Huston Smith wrote in The World’s Religions: “Religion alive confronts the individual with the most momentous option this world can present. It calls the soul to the highest adventure it can undertake, a proposed journey across the jungles, peaks and deserts of the human spirit. The call is to confront reality, to master the self. Those who dare to hear and follow this secret call soon learn the dangers and difficulties of its lonely journey.”
Authentic organized religion provides a framework – a structure, a path, reminders via ceremony and ritual, guidance and enlightened support – for that journey.
The authenticity of a religion can be ascertained by discovering if it has, in fact, provided such a framework – one that has facilitated “the call to confront reality, to master the self” for its followers over a span of time.
A cult, on the other hand, is based on rigid adherence and loyalty to a leader, a belief, or an ideal and is about conformity and control rather than self-awareness and engaging in a long and difficult quest for truth. A cult is exclusive, a closed system. There can be no questioning or doubt or exploration as to the value of its leadership or its core beliefs. It compels obedience. Quite often, a cult will employ techniques or practices that work with the herd instinct, erasing individuality and individual choices. It will offer simple solutions rather than inspire and support a search for wholeness. It will limit rather than encompass.
Most of us are familiar with both religions and cults applying external controls and values. True religion is an inner journey – one which ultimately leads to knowing, to joy, to peace, and to a compassionate love of self, of others, and of all that is.
Cults are what happens when the spiritual yearning takes us into a blind alley. Never submit to the control of a leader or a group where absolute obedience or adherence is demanded as the price of membership. Many religions offer strict structures to support the spiritual seeker in staying awake and attuned; but these must be chosen as supports, not imposed as conditions for acceptance or salvation.