How do you know if you’re part of a cult, part of a religion, or just out on your own seeking some kind of spiritual knowledge? From my perspective, the answer is easy: if you’re part of a religion, you’re in a cult, and you’re not going to be able to find spiritual truth for yourself. Additionally, I will show how adherence to a cult or religion impairs one’s ability to be a free-thinker.
According to the Encarta dictionary, Cult is defined as the following:
- religion: a system of religious or spiritual beliefs, especially an informal and transient belief system regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, extremist, or false, and directed by a charismatic, authoritarian leader
- religious group: a group of people who share religious or spiritual beliefs, especially beliefs regarded by others as misguided, unorthodox, extremist, or false
Religion from the same source is defined as the following:
- beliefs and worship: people’s beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life
- system: an institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine
- personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by
Looking at these definitions, then, a cult is an “informal and transient” religious system “regarded by others as misguided … or false” while a religion is an “institutionalized or personal” system of beliefs. A cult is defined from the vantage point of an established religion. They both involve belief systems, personal opinions and divinity (the cult definition references “religious” which implies divinity). So what’s the actual difference between the two?
Or more specifically, in the realm of the Abrahamic god is Judaism, Christianity, or Islam the cult? Or are they all cults and religions? How about with Hindu and Buddhism: same roots, different systems. Which is the cult? Christianity and Mormonism: is that a religion:sect or religion:cult relationship? Logic would say that we would look at which came first, but that would mean that some of the most popular religions on the planet (Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity) are just cults. And even though I’m personally okay with that, it only works for outside observers: adherents to one will see adherents to the other as cultish and vice-versa.
To solve this subjective dichotomy, I propose two things. The first is that we stop seeing a difference between religions and cults since there really isn’t one (today’s cult is tomorrow’s religion). Secondly (though this may have already been done) I give you an objective test to determine whether a personal belief system is — in reality — a cult- or religion-based belief.
- Is there a set of rules designed to unite a group of people into a shared system of ritual, belief, and behavior?
- Is there a doctrine or official text?
- Is there some kind of structure that maintains control over the interpretation and distribution of the doctrine?
- Do adherents worship a god or gods according to the doctrine as delivered by the structure?
- Are appropriate thoughts, deeds, and speech of the adherents dictated by the doctrine?
- Does making choices outside of the delivered doctrine hold consequences — metaphysical or actual — for the adherent?
The above list is organized in a quasi-consequential sense. That is, they each seem to precede the other. A set of rules leads to doctrine leads to structure on to restriction of choices for adherents. I’m sure there’s more research that has been done or could be done on the course religion takes through history, but my sense is that it goes in that order.
Aside from that, I’m confident that if the above points are answered in the positive, a cult/religion is involved. Conversely, if they’re answered in the negative, there is no cult/religion involved. Using the above test, I’ve put together sample lists of belief systems that are religions, and some examples of those that are not.
- any secular philosophical point of view
The most immediate result of being objective about this is to help us make more plain the division between cult/religion and philosophy. While a cult/religion has structure and a doctrine and a system of punishments, a philosophy does not. The only thing they share is the idea that adherents hold a particular world-view. The adherent to a philosophy, however, is not limited in her freedom to explore other world-views, or to vet her ideas against others with reason and inquiry.
I think there are other results that can be achieved through this objective filter with some more thought. One could construct a rigid argument that the support for religions is restrictive to the development of free-thought. Also, a standardized argument for the removal of religion from state decisions can be made on objective and reasonable grounds.
Whatever happens, it is important to the progression of human thought, metaphysics, and philosophy that we not hamper ourselves with restrictive rules or expectations. If that means establishing all religions as cults or all cults as religions, then so be it. The goal is to free the mind and explore what it means — what it really means — to be human.