The term “cult” carries negative connotations when used outside an academic context. The FBI recommends that police agencies use the term “new religious movements.” The term “alternative religious movements” could also encompass a new offshoot of a traditional faith.
In her 2003 book Cults in Our Midst, Margaret Thaler Singer says a common characteristic of cults is that they form around individuals who claim to have a special mission or knowledge, which they are willing to share with those who are willing to turn over most of their decision making to the self-appointed leader.
Cynthia Matthews, a former counseling professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas, licensed professional counselor and author, says tactics exhibited by cults include “controlling information and communication, espousing confession and purity of their members, controlling physical and social environments, creating a sense of powerlessness in members whereby they look to the group for support, manipulating rewards and punishments to promote group beliefs, and enforcing a closed system of logic from an authoritarian structure.
Marshall Shelly, director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Denver Seminary and a contributing editor at Christianity Today says cults exhibit three primary characteristics: they are exclusive, secretive and authoritarian.
These descriptions could be used to describe some sub-sects of mainstream religious worldviews, meaning extreme care should be used when considering use of the term.
Similarly, describing groups like ISIS simply as “Islamic,” immediately links all Muslims to what is essentially a sect that is rejected by most Muslims worldwide.
It is a good idea to use of the term "cult" only with attribution to law enforcement authorities, experts or former followers of a group. Make every effort to obtain comments and viewpoints from clergy, leaders and/or members in good standing of the organization that is the subject of the reporting.