What is the difference between cults and secret societies?

I’m researching cults. And I would like to know the differences between cults and secret societies. At first I thought that sects and secret societies are the same, but they turn out to be different. I just can’t find the differences, that’s why I’m asking this question.

Asker: Melissa, 16 years old


Dear Melissa,

There are, of course, many definitions for cults, but the most commonly used define a cult as a religious organization that you must join. Churches, on the other hand, are religious organizations with a universal ambition that you can be born into, that is, that you can be a member of without ever being asked. (This definition comes from Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1976)).

Secret societies are characterized by the fact that there is a secret, for example of the society itself, of its purpose or of the knowledge it has or believes it has. Of course, many people have a secret that affects their relationship with the outside world. Just think of a man who cheats on his wife. In a secret society, however, the relationship is also internal. The secret determines the relationship between the members and trust between the members is crucial. This concept of secret societies was developed by Georg Simmel (1906).

So a cult can be a secret society, but it doesn’t have to be. Conversely, there are many secret societies that are not cults simply because they are not concerned with the religious. Organized criminal gangs or sexually deviant groups are examples of this.

Simmel, G. (1906). Sociology of secrecy and of secret societies. American Journal of Sociology, 11, 441-498.
Weber, M. (1976). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie (5 ed.). Tubingen: JCB Mohr.

Answered by

prof. Adrianssens Stef

economic sociology

What is the difference between cults and secret societies?

Catholic University of Leuven
Old Market 13 3000 Leuven


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