Differences Between a Cult and a Religion

Jim Jones cult

There have been many cults – the most infamous found in America – which have made headline news for their violent, abusive, reclusive and suicidal tendencies. Some infamous American cults include the Branch Davidians, the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate and Children of God. News reports describe these cults as being extreme and dangerous, but what exactly is the difference between a Doomsday cult like the Branch Davidians and a mainstream religion like Christianity? Some say that there is no difference between a cult and religion, except in the number of followers that each has. This is a fairly obvious claim – that cults are made up of hundreds of people, while religions are made up of millions – but it disregards the other factors that distinguish a cult from a religion.

While it is true that some cults make similar claims that mainstream religions make – e.g. some cults predict the end of the world just as Christianity does – there are differences in how this claim influences behaviour. For example, the Heaven’s Gate cult believed that the Earth was going to be recycled and that in order to survive its destruction they had to commit suicide, allowing their souls to safely board an alien spaceship. It is a wild claim, but is it any more wild than the Christian belief in the Four Horsemen and the dead rising from their graves during the Apocalypse? Perhaps not. But what distinguishes the Heaven’s Gate cult from Christianity is its focus on this apocalyptic vision, and in its leader’s insistence that his followers take their own lives in order to avoid this horrible scenario. This brings me to the next factor which distinguishes a cult from a religion – the cult has at its centre a messianic, brainwashing, coercive and highly charismatic leader.

Religions do have leaders – such as popes, priests, rabbis and imams – but these leaders have a different personality compared to cult leaders such as David Koresh (Branch Davidians), Jim Jones (Peoples Temple) and Marshall Applewhite (Heaven’s Gate). Mainstream religious leaders, for the most part, do not abuse, coerce and control their religious population in order to further their own agenda. They are there to transmit the teachings of that particular religion – they are working for the religion, whereas cult leaders stand as the source of truth and therefore have much more power to influence their subjects, usually at their demise.

For example, David Koresh from the Branch Davidians was accused of sexually abusing minors; members of the Children of God have been found guilty of child abduction, and Jim Jones (pictured in the photo above) persuaded and coerced his followers to poison themselves with cyanide in Guyana (an event known as the Jonestown Massacre, in which over 200 children were murdered). Indoctrination seems to be a far more powerful force in a cult than in a religion.

It must be said though that all religions must start off as cults. Christianity, for example, was once a cult of Jesus – it was only after Jesus’ death that a true religious following began to emerge. Since a cult is defined by the personality of the leader, once that leader is gone, either that cult vanishes forever or it grows to become a religion which worships its dead founder. An anonymous quote on the Internet sums up this difference well: “In a cult there is a person at the top who knows it’s a scam. In religion that person is dead”.

Cults also differ from religions in that they prohibit (normally through psychological coercion and indoctrination) its followers from leaving, and urging them to disconnect themselves from friends, family and society at large. Being a member of a mainstream religion, on the other hand, is perfectly compatible with living a normal life. When you are a member of a cult, the cult and its leader is your life. Generally, cults are far more restrictive, totalitarian, authoritarian, dogmatic and isolating than religions. Criticising the cult you belong to will have far greater consequences than criticising the religion you belong to, including threats, punishment and being exiled by the group.

I also like Frank Zappa’s opinion on this topic; he said: “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own”. Of course, there are other differences, which I have already mentioned, but it is certainly true that religions leave a greater mark on society than do cults. Religions have their own property, tax breaks, music, TV channels, radio stations, books, and so on. Religions are richer, more popular, more bureaucratic and more influential than cults. However, cults are more likely to gain complete control over an individual’s mind.


  1. giatiforasklouvi
    August 22, 2013 / 1:15 pm

    What Zappa was suggesting and i think you ignored his point, is that the difference between the two (religion vs. cult) is actually quantitative and not qualitative. Most of your 'differences' arguments fall under this…for example you say that the religious leaders: "for the most part, do not abuse, coerce and control their religious population in order to further their own agenda. " this however is clearly due to the (modern) and huge scrutiny that mainstream religions actually have to deal with, which is not the same for small cults…In past times (where human rights, the internet and other technologies were not as advanced) mainstream religion got away with pretty much loads of abuse (inquisition, child molestation), coercion and control of their populations in order to further their own agenda (crusades, prohibition of condom use or homosexuality, witch-burning and many many other examples)…so…maybe there is a false dichotomy in your argument?

  2. Whette Fahrtz
    January 13, 2014 / 1:42 am

    Really? Why do you atheists always have to bring up the crusades? Don't you think christianity matured at least a little since then? You're comparing what cults do to what rarely happens in religion. So there is no false dichotomy in his argument.

    • giatiforasklouvi
      January 17, 2014 / 4:14 pm

      @ Whette Fahrtz

      thanks for the kind words friend…i would suggest that you re-read my point and not straw-man my argument (i acknowledge that christianity has matured but i argue that this maturity was forced on them (unlike Islam for example) due to technological and human right advances and not because christianity did it on itself)….but i guess u r not interested on a discussion of what a cult, religion is, or what Zappa said on the matter…again thank you for your very kind, civil and christian response…

      PS. i never said i am an atheist, so please keep ur projections of other people's views to urself…

  3. kipija
    May 11, 2014 / 7:31 pm

    @giatiforasklouvi17 January 2014 08:14

    Much as I do not agree with how @ Whette Fahrtz responded above, I can see you have done very little research on Islam, How would you explain the brainwashing in the Madrassas happening even today? The threat of extermination if one dares to change their faith from Islam? How do you explain the demonization of other faiths as "kaffirs" or "haram". I would say a cult does not necessarily revere a living person. Cults worship the dead, the living, nature an many other things. It actually depends on your point of reference. For instance my understanding is that a cult is a religious organisation focusing on an object of worship other than the TRUTH , which is worshiping the Living JESUS CHRIST. Stay blessed.

    • giatiforasklouvi
      May 22, 2014 / 2:36 pm

      you will have to explain further this point because I don't get your objection. What I originally said is that Islam does not have this scrutiny (technological, or human right advances) as Christianity had (the examples u raise support my initial argument fully). That is why Christianity has matured. That said, only in very few areas of the world (Indonesia and Bangladesh for example) Islam has 'matured' (relatively) and this was because of technological advances (and human rights advances) in these areas, which I based my argument on.

      Please do not confuse religion with truth or God. I am not debating God or the truth of a doctrine, I was discussing the institution of religion and the differences with a cult. I have no problem to challenge the truth claim of Christianity and we can discuss this point further if you like, but was not my initial point and intention.

      And again, you have no idea what my knowledge on Islam or Christianity is, so before you accuse me of half-ignorance please ask me to clarify my position.

  4. Lama Surya Das
    March 23, 2015 / 4:16 am

    The word 'cult' tends to be used as a term of abuse. As shown above, there are stringent guidelines for defining whether a body of people (whether religious, lifestyle orientated, political) are a cult or not. An example of cult outside of 'mainstream' religion is David Koresh. Within 'mainstream' religion we have the cult around Chris Brain at the 'Nine o'clock service' in Sheffield, within the Anglican Church. Religions encourage a person to think carefully before making a commitment to join. Cults encourage quick decisions with little information.

    • M
      April 25, 2023 / 5:24 pm

      @ Lama Surya Das “Religions encourage a person to think carefully before making a commitment to join.” That is incorrect. Christianity regularly baptizes children and force them to go to church before they can even think rationally.

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