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Define Cult: The Difference Between a Cult and Religion

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Define Cult: The Difference Between a Cult and Religion

A cult is defined as a group of people (usually small) that expresses admiration or devotion to anything. This can include a person, animal, or anything else.

One may postulate that that definition could easily include nearly every religion on the planet. So what is a cult vs religion? What differentiates a cult from a religious following? And why do people consider cults to be so dangerous?

In this article, we’ll explore what criteria experts use to identify cults, why they’re so dangerous, and why even many mainstream organizations in society develop from cult-like indoctrination.

Cult Meaning

One of the best list of criteria for what differentiates a cult vs. a religion comes from psychotherapist Rosanne Henry, a licensed professional counselor in the state of Colorado.

On her site, Rosanne lists the following (paraphrased) elements that help experts to identify whether someone is a member of a cult (or a cult-like movement).

  • Its devotion and dedication to something is excessive
  • It uses an indoctrination program that includes persuation, control, and socialization (group-think)
  • The process of indoctrination creates “psychological dependency” between cult members
  • Cult leadership usually exploits cult members to achieve specific goals
  • Long term exposure to the cult leads to serious psychological harm

An alternative analysis on cult identification is known as the BITE model.

The last criterial of “psychological harm” is important, because it’s an important distinction between a cult and a religion. A cult often creates psychological harm for members, families and the community, which can often also lead to physical harm.

joaquin phoenix cult

Just given that criteria, it wouldn’t be too difficult to spin most modern political movements and religions as cults. After all, many political movements have activists who regularly disrupt society with activism in an effort to change mainstream beliefs and practices. This often causes psychological harm to the activists and their communities.

But Henry goes on to explain that cults “manage this conflict” by isolating members by controlling how members “should think, feel, and act”.

She explains that the biggest differentiation between a cult vs. religion is that cults use:

“…unethically manipulative techniques of persuation and control to advance the leaders goals.”

In other words, while religions usually work to serve society or even its own membership in positive ways. Although the intent is usually to convert people over to its own belief system. However, the goal of non-cult religions is not to serve the personal agenda of specific leaders within that religion.

In other words, cult leaders often exploit cult members for economic, sexual, or some other specific purposes. Modern religions and movements don’t usually do this.

Modern Day Cults

With this criteria in mind, let’s explore 3 specific recent examples, which do classify as a cult under these guidelines. These examples should help with understanding the difference between a cult vs. religion.


scientology headquarters

One of the most damning exposes of Scientology came from a 1991 Time Magazine article titled The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power. It was a full study into the fast-growing Scientology movement. All cult elements of Scientology were listed in this article.

  • Devotion: Excessive devotion to the idea of “going clear” – that is, ridding oneself of unhappy or negative thoughts.
  • Indoctrination: Former members reported mental and physical abuse as part of the indoctrination process.
  • Psychological dependency: Members are warned that they will face serious spiritual danger if they don’t become “cleared” of “engrams” fast enough. Leaving the Church often involves serious physical and psychological harassment from other church members.
  • Exploiting members: Followers are financially exploited for “auditing” sessions. For example Harriet Baker gave over $60,000 to the Church of Scientology and eventually lost her home before finally leaving Scientology. Countless other former members report losing their life savings to Scientology in their dedication to going “clear”.
  • Psychological harm: 24 year old Noah Lottick jumped from the 10th floor windo of a hotel after giving every penny he had to Scientology. Other members reported severe psychological harassment from Church leaders which led to years of therapy (or suicide) for many former members.

There can be little doubt that Scientology solidly checks off every box as a serious and dangerous modern cult.

Smallville’s Allison Mack’s Feminist Cult

allison mack nxivm cult

The ideals of gender equality could hardly be considered a cult-like belief, but the feminist approach to gender equality (that there is an invisible system in place called a “patriarchy” that keeps women oppressed) is one that some groups find easy to mutate into a cult.

One example of this was Smallville star Allison Mack, who in 2018 was arrested for recruiting sex slaves into a dangerous “women’s movement” cult known as NXIVM.

  • Devotion: Excessive devotion to the idea of “becoming empowered” as a woman by, as Mack told her young actress recruits, “to be stronger, physically, mentally, intellectually, so that they could live the kind of life that they wanted to.”
  • Indoctrination: Allison Mack led recruits through a process of “acting training” before eventually inviting them into the inner sanctum of the NXIVM women’s movement.
  • Psychological dependency: One former sex slave, Nicole, told the court that in order to become a member she’d been forced to take inappropriate photos of herself and to write a letter falsely accusing her father of sexual abuse. These were held by Mack and the other cult-leader Keith Raniere to be used as blackmail if any of the sex slaves ever attempted to leave the cult.
  • Exploiting members: Followers were sexually exploited sexual photographs and acts. She also reported physical punishments. Other slaves provided the court with identical accounts.
  • Psychological harm: Sex slaves in NXIVM were isolated into month-long “courses” and often brought blindfolded to unknown locations and bound before being sexually assaulted. The physical isolation and psychological isolation from their families (through blackmail), and the assaults themselves, led to years of psychological trauma for the victims.

Sexual exploitation cults are some of the most insidious. Just like how many other cults use someone’s fervent belief in god or christianity to lure them, this particular cult used belief in a “patriarchy”, and offered the cult as a solution to overcome social oppression.

The Cult of Eckankar

eckankar cult meeting

Founded by Paul Twitchell in 1965, this “religion” has spread throughout the world, with tens of thousands of members. It’s a religion focused on God and the Holy Spirit, but has one very distinct difference than other mainstream religions.

  • Devotion: Excessive devotion to the spiritual teachings provided in Paul Twitchell’s publications.
  • Indoctrination: In a legal complaint brought by former Eckankar members, they describe severe controlling, terrorizing, and discipline including attacks on loved ones, colleagues, financial exploitation. Descriptions of psychological abuse are particularly horrible.
  • Psychological dependency: Members are taught that “once the chela has become a member of the inner circle, he cannot resign”. Leaving meant “spiritual decay sets in immediately, affecting the health, material life, and spiritual life, and brings death more swiftly.” One former member explained that “This innacurate, self-limiting, and self-sabotaging belief took hold deep within my psyche, a result of thought reform.” This form of indoctrination all came from Twitchell’s writings.
  • Exploiting members: Former members describe constant pressure to give money to the cult, and in particular Twitchell’s publications formed the basis of that exploitation. Members were expected to purchase Twitchell’s works (which were later discovered by researchers to be largely plagiarized).
  • Psychological harm: Former members describe severe psychological trauma from the emotional abuse conducted by other Eckankar cult members and leadership.

If it weren’t for the abuse within the indoctrination, the Eckankar cult could very easily have failed the classification of cult. However, the fact that Twitchell’s publications were largely plagiarized and used in order to financially exploit a growing membership speaks largely to its status as a cult.

How to Avoid a Cult

Cult recruitment can take place nearly anywhere. You can find cult recruiters on college campuses, at your local community events, and even in your email inbox. The easiest way to recognize a cult recruitment effort is to ask yourself three simple questions.

  • Are they trying to focus on an area of my life when I was a victim?
  • Do they promise that what they offer can bring healing and “enlightenment”?
  • Does membership require isolation from family or friends in any form, including blackmail?
  • Is the organization overly focused on a charismatic leader or writings of a leader?
  • Is a requirement of membership financial, sexual, or an other activity that serves leadership?

If you say yes to any of these questions, then avoid the organization at all costs.

Read more about three dangerous cults from the past.

Originally published on

Religion and Cults

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