Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What is a Cult? – Differences Between Cults and Religions

Cults are Usually Considered to be Dangerous - Kevin Dooley
Cults are Usually Considered to be Dangerous - Kevin Dooley
What are cults? Are they all dangerous? How is a cult different from a religion? The definition of the word "cult" varies depending on the context.

Many ideas surrounding the definition of a cult are shaped by the media. When most people think of cults, religious groups that engage in dangerous, criminal, unethical, and devious practices pop into their mind.

Groups typically considered cults, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), Church of Scientology, Branch Davidians, Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, Manson Family, Solar Temple, and Heaven’s Gate, have received or are still receiving a lot attention on TV, in newspapers, and on the internet.

Neutral and Negative Meanings of the Word “Cult”

In the neutral sense of the term, a cult is simply a religious group. The word “cult” can designate a new and small group of people devoted to particular religious doctrine, ideas, and principles. A cult may grow into a religion. For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started out as a cult in the 1800s, when it was founded by Joseph Smith, but has since developed into a religion with nearly 14 million members.

For a comparison of the fundamentalist and mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, see LDS and FLDS beliefs about polygamy.

Some religions label other religions as cults. For example, some Evangelical Christians and Fundamentalist Christians consider religions that teach Christian doctrine that deviates from their own beliefs to be cults. Some view Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses as cults. However, the opposite is also true – members of alternative Christian sects sometimes view other Christian denominations as cults.

In its original sense, the word “cult” is not pejorative. The designation, however, has come to encompass many negative connotations. The negative conception of a cult implies a religious group that has so-called strange, weird, or bizarre beliefs, is highly controlling, and engages in criminal practices.

The following is a list of characteristics frequently attributed to cults:

  • Cults have a charismatic and controlling leader, who purportedly knows what God wants and demands.
  • Cults brainwash and indoctrinate their members.
  • Cults control members by making them dependent on the cult and instilling in them a sense of shame, guilt, and fear.
  • Cults do not allow questioning of their beliefs or practices.
  • Cults claim to be the only true way to live and path to salvation.
  • Cults have apocalyptic beliefs about the imminent end of the world.
  • Cults severely limit or completely cut off members’ access to and interaction with the outside world.
  • Cults retaliate against people who leave the group by punishing them with excommunication and/or ostracizing, physically harming, or taking legal action against them.
  • Cults engage in criminal behavior, such as rape or statutory rape, suicide, murder, abduction, and weapons stockpiling.
  • Cults exploit members financially.

Difference Between a Cult and a Religion

In his article “The Difference Between Cults and Religions,” Rabbi Brad Hirschfield remarks, “The fact that pretty much every religion has done all of these things [typically ascribed to cults] at some point in history of the group means the line between cults and religions ... is not fixed or static.” The rabbi references the Hebrew Bible story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to God as evidence of cultish threads that run through religions.

The rabbi notes, “Most religions can and do slip into cult-like behavior from time to time.” For instance, many religions claim to be the only true church, use fear of damnation to dissuade members from questioning or leaving the organization, and shun members who do leave.

The line between religions and cults can indeed be blurry at times, so how is it possible to tell the difference between the two? The main difference is the degree to which a religious group or organization engages in negative cult-like practices. The second major difference between cults and religions is that, generally speaking, religions are accepted by mainstream society, while cults are not. Religions typically have many followers, while cults have relatively few.

Dangerous Cults

The term "cult" means different things in different contexts, but in its usual and popular sense, it refers to a manipulative and fringe religious group. Religious groups deemed dangerous cults hold powerful sway over their members. Cults engage in subversive, deceitful, and back-handed practices to control adherents by claiming to have a monopoly on answers to all of life’s questions and problems and by teaching that salvation is only attainable by following the cult’s particular path.


Cults, Sects and Denominations, Retrieved August 11, 2010.

The Difference Between Cults and Religions, Retrieved August 11, 2010.

Evaluating Religions as Dangerous Cults, Retrieved August 11, 2010.

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