Cults vs. Religions

Cult_ZappaWhat 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.

CultCult”, 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.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Cults vs. Religions

  1. This is an interesting and thought-provoking post. I wonder if the desire to label something as “cult” arises when the dominant group feels threatened/ subverted by the new movement. I also like how you show how “cults” move toward legitimation as new religions, but I wonder at what point removing the word “cult” from vernacular risks becoming too accommodating to dangerous groups. My thoughts often drift towards polygamist “cults” in which the leader has twenty or so “wives” who are 18 or younger. Perhaps “cult” may still fit dangerous groups like these. Or does “cult” just mean “religious group that I don’t like?”

  2. I don’t distinguish between them. I will, however, refrain from calling someones religion a cult because i know its considered offensive, and if you know something is offensive, but do it nonetheless, then its a cheap blow.

  3. @misterdan,
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed.
    I agree, one of the many uses of “cult” is a social play by those in power. Another, is to label something as dangerous — or at least perceived dangerous. And those two circles overlap. I am not for removing anything from our language, but for being aware of usage variance and power plays. That is, I support thoughtful consumption of language! 🙂

    @ john zande,
    LOL at your “subscribe” — touché, meu amigo astuto!

    Concerning being offensive: Your posts are full of obvious offense to believers. But I wager we are probably similar — what I write, and what I will say to a person in public are often very different. Different rules apply, eh?

  4. 🙂 Actually, i forgot to hit the subscribe box before posting the comment.

    True, my posts are offensive. One on one, though, be it face to face or even in the comments section i’ll refrain from being offensive on a personal level.

  5. It is difficult to write or talk about disbelief or reasons for disbelief without being offensive. People who hold extreme positions don’t want to be thought to hold extreme positions. Many times they, themselves, do not see that their belief is dangerous or extreme in any way.

    Victoria at Neuronotes shared the following article on my post yesterday:

    It’s a pretty comprehensive list of dangerous characteristics of dangerous group leaders.

  6. Great post on cults vs religions debate. I appreciate that you did not take a black and white approach. The distinction of what a cult is has many nuances and “cults” are not just limited to religious organizations.

    Any secular or non-secular organization, group, even families can exhibit cultish behaviors: blind worship of a charismatic leader (or a parent), use of fear and guilt to manipulate and entrap followers (or family members), inculcate superstitious beliefs and practices (our bloodline is superior, rich people are greedy, poor are lazy, atheists are evil, and on and on). I am a former monk who lived in a monastery, Self-Realization Fellowship Monastic Order, for 14 years practicing Eastern-mystical meditation. There were cultish tendencies and strange beliefs for sure within the organization. Now my BS detector and skepticism is set to high when in all organizations or relations to be wary of “cultish” concepts.

    I found these expert views helpful in exploring the distinctions of cults:

    “Cult methods of recruiting, indoctrinating, and influencing their members are not exotic forms of mind control, but only more intensely applied mundane tactics of social influence practiced daily by all compliance professionals and societal agents of influence.” — Zimbardo, Philip. What Messages Are Behind Today’s Cults? APA Monitor, 1990 in Cults: Opposing Viewpoints p144

    “While the boundary between cults and religion often feels confusing– Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions differ only slightly with cults being “small” in size and possessing “beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” Deciding what is strange or sinister certainly depends on the beholder. When accusations of being in a cult appear, members quickly and vehemently deny they are in a cult– they are part of a “spiritual path”, a “special church”, a “progressive movement”– other groups are cults, but not theirs. No way. (Espejo)

    I highly recommend this book by Espejo, R., Cults. Opposing Viewpoint Series. Gale Cengage Learning. 2013. Farmington Hills, MI. Print.
    for various perspectives on the “cults vs religion” debate.

    Excellent post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Great charts. I’d be interested in sharing your article or reblogging all or parts of it, if you would grant me permission. Let me know. Scott

  7. Earnest

    I think something about giving up worldly possessions should be in there, but that may be a secondary feature, open to interperetation regarding degree of devotion to a vow of poverty. One could also argue that the starving naked homeless guy needs your coat and shoes more than Rev. Moon or Rajneesh, for example.

    I there are certainly poor but scary & crazy cults, and wealthy but benevolent religions/sects. So aggregation of wealth IMHO is not by itself a cult feature.

    So this may be hard to codify into some sort of simple list of cult criteria.

  8. @ Ruth,
    Good link, thanks. But as my post tries to show, if I go through the list on that link, you will find that many secular groups — even atheists — can share many of the traits on that list. “Cult” is a cultic word. 😉

    @ Scott @SM
    Not only did I not take a black-and-white approach, I tried to stir folks away from the vacuous word “cult” — I was not trying to discover what it is.

    I agree with you that secular groups often show behaviors others label “cultic”.

    Consider that some ethnic groups only want their children to marry within their ethnic group and not really associate to deeply with those outside.

    Your history sounds fascinating and gives you a great voice in Skeptic circles.

    @ Earnest,
    You see, many groups no longer deemed “cults” talk about giving up Earthly goods — well, in measure. But giving them up totally certainly should be a signal for a dangerous groups. Many Marxists, for example, don’t believe in private property. 🙂 Ooops, not a cult — a secular dangerous group. See my point?

  9. On the contrary to the prevailing sentiment, I think the failure to continue to apply the term cult to regressive organizations has allowed the Mormon subjugation of women and children, the 7th day Adventist repression of science and history, and the Islamic horrors of chauvinism and sanctified murder. #‎jesuischarlie‬

  10. @Rocky,
    Why not just call the regressive or repressive or violent or chauvinistic or all the other more descriptive clear words than a vague word which is everyone’s favorite?

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