– which have
Christianity? Some say that there is no difference between a cult and religion,
except in the number of followers that each have. 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.
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 onto the next factor which distinguishes a
cult from a religion – the cult has at its centre a messianic, brainwashing,
coercive and highly charismatic leader.
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.
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 has been blamed for
persuading and coercing his followers to poison themselves with cyanide in Guyana
(an event known as the Jonestown Massacre, in which over 200 children were murdered). Indoctrination seem to be
a far more powerful force in a cult than in a religion.
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
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
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 in 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.