Cults (and Religions)

Image via Z_D_ at Tumblr

Cults and Religions – What’s the difference?

Many debate the differences between religion and cults. Some say there’s no difference. In other words, religions are cults and cults are religions. But this kind of thinking arguably doesn’t do justice to the complexities of faith and the supernatural.

One difference seems to be that, in a cult, a charismatic leader is undeservedly glorified. Some say that this would make Abraham, Jesus Christ, Mohammad, Buddha and Mahavira cult leaders. But cults also display a relatively short longevity (after the leader dies, the cult dwindles away). This didn’t happen in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Jainism. So they can’t be called cults by that standard.

Another difference is that cults typically isolate new members from their families and unbelievers. Religions tend to be less drastic, with most (not all, mind you) accepting interfaith relationships.

Steven Hassan, an expert on cults, says

Since all destructive cults believe that the ends justify the means, they believe themselves to be above the law. As long as they believe that what they are doing is “right” and “just,” many of them think nothing of lying, stealing, cheating, or unethically using mind control to accomplish their ends. They violate, in the most profound and fundamental way, the civil liberties of the people they recruit. They turn unsuspecting people into slaves. ¹

Others say the difference between religions and cults is a matter of degree, especially with those religions and cults that attract, institutionally legitimize and reproduce authoritarian personality types and the legalistic beliefs and structured practices that these individuals participate in.

In these instances, religious or cultic affiliation apparently provides a convenient means for the psychologically immature to overlook unresolved emotional issues. Accordingly, some critics of religion maintain that religious affiliation provides a safe but essentially cowardly means for unleashing centuries of culturally and perhaps genetically inherited anger onto those who don’t wish to sacrifice their free will to the dictates of an institution.  These critics say that most religious institutions must incorporate (or reject) new developments within the context of their limiting teachings and traditions.

This too, seems somewhat simplistic. For religious believers will often say they are fully choosing to cooperate with God’s will as progressively revealed to them within their particular religious organization. Apparently there’s a richness in their spiritual life that the secular critics just don’t get. And individuals belonging to orgqanizations seen by outsiders as cults often say the same thing. “You don’t understand…”

This can make it difficult to tell the difference between a religion and a cult. Meanwhile, many new religions are cropping up. And some say they’re nothing more than cheap covers created by creepy masterminds aiming to get tax breaks on donations made by gullible believers.

When in doubt, draw a chart

One of the definitions for “cult” in Merriam-Websters dictionary is: “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents.”

The following chart compares some of the main beliefs and practices found within religions and cults. This is not the final word. The items in each column don’t universally apply and many of the distinctions made in this chart are debatable. In keeping with the classical sociologist Max Weber, however, this chart offers ideal types.

Ideal types are generalized constructs. They don’t provide precise definitions and they’re not comprehensive. But they are thought-provoking. And that’s their main purpose.



  • Glorification of God (or for Pagans,gods/goddesses, often said to be different manifestations of God)
  • Revealed truth claims
  • Prophecy, especially but not necessarily in the past
  • Primacy of Love (for God and neighbor)
  • Heavenly, cosmic and/or social justice
  • Emphasis on freedom and free choice to humbly cooperate with a divine plan
  • Emphasis on God’s mercy
  • Inherent human dignity
  • Life a priceless gift from God
  • Human beings created slightly lower than angels (Catholicism)


  • Glorification of charismatic leader holding a particular theory about truth and demanding absolute loyalty to themselves and organization
  • Revealed truth claims
  • Prophecy
  • Primacy of cult’s survival (unless group is suicidal, in which case it survives in another world or cosmic plane)
  • Emphasis on blind obedience
  • May emphasize punishment and/or impending doom
  • Human beings inferior or underdeveloped compared to cosmic entity or entities embodied or mediated by leader


  • Officiated by priests, pastors, ministers,rabbis, imams, or equivalent (may or may not be hierarchical)
  • Use of a sacred text(s) describing moral truths and often archaic cosmology
  • Usually congregate at specific buildings (e.g.temple, mosque, church)
  • Often involves rites, sacraments, or festivals
  • May involve worldly sacrifice for spiritual causes and rewards
  • Group and private prayer
  • Mystical but not magical component (except Pagans often say “‘white magic” is religious)
  • Messages from a single leader, possibly disseminated by an inner circle
  • Use of text(s) describing truth, often with an abundance of hard-to-prove cosmic theories (e.g.Earth was seeded by aliens)
  • Based on an extreme scenario (e.g. world is”evil” or “primitive”)
  • May involve orgiastic ceremonies, chanting,dancing, and mind-altering substances
  • Involves worldly sacrifice for spiritual causes and rewards
  • Group or private prayer to the leader or the being/energy he or she allegedly embodies (e.g.aliens, wise eternals, etc.)


  • Missionary work and potential converts welcomed(except in traditional Hinduism, where one can only be born a Hindu)
  • Limited theological debate permitted
  • Pilgrimage (essential, advantageous, or accepted)
  • Actively concerned with social betterment, charity and building a community of believers
  • Involves almsgiving and donations for missionary activity
  • Pedagogy, scholarship, scripture reading, cultural and artistic events
  • Clearly proscribed ethical guidelines
  • Economic support through members
  • Meditation, contemplation, prayer
  • Unethical recruitment style, including deception and false promises
  • Discussion and democratic change forbidden–critical outsiders “don’t understand”
  • Members exploited for free or inexpensive labor
  • Separated from the outside world
  • Previous family ties severed
  • Members adopt new names and family identity
  • Manipulation of members’ emotions, hopes and dreams
  • Often ruthless methods of control
  • Selling of magical elixirs and/or ill-founded philosophies
  • Leader coldly views recruits as”investments” instead of free human beings
  • Subtle or aggressive brainwashing

Ideal Attitude

  • Loving God and others
  • Avoidance of selfishness
  • Humility
  • Enhancement of individuality (except for some Hindu and Buddhist meditative ideals of negating individuality in Brahman or Nirvana, respectively)
  • Loving obedience to leader and cause
  • Psychological and financial dependency
  • Possibility of arrogance (i.e. “we know best”)
  • Loss of individuality


  • Organization continues and often grows after death of founder (Weber calls this the ‘routinization of charisma’ but this overlooks the idea that genuine Spirit may continue to inform and inspire a religious community throughout the course of history)
  • Finances usually or partially open to public scrutiny (e.g. figures are posted in Catholic parish bulletins but the Vatican Bank isn’t open to public scrutiny)
  • Violence condoned in extreme situations (e.g. The Just War)
  • Organization usually has relatively short longevity-dwindles after death of founder
  • Finances concealed
  • Sometimes former members speak of a cult’s alleged use of scare tactics through financial or physical threats
Above chart elaborates on many sources, including Gregg Stebben’s Everything You Need to Know About Religion (The Pocket Professor, Denis Boyles ed., New York: Pocket Books, 1999: 25-26).

¹ Steven Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control, Rochester: Park Street Press, 1988, p. 36.

Related Posts » Aliens, “Religion and Cults


One comment

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.