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What's the Difference Between Religion and a Cult? Is There?

Quick quiz. Are the following the qualities of a religious group or a cult? 
  • A group that demonstrates great zeal and unquestioning commitment to their leader (living or dead). Religion or cult? 
  • Doubt, skepticism, and debate are discouraged and sometimes even punished. Religion or cult? 
  • Current members are always looking to acquire new members and money. Religion or cult? 
  • There's a mentality that there are two kinds of people in the world: this in the group, and everyone else. Religion or cult? 
Tricky, right? Because given some of the notorious things we know or hear about organized religion and, sometimes poorly, organized cults, there's certainly room for overlap. I'll give you a hint, though: the questions I asked above were paraphrased from a checklist entitled "Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups" posted on the Cultic Studies Association's website. Psych!

Still, if you hesitated a moment at any one of the bullet points, you'd realize just how fuzzy that line between religion and cult really is. Especially in a modern world more or less dictated by the mandates of reason, democracy, science, and logic, we've become hyper-aware of any movement, big or small, that might be taking advantage of us by selling us absurdities. We're quick to call something a cult even if it's just a community of likeminded individuals. Those with an axe to grind would like to categorize every religion as a cult to some degree "“ and maybe they're not so far off. And though there might be just a slight distinction between cult and religion, there is one, and it is important to recognize when it gets crossed.  

Cult vs. Religion: Breaking It Down. Sort Of.  

When we look at some of the most infamous cults, those that are widely agreed upon to be so, operating today, we see a pattern start to form. They can be financially exploitative, like Scientology "“ which requires its members to literally buy into the religion at different checkpoints on their road to total faith. They can seek to abduct, by coercion or persuasion, members from their families, like the Moonies (pictured above) "“ who were so effective at encouraging the youth to join their ranks. They can be terrorizing, like the Ku Klux Klan "“ who lynched so many African-Americans in the post-Civil War South and continue to strike fear today in the name of God. It's safe to say that the Islamic State is not just a cult, but a deadly organized crime ring that has deviated so far from the Islam it claims to be practicing that it is inaccurate and offensive to even compare the two.  

But it's important to mention that not all cults are bad cults. Many of them can be characterized by less destructive activities. The cult of Mary, popular in the Middle Ages, was devoted to the worship of Jesus' mother, and done so in conjunction with Christian practice. Their "culthood" mostly involved crafting and sharing pictures of Mary, and meditating on her sacredness. But defining cult becomes much easier once we properly define religion. So a religion is...

Actually, can we pass on this one? Defining religion is thorny, often problematic, and perhaps at its core even unsolvable. The Supreme Court of the United States, even as it so often decrees in favor of plaintiffs claiming their religious rights have been violated, hasn't properly defined religion as such. It also hasn't defined God. Its working idea of it has changed over the years because of external pressure and to conform or react to the cultural climate. 

The BBC has a pretty general, safe definition that goes like this:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

That is a mouthful of a run-on sentence, isn't it? And it's not even that helpful for us in this context. Since 1993, Scientology has been recognized by the United States Internal Revenue Service as an official religion, but is widely agreed to operate more as a cult. It's got a set of core beliefs that help explain the great mystery, it's got superhuman characters, esoteric rituals (e.g. the personality test), and there's a very strict moral guidebook for members to follow. So what makes many outsiders question the validity of Scientology's religious status, denouncing it more as a cult?

 
One of the fancier cults, Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It could be the fact that they've been known to extort, brainwash, and hold hostage the members for material gain or to keep them from abandoning the faith. Yeah, it could be that. Those are criminal activities not normally associated with our idea of religion. Not normally, but it does happen. In hindsight, we gloss over those dark periods of intense violence and warfare in a religion's history as "growing pains."

Now, I know I said the BBC's definition of religion was a little weak, but maybe it's right on point. Maybe our definition doesn't need to be that specific, that excluding. Because, after all, their definition says nothing about waging wars, killing heretics, brainwashing the unenlightened, converting the ignorant, etc. That's really great. You can have a religion that does none of that stuff. Unfortunately, many religions do all those nasty bits. So maybe the problem is not cults parading around like religions, but religions that start to act like cults. That thought's a little complicated, but basically I mean a cult is anything that does or intends to do great financial, mental, or bodily harm to its members, as well as its non-members. What's worse is that these cults can intend to harm without even realizing it, or think that they're actually offering salvation. 

That's the scariest of all: misguided malice.   

Religion Is an Old Cult; and a Cult is a New Religion 

Biography Online put it rather shortly, but still quite pointedly, when they said that "A religion is an old cult. A cult is a new religious movement." This, of course, is an oversimplification of the matter, but it does bring up the fact that time itself is the ultimate judge of a movement's success. Every major monotheistic religion is began, in one way or another, with but a few original members and proponents, as cults do. Abraham supposedly founded Judaism after communicating with God, and his family became the first family to carry that burden. Jesus had twelve apostles who then published his life after his crucifixion. Muhammad started out with a few followers in Mecca early on before gathering an army of over 10,000 men to the city of Medina, which he shortly after conquered. 

And though these figures, with the exception of Jesus Christ, were considered prophets and not deities, they still received a great deal of attention. New members followed them around as they went out preaching the word of God, took over territories that God commanded them to take over, settle on land they were destined to settle on, convert or destroy those people of other faiths. The same three religions have bloody histories of defensive wars but also offensive campaigns they waged with "God on their side." 

In fact, the site Christianity Today wrote something very poignant on their dealing with the topic of cult. They recognized that cult can often be used to describe "a religion whose beliefs differ from the majority around them. In the Roman Empire, Christians were sometimes considered a cult because they worshipped Jesus rather than the Roman gods." This is a hugely important concept, and I'm so thankful this evangelically oriented publication, with a mission to challenge churchly thought, brought it up. The truth is that the definition of a cult, among other things, is very relative. For instance, Christianity was a cult relative to the established order of the day. In a reversal, modern day pagans are criticized for "cultish" ways by now more common religious institutions. Oh how the altar tables have turned.

   
A march in England denouncing an Islamophobic movement, Ian Forsyth / Getty Images News

At the same time, the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) warned that a cult is usually "unorthodox, esoteric, and has a devotion to a person, object, or a set of new ideas." Again, what's unorthodox to one religion is traditional to another, and so on and so forth. This definition doesn't really hold water, because you can see how easily it could be unraveled by asking questions like: how new is too new for ideas? How much devotion is too much devotion to a person? Lots of texts can be esoteric or hard to understand, but that's often because they're dense with meaning and aren't written like Cliff Notes. 

Also, notice how CARM doesn't loop God in on this one. It's only devotion to a person, object, or set of new ideas that raises alarm. God is cool. God is fine. But what about a new God? Not the Jewish, Islamic, or Christian God? But some new-fangled deity like, I don't know, the flying spaghetti monster? The god worshipped by Pastafarians? Is that a cult? Because their system of beliefs is hard to reckon and very, very modern. 

Perhaps a cult is just a corporation masquerading around as a religious movement in order to swindle its "clients" out of their hard-earned dollars. That's certainly true of many of them. Scientology is one of the richest organizations in the world, and owns a buttload of land, businesses, stores, and facilities. 

But make no mistake: even though cults are notorious for picking the pockets of their members, the cost of worship in a "conventional" religious institution isn't free. In 2005, the average cost of membership to a Jewish synagogue in the United States was around $1,100, though could be a multiple of that in metropolitan areas. And the magazine The Forward found that though churches don't customarily require membership dues, voluntary donations equaled or surpassed synagogue dues. Big religion deals in big bucks. Temples, churches, and mosques are some of the best-endowed operations in the world. Their doors are usually open to the poor and destitute, regardless, but attendants often feel obligated (or spiritually compelled) to pay for being there. So can we honestly say that financial exploitation is exclusively an attribute of cults? 

Even organizations with a religious tinge that I've come across that have free services also charge exorbitant fees for add-ons, like talks, speeches, and retreats. And most religious have some kind of alms-giving policy that requires members to donate 10 percent of their earnings out of charity "“ goodwill that can often go straight to the house of worship meant to pass it along to the needy. Now, many, many religious organizations do a lot of good. They host community events, philanthropy initiatives, and interfaith get-togethers. But a lot of them also pay their leaders handsomely, or are so occupied with sustaining their wealth that they continue to feed the pot. 

Walking the Line 

From my own experience interacting with the best examples of religions, I've gathered that though many involve the veneration of a God-figure whom practitioners hold near-and-dear to their hearts, they're really there to bring people together and give them purpose and meaning. They're all about love for biological family, not turning away from it. They're about integrating with the community that surrounds a religion, not running away and hiding from it. They advocate for peace without violence, and trust in a higher power (or even a mundane power) while still managing to function in great society. Religion offers comfort without too much sacrifice, and spiritual gains at very little, if any, material price.    

Cults, on the other hand, are single-minded. There is no sense of outward assimilation with the world. There is only cult and Other. The true nature of religion, in my opinion, is in the giving. This is why it is so common for very religious people to be without worldly possessions, or even to rely on begging. The Buddha was allegedly a beggar, many sects of Christianity were of the mendicant order, meaning their ministers went around preaching Gospel and requesting alms. Cults are not this way. They are more concerned with taking "“ people, things, places, life "“ than in the giving. And what they cannot take by persuasion, they do so by force.    

So it would seem that what really distinguishes a cult from religion, or what twists a religion into cult, is its hostile incompatibility with the world around it. It gets so stuck in its ways, and blindly rejects all challenging voices…like science, for one. Like Feminism, for another. The religion need not necessarily accept other beliefs, nor need it necessarily compromise with these beliefs. But what it can't do is attempt to exterminate them, and those who have them. 

What you'll see is that many of these small cult movements tend to fade away because they cannot or choose not to negotiate with the outside world. Those that do not manage a way to keep in touch with the greater population fail. Those, however, that amass a fortune and following through legitimate or illegitimate means have a much higher chance of making the long haul. And who knows, maybe that's exactly how recognized "religions" grow out of enterprising cults. But in my book, that doesn't entitle them to be called a religion, just a cult with a long history. That would mean religion and cult go hand-in-hand, and are a lot more tied together than religious people would like to admit.    

Will New Religious Movements Be Able to Thrive in Such a Secular World?

A few years ago, WIN-Gallup International performed a massive study into the state of religion, and after surveying 57 countries their findings are at turns intuitive and phenomenal. For instance, the poor on average are more religious than the wealthy. This isn't that surprising considering the emphasis in many religions on poverty, charity, and asceticism. Also, it is no secret that religion can act as a very effective and precious salve for people suffering great hardship. 

But, by and large, the number of people self-identifying as religious dropped by 9 percent between 2005 and 2011. France, Switzerland, Ireland and Vietnam all saw double digit declines in their country's religiosity. A study published in 2014 found that education and religiosity actually move in opposite directions: the more years of education someone has, the less likely they are to attend their respective house of worship. It was a cause, and not just a correlation. And with this current generation of Millennials on their way to becoming the most educated generation ever, that could spell disaster for religion.

Though many would argue it's not a recent phenomenon, and they'd be right. The global decline in religiosity started in the interwar period, and continued onward. In post-World War II America, religion was up against some unfavorable circumstances. After globalization brought everyone a bit closer together, even if it was to squash a fascist uprising, the final frontier had been crossed, and the unknowns became known. The development and eventual dropping of the atom bomb challenged many people's faith in a kind and good creator. The Civil Rights and Feminist movements in the 60s and 70s also had a profound impact on religious orthodoxy, and shook up the whole scene. 

The world's superpowers had to reconstruct, but were also becoming ever stronger. Democracy and freedom from oppression, any kind of oppression, was on everyone's minds. Today what's on people's minds is technology, so much so that there are actually two new world religions that explicitly dedicate their practice to worshiping it. Three years ago, Switzerland officially recognized a new religion known as Kopimism, whose followers pray before data as if it were manna from heaven. Information data. The stuff that transmits from your server to another server, and which you can intercept through Google. Some say this is just a ploy the movement uses in order to pirate media without fear of government intervention. Yeah, sounds likely. But still, it's a religion.

 
Forgive me, Skype, for I have sexted, David Ramos / Getty Images News

Syntheism, another freshman religion, holds as one of its principal tenets that the Internet is the God of the day. And I don't know about you, but I've often mentioned the two in the same breath before. I've never gotten down on my knees and prayed before my router box, but I also haven't ever done that for any other god either. But at the same time, I'm not dismissing Syntheism's belief outright. After all, the Internet is pretty awesome "“ kind of like how people say God is awesome. It's virtually invisible, it's the pathway to profound knowledge, it's potentially infinite and all-knowing, and it's there even when we go to sleep at night, working away by some mysterious magic. Sounds a little god-like to me. 

Religions thrive on a necessary degree of the unknown. Even the explanations to cosmic happenings, like the beginning of the universe, the floods, etc., were explained by the grace of God. Today, there are still inexplicable mysteries, but there's also more access to so many more potential answers. That's not to say that there's no place in modern society for religion. But perhaps it just needs to get refocused. We still arguably don't know why we're here, even though how we got here is less unclear. As more answers start filing in, and today's youngsters are able to reach them in lightning speed, religions will need to propose new questions without answers to stay relevant. Cults will find it harder and harder to mystify their newcomers, and fanatics will lose touch with their fellow extremists. 

But it's no great wonder why the Internet is capturing the same kind of attention religion once did. It holds the key to unlocking all our questions, while being itself the biggest question of them all: where the heck is this thing taking us?