John S Wilkins’ piece on Religions, cults and wacos reproduces a couple of cartoons from Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur which make an amusing and important point about the various levels of respect accorded to different words for superstitious belief systems.
There is some attempt in the comments following Wilkins’ post to explore more seriously what these terms actually mean, but it is largely immaterial to the main point of the piece.
For the most part, when re-inventing common words as technical terms, be it in mathematics or sociology, we are free to do as we will. There is no problem with differences so long as each party makes clear what their terms mean, and none can claim to be more “right” than another unless both agree to work within the conventions of some academic body or discipline. Absent that context, I would opt for traditional usages rather than give in to the ignorant abuses of the 20th century (which would for example have activists rather than cops “flaunting” their authority at a demonstration/riot). In that spirit I would suggest that a “cult” often refers to a practice or belief which is not necessarily exclusive (eg cult of the virgin mary is compatible with cult of john the baptist, cult of the little princess, or cult of the nazarene). A “sect” on the other hand, as suggested by the etymology, should refer to a subset or section of a larger group – and it is far more likely to be exclusive. Typically (at least until the language got butchered – and even then the distinction was more subtle than absolute) we follow, practice, or participate in a cult, but belong to a sect.
Of course the word that really matters is “religion” since that is the one which is most likely to scandalously command special treatment in the law. And actually, for legal purposes, I would be less scandalized by the special treatment of “religions” if they were objectively defined – perhaps even exactly as described in the cartoons.