The Difference Between "Sects" and "Non-Sects"

by Kjell Totland, psychologist

(this article is published in "Kirke og Kultur". Vol. 4-98, s. 355-368. Norway)

In the discussion around the issue of what is problematical about religious sects , focus is mostly concentrated on how sects differ from non-sect religious communities, but little emphasis is placed on what they have in common. The writer thinks that there is a great deal of similarity when considering the attitudes of the individuals involved. To exemplify this, the writer states that the idea of "egocentric attitudes" as a phenomenon can be found in followers of all religious beliefs in varying degrees. The writer also presents relevant examples of similarities between authoritarian viewpoints in the upbringing of children and the similar pattern expressed in religious relationships.

How can the term sect be defined?

Traditionally we have distinguished between sects and non- sect communities while also taking into consideration an in-between group with sectarian traits. The basic reason for this differentiation is the need to identify certain religious communities as a potential threat. To a certain extent I agree with this viewpoint. However, to categorize in this way presents a number of problems. In the first place one assumes that specific religious communities are sectarian. Beckford (1975) states that there are only differences of degree between sects and non-sects. Bedford further suggests that a specific set of criteria could be adopted which various religious groups can relate to and which can form a basis for objective research and serious discussion. As a parallel to this we can consider the definition of the word psychopath: Traditionally we have described a person as a psychopath or not. And it was commonly accepted that it was correct to maintain this classification because it was important "to expose" this group and to emphasize that the same personality traits were descriptive of psychopaths. However, the term psychopath was gradually substituted with sosiopath, because by stating that a person was a psychopath was a so destructive diagnosis and it was necessary to focus on an individual's ability to function in his social environment. Now we state that individuals can, to a greater or lesser degree, show psychopathic tendencies, and that all human beings in one or another form in the course of their lives will show psychopathic behavior or use psychopathic mechanisms, and that the term psychopath can only be employed when these traits and strategies are observable from definite criteria. My further comments will follow the definition I have previously used concerning the interpretation of psychopath.

By creating a definite demarkation between sects and non-sects we can also differentiate between power and control in relation to one's own beliefs, thereby causing people to withdraw rather than to listen and learn from each other. Perhaps one has a feeling of uneasiness that the group of one's choice does not always represent the "one real truth", and that other "divergent" groups may represent something positive too. Instead of following up on these points of diversity the sect community will close ranks on its own identity. In this way any potential threat from other trains of thought is eliminated.

In addition the basic tenets are static and do not take into consideration: (a) that human beings differ: Two persons can be members of a particular religious community but perhaps only one of them may have sectarian attitudes: (b) over a period of time: the religious community can modify or change its viewpoints, or society's opinion of what is sectarian can change. As an example we can take the word "dissenter" which has a negative connotation. (c) from country to country or from place to place, or (d) what the religious group teaches, what the individual member interprets, or what the individual member actually believes and the signals given in formal and informal interaction.

There is no definite agreement on what basis we call a religious community a sect: (a) The formal definition states that a sect is a dissenter group from a greater established religious denomination (ref. Aschehoug and Gyldendal "Store Norske Lexikon", 1989). However not all religious communities which are assumed to be sects belong to such a category. We must keep in mind that according to such a definition orthodox Christianity was originally considered a sect since it disengaged itself from Judaism by stating that Jews had misunderstood God's will. (b) The more acceptable definition of a sect appears to be: A small group of people who live somewhat isolated and have their own special religious interests and practices. (c) Others will interpret sects as everything that falls into the category of "new- religious communities". (d) Then there are those who have tried to define sects by listing up specific features common to all of them- for examle those defined by Lavik (1985) and Ulland (1995).

Characteristics which have prevailed have been environmental, intellectual and emotional control, standardization, perfectionism, charismatic leadership, categorizing the individual etc. Since there are specific criteria stated here it means the approach is more serious. But the difficulty arises in that the criteria vary. One of the results of this is that one can "prove" that a particular group is a sect in the following way: First a certain group which is considered sectarian is selected, and then the group is described in sectarian terms by referring to a specifiic set of criteria which fits and then drawing the conclusion that the religious community in question is a sect. By similar methods it is easy to prove that a sect uses "brainwashing". (e) It has also been common knowledge that sects break down basic humanistic principles in our society, for example the United Nation Commission on Human Rights, by being authoritarian, pathological, undemocratic, abusive , or that they undermine basic principles of respect and equality ( a viewpoint I share). (f) Others again stress intellectual ideas and thereby equate sectarianism and false doctrine ( two ideas which should be kept separate). In Norway where Lutherianism is the state religion it has been the practice of defining sects in accordance with the degree they differ from the accepted doctrine by grading them as follows: (1) true believer who accepts the teachings of Luther, (2) independent denominations which adher to different beliefs, but would not be considered non- Christian, (3) sects, which have moved so far away from the core of Christian teaching that they are considered non- Christian in character and (4) cults, whose ideas are definitely outside the accepted pattern, and in addition possess destructive elements such as isolation, extreme personification, forms of abuse, etc. Johannesen (1991) states the following (p.190): The word cult can have various meanings, but one often differentiates between "sects" which comprise a group within (even though we may be stretching the term ) a Christian framework, and "cults" which are not included in this definition. Hoekema (1972) distinguishes between true sects and false sects by stating that true sects have broken away from the mother church, but still maintain respect for that religious community. False sects, in contrast, are characterized by (1) overevaluating themselves (2) stressing unessential things and minimizing the important issues (3) focussing on perfectionism (4) breaking away from basic Christianity and its teachings, (5) using a written authority rather than the Bible, (6) disregarding the justification of mercy, (7) minimizing Christ, (8) claiming that only the particular group members can be saved, and (9) stating that they will play a central role on " judgement day". (g) Occasionally the words sect and cult are used interchangeably, for example Hoekema (1972) used the word cult about Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and Christian Scientists, which is unusual in Norway.

An example of what misunderstandings can lead to when there is no universal meaning of the word sect was illustrated in the magazine "Vi Menn" where the staff maintained that Pentecostals were considered a sect, and later (due to reader reactions) in issue 35/95 had to retract this.

In my opinion it is correct to identify religious communities and groups as sects when they flagrantly go against basic humanistic principles such as respect and equality. Our concern as human beings means taking responsibility for making others aware of the destructive and threatening elements that exist in our culture when they actually do exist. However we must keep in mind that sectarianism is something which can be found in all religious contexts (and as far as this is concerned in non- religious connections also ). In order to clarify this difference, I would suggest using the term religious sectarian attitudes. My definition of a religious sect will then be that it concerns a religious community, or religious groups, which present viewpoints or ideas which are clearly in opposition to basic principles of respect and equality.

These attitudes must also be expressed clearly both from the congregation and those in leadership positions. But in practice it is very difficult (if not impossible) to state so categorically when a non-sect becomes a sect, or when a sect becomes a non-sect. In my opinion it is rather common to find that on an individual level one finds persons in a non-sect with viewpoints that are more extreme than members in a comparable sect. Therefore we can conclude that the difference between sects and non-sects means discussing two variations open to flexible interpretations but with a certain amount of overlapping.

Egocentric attitudes in religious connections

To find an acceptable definition of sectarian teaching is quite difficult, considering the fact that the concept can be related to many similar ideas that are partly unclear or possibly overlapping. The terms which may be applicable are egocentric authoritarian, excluding, fundamentalist, fanatical, fascistic, destructive, indoctrinating,dogmatic, absolute, totalitarian, extreme and cultic. Among these characteristics I wish to emphasize egocentric attitudes as the one which is the basic reason for other related sectarian viewpoints. In the following presentation I will elaborate on this. Examples of egocentricism in religious communities can indicate how non-sects can become sects when these attitudes are reinforced and eventually become accepted as the correct teaching.

1. Overevaluating one's own position

One considers oneself or the organization one belongs to as " God's chosen one", as an individual whom God chose to enlighten the people as to what God really means, and those who are outside this fellowship must be considered the " problem" and not the "solution". In sects, this way of reasoning becomes part of the religious teaching, and membership means being better than other people.

2.Active competition to prove which group is God's chosen one

When the emphasis is focussed on being important it becomes essential to show which traits the chosen community is in possession of to prove that they possess the closest relationship to God. This can be conveyed both directly and indirectly: It may be stated in this way: God has spoken to me, God has shown me, or God has revealed himself to me. Or one can be more indirect: Lately I have truly understood what mercy means, or: I become more and more aware of how helpless and dependent I am on God. In sects this can be expressed by the leaders saying in no uncertain terms that he/she has a very special relationship with God, even going to the extent of saying that God speaks to the congregation through him/her.

3.Emphasizing one's own success

When someone exhibits egocentric traits it would be wrong to mention one's weaknesses. One emphasizes how much discipline is exerted in religious devotions, how faithfully one reads the Bible, how eagerly one passes on the good word, etc. To discuss "worldly" aspects of one's character, show inconsistent viewpoints, admit to real failures, etc., is most unsuitable. This is demonstrated in sects by "exemplary leadership" and by constantly stressing how one can learn by following the good example. The leaders can also be presented as perfect, godly, and so on.

4.Focussing on visual qualities showing intrinsic value.

The criteria for intrinsic value may be (a) that one has "spiritual discipline" (regular attendance at religious gatherings, is an active and visible witness, and so on) and (b) in one's appearance gives the impression of spiritual correctness, (c) that one looks up to the "accepted" leaders, (d) that one is well informed concerning the group's internal use of language and uses this appropriately, or (e) one is married to someone who is engaged in spiritual work. The bottom line for these criteria is that emphasis is placed on the individual being held up as an example and that one's identity is based on positive feedback. In sects the train of thought might well be (1) almost obsessive thinking "Do I give the right impression ?" "Am I a good representative for God's Chosen People?" " Or is there something about me that can make me appear an outsider " (2) a rigid set of rules for correct behavior, or (3) that reasons for exclusion are based on straying away from "accepted behavior".

5.Cultivation of spiritual leadership.

Those who cannot boast about their own importance, success, or righteousness or that they have a special relationship with God, will substitute this by admiring those who do have such status, mention them often, quote their opinions, buy their publications, hope to be " noticed" by them,etc. This is obvious in sects where there is a charismatic leader. It is not out of the way for a sect leader to demand such adulation and where they may employ various forms of abuse to ensure this kind of control.

6. Overemphasis on goals and effectiveness.

When one is in the position of being chosen to see God's secret plan, it is imperative not to waste time in carrying it out. All activity and energy must be focussed on the final goal and the special task one has been entrusted with. Traits that have to do with spontaneity, coincidence, "vacations", "laziness", and "half-heartedness" are frowned upon or must be eliminated. Those who find these conditions unacceptable are excluded from the elite group and only partake on a lower scale. In sects the sanctions are often more dramatic. The individual who is unwilling to be fully indoctrinated and adhere to discipline can risk the wrath of God, damnation, exclusion or isolation.

Another aspect of this is the emphasis on the "spiritual" side of an individual rather than focussing on the "whole human being". To take into consideration an individual's background, potentialities, emotional or physical needs, intellectual curiosity, economic or social status and other factors which can cause someone to stray from the "goal" become de-emphasized. The result is a system which seems effective on a short term basis but in the long run can cause psychological problems. This is observable in sects when family ties, friends, leisure time, education, emotional attachments, etc. are set aside.

Another aspect of this is a fear of ambivalence, contradiction, and insecurity in oneself or others. There is also very little leeway for interpretation of doctrine by being open- minded and intellectually curious. In sects this is emphasized by leaders who state that everyone serves God gladly, and everyone has a common interpretation of how God thinks and what He teaches, and that those who are in disagreement will either be "persuaded" to change their minds, or if that does not help, be defined as a "rebel" or a "non-conformist".

7. An emotional or positive revelation that an individual has had becomes dogma and is expected to concern everyone in the group.

The unique experience an individual may have had , or the way in which it happened ought to be relived by all the followers. As a result one can assume that a religious conversion can only follow the one pattern. This is a typical way of thinking when those who enjoy positive feelings as a result of a religious experience. But it can also be seen in relation to glorifying persons using the "right" methods, or for fear of diversity and that someone professing other views will break away and create chaos. In sects such ideas can become doctrine by strongly emphasizing the path the leader followed, and that those footsteps are the right ones to follow.

8. Elite thinking.

This way of thinking is evident when one denomination considers itself superior to others. Other groups are" tolerated," one sympathizes with those who really have not seen the light, and prays that God in His mercy will forgive them and still offer salvation. One may also separate people into two categories, "the number one team" and the "second stringers", by stating that, (a) those who have had a personal calling and those who haven't, (b) those who are "true followers" and those who are just "ordinary Christians", (c) those who have received "direct messages" from God and those who haven't, (d) those who know God's grace, (e) those who are "filled with the Holy Spirit" in contrast to those who have not experienced this, (f) those who have the "right" interpretation of the Bible and those who have not. I do not wish to convey that those who think this way are necessarily egocentric. But it describes a kind of theology which is very suitable for individuals who are egocentric and who have a specific need for feedback verifying their separateness and exclusiveness. In sects one sees examples of elite thinking when one says "others" are barely "accepted or saved" or when salvaton is associated with membership or leadership.

9. Equating individual worth and position.

In denominations that have a hierarchy it is not uncommon for an individual to enjoy a specific status in relation to how one is placed in the system and how much responsibility one has. In other words one equates individual worth with position. Systems that have a hierarchy rather than a "flat" organization serve the purpose of being a magnet for people who have a need of feeling exclusive and separate. This may be quite evident in sects where there is a clear delineation between "leaders" and "followers".

10.A lack or unwillingness to see reality and one's own interpretation of reality must logically be two different phenomena.

In psychology there is a theory called "ego-syntone misunderstanding" (Watzlawick 1976). This can be seen in individuals who are incapable of seeing something objectivably and their own interpretation of the situation gives this experience an ideological basis. This train of thought is observable in all religious connections. Some may state that I know what is stated in the Bible, I do not interpret it , or there is no way of misunderstanding, but only stick to what is written in the Bible, when controversial or complex issues come up. Others go even further in categorical thinking and see this as their crystal clear mission in life, informing the rest of the world what they have "seen" regardless of whether the rest of the world is interested or not. Wormnes (1981 p. 189 ) states that ego-syntone patterns of behavior can be allowed to develop in rigid denominations because toleration and respect for other ways of thinking and seeing reality have not been prevalent. In these communities everything which is different becomes a threat and must be overcome or eliminated, and various techniques will be used as a means of maintaining consistency and stability.

11. Moral thinking

Moralizing is an effective weapon to use towards an individual or a group when their behavior has been found unacceptable. This can be done in the following ways: (a) One takes for granted that if I could handle that problem so can you; (b) the assumption is made that one's actions are motivated by selfishnes,( he's only out for his own satisfaction ); (c) one's actions are premeditated and deliberate,( he's well aware of what he's doing !); (d) no one is interested in why one behaves in this manner (reasons due to genetics or personality ) or other factors which explain one's behavior (such as early adolescence or present environment ) and may explain why a person acts in a particular and meaningful way to satisfy his needs. This way of behaving should be familiar to us outside of sect situation. In sects it may be assumed that those "outside" ( often referred to as " the world ") are presented as ungodly and satanical who make no effort to change.

Authoritarian attitudes

Egocentric convictions are, in my opinion, a basic characteristic of sects, and the underlying reason for the lack of respect and equality found in all religious relationships, most certainly in religious sects. It is also the basis for various other attitudes for example authoritarian conduct. I wish to point out that egocentric or authoritarian behavior is by no means something which is found exclusively in religious connections, but exists in society as a whole. To illustrate this I will present a comparison between authoritarian behavior as it might be practiced in the upbringing of children.


Authoritarian upbringing

Authoritarian religious convictions

Adults have no specific goal except to achieve " peace and quiet "(ref. to Hans and Fritz in the Katzenjammer Kids)

There is no specific goal except

maintaining the "status quo".

The goal is to be admired and have a "good reputation."

The goal is power, influence, and admiration, both from the flock and society as a whole.

The goal is self-realization through one's offspring.

The goal is to fulfill one's own calling through the congregation

2. Attitudes

Authoritarian upbringing

Authoritarian religious convictions

Adults have already decided the child's path in life

The slogan is: come as you are but become like us. There is a definite attainable goal for all members.

Adults are motivated by a feeling of obligation, the prevalent mores, and principles.

Reference is made to: "God's calling", God's laws, and formal and informal rules.

Adults are primarily interested in the child's behavior.

Emphasis is on external factors which give a good impression and attest to positive development.

Adults show very little interest in just having contact with the child.

The leader's interaction with the congregation is primarily a strategic move and has no other value.

The adult is not concerned with the other possibilities the child possesses.

Emphasis is placed on removing negative traits the members may have. Positive feedback comes from the religious group.

Adults show little interest in the child's feelings and emotion.

There is little interest in how the individual member really experiences the situation, as long as their reaction is not a negative one.

Adults frown upon a child developing at its own pace.

Leaders are the ones who decide the pace of development, there is no consideration for individual development.

Adults have a problem accepting a child's way of learning to attain a good result. "Those who stray must pay".

Obedience must be respected as soon as possible. Doubt and uncertainty are considered negative. "Keeping in line" is important. Any form of oposition is met with sanction.

3. Methods.

Authoritarian upbringing

Authoritarian religious convictions

Adults do not permit critical questions concerning the upbringing of children.

The leaders have been given their calling directly from God. Criticism from those lower in the hierarchy becomes impossible

Adults usually talk to children and notwith them.

There is very little room for dialogue, communication is one way in relation to ethics and moral.

Adults use themselves as a point of reference. a Remember who I am, that kind of behaviour will not be tolerated in my house.

Leaders who have been "called" are focal point and a reference point to motivate the followers.

Adults resort to fear and coercion rather than cooperation.

Fear of God's damnation, exclusion and isolation are common factors in forcing adherence.


In my opinion both "egocentric religious convictions" and "authoritarian religious convictions" express a need for us to cultivate ourselves and to dominate and control other people. These sectarian attitudes can be seen in religious as well as in non-religious connections. They can often be subtle. They can, to a greater or lesser degree, influence a milieu for example through formal or informal norms. And in religious environments these attitudes can more or less be expressed as a part of the accepted teaching.

Emphasis has usually been focussed on the kind of attitudes found in sects and how they can influence a person psychologically and how one covers up what is really happening. However, very little attention has been paid to these factors when considering non-sects. A possible explanation may be that those who show an interest in sects often have the "usual" church affinity, and therefore it is safer to concentrate on sects. But these attitudes are rather common, and the difference between sects and non- sects is perhaps less than we think. As an example we can examine some of the covert mechanisms which can be found in "ordinary" religious congregations (most of them also existent in sect groups): (a) One emphasizes being an accepted member of the establishment, follows "the correct teaching" and belongs to a religious majority and therefore is deserving of respect in society, (b) the outward impression is a primary goal. (c) Honesty, spontaneity, respect, openness and active listening are exchanged for inhibited behavior, superficiality, manipulation, taking sides, and one way communication. (d) In theory there is great stress on equality. But in reality one "delights" in being in focus. (e) One hides one's own viewpoints by the technique of redefinition, for example by saying that one "only" expects respect but in reality demands obedience. (f) One tries to eliminate the past: That may have been our standpoint in the past, but it is no longer the case. Or: The leaders had the best intentions. Or: Let us not confuse our present members by dwelling on things in the past. (g) False openness: Time is spent on evaluation, critical debates and on stressing how "open-minded" one is. But conclusions are arrived at in the same old way, and criticism is in effect disregarded. (h) Superficial changes may be made but the basic ideas and convictions remain the same. (i) Much time is spent listening when others comment, and discussing their remarks, but being careful not to reveal one's own thoughts (interesting comments- do you have anything further to say ?).

(j) Focus is placed on "the war against sects" because then no one is suspected of having these same attitides. (k) When highly placed individuals show a lack of respect and equality, these are, first and foremost, the ones who are protected. The actions of the persons in question may be justified by saying "their intentions were good", they were overworked, outer pressures, temptations that were difficult to resist, public speaking ability, a fair amount of popularity, and so on. Problems are to be faced and lived with and members should not "stir up trouble" because of the congregation's good reputation and the possibilities of expansion. One follows the principle of "the end justifies the means".

Since these "forms of manipulation" can be a burden to a follower who already meets sectarian attitudes in our culture, it is something in which we should become more involved.

A good deal has already been written about the situation one finds oneself in when leaving a sect (ref. Singer 1979 ). These people can experience great difficulty in trying to live outside the sect. But they do have an advantage in contrast to those who leave a non-sect-- they will find greater support from their surroundings-- because they have been a member of a sect! But one who has experienced sectarian attitudes in a congregation that belongs to the "accepted religious denominations" will not necessarily find sympathy when he chooses to leave. Instead one may be considered "difficult". Because: One does not leave an accepted denomination unless there is something wrong with the individual involved. And if one does not go into another accepted congregation, one is considered "spiritually lost", regardless of the fact that

one may have withdrawn from the religious aspect, or because one has become a "stay at home" due to scepticism to organized religion (or due to other reasons). Those who have "rejected" religion either due to sect membership or not, are a group of individuals that I feel our society and we, as fellow human beings, should show greater respect, interest in, and compassion for.



Aschehoug & Gyldendal (1987): Store Norske Leksikon.[Great Norwegian Dictionary.] Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo.

Beckford, J.A. (1975): The Trumpet of Prophesy. A Sociolgical Study of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Basil Blackwell, Oxford. England.

Hoekema, A.A. (1972): The Four Major Cults. Erdemans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, Michigan. USA.

Johannessen, G. H. (1992): Vekkelse eller villfarelse? Trosforkynnelsen alias Herlighetsteologien: Hvor herlig er den? [Revival or mania? Promulgation of faith also known as Theology of Excellence: How excellent is it?] Lunde Forlag, Oslo.

Lavik, N.J. (1985): Frelst eller forført? Om "hjernevask" og psykologisk påvirkning i ny-religiøse sekter.[Redeemed or seduced? About "brainwashing" and psychological influence in new-religious cults.] Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo. [German translation].

Singer, M.(1979): Coming Out Of The Cults. Psychology Today, 12:72-82.

Ulland, D. (1995): Religiøs sekterisme og mentale lidelser. [Religious cultism and mental diseases.] Kirke og kultur, 2/1995. [German translation].

Watzlawick, P. (1976): How real is real? Random House, New York. USA.

Wormnes, B. (1981): Reformulering som terapeutisk teknikk. Tidsskrift for Norsk Psykologforening. [Reformulation as a therapeutical technique. Periodical for the Norwegian Association of Psychologists.] Nr. 4, Vol. 18. S.187-196.


Copyright © 2001 Kjell Totland