mary McCormick Maaga, Hearing the voices of Jonestown. Religion and politics (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998)
  3. Rodney Stark, 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. Rodney Stark, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult formation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  5. Meredith B McGuire, Religion, the social context, 5th edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002, ISBN 0-534-54126-7), 338.
  6. Eileen Barker, New religious movements a practical introduction (London: H.M.S.O, 1989, ISBN 0113409273)
  7. The Road to Total Freedom A Sociological analysis of Scientology.
  8. Scientology: Therapeutic Cult to Religious Sect Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  9. Axel Michaels, and Barbara Harshav, Hinduism past and Present (Princeton, N.J.:Princeton University Press, 2004, ISBN 0691089523), 319.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barker, Eileen. New religious movements a practical introduction. London: H.M.S.O, 1989. ISBN 0113409273
  • Maaga, Mary McCormick. Hearing the voices of Jonestown. Religion and politics. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998.
  • McGuire, Meredith B. Religion, the social context, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002. ISBN 0-534-54126-7
  • Michaels, Axel and Barbara Harshav. Hinduism past and Present. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0691089523
  • Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects: A Spirited Guide to the World's Religious Traditions. Publisher:, 2005. ISBN 978-0595373925
  • Stark, Rodney, and Williams Sims Bainbridge. Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18, no. 2., 1979: 117-33.
  • Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult formation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986. ISBN 978-0520057319
  • Wilson, Bryan R. Religion in sociological perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 0198266642

External links

All links retrieved January 25, 2023.


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