General Question

syz's avatar

What's the dividing line for a cult versus a religion?

Asked by syz (35649points) November 14th, 2014

I was listening to NPR and the story of the LDS publication acknowledging that Joseph Smith had at least 33 wives, at least one of them as young as 14 got me wondering. Was it a cult at one point that later began to be considered as a religion? (Come on, there are so many aspects to the story of Joseph Smith that make it sound like someone just waiting to pass out the cool-aid.) Is it numbers of followers? When do cults become legit? Did every religion start out as a cult?

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57 Answers

rojo's avatar

All religions were cults at one time early on in their lifecycle. A cult becomes a religion when it is accepted as doctrine by a large enough percentage of the population.

JLeslie's avatar

For me, a cult is when you are encouraged to separate yourself from mainstream society and cut off friends and family. It’s a grey line though. Within one religion there can be different sects that are cultlike while others are mainstream. There are Mormons who I don’t believe to be part of a cult, and then there are people who identify as Mormons who are in a cult. I don’t think of the Mormon religion present day as a cult, therecare just extremist in the religion like any religion. What about Jews who shun their family who leave the religion or marry outside of the religion? Are they part of a cult? I would say Jehovah’s Witness come close, but maybe that is changing. My girlfriend raised Jehovah was not allowed to go to college, that to me is reprehensible. It was in the name of the religion. She left the religion eventually, andbher parents still talk to her, but they constantly talk to her about going to church and their fears for her.

Any religious group asking people to kill themselves or having women sleep with leaders is a cult in my book.

It’s worth mentioning the Christian definition of cult is not the mainstream one. The Evangelical Baptists and similar throw that word around differently.

ragingloli's avatar

Number of followers.
In other words, there really is no dividing line.

elbanditoroso's avatar

It’s a very squishy line. I tend to define cult as a small cadre of single-minded devotees, but that description can also apply to lots of ‘organized’ religions as well.

I could easily call certain sects of Orthodox Jews a cult. Same with Nazarene Christians, same with Mormons – particularly the conservative ones. And absolutely various Pentecostalist groups would qualify to be considered cults. Even some of the more extreme Baptists are cultish.

dappled_leaves's avatar

There is none.

philosopher's avatar

I am not religionists. I do have religionist friends and they respect other peoples right to believe differently. They do not insist everyone abides by their beliefs or customs. They obey the laws of the United States of America and our constitution. Cults tend to hate anyone unlike them, disobey U.S. laws, undermine U.S. laws and insist others follow their customs. They do not promote equality of all.
In the 21 century human civilization should not tolerate any cult that promotes hate, murder, enslavement, rape or inequality. Some people will hate me for stating these facts because they prefer to delude themselves. This is reality. Denying reality shows that people are weak, ignorant and foolish.

ibstubro's avatar

Test of time and number of followers.
Although I’m an agnostic myself, I still consider LDS, Scientology, and Jehovah’s Witnesses to be cults.

philosopher's avatar

I am also and agnostic and I agree.
My religionist friends tell me to pray and I do. I do not have blind faith in anything,
I love the U.S. democratic republic and cults undermine our laws. I believe we should not tolerate this.

kritiper's avatar

I would say that people tend to shun cults (as being radical) while accepting religions (as normal non-radical). Myself, as an Atheist, I see all religions as cults.

FutureMemory's avatar

Cults generally try to get you to shun your family and friends if they are not also in the cult. (My mother’s church has never suggested to her that she shun her atheist son.)

I think that can be a pretty good indicator of a true cult vs. a ‘normal’ religion.

josie's avatar

Religion, the way you think of it today, is an echo of what has been called the Axial Age, 900–200 BCE.

Prior to that, human beings tended to imagine that they were emulating the Gods in just about everything they did and if they did it correctly they would be experience a certain transcendence.

The Axial philosophers proposed that transcendence could be experienced with certain distinctly human behaviors, chiefly compassion and generosity, and that the Gods had nothing to do with it. If you asked the Buddha if he believed in a deity, he would have said that the question was not relevant.

It is only since the later emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (which were attempts to recapture the diminished Axial ideas) that the practice of religion which we are familiar with became centered around the monotheism of the God of Abraham, and a central character like Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. In that regard, it is indeed a cult since all cults have a person who is the focus of the followers loyalty, and that person is regarded as infallible as a messenger.

But Axial religions, which taught very similar “moral” messages did not make as their focus a particular God or charismatic human. Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism and other Axial type religions are not centered on a particular charismatic character, and are not cults by the current definition of cult.

snowberry's avatar

The Wikipedia definition and history of the word “cult” is quite interesting. I had never heard of the term growing up, but a as a Christian in a mainstream denomination, “cults” were defined to me in my church by the book Kingdom of the Cults, which basically defined it as anything that was not mainstream Christianity, but also having one charismatic leader that hears from and speaks for God. It is destructive in nature, and isolates the members, restricting thought, movement and behavior, among other things.

As I read about it now, it seems to have morphed into meaning “any group you don’t agree with and want to paint in a negative light”.

LornaLove's avatar

I was thinking about this the other day oddly. To my mind (and I do hope I am not repeating) it is when a religion becomes ‘person focused’ as opposed to God focused.

I was also looking at a so called spiritual healer (of no particular religion, meaning he was more leaning toward Zen Buddhism and some other ideas) and it was interesting to see that his words, thoughts and ideas had such an impact on his audience that he was ‘touching their foreheads’ and they were fainting. How odd.

Darth_Algar's avatar

“What’s the dividing line for a cult versus a religion?”


ibstubro's avatar

My best friend in high school was a Jehovah’s Witness and I was highly offended when the church literature identified JW as a cult. Angie and her parents couldn’t be in a cult!

When she got married, she married outside the church and her parents were shunned by the church. They had smuggled religious material into Egypt, under possible threat of death, for gourds sake! Um, yeah, they are definitely a cult.

gorillapaws's avatar

When they ask you to drink the Kool-Aid, you know you’re in a cult.

But seriously, Mormonism is a cult along with scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain fundamentalist Christian groups (like the ones behind the Discovery Institute, or the Creation Museum) and the Guilty Remnant.

syz's avatar

I find it interesting that there’s a general consensus about Mormons, Scientologists, and the like…..but what makes them any worse (or better) than accepted religions?

talljasperman's avatar

Membership. Everyone thinks that their religion is legit until one has problems with it then it is a cult.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

You can track a cult back to an earthly man or men who invented it.

ibstubro's avatar

Cults aren’t far enough away from the fantastical to be valid for widespread acceptance, @syz.

“According to Smith, he experienced a series of visions, including one in which he saw “two personages” (presumably God the Father and Jesus Christ) and others in which an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization. In 1830, Smith published what he said was an English translation of these plates, the Book of Mormon.

Scientology raised the hair on me.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro You realize that you’ve just posted an invitation for people to post fantastical stories from the bible, right? I suspect they might find one or two.

ibstubro's avatar

I don’t see that, @dappled_leaves. Christians are so far removed from the original events that it is now “Faith”. They are far enough away.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro So, you mean that “a lot of time has passed” for religions, versus “this fantastical thing just happened a few decades ago”. I think I misunderstood your point, taking it instead for, “these stories are more fantastical than those stories”.

snowberry's avatar

I am a Christian. The first church I joined was not a cult, but it certainly had aspects that made it cultlike. They set themselves apart from all the other denominations, and we never had anything to do with other churches except our denomination. They said, “This is the only true way to please God in worship!” All singing had to be a-capella- no music in church. Drinking was not allowed. As a wife I was supposed to obey my husband in all things, even the things that made me uncomfortable. I was told what to believe, and if I didn’t agree, then I was “rebellious”.

I was “rebellious” a lot. Eventually I left that church, and a while later hubby did too. He sees how weird it was then, and he treats me well now.

ibstubro's avatar

You did misunderstand, @dappled_leaves. I did mean a lot of time has passed” for religions, versus “this fantastical thing just happened a few decades ago”.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@snowberry Drinking was not allowed. As a wife I was supposed to obey my husband in all things, even the things that made me uncomfortable. I was told what to believe, and if I didn’t agree, then I was “rebellious”.
<groan> No wonder why secular people will stay lost, those who are supposed to be the lamp stand are not lit. Wives are supposed to submit (—that is voluntarily) but that is only if the man is a Godly man doing as God said, to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave His life for her. So the man actually has the larger commitment, strange how many churches miss that. The other stuff was just missed due to ignorance, chalk that up to failing in the leadership.—

ibstubro's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central What did your husband think? Per your quote?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ What did your husband think? Per your quote?
Since the only entity I will be a bride to is Christ, I think He liked it because that is the way He wrote it.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro Then, do you think that every religion must graduate from an early “cult phase”, between the time when fantastical things have just happened and a time long after they happened?

JLeslie's avatar

@syz I live in Scientology central, Clearwater, FL, although I have never had anyone tell me they are Scientologist. I must have met some. I do have friends who are Mormons and I have worked with people who were Mormon, and they were and are some of the nicest people I know. I don’t see how anyone could characterize them as part of a cult unless that person defines all religions that way.

I do have one friend whose brother converted to Mormon for his wife (funny enough my friend became a Catholic when she married her husband) and she says that when he became Mormon he became a little more removed from the family. She blamed it partly on the religion, but he also had moved states away, so maybe he was just more distant, because he was. He certainly had not cut off the family. It isn’t unusual in many religions to want your children to associate with other people in that religion and to spend time with people from your church if you are the type who attends church.

I have a Catholc friend who thinks the Mormon beliefs are totally whackado. Well, there is some whacky stuff in Catholicism too. I think maybe the difference is the mainstream Catholic doesn’t follow everything the Vatican says, and the average Mormon maybe has bought into the details of religion more. It would be interesting to know what percentage of Mormons attend church compared to other religions.

And then there is that Christian thing I mentioned above, they define cult totally dufferent that the dictionary. When you hear a politician from the Christian right say Mormonism is a cult, they are talking about their Christian definition of cult.

snowberry's avatar

@JLeslie It’s all good until a member decides to leave. For many months Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise (Scientology) have been going at it and we’ve heard it all through the media, with slick front page stories on various magazines. Here’s one story from Vanity Fair.

Every person who leaves the Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) has a different experience. Some find it very easy- just stop going, but many more get shunned, their house egged, their mailbox filled with shaving cream, etc. Here’s another person’s story on,227143

_They make it extremely difficult for you to leave. You basically have to go into hiding if you want to leave the church with no hassle.

Even if you got your name off the church records, you’d still have Mormons turning up at your house, giving you phone calls, all that sort of stuff.

A lot of it is “peer pressure” as well. A lot of people feel they decide not to go to church, because they know after a few weeks everybody will be discussing them in all the meetings, they know they’ll be the gossip. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you were well integrated into the church, the ward is often your main social circle. It’s very scary.

For me another large factor was that I knew it would genuinely upset a lot of people if I didn’t go to church. So I kept going to years to make other people happy. Some people do that their entire lives._

JLeslie's avatar

@snowberry All of that exists in many religions, it just depends on your immediate family, friends, and community. Did you see the Jazz singer? The main character marries a woman who is not Jewish and his father tears his clothing (symbolic of someone dying) and cuts off his son. This sort of happened in my own family. When a great uncle of mine married a Catholic girl the family associated with him less. It was one of the final straws that oushed my father over the edge to believe religion can be horrible. He was a young boy at the time and liked both his uncle and his wife. It happened in my husband’s family too. Not outright shunned, but the Jewish side was obviously not accepting of his father marrying a Catholic girl. I’ve never heard Judaism characterized as a cult, although maybe Christians do think of it that way, I have no idea, since Jews don’t accept Jesus as the son of God, but Judaism has some of the characteristics of cults as many of us described above.

I definitely felt there was peer pressure when I lived in the bible belt. They ask you what church you go to as a matter of course and invite you to church constantly. They didn’t do it to me so much that it was overly annoying, but I can see how if a whole neighborhood tends to go to one church there would be a feeling of pressure if someone did not go, or even more pressure if they wanted to stop going. I once ad a study that asked about church attendance and a huge percentage said they went to church because of peer pressure or simply because they felt they were exoected to. A lot of people answered they weren’t Religious, but still went to church. I don’t remember the numbers, but I remember it being surprisingly high.

My niece used to get invited to church youth things where she lived, she was raised Catholic, and her mother used to laugh at it or be pissed by it depending on her mood. It was definitely peer pressure in the guise of fun and parties. My SIL when her children were little put them in the typical Catholic CCD classes, but she was one of those, “my children can decide for themselves when they are older what they believe and what religion they are and I am fine with them learning about all religions,” and then she had a Jehovah’s Witness next door who came after her little girl and then a few years later these born again Evangelicals trying to get her kids in high school and now she has come over to the dark side with me. I don’t mean she is an atheist, she is still a theist, I mean the dark side of not wanting her kids to be in a religion or among a group that thinks only one religion is right. Definitely she doesn’t think anyone should be interfering with other people’s kids on the topic of religion. She also can’t stand when religions interferes in politics. I think since my SIL was raised in Mexico 50 years ago she hadn’t ever dealt with the prosthelityzing and pressure like what it is here in parts of America.

We all have Mormons turn up at our houses now and then. LOL. That’s what they do. But, I know what you mean. I have to say I have never had a Mormon friend talk about their religion in a way that would be trying to get me to convert. At times they talk about their religion in terms of explaining why they might do something. I don’t see anything wrong with that and it never felt like pressure. A friend I worked with and spent time with outside of work who I had known for a few years when one day we were talking lightly about religion and I said if I wasn’t Jewish I would probably be Mormon or Catholic. That’s when I found out he was Mormon. I had absolutely no idea he was raised Mormon and still identified that way, although he didn’t attend church services regularly. His wife was some other type of Christian.

I really don’t see how ne Christian can say another person isn’t a Christian if they accept Jesus as their savior. To me that is what defines someone as a Christian. Whether they are fanatics, in a cult, or normal mainstream is a different topic. Almost all religions have their varying levels and followers.

ibstubro's avatar

@dappled_leaves, I will bow to @josie‘s “Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism and other Axial type religions are not centered on a particular charismatic character, and are not cults by the current definition of cult.”

Religion to, me, is a cult “centered on a particular charismatic character” that has existed long enough to transcend the “fantastical” origins. Faith based.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro Interesting. Thanks for expanding on that.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@JLeslie “I really don’t see how ne Christian can say another person isn’t a Christian if they accept Jesus as their savior.”

I agree that a belief in Christ is the defining characteristic of Christianity. However, since Mormons believe that god is literally living on a planet named Kolob, other Christians have to wonder if they are even talking about the same person when they refer to Christ. Anyone can make up a religion, as con artist Joseph Smith did, name the central figure Christ, and call themselves a Christian. They can’t expect existing Christian sects to respect that.

JLeslie's avatar

@dappled_leaves Mormons believe Christ is the son of God and the Messiah. I don’t really care if the Baptists think they have interpreted God’s word more accurately than the Mormons, or if the Episcopals think they have it more right than the Baptists, etc etc. It doesn’t matter what I think, because I am Jewish, so I certainly am no authority. I just find it horrible that someone who accepts Jesus Christ as their savior is going to be shunned by the Christian community or told they aren’t really Christian. I find it condescending and dismissive and disrespeful for that matter. But, hey, there are some Jews who don’t consider me Jewish because I am an atheist and not observant. Same sort of thing I guess.

I think what we need to keep in the back of our minds is it behooves a church or clergy to recruit more people, so telling someone their Christianity isn’t good enough and they should convert can have more motives than just trying to save their soul. Clergy want the money for the church and to keep their jobs. I do think there are people who have true callings, I don’t want you to think I think all preachers and Priests are just after sustaining their congregation.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@JLeslie Well, I think most churches would find that to be “selling out”. I suspect that most Christians are at least secretly appalled that the Mormons have co-opted a part of their scripture to form this bizarre extra-terrestrial origin story. The kind of acceptance that you are advocating here is very unusual among actual believers, in my experience.

Darth_Algar's avatar

@JLeslie “I do have friends who are Mormons and I have worked with people who were Mormon, and they were and are some of the nicest people I know. I don’t see how anyone could characterize them as part of a cult”

Yes, many Mormons are nice. Disarmingly nice even. But the LDS Church itself is a cult. When a church has a premium tier, yes, it’s a cult. You’re expected to give a certain percentage of your income to the LDS Church or else you’re cut off from many of the church’s activities (including being able to even set foot in a Temple) and you’re shunned by the other members. When a church requires the wearing of certain garments, yes, it’s a cult (see: Mormon underwear). When a church says that you can speak on behalf of someone who’s dead and be a proxy to baptize them into that church (even if they were of a completely different faith (like their baptism of Anne Frank)), then, yes, it’s a cult.

And yeah, the Mormons might say their central figure is Jesus Christ, but the story they sell is nothing like the traditions of the Christian faith at all. I believe that the Mormon religion also claims that they are the true descendants of Israel. They also teach that if you’re good enough you get lordship of your own planet after you die here, and they claim that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri.

ragingloli's avatar

none of these things are exclusive to mormonism.
other christian sects have tithing, transubstantiation, baptising of infants, nuns’ ‘burkas’, plus all the jimmijams in the bible about mixed fibres, pork and shellfish.

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar And, my MIL wears the virgin of Guadalupe around her neck and has crosses above the beds in her house and rosary beads draping around more than one thing. It’s probably a bad example since a lot of Christians don’t consider the Catholics to be Christian either.

I think it’s ilogical that Christians believe those who are not Christian are not saved, yet Jesus was born and lived in one little small part of the world and it wasn’t like he was televised across the planet. What about all those poor Chinese farmers 100 years ago who worked hard their whole life and did nothing but provide food and shelter for their families and neighbors? God isn’t going tomlet them into heaven even though he never even heard of Jesus? Why would God only reveal himself to those few in the Middle East? I guess maybe we could say God has the patience for His word to be spread and 2,000 years is just a minute in the history of the universe. To me it is just another story, another interpretation, another guess at what God might be and what he wants for us.

God up in the the heavens isn’t much different than on a planet. It sounds like a child’s interpretation, but it is still the same sort of jump of faith.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Yes, other Christian sects have tithing, but I do not know of any that will refuse entry to you or withhold certain teachings to you if you do not pay up. And yes, nuns wear their habits. Lots of jobs have specific uniforms. Besides, you’re acting as if I stated that other Christian sects are not cults. I did not state such.

@JLeslie “God up in the the heavens isn’t much different than on a planet. It sounds like a child’s interpretation, but it is still the same sort of jump of faith.”

Yes. It might be the same sort of leap of faith. That was not my point at all however. My point was that it is antithetical to what just about every branch of Christianity has taught for 2,000 years, so you can’t really blame Christians for not considering Mormons to be Christians, no matter what they call their central figure.

JLeslie's avatar

Details. Details. I understand your point and am sympathetic to it. I just disagree personally that it is reason to say Mormons aren’t Christians.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Well I suppose I could start worshiping Odin, say that he’s really an avatar of Yahweh, and thus call myself a Jew, but I don’t think you could blame Jews for saying that I’m not really Jewish.

FutureMemory's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central has a husband? The plot thickens!

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar Do the Mormons do that? Do they worship an avatar and say it is Jesus?

I see your point, I really do.

If someone tells me they are Jewish I don’t pick apart their beliefs. Although, I will say that the whole Jews for Jesus thing is a little wierd. To me if you accept Jesus as your savior you are Christian not Jewish. At the same time I have a girlfriend who is a Christian who says she feels Jewish. She went to a Rabbi and he told her she isn’t. She wears stars of David, acknowledges the Jewish holidays. She can’t understand why she can’t be Jewish and believe Christ was the son of God. She feels Jewish, she likes Judaism, so if she wants to identify as Jewish and as Christian at the same time it doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think Israel will be giving her the right of return, but that’s ok.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Personally I’m not saying that Mormons are or aren’t Christians. I don’t really give a shit ether way honestly. But I can see where some Christians would feel that they aren’t.

And while I can’t see a Christian calling themself a Jew, I can understand why one might choose to acknowledge the Jewish holidays, hold to Jewish laws, wear the Star of David, etc, as Christianity’s Jewish roots are very clear.

As an aside I once dated a Jewish girl who’s family had converted to Christianity. They weren’t the Jews for Jesus type. They lived and worshiped just like pretty any other mainline Protestant Christian family did. They just happened to have been of Jewish origin.

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar Technically if they converted to Christianity they are Christians. My FIL was raised Jewish and now is a practicing Catholic. Some of it is fuzzy though. He’s so Jewish in some ways. He speaks Hebrew, he knows much more than I do about the holidays, rituals, and traditions. He feels like the two religions are very similar. I’ve never talked in depth with him about it. It would be interesting to know what he thinks about the whole Jesus thing. I think if him mostly as having a strong faith in God. He doesn’t celebrate the Hewush holidays, but when his father died he practiced many if the rituals. For years he went to temple in Yom Kippur after his father’s death to say the prayer for the dead. It was out if respect for his father I think more than anything.

I think of him as a Catholic, but it is difficult to ignore he was raised Jewish. However, once converted and worshipping in another faith you have left the religion, essentially turned your back on. It’s more extreme than being a secular atheist Jew.

My husband converted to Judaism. In Judaism we aren’t even supposed to identify the converts. If you are Jewish you are Jewish whether by conversion or birth. Of course, in real life people often do mention when someone converted. It depends on the conversation. My husband and I aren’t very religious so it’s more if a non issue anyway. He knows do little about Catholicism it’s mind boggling to me considering he went to Catholic school for many years and was confirmed and his mother and father are quite religious.

An orthodox woman who worked for me had converted in her 20’s for her husband and I didn’t know for years she wasn’t born and raised Jewish. Also, the girlfriend of a cousin of mine I had no idea she converted for years. They are no less Jewish to me now that I know they are converts.

Christians have told me that they don’t do Jewish holidays because Jesus said to ignore the Old Testament. That He was changing things.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Yes, I believe I identified them as Christians.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

Weapons cashes, barbed wire, No Trespassing signs, acoustic guitars, homely hand made dresses, farm animals, explosives, poisons…

Have I forgotten anything?

rojo's avatar

Well, @SecondHandStoke That purty well near describes most of Texas and the rest of the South.

JLeslie's avatar

What do you all think about the Amish? I’ve been watching Vanilla Ice’s show in Amish country. I love that show. Makes me want to buy a farm with a small house run on solar energy.

rojo's avatar

@JLeslie and furnish it with “Weapons cashes, barbed wire, No Trespassing signs, acoustic guitars, homely hand made dresses, farm animals, explosives, poisons…”

JLeslie's avatar

Huh? No. I want porcelain faux wood floors, big comfy sectional sofa, a mini kitchen with the typical stove, oven, microwave and fridge, a big comfy bed, and an indoor resistance combo lap pool and spa. LOL.

Oh, and don’t forget the kart track for my husband.

ibstubro's avatar

“When a church requires the wearing of certain garments”

Congratulations on ridding yourself of your cult, @JLeslie.

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