What's the difference between a cult and a religion?

Or, more specifically, why has an off-shoot of Judaism based on the preachings of one man survived two thousand years whilst modern-day cults are dismissed by the majority of the population as untrustworthy, dangerous groups?

What was it about Christianity (or any belief system) that changed it from a cult to a full-blown religion?

I think one of the marks of a cult would be that they keep their members away from others who don’t believe the same way, to avoid their friends getting them out of it.
Christians hang out with non christians all the time.

I don’t think there is a difference, other than one of semantics, and connotations. If you don’t like a set of belies, it gets labeled a cult. If you do, it gets the more neutral term, “religion”.

christianity got a BIG boost when constantine decided to join. christianity got kind of PAGANIZED in the process too.

a cult is an unpopular religion and a religion is a popular cult. cults are more chic tho.

Dal Timgar


Well, in Christianity’s case, Constantine’s Edict of toleration made it legal and lifted from hidden cult status.

Generally, the word “cult” is used to to describe an unorthodox or spurious religion. Generally, when a cult gets a sufficiently large number of adherents, it starts being called a religion.

The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints had all the markings of a cult (messianic leader being the voice of God, secret rituals, total domination of a believer’s waking hours)when it was founded by Joseph Smith. One hundred and sixty years later and millions of followers stronger, nobody would dare call it a cult, although it still has the same cult-like characterisitcs.

The same goes for Scientology. While it is clearly a crackpot cult started by a total loon, it has gained a degree of respect, or even fear, in the public eye, especially since so many showbiz folk are members.

A cult becomes a religion when its members achieve enough political influence to oppress other cults.

Well, sure they do, now that they have, as WiredGuy pointed out, numerous members. Back when they were a considerable minority this wasn’t always the case.

Your religion is a cult. My cult is a religion.

I define cult as personality cult (cult of personality) and a religion as set of meanings or principles (however effective or valid they may or may not be). However, most religions today are both and most cults to today are both, but they emphasize their differences. Religion was coined back in pagan times when people identified with a particular god, one for each personality type. Then, somehow (not entirely a mystery how), religion entered into the reality zone and people found it convenient to follow a real person. Keep in mind that primitive religion has no expression for the “soul” as we know it to be today. The Egyptians had a “Ka” or “Ku” which was a lifeforce, but this common idea was augmented after Plato’s philosophical development of essence, which can be translated religiously to mean “soul” or spirit, but which was “merely” an idea or ideal form to him.

To rephrase what I’m saying: In the very old times of religion, as it proceeded from animism, the gods were “real” but were merely inaccessible or hiding with their powers (clouds, caves, sea-bottom, etc). The pre-ancient articulation of the divine realm was always reality, which flowed from the old pagan idea that earth is the divine realm. But when reality became so evident and explainable, and explorable, and philosophers wondered if any assertion could be made about the divine realm, there was a failure looming on the horizon. These powers were then quickly adjusted, and soon delegated by certain popular religious people who knew the solution to be spiritual in nature, and the idea of spirit was actualized to be real, even though it is problematic as such. Excellent question.

This site also has some suggestions about how to tell if a “cult” is detrimental to the wellbeing of those who are involved in it.

I do not agree with everything Mr. Bonewitz has to say (and I certainly don’t agree with his choice of color scheme) but presumably “cults” are likely to score higher on this chart, and “religions” lower.

But not necessarily.

As for how Christianity came to get past the cult label…I dunno. I think other people in this thread covered that pretty well.

So how does the word “sect” fit into this debate?

Cecil has covered Why Christianity is so popular.

a sect is a subcult.

A sect is a sub-category of a religion. The Hasidim are a
Jewish sect; all Hasidim are Jews, but not all Jews are Hasidim. Ditto for Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and so forth; they are all different sects of the same religion.
(To Fundies: yes, Catholics are Christians, too)Sects all agree on the important points of a religion, but they quibble over the forms of worship. For example, all Christians believe that salvation from sin comes from personal faith in Jesus Christ as the one and only Lord and Savior. However, some sects venerate saints, others do not; some sects believe in decorating the altar, others prefer it bare, and so on.

Then you get your heretical sects, which borrow some of the forms of the parent religion but deny or alter the central tenets of faith. The Mormons, for example, are heretics becaue they deny that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten son
of God who died for the sins of the world. Now, the Mormons believe that they are the True Restored Chrurch and everone else beleives in false teachings. So the definiton of heretic depends on your own POV.

However, since there is no God, you’re all wrong! :slight_smile:

[slight hijack]
Actually, goboy, we nutty Mormons do believe that Jesus Christ is the Only-Begotten son of God who died for the sins of the world.
[/slight hijack]

From what I’ve seen, one group calling another a cult just means “you don’t agree with me.” I’ve seen Catholics called a cult, etc. The original meaning has been so diluted that it is simply a polemic, used to provoke an emotional response rather than convey any meaning.

Goboy, thanks for giving me the chance to, for once, agree with emarkp. Mormons are nutty for Jesus. I am an exmo and deny most claims of Mormonism outright for logical reasons (not for another dogma), even the parts about Jesus being divine. Mormons do actually have way too much extra spit for Christ, even though it is not kosher with the vapid Pat and Jerry show. I was raised as a Mormon to believe Jesus was my inner friend and advocate against the world, but I am the wiser now. Bear in mind, please, that Christianity struggled violently with its dogma in the early days and church courtyards flowed with blood in Antioch and Alexandria and elsewhere over these minor issues by intra-Christian mob battles. Devout Christians have since been systematically tortured and murdered for slight dogmatic differences that they had the nerve to suggest out loud. (How dare they venture to form an opinion about religion!) Nevermind that the Cathari were nearly annihilated, women and children, by fellow Christians over issues never outlined in scripture, perhaps issues that were so small to be merely the belief in a holy grail.

I think that “cult” implies something that grows, from a belief that must spread itself–a revolution. Religion, from the Latin re-ligare, or to “re-bind” implies a refreshed bond with something basic to all. That something, according to the word usage at the time, would likely have been what we now think of Nature-at-large, including other humans and human nature, and all the unseen forces associated with it. It never meant to divide, demonize, avoid, separate, polarize, resist, or defeat anything, which is a notion that montheism is founded on (even defeating death itself, the ultimate triumph over nature).

My smart-ass answer: the difference between a cult and a religion is the difference between a novel and a classic. A novel becomes a classic if enough people keep reading it and getting other people to read it and passing it down. Other novels may have been written at the same time, but if people stop reading them, they are forgotten; they die out.

A religion is a cult that survived.

That’s not what your church teaches. The orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus died to atone for the sins of mankind and that salvation from hell comes only through faith in Him. The LDS, on the other hand, teaches that there are different levels of salvation, and that one may be saved by works.

In addition, the Mormon and Christian views of the nature of Jesus are different.
Joseph Smith said, ‘I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit; and these three
constitute…three Gods’ (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pg. 474)

Jesus is the literal spirit-brother of Lucifer,a creation. (Gospel Through the Ages, p. 15)

Now, I don’t believe in any religion, so I have no bias for or against the Mormons. But you can’t say that you and the rest of the Christian world believe the same things.

Besides a little brainwashing, not much.