I’ve been on a morbid kick lately of macabre podcast content. If you perused the favorites on my Tune-In app, you would find a list of shows that would make you question my moral sense. One of the podcast shows, Cults, dives deep into the minds of manipulative cult leaders and their misguided followers while untangling the unusual and the vile deeds that grew from twisted words.
I noticed, after listening to a few episodes of the podcast, that many of the cults that became well known enough to shock a nation grew from the misinterpretations of religious text and faith-based beliefs. I wondered, if the two are often found so intertwined together, what is the difference between a religion and a cult?
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a cult is “a system of religious beliefs and ritual and its body of adherents; a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; or a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.”
Religion, on the other hand, is defined by the same source as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural; commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; or a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.”
What is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious,” and who gets to decide which religion has too much of an adverse effect on those who are involved in a sect or those in proximity? There is a saying floating around out there that religion is an old cult, and a cult is a new religion, but that doesn’t clearly distinguish between the two.
There is definitely overlap between the two, which makes untangling the descriptors difficult, and over time popular culture has weakened the severity and the unsavoriness hidden behind the term, cult. However, you definitely know when you have accidentally stumbled on a dangerous cult when they don’t let you leave. If you can walk away with your own free will, then you may be okay to claim that the new spiritual assembly you have latched on to is, in fact, a religion.
Perhaps there is a more straightforward delineation.
“When theology erodes and organization crumbles, when the institutional framework of religion begins to break up, the search for a direct experience which people can feel to be religious facilitates the rise of cults.” —Daniel Bell