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Jul 09 2012

A useful distinction

57 comments

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  1. 1
    AJ Milne

    Admirably succinct.

  2. 2
    PDX_Greg

    So when L Ron Hubbard died in 1986, Scientology became a religion. Yeah, actually, that does fit.

  3. 3
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    It’s short, I’ll give it that.

    But I’m not sure that all cult leaders necessarily intentionally scam people. Look at Heaven’s Gate– the leader committed suicide with most of his followers.

  4. 4
    jamessweet

    The sentiment is well-received, but a nitpick: I think a lot of cult leaders believe their own bullshit. I mean, I’m pretty sure Jim Jones didn’t kill himself for money…

  5. 5
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    @ PDX_Greg:

    *snort*

    Bwahahahah, I love it ;-)

  6. 6
    lambert

    @ Dr A re “Heaven’s Gate”

    He still scammed his followers into following him on his delusional suicide path.

  7. 7
    Moggie

    What about a cult led by a zombie?

  8. 8
    marko

    I’m not convinced that the leaders of any religion are unaware it’s a scam.

  9. 9
    drdj

    A religion is a cult with a university.

  10. 10
    Steve LaBonne

    @8:

    I’m not convinced that the leaders of any religion are unaware it’s a scam.

    And I believe that’s true of a significant proportion of the local clergy, as well. Hence, the existence of The Clergy Project.

  11. 11
    littlejohn

    I had previously settled on the following distinction:
    A cult is a religion about whose founding we still know the details. It’s a religion if those details have been largely or fully lost to time or memory.
    That would allow us to continue to categorize Scientology, Christian Science and the Mormons, for example, as cults, despite the deaths of their founders.
    The founding details of the major “religions” are cloudy at best. In some cases we can’t even know if the putative founder actually existed.

  12. 12
    Vijen

    Notwithstanding the taxonomy of cults/”religions”, there are individuals whose consciousness is utterly distinct from yours or mine, and whether or not they inspire followers, imitators or other idiots, their very existence is salient.

    Buddha’s injunction against creating statues of him held for several centuries after he left his body. It’s hardly fair to blame him for buddhism.

  13. 13
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Jamessweet:

    I think a lot of cult leaders believe their own bullshit. I mean, I’m pretty sure Jim Jones didn’t kill himself for money…

    At the beginning though, it’s pretty clear that Jones intentionally scammed his followers. By the time Jonestown was built/established, it’s not so clear how much of his own bullshit he believed and how much was acting. He very well may have killed himself to avoid punishment.*

    Lambert:

    He still scammed his followers into following him on his delusional suicide path.

    Can you consider it a scam is the leader himself believes that he’s telling the truth?

    *If you haven’t read it, I recommend Raven by Tim Reiterman. A new edition was released in the past five years or so.

  14. 14
    Kilian Hekhuis

    I’m pretty sure the pope knows it’s a scam :)

  15. 15
    Marcus Ranum

    Wait, I thought the only difference between “cult” and “religion” was how they’re spelled!

  16. 16
    chigau (違う)

    Marcus Ranum #15
    Agreed!
    They are all cults.

  17. 17
    Glen Davidson

    I think that most of the IDiots fear that it’s a scam, but don’t want to accept that it is. Hence all of the projection that “Darwinism” (cultic-sounding name) is a scam.

    Some likely realize that it’s all BS, though.

    Glen Davidson

  18. 18
    Ida Know

    I can’t ask her to confirm it, as she’s been dead for four years, but I believe my mom (who was a bit of an activist) met and possibly worked with Jim Jones when he was doing his helping-the-poor thing in Indianapolis in the 1960′s.

  19. 19
    Glen Davidson

    At the beginning though, it’s pretty clear that Jones intentionally scammed his followers. By the time Jonestown was built/established, it’s not so clear how much of his own bullshit he believed and how much was acting. He very well may have killed himself to avoid punishment.*

    Fake miracles and all as he built his cult.

    At the end it was pretty much paranoia, which seemed to be Jones’ own narcissistic delusions of persecution (although his sadistic punishments of members had called down scrutiny that “justified” his delusions). Of course, just because he was paranoid didn’t mean that he had no enemies, in fact he’d created enemies.

    He killed himself to avoid persecution, which in our eyes would be avoiding punishment. The others had to die along with him because he was so important.

    Glen Davidson

  20. 20
    MikeMa

    Many leaders (and followers) of cults and/or religions claim to speak or commune with their deities, sending and receiving messages.

    This alone should qualify as either knowing it is a scam or requiring mental health treatment. Or both.

  21. 21
    petejohn

    I like this.

    So… The Church of Latter Day Saints was a cult until Smith was beaten and shot in Nauvoo, IL. Today it’s a religion, because he’s long since dead. Makes sense. Smith had to have known he was making a bunch of shit up, even if he truly believed some of it to be true. But because he couldn’t and wouldn’t share everything he knew with his followers, probably for fear of losing his power and control within the cult, he took the actual truth behind his cult’s theology to the grave with him. The believers were left over.

  22. 22
    Trebuchet

    My first thought was that this was great. My second thought was that even though L. Ron Hubbard is dead, the leaders of Scientology still know it’s a scam. Maybe the first two generations of leaders need to be dead.

  23. 23
    unclefrogy

    I like it. It makes a good point but like most things that can be said about reality the edges are often a little ill-defined or overlapping. It holds with the heavens gate as there is no heavens gate religion derived from the cult at least as far as I am aware. I think I could even say that it works with most of the RCC clergy in that they may not actually believe every detail of their faith literally they still think that the important ideas are true in some profound abstract sense. What they, all clergy, share is the belief that they posses a better understanding of “IT” than everyone else and they deserve the authority and the wealth and power that goes along with that knowledge and “faith”. The founders of cults “the prophets” are con-men (con-women, con-persons?) and are about the profit they think they deserve it because they deserve it. While the “flocks” of believers of cults and religions, the followers are pretty hard to tell apart as to which is a cult follower and which is a member of a religion.

    uncle frogy

  24. 24
    microraptor

    I prefer Frank Zappa’s definition: the difference between a religion and a cult is the amount of real estate they own.

  25. 25
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    Moggie:

    What about a cult led by a zombie?

    ChrisZOMbianity?

  26. 26
    'Tis Himself

    petejohn #21

    It was obvious that Joe Smith knew he was pulling his cult’s theology out of his ass. Like the time he got tired of Mrs. Smith and announced that “Heavenly Father” wanted him (and the male members of the cult) to fuck marry as many women as they wanted.

  27. 27
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    ‘Tis:
    Plus, you know, Smith being a conman in the first place.

    And the whole speaking stones in his hat bit.

    And all the rest.

  28. 28
    RFW

    @ #11 littlejohn says:

    In some cases we can’t even know if the putative founder [of a "major" religion] actually existed.

    Fortunately, the “major” religions are few in number, so we can tabulate them.

    Christianity: founder: St. Paul – status unknown to me
    Judaism: founder: Moses. Probably mythical.
    Islam: founder: Mohamed. Historical.
    Zoroastrianism: founder: Zoroaster. Unknown status, in part because the religion’s adherents do not worship him.
    Hinduism: founders entirely mythical.
    Taoism: founder: Lao-tze. Questionable.
    Confucianism: founder: Confucius. Historical.

    When we look at various modern developments (Scientology, Christian Science, Mormonism, Cao Dai, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, the founders are generally historical, but these are not major religions. Many are properly described as sects of a major religion.

    An interesting variant: the religions, notably Wicca, that purport to be a revival of an older defunct religion, usually via a free misinterpretation of the historical evidence.

    The waters are also muddied by those religions that were brought to prominence by someone other than the nominal founder, notably Christianity.

  29. 29
    IslandBrewer

    Sorry, I think this is completely wrong.

    Can’t remember where I read it, but the operative difference (I think) between a cult and a religion is that the (still alive) person at the top is an object of worship (or at least reverence or extreme adulation). So, a person claiming to be a god, demi-god, chosen prophet, person with “special” knowledge that god provided, someone with divine revelation – all those people fit the bill to lead a cult.

    Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon, David Koresh, Joseph Smith – all cult leaders. Their followers believed that these people were magically different from other mere mortals. Whether or not they knew it was a scam, or believed their own bullshit is irrelevant, I believe, as to whether or not it was a cult.

    Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the Pope – these folks are not worshiped as special or set aside from humanity (although, if you want to argue this point, I won’t really disagree vehemently). Thus, even if the pope was a closet atheist, and in it just for the gold, robes, and nubile boys, it still wouldn’t be a cult.

    Fred Phelps is borderline. He doesn’t preach that he’s special with respect to others in his congregation (as far as I know), but his family certainly treat him like he’s the only divine messenger of their invisible sky fairy, and they certainly have a cultish gestalt.

  30. 30
    RFW

    I have to add a few more majors to the list:

    1. Shamanism: a folk religion with no single founder

    2. Animism: ditto.

    3. Chinese folk religion: ditto

    3. Manichaeism (now defunct): historical founder.

    And I inexplicably left Buddhism out of the list of majors in my previous posting. It’s founder appears to be historical.

  31. 31
    IslandBrewer

    Sorry, I meant to say “an” operative difference. It’s clearly not the only one.

  32. 32
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    Island Brewer:
    Wouldn’t this mean that Mormonism is still a cult? They have a living profitprophet, if I recall.

  33. 33
    What a Maroon, oblivious

    How about: A religion is a cult whose members can become high government functionaries.

    So Mormonism is a religion; Scientology is still a cult.

  34. 34
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ RFW

    Islam: founder: Mohamed. Historical.

    Mwahahahaha… citation please. (Mohammad (PBUH) is as real as any fictional character out there. But that there was a real person as described in the cult’s literature?)

  35. 35
    CJO

    Christianity: founder: St. Paul – status unknown to me

    Historical, to the extent that the bulk of the seven authentic letters were written by a single person apparently in the mid-First century. But the problem with calling him the founder of Christianity (and thus in context the deceased person “who knows it’s a scam”) is that in those same letters he claims there was an operating “Church of God” which he himself resisted or persecuted in some way before his conversion.

    Then there are the gospels, certainly candidates for the title of foundational texts on par with the Pauline epistles, and which partake little in overt Pauline theology.

    I would almost venture to say that the distinction between a cult and a religion could be drawn along these lines but even more simply: a cult is a sectarian movement with an identifiable founder, and capital-R Religions all began as “folk religion[s] with no single founder” to borrow a phrase. Whether all cult leaders “know it’s a scam” is debatable. There’s no contradiction between deluded and charismatic.

    Outside of the context of this particular discussion, I tend to view the distinction as one of nested taxonomy, similar to the case of dialects and languages or populations and species: a religion is a particular set of cults.

  36. 36
    IslandBrewer

    Dr. Darkheart,

    Whether or not there’s someone titled the profitprophet isn’t the point, it’s whether people in the Mormon church give him that worshipful adoration that they give a cult leader.

    I kind of don’t think so, but I’m open to be convinced otherwise. Fuck, I don’t even know who he is (I’d have to look him up)!

    Kind of like the pope – there are certainly devout catholics who line up in the hot tropical sun for hours just to get a glimpse some old (ostensibly) celibate grump. That certainly seems cultlike. As a Unitedstatesian, most catholics I know don’t really worship the pope, so I don’t think of it like a cult.

    I think a good test of cult leader is, if standing in a room full of followers, the cult leader points to YOU and says (in an ominous voice) “Seize her!”, and the catholics/mormons/Phelpsians immediately jump up and try to grab you, it’s a cult. If they mull about saying “Um, what?”, it’s probably not.

  37. 37
    cag

    In a cult there is a person at the top who knows it’s a scam

    So we have gotten rid of religion, now all we have to worry about is the thousands of cults.

  38. 38
    yoav

    The only difference between a cult and a religion is how effective is their PR department.

  39. 39
    rafaelruiz

    Excellent, but the number of followers is an important difference between cult and religion…

  40. 40
    ChristineRose

    Since we’re going there I would say that people at the top are generally believers who think that God is giving them a free pass to lie and cheat because God’s work justifies the means. Certainly Joseph Smith, Hubbard, Mohammed, the historical Jesus (yeah, I know, I believe Jesus was historical, live with it) fit that model. Paul seems to have been completely self-deluded, possibly because he had some sort of brain disease that caused him to have very convincing hallucinations and he was unable to come to terms with how ill he was.

  41. 41
    ohioobserver

    “I mean, I’m pretty sure Jim Jones didn’t kill himself for money…”

    Jim Jones was a killed himself to avid the consequnces of his actions

  42. 42
    ohioobserver

    Let’s try that again..

    “I mean, I’m pretty sure Jim Jones didn’t kill himself for money…”

    Jim Jones was a quivering coward who killed himself to avoid the consequences of his heinous actions, which included conspiracy to commit multiple murders, financial malfeasance, and probably kidnapping, to say nothing of the laws of Guyana that were broken, and the numerous civil suits he would be facing.I wish the miserable bastard had lived to be paraded through court after court for the rest of his despicable life.

    He believed his spiritual tripe a good deal less that you and I do, and I don’t believe in it at all. He was an amoral con man who traded on thhe spirit of community and mutual assistance that has since come to have such a tarnished image.

  43. 43
    Rich Woods

    @IslandBrewer #29:

    Thus, even if the pope was a closet atheist, and in it just for the gold, robes, and nubile boys, it still wouldn’t be a cult.

    I don’t think this is fair. I don’t think we have any compelling evidence that the current pope is into nubile boys. You demean the poor fellow. It’s much more accurate to suggest that he’s in it for the swastikas.

  44. 44
    Rich Woods

    I do love to Godwin myself on a Monday.

  45. 45
    CJO

    Paul seems to have been completely self-deluded, possibly because he had some sort of brain disease that caused him to have very convincing hallucinations and he was unable to come to terms with how ill he was.

    This has always struck me as an explanation in need of a problem. Temporal lobe epilepsy is often proffered as the illness, what Paul calls the “thorn in his flesh,” and that condition is known to be associated with hyper-religiosity and sensations of the numinous, if not “very convincing hallucinations”. But that’s only compelling if we label Paul’s beliefs symptoms. What is the justification for that? It’s not as if hyper-religiosity and delusions are always or even more often than not associated with TLE. And malaria is a much more likely candidate for Paul’s “thorn” if only because it was ubiquitous in the setting, while TLE is relatively rare.

  46. 46
    Alexandra (née Audley)

    IslandBrewer:

    Whether or not there’s someone titled the profitprophet isn’t the point, it’s whether people in the Mormon church give him that worshipful adoration that they give a cult leader.

    You know what, I have no idea whether they do or not.

    Where’s Lynna when you need her? ;)

  47. 47
    ramaus

    marko (8) I agree. I would like nothing better than to see evidence that the pope knows his religion is a scam. This would change everything. Maybe a big cash reward would get a cardinal or bishop to cough up a piece of good evidence. A ‘Templeton’ type prize. We could change the argument from – Is religion bad & a waste, to – Do they at the top already know it is bad and a waste and a scam?

  48. 48
    ChristineRose

    @CJO

    This has always struck me as an explanation in need of a problem. Temporal lobe epilepsy is often proffered as the illness, what Paul calls the “thorn in his flesh,” and that condition is known to be associated with hyper-religiosity and sensations of the numinous, if not “very convincing hallucinations”. But that’s only compelling if we label Paul’s beliefs symptoms. What is the justification for that? It’s not as if hyper-religiosity and delusions are always or even more often than not associated with TLE. And malaria is a much more likely candidate for Paul’s “thorn” if only because it was ubiquitous in the setting, while TLE is relatively rare.

    The bright light, temporary blindness, collapse, and visions on the road to Damascus are where people came up with epilepsy. It’s hard to know what to make of it because it’s not exactly presented objectively. What’s come down to us is not a perfect picture of TLE by any means, but could be someone trying hard to spin his seizures into visions.

    Or not. Acts wasn’t even written by Paul; we don’t know what contact the authors and compiler had with Paul. Anyhow Paul’s modus operandi doesn’t really match that of the classic cult leader. He didn’t lock himself in a compound and make pretty girls/boys wait on him, he doesn’t appear to have needed constant donations to grow the ministry, he doesn’t accuse people he dislikes of apostasy, and he let other people have visions and speak in tongues. So it all kind of fits, but proves nothing.

  49. 49
    moshiachone

    It’s funny, but it’s false. Still hilarious though, because of that kernel of truth.

    There’s a whole bunch of criteria for culthood that most mainstream religions don’t have. Eg, “cause isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture.

    Sure, every mainstream religion that is now so tame, certainly was a cult, in the first 100-200 years it started out.

    But “religion” per se (in a Western democracy): no, not a cult.

    Now if you’re talking Jehovah’s Witnesses, ultra-orthodox Hasidim, and the like, THAT’S a cult.

  50. 50
    ericpaulsen

    I always kind of figured that the only real difference between a cult and a religion is in how much political power it can exercise.

  51. 51
    tim rowledge, Ersatz Haderach

    I always kind of figured that the only real difference between a cult and a religion is in how much political power it can exercise.

    I have a hypothesis that a political party is a religion that admits that its beliefs were thought up by people and conversely a religion is a political party that knows, just really knows, honestly, that its beliefs were thought up by a god that just happens to have the exact same political feelings as the members.
    I guess a cult is a transitional fossil where the members are working really hard to convince themselves that the founder is actually a god. *cough*lib3rtar1ans*cough*

  52. 52
    Christoph Burschka

    So when L Ron Hubbard died in 1986, Scientology became a religion. Yeah, actually, that does fit.

    Not sure there; there are probably still living people at the top of the organization who know it’s a scam.

  53. 53
    marko

    microraptor:

    I prefer Frank Zappa’s definition: the difference between a religion and a cult is the amount of real estate they own.

    Sounds about right to me, a religion is a cult that has the political clout to stop people calling it a cult.

  54. 54
    Sili

    Christianity: founder: St. Paul – status unknown to me
    Judaism: founder: Moses. Probably mythical.

    I don’t think it’s correct to call Saulus/Paulus the founder of Christianity. Simon/Cephas/Petros seems to be more likely as I understand it. And even then, we’re still talking about sects of Judaism.

    As for Moses as the founder of the latter, I don’t understand. Moses was already a Jew (not that I think he existed). The mythical origins must rest with Abraham and then Jacob. As for the real origins, I don’t know nearly enough about the subject.

  55. 55
    Sili

    Religion: What I believe.
    Cult: What you believe.

  56. 56
    Sili

    The bright light, temporary blindness, collapse, and visions on the road to Damascus are where people came up with epilepsy. It’s hard to know what to make of it because it’s not exactly presented objectively. What’s come down to us is not a perfect picture of TLE by any means, but could be someone trying hard to spin his seizures into visions.

    I may be wrong, but I seem recall that not only do grand mal seizures not result in visions, but the sufferers don’t actually recall what happened when they come to again. At least I think I’ve seen that offered as an argument against Paul suffering epilepsy.

  57. 57
    Owlmirror

    I may be wrong, but I seem recall that not only do grand mal seizures not result in visions, but the sufferers don’t actually recall what happened when they come to again. At least I think I’ve seen that offered as an argument against Paul suffering epilepsy.

    Temporal lobe epiplepsy does not necessarily result in grand mal seizure. Mild seizures involve feelings of oneness, extreme emotion, delusions, and hallucinations.

    See:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/godonbrain.shtml

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