The Difference between a Cult and Religion

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Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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This essay will explore the distinctions between a cult and religion. It will discuss the characteristics that differentiate cults from established religions, including leadership, belief systems, practices, and societal perceptions. The piece will also consider the complexities in defining and categorizing these groups. PapersOwl showcases more free essays that are examples of Catholic.

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Images of strange symbols, massacres, and dark woods may come to mind when you hear the word “cult” – a term that has grown to have a lot of negative connotations in our society. It would be strange to even try to compare what we know as a cult to mainstream religions, a conventional part of our everyday lives. But in reality, the two terms are polysemous, there are many possible meanings and depending on the way they are being defined, they can be either very similar or very different.

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To understand what exactly makes a cult or a religion, things such as culture, upbringing, and beliefs all have to be taken into consideration. What one person believes to be a cult, the next person may perceive to be a legitimate religion. This being said, any comparison between the two ideas can and should be debated, as there are no set definitions for either.

Although each term can be examined by the use of different definitions, it cannot be ignored that there are widely known and accepted meanings for each that can be found with a few clicks of a keyboard by anyone in America. For example, Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word cult as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous” (Merriam-Webster). The significance of this definition is that it uses the words “extreme” and “dangerous”.

There are, of course, several examples of well-known cults that do fit this definition such as the Manson Family, the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and more. So, what makes these groups different from mainstream religions? There are many signs that indicate whether a group is a cult or a legitimate church. For example, the process of actually joining a cult can be a very different experience from joining a new religion. To get people to join, cults will often apply lots of pressure and be very vague when answering any questions and most of the time they will manipulate their followers into joining (Coughlin). Unlike cults, a legitimate church will not in any way make people feel forced to join and will answer any questions clearly. Also, churches typically do not go out of their way to find new followers, whereas, cults such as these do. This is one way in which the two are different.

After the initial joining, extreme cults are run a bit differently from what we know as mainstream religions as well. All religions have one thing in common: members worship a God, many Gods, or any type of higher force. With cults, this is not the case. Instead of a higher force being worshipped, the cult’s leader, a living being, will be worshipped. Charles Manson is a prime example of this. Cult leaders such as Manson manipulate their followers into believing that they, themselves, hold some sort of divine power that only they are capable of spreading. This type of power is used to control the cult’s members because they feel as though they can only believe and trust their leader (Coughlin). Legitimate churches, however, do not worship the priest, they worship God.

Cult leaders also have other techniques to ensure that their followers listen to only them. In extreme cults, new members have to get used to being watched and guided through every motion of their life. The leader of the cult wants to make sure that his followers are not breaking any rules, this is another way to keep members loyal. Janja Lalich, PhD, professor emerita of sociology at California State University, Chico, even says, “new followers will often be assigned a “monitor,” who is simply a more seasoned member of the cult, who will watch their every move and report them to cult authorities if they break any rules” (Coughlin). Unlike most legitimate churches, cults do not hold a sense of community because cults of this nature are entirely centered around their leaders. Members of a cult are practically trained to not trust each other because of the way they watch each other’s every move. This tension is what leads members to trust only one person: the leader (Harrison).

There are other methods that cult leaders use to lure people in and keep them close and without question. All mainstream religions publish their beliefs to be known by the world in the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc, and want to persuade others of what is their truth. Cults, on the other hand, keep their knowledge hidden and will only reveal it to those who commit themselves fully to the group. Cult leaders try to use this to gain more power with their followers because, again, he is the only one able to reveal the knowledge of the cult. Whether the information is available to the public or not is one other way to distinguish a cult from a mainstream religion.

However, cults are not always drastically different from mainstream religions. In a lot of cases, they actually share quite a few similarities. The word “cult” has not always been used in a derogatory manner, it actually began as a term to describe a certain branch of religious deviation and overtime developed negative connotations in our society. By this definition, a cult is essentially just a new religion, and a religion is just an old cult. There are a few legitimate religions today that by some definitions can be considered a cult. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. This institution is pretty well known and most people, when asked, would say it’s a mainstream religion with over 16 million followers. However, the Mormon Church was formed in 1830 by Joseph Smith, and any religion created this late in history is technically a cult (Lewis). Not only this, but the Mormon Church also has another unique trait: a leader. The church has a president, currently Russell M. Nelson, whose word is considered “supreme” by the Mormons. Like stated previously, one distinguishing factor between a cult and a legitimate religion is that cults will often worship a living being, rather than a higher force. While the Mormons don’t necessarily “worship” their president, his status is regarded very highly in the Mormon community and raises the question: where is the line between this and cultish behavior? The answer is indefinite, as it is when comparing any component of religion to cults (Stewart).

Although there are religions such as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints that can be considered cults because of their late creation, there are other reasons that mainstream religions can be labelled the word “cult”. For example, though the Roman Catholic Church does not fit what most people believe cults to be, it too can be defined with the word for certain reasons. The Roman Catholic Church worshipped Mary more than Jesus Christ and therefore fit the term cult in that “any group that worships a human figure over a divine being is a cult” (Richmond). To be clear, this information is not to say that the Roman Catholic Church is and should be treated as a cult, but is to show that most, if not all religions, past and present, can be regarded as a cult because of the loose meaning of the word (“What The Cults Believe”). So what other similarities are there between cults and mainstream religions?

Like previously stated, cults have strict rules for their followers, things like what they can wear, what they can eat, where they can work, and so on. These types of regulations are not seen strictly in cults. Take into consideration the lives of nuns and monks who have devoted their lives to religion. One organization in Toronto discloses what it takes to be a nun in the monastery. The Sisters of Life in Toronto, “take four vows that define their lives: poverty, obedience, chastity and to uphold the sacredness of life” (Leck). The vow of poverty means that the nuns live off of nothing but donations, and to trust that God will provide for them. The vow of chastity prevents the nuns from getting married or having sex to prove their devotion and loyalty to God. To uphold the sacredness of life means that the nuns work to prevent abortions. Following these vows is not different from following the rules of a cult, in the sense that each one is a requirement to be a part of the “group” and consequences would be had for either a nun or a member of a cult if rules or vows were broken (Stewart).

Monks, like nuns, are another example of members of a religious community that must live under certain vows. However, monks live a bit differently and in some cases follow even stricter than rules than nuns. For example, monks are only allowed to consume food between dawn and noon and not after and can eat food only when it is presented to them in hand. They also cannot eat fruit or vegetables that contain fertile seeds. Monks must also live in solitary and silent lodgings and are forbidden from using TV or any type of video for entertainment. Monks, as well as nuns, live lives of celibacy. In fact, any physical contact with someone of the opposite sex is prohibited (Lay Guide of the Monk’s Rules). Take into consideration that with both religions and cults, the members are living this way by choice. Therefore, the differences are slim.

The number one thing that we, as a society, associate with cults is violence and danger. It’s not surprising when the most well-known stories having to do with cults are the outrageous ones that take over the media. When all most people think of is Charles Manson and Heaven’s Gate, it’s not surprising that the word “cult” makes people nervous. However, history shows that our own mainstream religions have possibly even a worse record of violence. Major events such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Thirty Years War are prime examples of religion causing severe violence.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars that lasted for almost 200 years. They were fought between two mainstream religions: Christians and Muslims. Overall, the Crusades resulted in one to three million people dead (Harrison). They were fought because both sides wanted control over land that was considered holy and sacred by both groups. Because the Crusades lasted such a long time, there were many significant events that were all bloody and ruthless. One example is something known as the Children’s Crusade. This was a movement in which children, adolescents, women, the elderly, and the poor all marched from the Rhineland to Italy behind a man named Nicholas because he claimed to have received divine instruction to go to the Holy Land. This is evidence of the way in which religion can seriously influence large groups of people and what it can lead to (Cartwright). When an event of this nature is compared to something such as the incident of Jonestown, it can be argued that mainstream religions have caused much more pain and violence.

Jonestown is a very well-known cult story involving the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project which was led by Jim Jones. In 1978, nine hundred and nine people died in the incident by a mass suicide and nine more were murdered. Although this number of people dead is no small or insignificant matter, the number is dwarfed by the amount of people killed in the Crusades which supports the argument that mainstream religions can also cause significant violence.

The Inquisition is also a great example of a mainstream religion causing destruction and violence. It began in France in the 12th century and was the Catholic Church seeking out heresy and punishing anyone who was against the Catholic beliefs. There is not an exact number of people known to have died, but somewhere in the thousands were tortured and executed. Also, the Thirty Years War resulted in eight million deaths and arose simply because of religious differences between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Again, there is an astronomical difference between the number of deaths caused by these religious events and the number of deaths caused by cults.

Cults and mainstream religions have many similarities and many differences. Because the two words can be defined in several different ways, comparing them can be a difficult task. There are lots of things that set a cult apart from a mainstream religion such as the joining process, the way both groups worship, the sense or lack thereof of community, discreetness, and more. However, there are also many similarities between the two. Technically speaking, every religion began as a cult, which makes cults “new” religions. Many religions today such as the Mormon church and Scientology can be considered cults because of their late creations. Even religions such as Roman Catholicism can be defined with the word cult because of old customs. Certain cult traits can also be seen in mainstream religions such as following strict guidelines. The lives of nuns and monks do not differ very much from the lives of cults members. Also, both mainstream religions and cults have been known to cause a lot of violence. It cannot be stated that the two ideas are either very similar or very different because it depends greatly on how each term is being defined. There are many ways that they relate and can be set apart from one another.

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The Difference Between A Cult And Religion. (2020, Aug 13). Retrieved from