What is the difference between a religion and a cult?
A few days ago, I was listening to an argument between an atheist and a Christian, and the atheist was calling Christianity a cult.
The Christian disagreed.
Of course he did.
After listening to the exchange, I decided that I should have my own understanding of the difference between cults and religions.
So I thought about the question for a while, and eventually I arrived at a satisfying answer. Then I decided to share it with my readers.
What is the difference between a religion and a cult?
It is easy to join a cult, but you cannot leave after you have joined. On the other hand, it is difficult to join a religion, and you can leave whenever you like. The difference between the two is voluntarism. An organization is a cult if its members are unable to leave after joining.
Why is this the right answer? The reasoning behind it is actually pretty unusual. It had to be in order to produce an acceptable answer to a common and unresolved question.
Why Does the Difference Matter?
It may seem as though trying to find the difference between a cult and a religion is really just a silly word game.
You’re halfway right.
Finding the difference is definitely a word game, but it is not by any means silly. Losing this game has awful consequences for the people who play. So developing the ability to recognize the difference between a cult and a religion is a truly important life skill.
Why is that?
All people go through life searching for a belief system which they can use to understand the world. Some belief systems already exist to help them, and that’s a good thing.
But some opportunistic people find the lost searchers, and they manipulate their target’s need for structure for nefarious purposes. They are spiritual con artists. And they should not be treated in the way that religious leaders are – especially when the law is involved.
So clear distinctions between cults and religions should be drawn to protect oneself and society at large from the designs of cults and their leaders.
Cults and Stigmas
One thing that nearly everyone can agree on is that cults are bad. Therefore, nobody wants to be part of a cult, and people like to claim that ideologies which they dislike are cults.
So people begin defining the word cult in ways that happen to suit their interests. They create definitions which allow them to call those ideological groups they dislike cults while protecting their own views from the same.
This tendency for people to create self-serving definitions is an unavoidable part of the debate on the difference between a cult and a religion.
So a definitive answer to the question needs to take this all-too-human tendency into account.
The definition of a cult needs to be one which most people will accept. If it is not, then too many people will reject it, and the definition will become useless. This would then bring us back to the same semantic argument we had when we started.
So, what might most people agree upon?
Religions and Acceptable Definitions
Most people follow some religion, and they would like to believe their religion is good. Part of this desire includes a will to define religion in such a way so that religion in general is good.
After all, if religion isn’t good, then how can your specific religion be good?
So religious people look for definitions of cults and religions which allow their own religion to save face. They will reject any definitions that are hostile to their self-image. And any definition of a cult or religion will fail if too many people reject it.
So the difference between a cult and a religion needs to be defined in terms that most people can agree upon and that religious people will usually find tolerable.
Moreover, the difference should be one which matches the perceptions people commonly have about what cults and religions are supposed to be. It needs to portray the cult in a negative light, and it needs to make the religion look morally superior to the cult.
So, what characteristic achieves this?
The Secret of Voluntarism -The Difference between a Religion and a Cult
A common stereotype about cults is that people who join either become brainwashed or are forced to remain in the cult under threats of violence.
In other words, membership within a cult is forced; and most people will recognize this.
Membership in a religion is not like that. Most people believe that joining a religion is difficult and that leaving is easy, although they may not realize it.
To become a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, one must go through a lengthy confirmation phase and then commit to following the mandates issued by the respective authorities.
And in order to become a good Muslim, one must attend their mosque regularly and agree to pay the obligatory charity (Zakat). They must also repeat their five daily prayers. These commitments require practicing Muslims to devote time, energy, and money to their religion.
Protestants are an exception to this rule.
So most people can accept that membership within a religion requires effort and that the risk of falling into religious error is real.
People don’t “accidentally” choose to become Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim. Commitment to religion requires persistent and conscious choices.
So most people recognize that religions include voluntary associations, and cults do not. Although people often do not realize that they know this.
Now, does the fact that most people recognize the difference in voluntary association between cults and religions present a sufficient ground for defining the two?
I think it does.
The Perceived Goodness of Voluntarism
Most people believe that voluntarism is good. They claim that people should be free to make their own decisions, and they generally support actions which they believe enhance personal freedoms.
So things which are defined to include voluntarism will be seen as good, and things which are defined to exclude voluntarism will be seen as bad.
Does this mean that voluntarism is good? No. Of course not. The fact that lots of people believe a thing is unrelated to the truth of that thing.
But the ubiquity of the belief that voluntarism is good lets us differentiate things in a way that creates “good” and “bad” categories and to create definitions for morally charged terms.
Terms such as religion and cult.
So if religions and cults are different because of voluntarism, then religions will be able to occupy the moral high ground over cults.
Furthermore, a meaningful distinction that most people can accept will have been drawn between the two.
Therefore, defining religions to include voluntary associations which are absent in cults allows us to create a meaningful distinction between the two which most people can accept.
What do we do with our knowledge of the difference between a religion and a cult?
Accept that the difference between a cult and a religion is voluntarism. Then you will be able to recognize cults when you see them.
Be ready to share this understanding with others if the topic should arise. Most people understand the difference between cults and religions which I have presented here, but they do not realize it.
They don’t know that they know. You can be the one to help them realize it.
And when you help them understand what they know, they will be protected as you are, and they’ll think you’re smart.
…But there is something you should be aware of.
Atheists are unlikely to accept this definition. Most atheists derive their sense of self-worth from their contempt of Christianity. So if you give them a definition of cult, they will then see if it makes Christianity look bad. If it does not, then they will reject it in favor of a degrading definition.
Don’t waste your time trying to win them over on this point. Accept that they disagree and move on. The point of my distinction is to help people communicate with each other, and the one I have given to you does that.