What’s the Difference Between a Cult and an Organized Religion?

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Author: RevAmyELong

Whenever individuals explore and analyze religion, one common, but unfortunate word people use is,‘cult’. Whenever people don’t like religious or spiritual groups, it’s not uncommon to bring up the word ‘cult’, with no real comprehension of the difference those and legitimate organized religions. The reason for this is actually very simple to see.

For example, in the event you fail to follow Christian Biblical concepts strictly, the Christian Protestant Fundamentalists think you a cult. Although they perhaps originally intended that to demean only those Christian denominations that somehow ‘were misguided’, that definition now extends clearly also includes Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, … In fact, because at least 2/3 of the world’s population doesn’t identify with any sort of Christian, almost 70of all of us are therefore ‘members of a cult’.

But, the problem goes even deeper than that. The Protestant fundamentalists have continued to expand their cult list by including Roman Catholics along with all Easter Orthodox faiths, over a disagreement over the number of sacraments there are. By those standards, 93of the people on the planet are involved in cults. To take it 1 step further, they also think most other Christian Protestant groups to have fallen out of compliance with biblical fidelity. So, for these men and women, virtually the only singular group of people on the planet who aren’t in a cult is them!

Whenever different groups examine these extraordinarily strict doctrinal interpretations, they frequently believe that anyone following them has lost all individualized thought, and must therefore be a member of a cult. To much of the rest of the planet, it’s actually these biblically strict, narrow groups who are the true cults. Taken together, that includes everybody. Everyone on the planet is a member of a cult — according to somebody! The Baptists are pointing fingers at the Catholics who are pointing fingers at the Protestants – and everyone is pointing fingers at the Mormons.

Whenever you paint anything with such a broad brush, it’s pointless; as Joey on ‘Friends’ once said, ‘The point is Moo — because who cares what a cow thinks?

So, is there any way to redeem the word, so it can have some meaning of value? The main issue is that those who are creating the definitions are lacking neutrality. They’ve got an agenda. The thing we need is someone else to give us a neutral means to identify a cult — someone without a personal interest in the decision. That individual can be the ‘anthropologist of religion’.

An anthropologist of religion is someone who studies the field of religion from a scientific standpoint. Sometimes they’ve got a particular religion to which they adhere, and other times they don’t. This will make some members from the organized religions rather uncomfortable. If the anthropologist belongs to a religion — any religion — the other people scream ‘bias! bias!’, and everything the anthropologist has to say must be wrong because they’ve got this personal bias.|If it happens that the individual belongs to a particular religion, all the others shout, ‘Bias! Bias! — and ignores anything stated.

If, on the other hand, the anthropologist doesn’t take part in any specific religion, the others scream ‘atheist! atheist!’, and everything this anthropologist says has got to be biased on the fact that they’re simply opposed to all religious beliefs. Drama and accusation aside, how do these neutral parties define cults?

Usually, the majority of them define a cult by using a specific ‘five point system’. The answers to the the following questions will make it clear whether or not the group is a cult.

English: cover of the Photodrama of Creation
English: cover of the Photodrama of Creation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are:

1. Does the group have a charismatic, strong leader (or leaders)

2. Does the group squash individuality as well as independent thought?

3. Is there a denial of intimacy by excluding or alienating friends or relatives?

4. Do they apply financial pressure and abuse for the welfare of the group, even at the personal expense of the adherent?

5. Does the group keep its members separated from their surrounding community?

Even using this approach, the problem is that it still isn’t black and white. If all 5 questions are answered ‘yes’, then it easily qualifies as being a cult. Obviously, if every one of the answers is no, then it’s absolutely NOT a cult. If it were only The hard part is when, as is the case with most groups, the answer is ‘yes’ to a number of questions between those two extremes. you are unlikely to find any solid answers, so the best we can do is really a sort of sliding scale.

It’s always easy to handle to fully grasp with a real-life situation.

One Case Study of a Cult — The People’s Temple. This is the title of the church founded by the Reverend James Warren ‘Jim’ Jones — over nine hundred folks that committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana back in 1978.

Ask yourself those aforementioned five questions:

(a). They had Jones as a leader – strong and charismatic.

(b) they thought as a group and weren’t allowed to have any ideas to call their own.

(c) they ended encouraged strongly to exclude their friends as well as relatives from every aspect of their lives and their church activities.

(d) The members more than tithed, they basically gifted all everything they owned to the church, and were in turn cared for by the church (the group was entirely communist);

(e) When their isolation from the surrounding community began to break down, they relocated to a remote spot inside the jungles of South America.

All five factors had been met, so they clearly were a cult.

A 2nd Case Study – Jehovah’s Witnesses. Founded in the late 1800s by Charles Taze Russell, these are the folks that you are likely to come across when they knock on your door.

Let’s compare them to the same five questions:

(a) They do not have a particular leader, strong or otherwise.

(b) They believe that as a result of independent bible study, everybody will eventually come to the same conclusions that they have.

(c) Witnesses ask people they don’t know as well as relatives to teach what they think they have learned;

(d) While it’s frequently true that Witnesses devote a lot of their time and effort trying to convert others, there does not appear to be any monetary pressure – not any more so than any other church encourages tithing.

(e) It’s their lack of separation from the nearby community that often has them at odds with their neighbors.

They meet none of the criteria. Jehovah’s Witnesses are definitely not a cult.

Bottom Line: determining properly whether a group is a cult is unrelated to their biblical interpretations, and needs to instead be determined by sociological criteria unrelated to the religious position of the group. Whether cults are dangerous or not depends on which cult. Just because it’s a cult, does not make it automatically dangerous, but any one or any thing that discourages independent thought, is ultimately bad for you.

This is an excerpt of 1 lesson (of 30) from the Master of Religious Philosophy course offered through the Universal Life Church Seminary. We have many courses available and each one carries with it a degree at the end of the course.

Article Source: http://www.articlesbase.com/spirituality-articles/whats-the-difference-between-a-cult-and-an-organized-religion-4327524.html

About the Author
Kevin is a student of psychology and spiritual studies and a minister at the Universal Life Church .



  1. This article makes some good points but IMHO places too much faith in the efficacy of anthropology to get it right. The most important issue arguably is not whether the anthropologist is religious or not, but rather, to what extent he or she can reflect upon and critique his or her own anthropological perspective. To suppose that any human enterprise may be entirely objective, IMHO, is misguided.

    Another point – Is there a discrepancy (typo?) between the author listed at top and the one at the bottom?

    You might find this interesting. It’s a bit old and could use an edit, but approaches the topic from a slightly different angle:



  2. We now know that cults do not necessarily need a charismatic leader to be self-sustaining. (Ref. Festinger and later researchers on end-time cults and failed prophecy). Hassan uses the BITE model to describe groups who are using mind control.
    The first confusion comes from using “cult” for two different types of groups. “Cult” could be broadly defined as any new religion that is unorthodox. Before Christianity became orthodox (Nicene Council) it was considered a cult, possibly dangerous to the state religion (worship of Ceasar). With this definition, any religion that starts out as a cult can mature and become mainstream (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses).
    The second use of “cult” is for any group whose practices are harmful to it’s members. A careful term might be “high-control group”. The care and concern for the individual is subsumed in the interest of the group. It might be said that army bootcamp is a sort of cult. The explicit goal is to break down the individual so that they will obey instantly without thought. One might argue that an army is not cultic as recruitment is voluntary and  members may de-enlist (within the guidelines) without social repercussion. It may also be argued that army sargeants want obedient soldiers to keep them from getting killed.
    The Jehovah’s Witnesses does have practices that are harmful to members.


    • Yes, it’s a potentially complicated issue. Or perhaps quite simple. Value judgments usually are made. It reminds me a bit of the issues surrounding the idea of sanity vs. insanity, although with religions and cults we’re talking about social groups instead of individuals.

      Some postmoderns might say it’s all relative. But anyone with a belief in God (including a belief in absolute right and wrong) will probably argue that some kind of discernment must be made.

      Another issue is that, according to current criteria and designations, a recognized religion may have cultic (i.e. dark and dysfunctional) aspects while still enabling churchgoers to receive tax deductions for donations.


  3. Thanks for linking my posts. I tend to lean towards your second definition of a cult, which describes a group that is destructive to it’s members. As I’ve posted on my blog and others, new religions or sects of old ones should be considered “New Religious Movements” because of the negative connotations the word “cult” comes with. This has been the accepted standard among most scholars and cult experts since the 80s.


  4. It is important to understand that we all live by creeds – beliefs. What a group believes is not what makes them a cult. Cults are defined by their behavior – coercive, high demand, etc. Lifton’s book on brainwashing in China is a great starting point for an operational definition of a cult.


  5. Pigsh** article. Barely sourced.

    [vulgarity edited with **. See our “Terms of Use” and “Submissions” pages for more info.—MC]


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