The difference between a cult and a religion

One sees the word ‘cult’ thrown around quite often and the word has deeply pejorative connotations. People who belong to mainstream religions are comfortable calling some minority religious groups cults but the distinction between a religion and a cult is elusive. Is Scientology and cult or a religion? How about Mormonism? How about the Moonies? How about the Branch Davidians or the Sai Babaists?

I too have tried to find a distinction but failed. The best that I could come up with is that a religion tends to have the properties of being old, having many members, and some political clout while those groups that are called cults tend to lack any or all of those qualities. But since there were no real differences in the nature of the beliefs involved, I concluded that there is no substantive difference between a cult and a religion.

But via Pharyngula I saw this graphic that I think captures the essential difference.


  1. says

    As I commented on Pharyngula, one problem with this formulation is that at least some (and I think probably many if not most) cult leaders believe the shit they are shoveling. Just as a trivial example, what about the cult leaders who committed suicide along with their adherents? Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate…

  2. says

    Also, take Mormonism, although it is impossible to know what was in his mind, a number of Mormon historians (and I tend to agree with them) think that Joseph Smith at some point transitioned from pulling a bald-faced con job to believing his own bullshit, at least on some level. How do you count that? Did it become a religion when he started believing it, or not until he got chased out a jail window by an angry mob? Even if the latter, can you really say it wasn’t a cult with that shady Brigham Young running it?

  3. machintelligence says

    The difference between a cult and a religion– about 100 years.
    *Note: does not apply to religion for tax purposes in USA.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Next, would somebody please provide a concise distinction between “religion” and “superstition”?

  5. Alverant says

    I remember a “On the Lighter Side ….” from Mad Magazine.
    Daughter: Daddy, what’s the difference between a religion and a cult?
    Father: Simple. Any religion that isn’t ours is a cult.
    (Both father and daughter are smiling when he says that.)

  6. Gregory in Seattle says

    I find that the ABCDEF (Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame) is an excellent tool.

    Isaac Bonewits was an early pioneer in the American neo-Pagan movement (and the only person to get a bachelor’s degreen in magic, from UCal Berkeley.) As part of his pagan anti-defamation work, he created the ABCDEF (“because evaluating these groups should be elementary”) to help distinguish between organizations that are merely odd and those that are actively dangerous, religious or not.

  7. left0ver1under says

    The image is one of several broad definitions of I’ve read over the years. I’ve also heard others:

    “A cult is a religion with few members.”

    “A cult is a religion other than my own.”

    “A cult is a new religion and a mythology is an old religion.”

    I’m more particular to my own definition:

    A cult is a belief system that claims the supernatural (whether beings or abilities) that cannot demonstrate its claims on call, when asked to demonstrate them.

    For example, if a christian can’t raise a dead person, then it’s a cult.

  8. Steve says

    There are other aspects that show signs of a cult. Especially when it comes to the amount of control a religious group has over a member’s social and personal life, as well the opinions they are allowed to have. For example when a church demands conformity an all aspects of life in minute detail then that’s definitely cultish. The way the enforce these standards is also important. It’s not necessarily through top-down punishment only. Frequently, rules are mainly enforced through peer pressure. That doesn’t make the group any less cultish.

    I really like the term “cult-like church”. It acknowledges the traditional characteristics of a cult, but doesn’t necessarily have the negative connotation. And it also applies if not all of the characteristics are present.

  9. says

    Good morning Mano,

    There is no actual difference; by definition all religions are cults:


    1: formal religious veneration : worship

    2: a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents

    The word entered the English language around the time of Shakespeare, but I don’t know when it became a pejorative — bad/false religion = cult — but I’m betting that it happened at the end of the 19th century when the evangelical/pentecostal movements gained traction.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  10. Jared A says

    Of course, Jeff Hess’s definition is correct, and people need to be aware of the technical meaning of cult if they are studying history or are studying religion formally. For the contemporary definition of cult, the way I learned it was that a cult is:

    A group controlled by a charismatic leader who trains independent agents. Thus, they are typically authoritarian in structure. Also, socialization outside of the group is typically discouraged.

    These qualifications typically lead to the other cultish behavior – strict enforcement and adherence to.

    Based on this type of definition, cults and religions are different types of categories. Not all cults are religions, nor are all religions cults. Some are both, and religions are exceptionally susceptible to cult-like attributes.

  11. Leo says

    Yeah, that’s the big problem with this — knowing what the person at the top knows. Certainly some sects of Christianity are cults per this definition, but what about the Roman Catholic Church? Do some of the people at the top believe what they are selling?


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