Home Lifestyle The Difference Between a Religion and a Cult (What You Need to Know)

The Difference Between a Religion and a Cult (What You Need to Know)

by Logan

Like Classic Coke and Diet Coke, religions and cults look similar, even if they differ. Religion relates to the broader culture; its followers come and go freely. A cult is disposed to be counter-cultural, constraining the social life of its followers to other cult members.

The cult leader alleges an exclusive permit to transcendent reality and dispenses strength and grace as they recognize it as a fit. It is not a “belief” that differentiates a cult from a religion.

In the 1970s, the term “cult” became quite pejorative due to anti-cult associations.

Many philosophers supervised substituting the word “new religious movements” or NRMs to explain a level of legality to otherwise innocent examinations of religion. This nearly always directs to violence. If the term “cult” connotes the ability for violence, I suggest we merely exercise when using the word rather than dispense with it entirely.

Why Is Religion Important?

Religion has been a part of human society for as long as we’ve existed. As with anything else, over time religions have evolved (or devolved) into different forms, such as cults. The term cult was originally used by sociologists in reference to religious groups that have acquired unconventional beliefs or practices; because of their unusual characteristics, some people refer to these groups as religious movements rather than religions.

Regardless of whether they’re referred to as cults or not, it’s important for anyone practicing a specific religion or belonging to any organization associated with one—from churches and mosques, even seminary classes—to understand how these groups differ from traditional religions.

Understanding how to tell if an organization is a cult can help protect your family and friends from potentially dangerous situations. There are many factors involved in identifying cults and most aren’t blatantly obvious at first glance.

To start, let’s examine two main characteristics of all cults: authoritarian leadership and thought reform methods. Cults are led by strong leaders who exercise extreme control over members’ lives. Leaders often use fear tactics to keep followers dependent on them for everything from basic necessities like food and shelter to social acceptance within the group itself.

What Is a Cult?

An image of the inside architecture of a church (the worship place of Christians).
The architecture of a Church

Cults are formed by charismatic leaders who exploit their followers’ emotional vulnerabilities, usually without their followers’ full knowledge. The leader is often believed to be chosen by God or another powerful entity and his commands are interpreted as divine law.

Often led by a single man, modern cults tend to be centered around an idea of religious purity. Historically, in some cases, cults were created for political purposes. Examples include Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for nerve gas attacks on Tokyo subways in 1995; People’s Temple; Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple; terrorist groups like ISIS; and Nazi Germany’s SS troops. Many cults are also led by women, such as Raëlism, Scientology, and Heaven’s Gate.

Other examples include suicide-based cults such as Heaven’s Gate (California), Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (Benin), Order of Death (Brazil), and Solar Temple (Switzerland). Some people may join a cult simply because they want to belong somewhere or have found it difficult to make friends elsewhere.

Others may be attracted to its promise of personal fulfillment through belonging to something larger than themselves. Still, others may have been recruited under false pretenses—they thought they were joining a yoga class but then found out that they had joined a group with different beliefs entirely.

It can be hard to leave a cult once you’re in one. You may feel isolated from your family and friends if they don’t agree with your decision to join, or if they don’t approve of how involved you’ve become. In some cases, members are forced into isolation from those outside of the group and forbidden from communicating with them.

This makes it harder for them to leave because they feel like there’s no one else who understands them or believes in them anymore. It can also lead members to believe that their family doesn’t love them anymore—or even that leaving will result in physical harm coming to loved ones back home.

What Is a Religion?

A display of Christian artifacts at a museum.
A display of Christian artifacts at a museum.

Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life, especially when considered as a relationship with the divine. When we think of religions, we often think about God. In many cases, that’s true; however, there are non-theistic religions (which do not focus on God).

There are also religious traditions that don’t include worship or prayer. So let’s be clear—there isn’t one definition for religion because it means different things to different people in different cultures. That said, most religions share common characteristics. These characteristics might be obvious—like having certain spiritual or ethical principles in common—or they might be hard to spot.

For example, some religions believe in one god while others believe in multiple gods. Some religions use prayer or meditation to contact their deities while others rely on rituals instead. But despite these differences, all religions have something important in common: They provide their followers with meaning and guidance for living a meaningful life.

And since everyone needs those things, it makes sense that so many people turn to religion for them. Religion helps its members find answers to questions like What is my purpose? and How should I live my life? It provides structure, guidelines, rules, and support. This support can come from within a community of believers or from within oneself through faith.

Regardless of how it comes about, religion gives us answers that help us live our lives in ways that make us feel good about ourselves and our world. It gives us hope for what lies ahead after death by offering a better afterlife than if we hadn’t followed its tenets.

How Do They Differ?

There are multiple factors that separate religions from cults.

ReligionsCults
They have books containing tenets of faith, rules for living, historical stories, and more.Cults may also have written texts—but these won’t contain any information about how or why one should live by them.
In religion, the people or the followers must perform certain rites and rituals.There are no rites or rituals that all members participate in
Religions often rely on multiple people to interpret books of beliefs.Cults believe in only one person (the founder) as having all of their answers
Religious groups tend to have a set location where members gather for services and celebrations.Those who follow cult leaders tend to move around quite frequently
Most religions require an initiation process before becoming an official member of that groupCult leaders don’t typically ask new followers to take part in such formalities because they don’t want anyone questioning their authority or teachings
Religion vs. Cults

If you want more specifics on how these two differ—or if you think your group might be considered a cult—you can check out The International Cultic Studies Association’s website. It has detailed information on how to spot warning signs of dangerous organizations and even provides resources if you feel like someone close to you is being manipulated by a cult leader.

Here’s a video you should watch to know more about the difference between a cult and a religion:

Joe Rogan talks about the differences between religion and cults in his podcast.

Major Religions

A picture of a man studying his religious book.
A picture of a man studying his religious book.

There are many religions in the world however it is not possible to name each and every one of those so here is a list of the most popular and followed religions:

  • Baha’i
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Confucianism
  • Hinduism
  • Indigenous American religions
  • Islam
  • Jainism
  • Judaism
  • Rastafarianism
  • Shinto
  • Sikhism
  • Taoism
  • Traditional African religions
  • Zoroastrianism

Prominent Cults

There are numerous cults that have sprung up over time in various areas each with its own unique and different beliefs. Following is a list of some of the most followed cults:

  • The Unification Church
  • Rajneeshpuram
  • Children of God
  • Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God
  • Aum Shinrikyo
  • Order of the Solar Temple
  • Branch Davidians
  • Heaven’s Gate
  • Manson Family
  • The People’s Temple

Festivals and Events of Some Religions

All religions on earth have certain events and festivals which hold spiritual and religious importance for the people. These festivals or events are mostly based on things that have happened in the past or events that have taken place in the lives of those people who are held in high regard by the religion and its followers like Prophets or Messiahs’. Following is a list of some festivals which are a part of the most popular religions:

Christmas

Christmas is a religious festival celebrated by Christians all around the world on the 25th of December. The Christian community celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ whom they believe is the son of God. The festival includes eating together as a family visiting the Church and giving presents to each other.

Eid

Eid is a religious festival celebrated by Muslims. There are two types of Eids, Eid ul Fitr, and Eid Ul Azha. Eid ul Fitr is celebrated in the month of Shawwal according to the Hijrah(Islamic) calendar. The celebrations include a special congregational prayer and exchanging gifts. Eid ul Azha is celebrated in the month of Zil Hajj it includes sacrificing animals in the way of God. The Muslims sacrifice to God in order to follow the action of the prophet Abraham (A.S)

Holi

Holi is known as the festival of colors and it is the most vibrant Hindu festival. It marks the end of winter and welcomes the spring season. The celebrations include throwing paint and colors on one another. It is celebrated because of an old Hindu legend and it marks the defeat of evil and the victory of good.

Conclusion

  • Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life, especially when considered as a relationship with the divine
  • Cults are formed by charismatic leaders who exploit their followers’ emotional vulnerabilities, usually without their followers’ full knowledge
  • There are many religions in the world however it’s not possible to name each and every one of those so here is a list of the most popular and followed religions:
  • All religions on earth have certain events and festivals which hold spiritual and religious importance for the people

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