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

Came up in this thread.

Is “cult” just an epithet for a religion you don’t like, or does it have some definite defining characteristics?

If the latter, is “cult” a subset of “religion,” or something fundamentally different?

The extensive wikipeidia article handles this quite well, I think:

Sounds like it’s in the eye of the beholder.

The cynic in me says that for purposes of law enforcement and politics, it’s a hundred years, a hundred thousand adherents, or a war chest of a hundred million dollars – whichever comes first.

There are four general meanings of the word cult as it is used in American English.

  1. as a direct cognate translation of the Latin cultus, meaning any well-organized set of religious beliefs.* In this sense, the various sects and denominations of Christianity and Islam could each be called cults.

  2. any religious group with a strong connection to a living or recently-deceased leader. In this case the LDS could be called a cult up until the death of Brigham Young, at which point the direct connection to Joseph Smith was broken. (On the other hand, Christianity would be a cult of Jesus, in this sense, until the death of the first generation of Apostles. Woudn’t this definition irk some fundies?)

  3. a nominally religious-based group enforcing control over all aspects of the lives of its adherents in the manner described in the previous posts.

  4. any religious group opposed by various fundie groups.
    *Because of #4 and #3, the RCC gets in trouble every once in a while when some idiotic translator does a word-for-word substitution from some Latin document and the church appears to be accusing Judaism or the Orthodox Christians of being mind-control experts. Given the popular meaning that adheres to the word, I think the translations are bad, but if one is reading one of those documents, it should be noted that the RCC includes itself in the definition–and that formal documents use meaning #1.

Isn’t a cult some kind of society, while people all over the world can share a religion without any other ties to each other?

That was before the internet. :slight_smile:

Oh, cool. That means I’m old school. Kids these days.

The definition does seem to vary from person to person, so here’s mine. You look at a religion like, say, Catholicism, there’s a hard core of fanatics/near fanatics; a large number of dedicated but not fanatical people; and a much larger group who’s Catholicism is part of their background, but not life-defining. People who are Catholic because that’s how they are raised, or their friends and family all are; that sort of thing. The sort of people who go to church, but will ignore the Pope if their kid is gay, or use condoms when they don’t want kids.

OTOH, cults consist of the fanatic hard core and little else. If the Pope were to order all Catholics to drink poison, I’m sure some would; the vast majority would’nt even consider obeying. We’ve seen cults do just that, with the few who won’t being killed.

Most of the time, for casual purposes, it seems to me to mean “a religion I don’t personally like.” I agree with tomndebb’s summary, but in conversational usage, I think people use it pejoratively to mean something like #3, even when the religion in question is not in fact really like that–because they just don’t like whatever belief it is.

A “real” cult–something that actually merits the pejorative sense people generally assign it–would be something like the Heaven’s Gate people, where members are routinely cut off from all others, controlled in just about every aspect of their lives.

But true brainwashing is IMO not all that common; people just like to throw words like cult and brainwashed around. It dilutes the true meaning of the terms quite a bit.

That would include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists, from what I’ve heard. Even though most of us think of those as “religions” when we think of them at all.

I’ve also heard the term applied to organizations/movements that are not “religious” in the usual sense, such as the LaRouchies. (Where does the man get his followers?!)

OTOH, curiously, even an organization of secular origin sometimes can evolve into a definitely religious cult. See Synanon.

Well for it’s first 300 years Christianity was devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture or society considers to be far outside the mainstream.
It still is in some places.

I would have to study the denominations in question before I could say whether I personally think they really qualify as #3 cults. However, the SDA’s I’ve known have seemed like nice enough people, with outside friends and normal work patterns.

As a Mormon myself, I don’t think we are a #3 cult, obviously. People who don’t know Mormons well tend to think of us as thinking in lockstep, but anyone who knows us will realize it’s more like herding cats.

One fairly neutral definition I’ve heard is that a cult is an organization that depends on converting people to its ranks for the majority of its membership. Once an organization is established enough that the majority of its members were born into it, then it’s no longer a cult.

I always figured in common usage “cult” implies small, insular, and odd. “Dangerous” can also be included, depending on the cult. “Religions” rise above by virtue of being bigger and sufficiently mainstream as to appear “normal”.

Not really. If it had been “far” outsider the mainstream, there would have been too few adherents for Constantine to bother legalizing it, much less making it the official imperial religion. It started out small, but it grew pretty constantly throughout those first 300 years.

It has always been a Definition #1 cult and it was probably a Definition #2 cult until the end of the first century. By then, there were no longer any surviving Apostles and even the number of persons who had personally known an Apostle were dwindling to a handful.


I’ve always used the english word “cult” to describe a religious group that has several of the following characteristics:

  • encourages you to cut ties with friends and family
  • encourages you to hand over any financial assets to the organization
  • discourages any criticism of the group’s leader(s)
  • demands unquestioning obedience from the group’s leader(s)
  • worship services or creed are kept hidden or obfuscated from the general public

e.g. the Peoples Temple church (under the leadership of Jim Jones), the Branch Davidians (under the leadership of David Koresh), etc.

The cult checklist article at wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_checklist ) is more detailed on the subject.

Eek! Sounds like a place I used to work.

Was that before or after Ross sold it to GM?