Cults and Religions-2: Is secrecy the difference?

In the previous post, I showed how some journalists and media pundits like Christopher Hitchens and Jacob Weisberg think that believing in Mormonism indicates stupidity and disqualifies the holder of the right to high office. Weisberg states “Such views are disqualifying because they’re dogmatic, irrational, and absurd. By holding them, someone indicates a basic failure to think for himself or see the world as it is.” I suspect that many people share that view.

This is an interesting argument. But it raises the obvious question as to why beliefs in mainstream religions are not considered dogmatic or irrational or absurd. Why should believing in Mormonism be considered be considered outside the bounds of acceptability while believing in Christianity or Judaism or Islam is not? For that matter, why is the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church or the Hare Krishnas seen as so outlandish by many people?

Weisberg makes a stab at addressing this problem:

One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational—what’s the difference between Smith’s “seer stone” and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It’s Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world’s greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor. (my emphasis)

Basically he seems to be saying that although Mormonism may be a fraud just like Christianity and Judaism, its problem is that it is not old enough. If the fraud is old and opaque enough, that would pass muster. That is really such a weak argument as to not be an argument at all. It is the kind of reasoning one comes up with when one has already decided on the conclusion and is now scrambling around to justify it by any means possible.

The reasons for popular disdain cannot lie in the nature of the beliefs itself, that the beliefs of Mormonism or Scientology are so bizarre as to be beyond the pale. If one is a Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, one is already committed to believing things so bizarre (the virgin birth of Jesus or that god spoke to Moses via a burning bush or that god dictated the Koran verbatim to Mohammed) that one would have to be disqualified from sitting in judgment on the credibility of the beliefs of others. So while I have little idea of what Mormons actually are required to believe (for all I know they believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster), I cannot see how it could be any more preposterous than the beliefs of other so-called mainstream religions. It seems to me that once one has abandoned the need for any scientific evidence for one’s beliefs, all bets are off and you might as well believe in fairies and unicorns.

So what makes something a cult and something else a religion? It cannot be the existence of a prophetic leader. It is true that most modern-day phenomena that we call cults tend to be founded by a charismatic leader. One thinks of cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones for example. While it is true that Mormonism was also founded by a so-called prophet Joseph Smith, so also was Christianity and Judaism and Islam, and yet we do not label those as a Jesus cult or Moses cult or Mohammed cult.

It is tempting to conclude that the difference between religions and cults is based purely on size and acceptance, that as cults become established, are around for a long time, and grow in size, they become mainstream and thus accepted by the community at large. It seems as long as a large number of people believe in something, that belief, however preposterous objectively, becomes viewed as reasonable. If every other person in your community is a member of a particular group, it is hard to see that group as different and threatening, the way that a very small group can be seen.

But there may be something more tangible that divides those groups that we call religions from those we call cults. It could be argued that cults tend to have secrets that are revealed only to the initiated, and that there is some tangible repercussion, if not punishment, for leaving the group once you had joined.

With mainstream religions, there is really no secrecy as to what being a member involves. You can know before going into it what being a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jew means. And you can leave the group later if you want to, without being shunned or ostracized or threatened or worse. But with groups like the Mormons, there are secrets that only Mormons supposedly know. When I visited Salt Lake City, for example, the main tabernacle was closed off for non-Mormon visitors and the Mormons apparently have rituals that are not revealed to non-Mormons.

Again, this may be a factor largely determined by size. When groups become large, as the mainstream religions became over time, it becomes hard to keep its internal secrets from becoming public knowledge. Even now, one can find some of the secrets of the Mormon religion on the web, put there by former members, with all this revelatory activity triggered by Andrew Sullivan’s post that more than 43% of the population would not vote for a Mormon because they do not consider them to be Christians. This spread of information is inevitable these days and perhaps if Church of Latter Day Saints made all its beliefs public, the Mormons would be more accepted.

But returning to the original question of whether Mitt Romney being a Mormon is sufficient reason for him not being considered suitable for being president, being a member of a group that had secrets has not disqualified others in the past. After all, both George Bush and John Kerry were members of a secret society at Yale and many Presidents have been Masons. And yet, there is clearly some discomfort with the idea of having a Mormon president. Perhaps that will pass with time, the way that Kennedy managed to overcome objections to his Catholicism, an objection that seems far-fetched just a little over forty years later.

As more and more Mormons become visible and are seen as being just like others, being a Mormon might not be a negative factor for holding high office. After all, George Bush takes great pride in being a very religious Christian and see where that has taken us. It is hard to imagine that a Mormon could be any worse.


  1. Opie says

    Nicely written.

    Although it seems that you haven’t quite told us how you see the difference between cult and religion. The closest you came was the paragraph that began with, “It is tempting to conclude that the difference between religions and cults is based purely on size and acceptance….”

    Yes, it is *tempting* to believe this is the core distinction. Now tell us, my curiosity is piqued. What do YOU believe?

    p.s. I was raised Muslim and have advanced degrees in science. After years of serious consideration, despite the cultural baggage, including an Indian mother trained in the high art of guilt and manipulation, I’m done believing in dogma that amounts to unicorns and fairies. Let the heavens fall.

  2. says


    Actually, in substantive terms, I think there is no difference at all between a cult and a religion. If people believe in things for which there is no evidence, then whether they do so in secret or not seems hardly meaningful.

    But in the sense that labels can be used as a convenient shorthand to distinguish between different groups of things, using secrecy to demarcate between a cult and a religion may have a practical utility.


  3. Opie says

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m in agreement.

    Given the importance that religion seems to play on the world stage, window dressing or not, increased clarity on the subject is very useful.

  4. Kathy Ewing says

    I think Weisberg’s last line is significant, and you refer in your other post on scientific discoveries to metaphors in mainstream religion. For many of us the value of Scripture has to do with the beauty and applicability of its myths. So that, for instance, the “fall” signifies the problems inherent in creation — life is often sad and tragic, and humans seem to screw up much of the time. Many Christians believe that Jesus’ life shows us an ideal way to live and that his “resurrection” is the embodiment of his teachings in those who follow him. It doesn’t have to be a literal resurrection, nor does his birth have to have been, literally, “virgin.”

    A cult, to me, tends to have a simplistic, literalistic, and uniform belief system, often, as you say, secretive as well. Cults have a very narrow range of dogma and no tolerance of diverse interpretation. Certainly, religions have often also been simplistic, intolerant, and so on…but cults are a particularly authoritarian and narrow subset. A cult would expel or punish a member who called its beliefs myths or “only” metaphors.

    Religions, maybe mostly because of their size, tolerate more diversity. So, George Bush and I are both Christians, even though we agree on very little and would each like to kick each other out of the tent.

  5. Greg Lowell says


    I hope you’ve noticed the parallel between religions and scientific theories. How do you know when a scientific theory is a “mainstream,” respected theory? When it’s subscribed to by a lot of scientists, basically. Likewise, how can one determine when a religion is a (more or less) respected one and not a cult? You have to look at the number of people involved in it.

    I agree that secrecy is a function of the number of people involved. In places where Christianity is a tiny minority, they practice in secret, for fear of oppression. Koresh-style cults may operate in the same way, fearing oppression from dominant society. But secrecy isn’t always for small religions/cults. Try walking into the Vatican Secret Archives sometime. I bet you can’t do it, at least not without a FANTASTIC reason. Likewise, the Holy Temple in Old Testament times contained a Holy of Holies that only the one High Priest was allowed to enter. It was said that God Himself lived there. In both cases, the religion involved was decidedly the dominant one in its area.

    I propose a different way of looking at cults and how they’re defined: the degree of association of members with that religious group. If asked what I am, “Christian” would not be the first thing I list; it would have to follow things like “student,” “musician,” and the like. Likewise, I doubt the first word out of your mouth would be “atheist.” But for Koresh-style cults, they would all say “Branch Davidian” first. Their level of association is extremely high. I suppose you could argue that that’s also a function of how many people are part of the group, but I’m still on break and don’t want to think that hard. 🙂

  6. says


    Yes, when it comes to distinguishing between cults and religions, size does seem to matter.

    The point about the secrecy of the Vatican archives is interesting but not quite what I meant. I am not sure what is contained there and why it is secret. maybe it is just embarrassing or too valuable. The point is that whether one gets access to them is not determined by whether one is a Catholic or not. And almost all Catholics have no idea what is there and that does not mean that they are not considered full Catholics. The Vatican collection is like the rare book archives that libraries have and which won’t allow just anyone to go and get some of the items.

    The issue of self-identification is also interesting but I am not sure if it is the members of the so-called cult who identify themselves or the rest of us who pin the scarlet letter on them. I am not sure to what extent Tom Cruise identifies himself as a Scientologist but the medi definitely seems to rais ethe issue repeatedly so that he cannot escape the label.

  7. abi says

    the main difference in what consititutes a cult I feel is that a cult harms family relationships and demonises outsiders or non believers. the motive is not love when dealing with others and honour a persons gift of being able and permitted to choose. it uses force by direct accusation, shaming but mainly, force is the spirit of these evil associations which hide behind the name religion.

  8. Matt German-Lortie says


    I found it interesting that you distinguish religions from cults by the censure of differences in interpretation. Martin Luther was excommunicated for, among other things, interpreting the Bible differently than Catholicism. There’s also the matter of the Great Schism. I don’t see a significant distance between either of these and the emergence of Zenith Applied Philosophy from Scientology (beyond temporal proximity).


  9. says

    In the context of African Traditional Religion there is no difference between CULT and RELIGION.There is need for multidisplinary approaches to unravel the relationship.Such a study will come up with a wholistic view. Cult is a strong religious concept.A great deal of relgiosity operates in secrecy, a kind of personal and group experences.We can only question and condermn if there are infringements on human rights and reason or anti social.

  10. says

    Why have they just targeted Mormonism? irealise that it is a small base religion, but is that really a good enough reason? I know several Mormons, and they are all really good people. They are exactly the kind of people who should be put in charge of important decisions. maybe they could finally make the world a better place

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