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10 Famous Cults in the World

A cult is almost always perceived as being malevolent in nature; however, this need not be the case always. This SpiritualRay article brings to you a list of 10 famous cults in the world.
SpiritualRay Staff
Last Updated: May 6, 2018
Quick Fact
The name Cargo cults has been given to a number of cults in the Melanesian region. Most beliefs and ritual practices of these cults are aimed at achieving material wealth from the commercially developed colonizing countries.

The term 'cult' often comes to refer to a group of people, engaging in activities, which seem to be far from those which are socially, politically, and/or religiously accepted. Some people also think that 'cult' constitutes a group of people, coming together with a sinister motive and engaging in anti-social activities. These are just two of the numerous interpretations, which most people tend to make when they think of a 'cult'. Owing to this, it is needless to say that defining the term is rather tough, and more often than not, a subject of personal opinion. What might mean a 'cult' for one, may not hold true for the other. This is probably the reason why the term is often used rather loosely, to refer to any group that seems to work against the tide.

To make matters even more complicated, sociologists consider the term 'cult' as derogatory, and rather prefer to call such groups/ideologies as 'new religious movements', simply because the latter is a little easier to define than the former. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a new religious movement (NRM) is, any religion originating in recent centuries having characteristic traits including eclecticism and syncretism, a leader who claims extraordinary powers, and a "countercultural" aspect. Because the cults or NRMs seem to deviate people from the established systems of beliefs and practices, they are often viewed as dangerous and malevolent.

World's Famous Cults
People establish cults for numerous and varied reasons, acquisition of money and power being the major ones. Here's a list of 10 famous cults around the world.

1. Children of God
One of the nastiest cults in the world, the Children of God (COG), came to be established in the 1960s, in the city of Huntington Beach, California.

The leader of the cult was a Christian minister named David Berg, who established the cult on account of his anti-establishment ideology.

The first recruits of the cult belonged to the hippie culture, who were instantly attracted to Berg's attitude towards the system.

The group is known for its belief in the Apocalypse. The cult members shifted their headquarters to Arizona, when Berg claimed to have had a revelation that California would be struck by an earthquake.

What made the cult particularly infamous was their belief in open sexual relationships. Through the practice of "flirty fishing", they used sex as a means to attract more followers.

They also encouraged sex with children and claimed it to be natural and right. However, all these practices were formally ended by the group when some of their members contracted some sexually transmitted diseases in the late 1980s.

COG, later named as Family of Love and now known as The Family International, led to the formation of the first ever organized anti-cult group in the United States and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

With their offices in as many as 70 countries, the group is still active, even after Berg's death in 1994.

2. The Unification Church
In 1954, a Korean religious leader and business magnate, Sun Myung Moon founded the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity or the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, known commonly as the Unification Church in North Korea.

At the age of 16, Moon claims to have had a divine vision in which he was told to complete Jesus Christ's incomplete mission on earth. Consequently, the Moonies (the followers of the Church) consider Moon as their Messiah.

Most beliefs of the Church are based on the Bible. Moon also promotes a belief that one of the main missions of the Christ was to marry and give birth to "perfect" children, which he apparently could not, owing to his crucifixion.

Moreover, Moon believed that he was God and expected his followers to treat him as one. Salvation, according to him, was possible only if a person pledged his total obedience to him and married a spouse of his choice.

In the 1970s, the headquarters of the Church was shifted to New York, where it became a subject of huge controversy and triggered anti-cult sensitivities.

The Church has been sponsoring many organizations and projects since its inception, thus, forming a vital part of the social, economic, and political sphere.

Moon breathed his last in 2012, but the Church is still active under the leadership of his wife and two sons.

3. Scientology
Considered as one of the wealthiest institutions on earth, Scientology is a new religious movement, preaching that humans are in actuality, immortal beings who have forgotten their true nature.

The main beliefs of the Church comprise some of the most exotic teachings about alien civilizations and their relationship with humans. According to them, humans were aliens in their previous births.

They use the method of spiritual rehabilitation by means of consciously re-experiencing painful events of the past lives, so that the minds can be freed from them and cleansed.

It is one of the most controversial cults of the 20th century. Several critics have allegedly claimed that they have been using techniques, such as brainwashing and hypnosis on their members.

The cult has also been blamed of using tools, such as psychological abuse, character assassination, and costly litigation against their critics, which the cult obviously denies.

One of the most controversial beliefs held by Scientologists is against psychiatry being called a science. They believe that it should be abolished, as it is abusive and destructive in nature.

Despite being the center of several controversies and allegations, Scientology is a recognized religion in a number of countries including the United States, Italy, Australia, Spain, and Portugal.

4. Manson Family
Charles Manson, the founder of the Manson family, had a rather dark past. At 16, his mother was imprisoned for armed robbery, after which he turned to crime himself. Since then, he spent much of his life behind bars until 1967, when he shifted from West Virginia to San Francisco, after being released from jail.

In San Francisco, he established himself as a guru, and managed to attract a committed group of followers, though not very big. This group of young people came to be called, "the Family."

Manson did not claim to have any religious basis for his group, unlike most other cults, which tend to have solid "religious" beliefs. In fact, he himself claimed to be a devoted Scientologist, with an amateur interest in Satanism.

The main belief of the Family was termed as Helter Skelter by Manson, and the term―which according to him―referred to an apocalyptic battle between the black and the white races.

The Family believed that though the blacks would emerge victorious after the battle, they would seek help of the remaining whites, in order to establish a proper leadership. At this very juncture, Manson planned to come to the forefront and take control.

With the ambition of gaining power, Manson asked the Family members to carry out a series of murders of white people. The plan was to put the blame on the blacks and instigate a war between the two races. Several people were killed in Los Angeles, and the Family members followed the orders and wrote offensive messages on the walls.

Manson and his followers were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, thus virtually putting an end to the cult.

5. Heaven's Gate
Heaven's Gate was one of the UFO cults, the founders of which claimed that they had traveled to the Earth in a UFO.

Founded in the 1970s by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, most of the cult's followers were from Oregon and California, where the founders allegedly made several apocalyptic prophecies.

They believed that the human soul is carried in a spaceship after death into the other dimension.

The leaders of the group encouraged their followers to abandon all their possessions, detach themselves from family life and emotions, and give up sex.

Moreover, they were expected to live under one roof, with the other members of the group.

The Heaven's Gate made news in 1997, when convinced by the rumor that a UFO was following the famous Hale-Bopp comet; all 39 members committed mass suicide, as they believed that the UFO would carry their souls to heaven.

6. Rajneeshpuram
Rajneeshpuram began as an intentional community in Wasco County, Oregon, led by the so-called spiritual leader of Indian origin, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, more commonly known as Osho.

The cult promoted indulgence in earthly pleasures, primarily sex, and was opposed and rejected, largely in India itself. However, Osho's ideology managed to gain a huge fan following in Europe and the United States.

By 1985, Rajneeshpuram boasted of being one of the largest intentional communities with more than 2,500 residents. Plus, it also managed to acquire the status of a city, complete with a fire department, police, restaurants, malls, townhouses, an airstrip, a public transport system, a sewage reclamation plant, and a reservoir.

One of the key members of Osho's inner circle, Ma Anand Sheela initiated the "Share-a-Home" program in 1985, under which a large number of homeless people were brought to the city and provided with shelter. The hidden motive, however, was to register them as legal voters, and influence the Wasco County court elections. However, the attempt failed rather badly.

Around the same time, Ma Anand Sheela and the other members did something that made the cult one of the most notorious ones in the world. They planned and executed the first ever bioterrorist attack in the history of the United States.

They poisoned the food being served in one of the leading restaurants in the town of Dalles in the Wasco County, thus making about 750 people seriously sick. This was done to reduce the total population of voters.

However, in 1985, Osho was deported for an immigration fraud, and the other leaders fled Rajneeshpuram to escape arrest and trial.

Osho breathed his last in 1990, but the movement still has a large following.

7. Aum Shinrikyo
Aum Shinrikyo, now called Aleph, is a Japanese cult, founded in 1987 by a man called Shoko Asahara.

The ideology of the cult was largely influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, but it is also partly based on Asahara's own beliefs.

Asahara promoted himself as the manifestation of God on Earth, and thus, managed to get significant amount of monetary aid.

The cult itself became very popular the world over, and by 1995, it had as many as 50,000 adherents, mainly in Russia.

With a lot of funds at its disposal and tremendous following all across the world, the cult allegedly attempted―though in vain―to acquire a nuclear bomb, as they aimed to take over the Japanese government.

When their attempt failed, Asahara and his group carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and sickening about 6,000.

Following this, Asahara was sentenced to death in 2004, virtually dismantling the group, but it still exists, though the number of followers has dwindled substantially.

8. Order of the Solar Temple
The Ordre du Temple Solaire, a.k.a. the International Chivalric Organization of the Solar Tradition, was a doomsday cult and a secret society, founded in Geneva in 1984 by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret.

The members believed in the teachings of the Christ as well in the ideology of the Knights Templar, a secret organization of the Middle Ages.

One of the main prophecies of the leaders was that Emmanuelle, the daughter of Joseph Di Mambro, would take the souls of the deceased members to a planet that revolved around the star Sirius.

They believed that the world would come to an end in the mid-1990s; however, when that did not happen, most members abandoned the cult, including Emmanuelle.

The cult made news in 1994, when 53 of its members committed mass suicide, believing that the world's end was near, and it was time to make a move to the new planet.

9. Branch Davidians
In 1955, following a schism in the Church of the Seventh-day Adventists, a group of people broke away from the institution, and established a religious group called the Branch Davidians or just, The Branch.

In 1959, David Koresh became the leader of the group, only so that the group met with a very violent and a shadowy end.

Koresh preached numerous controversial things, one of which was his infamous New Light Doctrine.

Through the doctrine, Koresh declared that all women―young girls, underage girls, and married women―were his spiritual wives. Moreover, he also declared himself as a Messiah.

Owing to his doctrine, The Branch was charged with numerous allegations of child abuse. Furthermore, Koresh and his followers were also charged for holding illegal firearms.

In 1993, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted a raid on the Branch's headquarters, and it was only after a shootout that lasted 51 days, that Koresh and other members were killed.

10. The Russian Cult of Gadget Hackwrench
This is by far, one of the most bizarre cults to have come into existence. The members of this cult believe that one of Disney's cartoon characters, Gadget Hackwrench, is a divine being.

Gadget Hackwrench appears in the Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers cartoon series. She is a mouse, who is also a pilot, a mechanic, and an inventor. Her Russian fans have formulated a religious cult in her name, giving her a divine status.

The members of the cult believe that she is firm, adorable, and so well-versed with technical knowledge that nobody on earth can match her skills.

The most common practice of the cult is to burn candles around a big, colored poster of Gadget Hackwrench.

It is also believed that the character is capable of granting wishes, and so the cult members also seem to chant before her poster.

The world around us is full of weird and unusual cults, which tend to adhere to any means in order to attract people towards them. Some cults, though bizarre, are really peaceful in nature. It is important for people to think rationally, so that they cannot be fooled or tricked into entering any of these, often nasty, institutions.