Sect in Religion: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

With such a variety of religious views in the world, what characteristics do sects share in common? We will look at what differentiates a sect from the larger religious tradition, and why members of a sect separate themselves in this way.

Definition of Sect in Religion

In sociology, a sect is the name given to a group of people who break away from a larger, established religious denomination, or movement, because of a set of beliefs that differ in some key ways. While many views and practices of a sect will overlap with those of the larger group, other beliefs will be distinct enough to warrant a schism, or division between the groups.

If you imagine that a religion is like a town, then a denomination or religious movement is like an established neighborhood within a town. A sect is like a block of people within a neighborhood that decides to break off on its own.

Using this comparison, imagine that in your neighborhood most people play loud music at all times of night, and you decide that enough is enough. You speak up that there should be a cut-off time for loud music and gather a few like-minded people who agree. Although the majority of people in your neighborhood (the denomination or movement) continues to play music during all hours, your group (a sect) separates itself and agrees to turn music down at night. Everyone still agrees that music is important to life and can be played during the daytime, but your group differs dramatically about the issue of music at night.

For sects that break away, the issues are much more serious than music waking them up at night. The areas of concern relate to topics of religious importance, such as the very meaning of life and the expectations of a higher power.

Catholicism is an example of a denomination of the Christian religion. It shares some overarching beliefs with other Christian denominations but has its own beliefs, traditions and rituals as well. An example of a sect within Catholicism is the Community of the Lady of All Peoples, also know as the Army of Mary. This group's beliefs depart from the official doctrine of the church.

Catholicism is a denomination of Christianity, and the Army of Mary is a sect that has broken off from Catholicism
A Catholic church

The Idea of One True Religion

Unless speaking of India or other areas where a diverse range of religious sects is part of the culture, the term sect in Western society is often associated with negative qualities. This is largely because sects hold a minority point of view and have beliefs that are not widely accepted by society.

Both sides of a schism may be critical of one another. The denomination may accuse the sect of deviating from key religious beliefs, which is known as heresy. For instance, in the case of the Army of Mary, the Catholic church described the sect as 'heretical'. Likewise, a sect can accuse a denomination of heresy. Yet here you might wonder: if the sect is the group that is breaking away, why do they accuse the denomination of heresy?

Members of a sect often feel they are representing the one true version of the religion, with beliefs and practices that they feel better match the original intent of the faith. In our example of the neighborhood, let's imagine that your town values harmony and peace. Your group of like-minded people might feel that loud music breaks with this set of beliefs by being disturbing. Quieter nights seem to your group (your sect) to be better aligned with the original intent of your community (your religion). In your view, turning down music by 9pm is the only right way to live.

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