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Posted by on Feb 11, 2009 in religion | 12 comments

What is a cult?

I previously provided advice to “aspiring cultists” – pointing out a bullshitter’s technique commonly employed by religious folk.

But what is a cult? And how does it differ from a mainstream religion?

Clearly the term has a negative connotation – there’s something sinister about cults.

Trouble is, when we try and identify what is sinister about them (there’s a family of or cluster of characteristics – see cult checklist), we find many mainstream religions also qualify.

This leads some to reject the use of the term “cult” as obviously there is nothing objectionable or sinister about mainstream religion (heaven forbid!). Here for example, is a bit from wiki on “cults”:

According to professor Timothy Miller from the University of Kansas in his 2003 Religious Movements in the United States, during the controversies over the new religious groups in the 1960s, the term “cult” came to mean something sinister, generally used to describe a movement at least potentially destructive to its members or to society. But he argues that no one yet has been able to define a “cult” in a way that enables the term to identify only problematic groups. Miller asserts that the attributes of groups often referred to as cults (see cult checklist), as defined by cult opponents, can be found in groups that few would consider cultist, such as Catholic religious orders or many evangelical Protestant churches. Miller argues:

“If the term does not enable us to distinguish between a pathological group and a legitimate one, then it has no real value. It is the religious equivalent of the racial term for African Americans—it conveys disdain and prejudice without having any valuable content.”[30]

Stephen adds: Check out various cult checklists here. Notice that most of these lists do indeed make many mainstream religions come out as cults. One notable exception is that most mainstream religions rarely now encourage you to spurn friends and family, whereas some (but by no means all) cults do. But perhaps that’s because, within these faiths, your friends and family are likely to be members of the same broad cult (or at least be not unsympathetic to it). Notice that C.S. Lewis suggested Christians spurn non-religious friends (in the Screwtape Letters) and Jesus himself instructed his followers to abandon their families to follow him.

Sye’s brand of Christianity, by the way, very strongly checks many of the boxes for being a “cult”. Even if we don’t want to say that all brands of religion are cult-like (there’s a sliding scale, I’d suggest, with different belief systems being more or less cult-like), Sye’s brand is certainly pretty cult-like. Fundamentalist Islam also checks pretty much all the boxes very strongly indeed (i.e. even the spurning non-believers – even if friends or family – bit).

Image: David Koresh.

Perhaps some cults are innocuous.


  1. Jesus himself instructed his followers to abandon their families and follow him.“Paul” also spoke of christians as aliens living in the world (not the potty scientologist kind – I hope). He also tells them not to tie themselves to unbelievers (Corinthians 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?).Then in Deuteronomy (13:6-10) the authors fundies assume to be Moses commands that you kill your family if they temp you to follow other gods. You can check the verses out here through the medium of lego :-)

  2. “Clearly the term has a negative connotation – there’s something sinister about cults.”Heh, heh. Of course, we are led by large sects to believe that there is something sinister about smaller sects for the same reasons that Microsoft would like to lead us to believe there is something sinister about small independent software developers. Nobody likes the competition, and the best time to suppress it is when it is in its infancy.An extension of this discussion is whether “mainstream” religions can legitimately differentiate themselves from the cargo cults inspired by the US and Japanese presence in the Pacific during WWII.From Wiki:“In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. They carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.”

  3. I quite like this distinction between a religion and a cult:A religion is a cult whose key leader/figurehead is dead.(I made it up several weeks ago)Tim

  4. If I remember my Spanish correctly, all religions fit under the term culto, whether cults or mainstream. Works for me. They’re all cults. 🙂

  5. Michael Bywater, in his gem Lost Worlds, says of corporations:“[they are] self-interested, manipulative, always the best, brook no competition, accept no responsibility, suffer no conscience, feel no remorse, present (via PR people, spin advertising and marketing) phony, superficial versions of themselves to the world and all in all are perfect Cleckley mimics of real persons.” hence indicating that they are psychopaths. A little tweaking, and you could fit organised religions, and or cults into that definition. Bywater also recognises it was the voices in his head that made him do it.

  6. Frank Zappa had some thoughts on this question: “You know the difference between a cult and religion? A cult doesn’t own any real estate. All the real religions own things… it’s a matter of taking money from people who don’t have any money; telling them they’re going to go some place when they die and use the money to build a peer base and the peer base is then used to control the lives of the people they took the money from.[…]Oh, everybody in a cult aspires to become a religion. It’s not that they prefer it that way. To start a cult, it’s so that you can take money from people who don’t know any better and eventually you’ll have a cathedral or a temple or a whatever.”

  7. Stephen,Speaking of bullshit, you might enjoy the paper “Winning Through Pseudoscience” in the collection Philosophy of Science and the Occult edited by Patrick Grim. (That’s from memory, so I hope the reference is correct.)

  8. Thanks – I checked it out – interesting. Thing about Sye’s version is it’s cruder than the view sketched out by Jade, because he has developed a series of bullshit moves to deal with criticism. Moves that are sort of tenuously related to the presuppositionalism she discusses.

  9. Timmo – thanks I’ll try and get a look at that.

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