Susan Galvan
Susan Galvan is a published author, speaker and facilitator with expertise in transpersonal psychotherapy, ministry, spiritual mentorship, and financial life planning. Seeking answers? Ask Susan a question via email asksusan@SBNR.org.

Religion vs. Cult?

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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.

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4 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.

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