In the sociology of religion a sect is generally a smaller religious or political group that has broken off from a larger group; for example from a large, well-established religious group, like a denomination, usually due to a dispute about doctrinal matters.

In its historical usage in Christendom the term has a pejorative connotation and refers to a movement committed to heretical beliefs and that often deviated from orthodox practices.

A sect as used in an Indian context refers to an organized tradition.


The word sect comes from the Latin secta (from sequi to follow), meaning (1) a course of action or way of life, (2) a behavioural code or founding principles, (3) a specific philosophical school or doctrine. Sectarius or sectilis also refer to a scission or cut, but this meaning is, in contrast to popular opinion, unrelated to the etymology of the word. A sectator is a loyal guide, adherent or follower.

Sociological definitions and descriptions

There are several different sociological definitions and descriptions for the term. Among the first to define them were Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch (1931). In the church-sect typology they are described as newly formed religious groups that form to protest elements of their parent religion (generally a denomination). Their motivation tends to be situated in accusations of apostasy or heresy in the parent denomination; they are often decrying liberal trends in denominational development and advocating a return to true religion. The American sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge assert that "sects claim to be authentic purged, refurbished version of the faith from which they split". They further assert that sects have, in contrast to churches, a high degree of tension with the surrounding society.

Sectarianism is sometimes defined in the sociology of religion as a worldview that emphasizes the unique legitimacy of believers' creed and practices and that heightens tension with the larger society by engaging in boundary-maintaining practices.

A religious or political cult, by contrast, also has a high degree of tension with the surrounding society, but its beliefs are, within the context of that society, new and innovative. Whereas the cult is able to enforce its norms and ideas against members, a sect normally doesn't strictly have "members" with definite obligations, only followers, sympathisers, supporters or believers.

Mass-based socialist, social-democratic, labor and communist parties often had their historical origin in utopian sects, and also subsequently produced many sects, which split off from the mass party. In particular, the communist parties from 1919 experienced numerous splits; some of them, it is argued, were sects from their foundation.

One of the main factors that seems to produce political sects is the rigid continued adherence to a doctrine or idea after its time has passed, or after it has ceased to have clear applicability to a changing reality.

The English sociologist Roy Wallis argues that a sect is characterized by “epistemological authoritarianism”: sects possess some authoritative locus for the legitimate attribution of heresy. According to Wallis, “sects lay a claim to possess unique and privileged access to the truth or salvation and “their committed adherents typically regard all those outside the confines of the collectivity as 'in error'”. He contrasts this with a cult that he described as characterized by “epistemological individualism” by which he means that “the cult has no clear locus of final authority beyond the individual member.”

In Islam

In Hinduism

The Indologist Axel Michaels writes in his book about Hinduism that in an Indian context the word “sect does not denote a split or excluded community, but rather an organized tradition, usually established by founder with ascetic practices.” And according to Michaels, “Indian sects do not focus on heresy, since the lack of a center or a compulsory center makes this impossible – instead, the focus is on adherents and followers.”

In Christianity

Early Christianity started as a Jewish sect.

Roman Catholic sects

There are many groups outside the Roman Catholic church which are regarded as Catholic sects, such as the Community of the Lady of All Nations, the Palmarian Catholic Church, the Philippine Independent Church, the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church, the Free Catholic Church, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God and others

In countries with strong Orthodox traditions

In some European countries where Protestantism has never gained much popularity, Orthodox churches (both Greek and Roman) often depict Protestant groups (especially smaller ones) as sects. This can be observed, among others, in Bulgaria, Republic of Macedonia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.

In countries with strong Protestant traditions

The word sect is often use to label groups referred to as cults.

Corresponding words in other European languages

In European languages other than English the corresponding words for 'sect', such as "secte" (French), "secta" (Spanish), "seita" (Portuguese), "sekta" (Polish), "sekt" (Swedish), "sekte" (Dutch), "Sekte" (German) or "szekta" (Hungarian), are used sometimes to refer to a harmful religious or political sect, similar to how English-speakers popularly use the word "cult". In France, since the 1970s, "secte" has a specific meaning, which is very different from the English word.

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