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Religious Sects and Cults: The Study of New Religious Movements in the U.S.

Living communally, dressing differently, following a charismatic leader, these are all traits associated with the idea of “cults,” and “cult members” are seen as brainwashed, gullible, sheep being led to their doom by a charlatan shepherd, but is this an accurate perception or merely a stereotype? In this course, we will examine the relationship between popular “cult” rhetoric and the reality lived by these religious groups. We will pay special attention to the “cult” stereotype and how this stereotype is perpetuated through various forms of media. And, as we delve into the beliefs and practices of various New Religious Movements (NRMs)—Shakers, People’s Temple, Mormonism, Branch Davidianism, Satanism, and Wicca—we will also examine the consequences of the “cult” stereotype holds for these groups. Throughout, this course emphasizes the need for you to study the concept of “cult” as both a religious term and a rhetorical device.


This syllabus was created for the Young Scholars in American Religion program.

Lynn S. Neal

Wake Forest University

Private College or University
Institution Type

Resource Type

Undergraduate Course
Class Type

Date Published

Religious Studies

New Religious Movements, Other Christianities, Other Traditions
Religous Tradition

Class/Power, Popular Culture/Media/Music/Sports, Pluralism/Secularism/Culture Wars

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