Mini-Lecture: Sects

Listen to this short lecture describing sects:


What is a Sect? The term “sect” comes from the word “section”—implying that a sect is a small part of something larger. There are many religions that began as sects of some pre-existing religion but many others that did not originate as a sub-group of some pre-existing religion (if this were not the case then we’d have to conclude that there was a single, first religion which is not the case).

Religions that began spontaneously would not fit the definition of sect. For instance:

  • Christianity began as a sect within first century Judaism but Islam seems to have developed independently rather than being historically related to any other religion (yes, there is a legendary connection through Abraham but that’s not historical).
  • Buddhism and possibly Sikhism can be said to have been break-away sects of Hinduism. (Sikhism has the added complexity of also being a syncretism drawing from both Hinduism and Islam, while, at the same time, it claims for itself an independent origin apart from any other religion.)

However, once a “sect” breaks-away from the pre-existing religion, since it is no longer a part of the larger religion, we can’t really call it a sect anymore. Then it becomes a “New Religious Movement” and, given a few centuries, a well established independent religion.

In fact, there are other criteria for determining what is a “sect.” One of these is the size of the religion. Sects tend to be relatively small in population. They also tend to be more insulated than mainstream religions/denominations. Thus Amish might be considered a Christian sect. Lutheran would be a full-fledged denomination (though it might have qualified as a sect when it first began). There is also a tendency for outsiders to view a sect with suspicion while viewing a larger denomination with respect. Sects tend to be younger than denominations. As they grow over time they tend to be seen with greater legitimacy. They may or may not become independent religions:

  • Baha’i began as a sect within Islam in 19th century Persia but soon became an independent religion—especially having been rejected by the the larger Islamic culture as a legitimate version of Islam (similar to what happened with Christianity being rejected by the Judaism it grew out of).
  • Hare Krishna started as and remains a sect within Hinduism (here is an example where outsiders mistake a sect for a cult). In this case, the larger religion (Hinduism) has not rejected the Hare Krishna movement as a legitimate form of Hinduism.

An interesting contrast between these two examples. Baha’i sees itself as an independent religion while Islam continues to see it as an illegitimate sect of Islam. Hare Krishna sees itself as a part of Hinduism and Hinduism does not reject it as such.

So, in terms of religious community, on a scale from largest and oldest to smallest and youngest, we have: religions, denominations, sects . . . and then we have cults, but don’t get me started on that. You can read my essay on this topic. Suffice it to say that the term “cult” is more often misused and/or (often intentionally) misleading. I try to avoid using the term and question its use when others use it. A better (less pejorative) term would be New Religious Movement (or NRM).