Diane Benscoter gave an interesting TED interview and a slightly less interesting TED lecture about her experiences with the Moonies . She describes how she was a victim of the cult for five years, and then after being deprogrammed she spent five years working as a deprogrammer .
In her interview she described the first identifying trait of a cult as an “all or nothing world view” with “easy answers to complex questions are handed to you on a silver platter and if you’re asked to believe in them unquestioningly and told not to seek an alternative“. However that seems to describe most religions.
It seems to me that when someone describes an organisation as a cult they are usually not referring to how old the organisation is (the term “new religious movement” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cult“) or whether it uses circular logic and specifies that belief in God is the answer to some significant questions. What they usually mean is that the organisation has harmed it’s members or society in some way.
Based on discussing various religions with many people, here are some criteria that I believe are generally regarded as differentiating religions and cults:
- Religious leaders regard their followers as being individuals who need protection and assistance, while cult leaders tend to regard people as a resource to be exploited. It seems to be the standard practice that cult victims will end up with no money. But people who become religious are often encouraged to adopt practices that can increase their income (EG by avoiding alcohol and drug use). Most people who regularly attend church and who are in a good financial position are expected to donate 10% of their income – which still allows them to have a good standard of living.
- Religions tend to encourage people to be healthy, there are many anecdotes of people recovering from health problems such as addiction to alcohol or other chemicals after becoming religious. Banning the consumption of alcohol (as most variants of Islam do) seems to be a reasonable measure for protecting the health of believers, banning the consumption of pork in times and places where the current first-world health technologies are unavailable also seems to be a good idea.
Cults often encourage people to be unhealthy. It’s common for cults to ban medical treatment or to compel their victims to take drugs. Some cults compel their victims to consume alcohol when there are medical reasons to avoid it (EG diabetes). Cults also often advocate activity that involves an unreasonable risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Religions tend to focus on making the world a better place. Generally some of the money that is donated to religions is used for helping disadvantaged people. Religious leaders encourage their followers to act in a way that improves the world for everyone by objective criteria. Cult leaders tend to only want to personally benefit. If a leader has twenty Rolls-Royces then their organisation is more like a cult than a religion.
- Cults break up families. When an organisation prohibits someone from associating with close relatives (such as parents) because they don’t agree with it then it’s a cult.
- Religions respect personal beliefs and freedom of choice. Blindly following a leader is not required.
While it’s not commonly recognised, it seems to me that any organisation that tries to impose it’s own moral ideas by force of law is tending towards being a cult.
- Religions don’t needlessly prevent people from being happy. A forced vow of celibacy is a cult feature.
- Religions try to avoid encouraging their followers to break the law. In some cases nothing less than prohibiting a religion will make a religious leader advocate criminal activity.
Now if you examine the history of any religious group that has been operating for a few hundred years you will probably see cases where it matches the cult criteria. It seems to me that some of the ideas about cults were created by groups that want to protect their own status as “religions” and hobble the competition. The idea that new religions are cults is one example. Another is the idea that there is a boolean criteria of cult vs religion which allows groups recognised as religions to squash the competition without having to improve their own performance and become less cult-like.