What is the difference between a religion and a cult? Let’s explore the differences.
Every Major Religion is a Popular Cult
Is the only difference between what people call religion, and a cult is the size of its membership? What are the things we could use to measure to quantify the difference? How about its monetary and real estate holdings and their contribution to society?
Are religions and cults names at the opposite ends of a continuum of resources? Or are there other more meaningful ways to distinguish between them? Here are how some other thinkers see it.
“The only differences between a cult and a religion are the numbers of adherents and the degree to which they are marginalized by the rest of society.” — Sam Harris
Could the measure of a healthy religion be how it treats those who aren’t members? That would disqualify all those who promote genocide and ethnic cleansing, and religious persecution. The fact is the three largest religions all use these tactics to justify holy wars.
“The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.” — Frank Zappa
If wealth is the standard between cult and religion, the Catholic Church is the winner. It has holdings of land, precious metals, and art that comprise perhaps 30% of the total wealth on the planet. They have their own country/state, the Vatican.
“A one-sentence definition of mythology? Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion.” – Joseph Campbell
“A delusion held by one person is a mental illness, held by a few is a cult, held by many is a religion.” — Robert Todd Carroll
“A cult is a religion with no political power.” — Tom Wolfe
A dominant religion translates directly to political power because it can program the dominant cultural narrative. It’s the reason politicians campaign as a member of a religion. People vote for other people who have the same imaginary friend because that’s what is important in determining leadership.
“I would say that Jesus Christ and his followers were a cult, Buddha and his followers were a cult, and Mohammed and his followers were a cult. Every religion starts out as a cult and if it becomes ‘box office’, it is accepted.” — Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell
“The difference between a cult and a religion is one outlasts its leader. — Rakesh Khurana
The Similarity Between Cults and Religions
So, what are the main similarities between a cult and a religion? Most have five elements in common:
1. A unique philosophy or ideology that they can call their brand
2. Beliefs about the origins of the universe
3. Ideas about what happens after you die
4. Rules to align their beliefs with their social bias and prejudices
5. The requirement to support the system with time and money
Religions and most cults focus on after-beliefs. They capitalize on our natural fear of death, our existential fear. First, they ramp up the fear of death by creating a place of eternal punishment in Hell.
But then they provide the solution, a beautiful eternal existence in Heaven. Of course, there is a small price for this solution. You must remain in “good standing,” which takes ten percent of everything your earn and own. And you must attend regular meetings to submit to continued indoctrination so that you can be used as a social and political tool.
Every cult has its version of how this process of “salvation” works. It’s all about God sending you to a place of eternal torment unless you comply. Understand that if someone threatens you unless you pay a toll or ransom, this is actually extortion, not salvation. The same God that is saving you is the one threatening you with unspeakable torture.
“The profoundly cynical premise of all religionists is that people are not capable of behaving decently toward one another unless they are lured with promises of pie in the sky and simultaneously terrorized by the threats of extreme nastiness in the eternal afterlife in hell.” — Barbara G. Walker
Both the popular cult and unpopular religion have a basis in superstition and mythology. Both have doctrines and dogma. The most popular beliefs all have some divinely inspired texts. But texts also contain multiple inconsistencies. These contradictions require explanations. So, hire salespeople, which they call preachers and priests, to help sort out the confusion.
The dilemma of textual inconsistency also provides an excellent financial opportunity. Since there are inconsistencies, you can cherry-pick parts of their holy texts to create a new religion. These inconsistencies lead to the growth of different denominations.
Today there are over 6,000 major gods and 200,000 sub-classifications of religions (1), from one to several hundred imaginary friends. Christianity alone now sports 33,000 sects. If you belong to one sect of the Abrahamic tree, all the other belief systems are a cult or unpopular religion. Of the 8 billion people on Earth, 4 billion belong to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. These are Semitic or Abrahamic religions (2).
If you ask the Abrahamic religions’ devotees if they think their faith is a popular cult, they would say no. If you ask them if other religions are cults, they answer yes, including all other faiths. Any different interpretation is a threat to their version.
“You can’t use reason to convince anyone out of an argument that they didn’t use reason to get into.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
It is possible to change the mind of some believers, but it takes a considerable investment of time and effort—months, sometimes years. We have had good results with a method we call the unconventional approach. To present evidence that contradicts their dogma, one must first be accepted into the group.
Gaining acceptance means you’ll need to pretend along with them for a while. Some hardline believers can become your best allies for truth once you get them to overcome their negative programming.
A Cult is an Unpopular Religion
What is a cult? It’s a group of people that embrace beliefs regarded by others as outlandish, strange, sinister, or evil. Of course, all of the Western religions fit this criterion. What could be more extreme than eating the flesh and drinking the blood of your imaginary friend?
Their excessive admiration for a particular person or extremist views distinguishes them from the norm. As more and more religions become extreme in their opinions, they morph into cult-like attributes and behaviors.
“It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” — Robert A. Heinlein
The characteristics of a religion and a cult are virtually the same. The only distinction is the size of its resources, human and monetary. You can see why people conclude religion is a popular cult.
If you are a believer, then an unpopular religion is any other religion than your own.
“For this remains as I have already pointed out the essential difference between the two religions of decadence: Buddhism promises nothing, but actually fulfills; Christianity promises everything but fulfills nothing.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“Systems of religious error have been adopted in times of ignorance. It has been the interest of tyrannical kings, popes, and prelates to maintain these errors. When the clouds of ignorance began to vanish, and the people grew more enlightened, there was no other way to keep them in error but to prohibit their altering their religious opinions by severe persecuting laws. In this way, persecution became general throughout Europe.” — Oliver Ellsworth
“Religion is misunderstood mythology.” — Joseph Campbell
Any cult can become a full-fledged popular faith with the proper charismatic leadership. As a cult becomes more widespread, it grows into a religion. As it gains broader acceptance, it also gains more power to shape and influence the culture.
Unfortunately, most people do not choose their religious beliefs. They are born into them and are victims of forced indoctrination. People in crisis are also susceptible targets for indoctrination. When you are in crisis, you will accept easy answers.
All it takes is believing what they tell you. Most people don’t choose a religion because they have researched the system’s accuracy or validity. It is an emotional decision based on social pressure and popularity. It doesn’t matter if it is a fashionable cult or unpopular religion. Proximity makes converts of the young and the vulnerable.
Religions are more vulnerable than ever. Imaginary friends and enemies are increasingly undefendable in the world of science and reason, which is increasing.
“Gods are fragile things; they may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense. They thrive on servility and shrink before independence. They feed upon worship as kings do upon flattery. That is why the cry of gods at all times is “Worship us, or we perish.” A dethroned monarch may retain some of his human dignity while driving a taxi for a living. But a god without his thunderbolt is a poor object.” ― Chapman Cohen
The Opposite of Joining a Religion or a Cult
Organized religion shows how it exerts its control over society by labeling and “demonizing” opposing worldviews. If you don’t belong to their religion, you are given some labels to describe your position “in reference to” their religion. You are a heathen which means someone who doesn’t follow their religion. So, it follows suit that they refer to you as a pagan, infidel, or idolator. Because obviously, if you don’t follow their religion, you worship idols or imaginary enemies they call devils.
Or, worse yet, you can be labeled a heretic, a person practicing what they call heresy, an opinion that ignores and opposes their beliefs. How dare you do that? Speaking ill of their God is blasphemy because using such language offends their imaginary friend.
Today the term for unbelievers and non-followers is Athiest, which means “without God.”
This terminology is intended to demonize anyone or anything that says anything bad about their beliefs. The opposite of religion isn’t someone without God, but rather a freethinker who walks their own spiritual path. It doesn’t mean without spirituality, but without counterfeit spirituality of organized religion. Joseph Campbell calls this adventure the Hero’s Journey. (3)
You don’t need a religion. All you need are the proper tools to assist you in this quest. Here’s a simple list of resources that can help propel your spiritual walk without religion.
Spiritual exploration does not require belief in any set or form of mythology or dogma. For that reason, practicing these tools is often referred to as a “path.” The goal of this path is to explore consciousness. What you believe does matter. Your beliefs have consequences.
A Religion is a cult with social mass and popularity. So, conversely, a popular cult is, therefore, a religion. The problem is when you immerse yourself in the groupthink manipulation, you can’t see the differences. It’s a slippery slope that leads to extremist bias and religious prejudice. So, you can’t see cult-like thinking, values, and behaviors; then, you are probably in one.
(1) World Religions By Population, Wikipedia
(2) Abrahamic Religions, Wikipedia
(3) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia