Susan Galvan
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Religion vs. Cult?


Q: What the difference between a religion and a cult?

Religion vs. Cult?

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.

Share your thoughts. Leave a comment:

9 Responses to “Religion vs. Cult?”

  1. M Morris
    September 11, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    I agree with the distinction between religion and cult, however, from a historical point of view (my undergraduate degree is comparative religions), all religions begin as a cult. Dependence upon and adherence to a central charismatic leader is how religions begin. After the founder dies, the cult either also dies, or begins to bureaucratize (see Marc Bloch’s still relevant description of this process). This “bureaucratization” encompasses the stories surrounding the religious founder, the common sayings and speeches or sermons remembered or recorded by early followers and subsequent followers, and the codification of holy writ, torah, scripture, surahs, sutras, vedas and so forth.

    The latitude of religion as opposed to the constrictive nature of a cult has more to do with the simple logistics of handling large groups of diverse people. In modern Christianity, the mainline denominations lost relative control of their congregations. Large stand-alone “mega” churches developed a genius strategy of “small group ministries,” and thus can maintain a fairly strong amount of control over the beliefs and behaviors of its congregates in this subtle form of a “multitude of little cults within a larger religious body.”

    But, underlying all religions, and in its more obvious form of a newly forming cult, are three potent motivations. First, is to provide for a primal human need of belongingness. Second, is to set forth rules and boundaries that provide structure, also a primal human need. And finally, to make meaning of the mysteries of the world around us. The underbelly of these three motivations is to define “us” and “them”(belongingness); to manage and/or control beliefs and behaviors of those who are “us” (rule and boundary setting); and to create a system of meaning that is worth giving up one’s autonomy for (meaning making).

    Cults and religions are deeply interlinked, and the difference in how they manage or offer latitude or restrict personal choices has more to do with their cultural context, their socio-economic place within a larger system and how they perceive their role in the perspective of history, both behind them and the future they envision that history is calling them toward.

    Essentially, though, cults and religions are birds of the same feather, and need to be continually evaluated as they arise and descend within the human experience.

  2. Susan E Galvan
    September 29, 2010 at 3:02 pm #

    M Morris, I didn’t see your response until today. Your exposition is excellent – I found myself not only in agreement as I read, but appreciating how you linked the two (religion and cult) into an evolving relationship.

    In Unity, they talk of “the man,” “the message,” “the movement,” and “the monument.” By the time you get to the fourth “M,” the original spiritual vision or impulse has become completely codified and institutionalized. In other words, rendered lifeless, for all practical purposes. For a religion to continue over expanses of time and stages of development, somehow that original spark of passionate inspiration must be resurrected once the monument stage has been reached or the religion will succumb to entropy – quite a challenge.

  3. Dale
    October 5, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    Thank you, M. Morris.
    You beautifully described the problem with religion. I felt Susan was framing religions as benign institutions whose goal was for the betterment of humankind. Historically, I think we know this is far from accurate. This is also why people life myself when asked our religious preference usually resond with, “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I understand the point Susan is making but the damage done by religions, the authoritarian framework, the assumptions and presumptions made when one says they are a Chritian (or Buddhist or Muslim) make the term “religion” something with which I cannot identify. Nor do I want to be associated with any organized religion. I am not aware of any religions that are not cult-like. My strongest feeling about this is that religions and cults are not the only paths to address our existential yearnings. But this requires going beyond the box in our thinking and allowing a true spiritual yearning to direct us and take us where it leads.

  4. Anon
    November 22, 2010 at 8:17 am #

    And yet so many religious sects hide behind legitimacy when in reality they are nothing more than legitimized cults. But it is similar to gossip magazines … if we don’t buy them then there would be no magazine. The fact that so many wish to be led by the cult mentality legitimized or not is what continues to perpetrate the cult. The Catholic Pope is the biggest cult leader I know.

  5. D Stopyak
    February 3, 2015 at 5:58 pm #

    I like some in earlier comments do not want to belong to any religion, that being said I am Spiritual.
    My Daughter married in to a family of devout Christians, the first 10 years of their marriage basically fine.

    Then about 6 years ago my husband & I were starting to be pushed out of the family get together”s and in the past year it has come to the point that we can not even see our grand children. This has devastated us beyond belief. We know it is because we will not attend a church. I asked our daughter why we can not see her or our grand-kids and she will not give an answer.

    If anyone has any thoughts on this situation, all comments are greatly appreciated.

    Thank You


  6. Renato Baldago
    February 25, 2015 at 2:27 pm #

    The Conflict Between False Religions and Science
    October 10, 2010 · by Brother Eliseo F. Soriano
    7 Votes

    Religion is supposed to be based on truth earthly and heavenly. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

    Matthew 6:10

    Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

    There is a 100% possibility of heavenly order being established on earth. There must be no conflict with the spiritual and the physical. Physical truths are hints or guides to spiritual truths.

    John 3:12

    If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?

    The Lord Jesus mentions about the love of an earthly father capable of erring and sinning to compare with the utmost love of the heavenly Father to his children.

    MATTHEW 7:9-11

    Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

    Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

    If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

    This is a clear indication that heavenly things like the love of the heavenly Father can be understood on earth.

    The God who created the universe is the same God who spoke of things written in the Bible.

    Hebrews 1:1-2

    God who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds…

    Intelligent analysis of matters about science or the physical universe, must not find contradiction with the revealed truth in the Bible.

    There are religious groups that teach that the earth is only seven thousand years old, thereby, driving away learned scientists from believing the Bible. The Adventists claim in their book that from the time of creation up to the printing of the said book, only seven thousand years had passed.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Watchtower Bible and Track Society, who claim scholarly knowledge of the scriptures, gave their miscalculations of the age of humanity.

    Science, under strict investigation, concluded that the Mayan civilization in Central America existed some thirty-five thousand years ago – a length of time that is many times the time being considered byreligious groups that teach that the earth is only seven thousand years old. On the premise that it was God who spoke in the Bible that created the universe, there must be no contradictions between facts in Science andteachings of the true religion.

    Perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago, nomadic people came from Asia to the Americas across the frozen Bering Strait. In the course of many millennia, their descendants settled in and adapted to different environments, creating many cultures in North America, Central America, and South America.

    The only inevitable conclusion is that these religions are false religions!

  7. Leora
    September 7, 2015 at 8:12 pm #

    Based on your definition of a cult, it seems even Jesus would fall into that category.

  8. Danielle
    March 15, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Religion is a cult.

  9. truth
    May 15, 2016 at 9:49 am #

    Your description of a cult sounds like Christianity (from my experience). Do we separate the two to make ourselves feel better? In reality the only real difference between a cult and a religion is that most religions usually have been around for a long time and has a lot of history. Cults are usually new ideas and beliefs. It’s easier to fall for a religion rather than a cult because of the history and how long it’s been around. It’s been around long enough for whole generations and cultures to adopt it. When we hear about a new cult most initially think it’s ridiculous, but what if that cult been around as long as Christianity or Islam would we still call it a cult? I’m not against religion or any other spiritual practice. I just wonder is there really a difference? Is one better than the other? Both have people seeking the same things, asking the same questions and both feel they have the answers. Who is right? who is wrong? is anyone of the right or wrong? Who can really say?

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