21 May, 2008

Difference between a cult and a religion

I was thinking, as one does, on what the difference is between a cult and a religion.

I instinctively believe that there is a difference, but I wasn't sure how to logic it out. I was also certain that cults could become religions and, less commonly, religions could disintegrate into cults.

Turns out that the tax man is useful sometimes, especially when religions are given charitable status and cults are not.

My good old friend (no, not alcohol, google) took me to a BBC 'e-cyclopedia' (no, I'd never heard of it either) and apparently the test is a five stage one. If an organisation displays all five stages, they're a cult. If they don't, they're not.

Definition of cult:
1. Uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members
2. Forms an elitist society
3. Founder leader is self appointed, dogmatic, messianic, charismatic and unaccountable
4. Believes 'ends justify means' in raising funds and recruitment
5. Wealth does not benefit its members or society

Of course, the real difference is that my beliefs are a religion and yours are a cult :)


Marc_Newcomb said...

Cynical atheist as I am, I would personally say that a religion is just a bigger, older cult. Once your cult's been around long enough and got a big enough fanbase people stop noticing your crazy beliefs. If the world unexpectedly fails to end and the cult still survives, it's probably got what it takes to eventually get called a religion.

The 5-point list is too vague to be of much use, and points 4 and 5 could easily exclude many of the crazier cults.

Miss Middle of Manchester said...

I agree that point five seems especially odd given that the most crazy cults tend to live communally. Maybe, when a person joins a commune, if they have to give up all their wealth to it but only get the basic needs for living back, one can argue the wealth is not being spent in the interests of the members.

In the context of Christianity (and other Messianic religions) I agree that age is an indication of acceptability, but age has also mellowed many religions from the fevour of the original followers.

I think that when it comes to groups like the Branch Davidians(Waco), classification is easier. It's groups such as Scientologists and Jehovahs witnesses where it is more difficult. In my mind, scientologists are less crazy than Branch Davidians but still crazy enough to be a cult. JW's on the other hand are a little bit crazy and share some of the tendencies, but not enough to class as a cult.

Maybe, to me, the most important two indicators are brain-washing and an overwhelming emphasis on the 'end of the world', an inability to question the texts/sources upon which the religion is based would also be a big indicator. For example, obviously in Christianity and Islam the 'end of the world' is a big feature, but it is not especially immediate and nor does it demand immediate changes of behaviour (unlike our own deaths). I believe ritual prayers such as salaat and prayers such as the Hail Mary or Our Father, as opposed to prayers of petition or dua are more meditative than brain washing. Whilst they induced a sense of calm, they cannot be said to brain wash in the sense that we would usually describe it and finally, the texts of both religions are frequently studied by scholars who are actively encouraged to come to conclusions rather than simply following a single leader on earth. Even Muslims such as Osama bin Laden would argue ithjihad is an acceptable method in Islam - they would simply (strongly) dispute method and conclusions; and the textual analysis done on the bible by both Christians and non-Christians I assume you already know. Even branches of Christianity, like Catholicism, which have a single representative on earth do not claim that the Pope is always infallible or that his doctrinal pronouncements are forever the correct ones.

Obviously, there are a few crazy Christian and Islamic cults out there, but the mainstream sects in each religion (even at their most extreme end) do not tend to have the hall marks of cults.

There isn't a 'solid line' difference between many organisations and I suspect any legal test drawn up will always fail at some example. Jedi Knights - coming to a church near you :)