“What is the difference between a religion and a cult?”
Exploring this question necessitates wrestling with the usages of both the words “religion” and “cult”. Agreement on these usages is rightfully difficult because they are both loaded words — they are both abstractions. Abstractions are words packed with hidden agendas. I have written much on the usage of the word “religion” here, but here I will explore the uses of the word “cult” in English.
“Cult”, in Latin, means “to worship or to adore something”. In the academic field of religious studies, it means something very different, and in common language, something different again. In fact most people carry different nuances of this word in their heads depending on their views of religions and experiences in life.
My diagram to the right shows some of the common ideas, feelings and notions that have come to adhere to the word “cult” in the last hundred years as people have used the word in their various agendas. Note that any given speaker holds a different set of these nuances for their word usage, thus making “cult” similar to other slippery abstractions. Abstractions are rhetorical methods used to speak quickly about something two people agree on, or to hide sneak nuance into a conversation, like a Trojan Horse, to manipulate the listeners. (see my post on abstractions here)
Below I made a google ngram chart of the word “cult”. The this n-gram time line, I have shown you when certain cults appeared to illustrate the faddish element in this term.
The pejorative word “cult” appears to be on the rise! Hated groups are often labeled cults until they become part of mainstream or, as Zappa said, until they “…own more real estate”. Indeed Christianity itself began as a cult — one of several competing messianic sects. Mormonism is no longer labelled as a cult but, perhaps only due to its numbers and influence, has reached some acceptability — as Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential candidacy showed.
So, as to not trick ourselves and others, I propose that we avoid using the word “cult”. Avoiding it, will help us better understand other groups — we can still dislike the other group perhaps, but we may better understand the shared mechanisms between them and ourselves. “Cult” may bias our opinions towards some groups, while letting us forget the weird, dangerous components of socially acceptable groups which we ourselves below to.
“Sect” is another terms like “cult” — originally a neutral description but later to have pejorative flavors. Below is another ngram showing the frequency of these terms along with the more respectable word “denomination”.
Definitions abound for the difference between these terms. It is important to understand that all such definitions are contrived (see my post on “The Myth of Definitions“).
In my diagram below I took a stab at illustrating the different ways these terms are used.
Certainly some groups are more dangerous than others — call them sects, cults, denominations or religions. But instead of joining in the labelling game, a better strategy is to simply point out the dangerous aspects of any group. Below I have grouped together four of the main dangerous characteristics of groups which are often labelled as “cults”. What would you add?
So though there are indeed dangerous groups, the word “cult” is more often a political tool of the dominant culture rather than an actual descriptive, informative word. So, instead of using the word “cult”, I suggest describing exactly what you dislike about any group that you feel is dangerous.
It is my hope that using similar thinking, readers can also see some of the problems behind the label “religion” — which I hope to explore more in future posts.