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Religion vs Cult

Diane Benscoter gave an interesting TED interview and a slightly less interesting TED lecture about her experiences with the Moonies [1]. 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 [2].

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Religions don’t needlessly prevent people from being happy. A forced vow of celibacy is a cult feature.
  7. 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.

The Cult page on Wikipedia is not very helpful when considering these issues and the leading definitions are the ones most opposed to the common use [3].

29 comments to Religion vs Cult

  • Elkin

    I don’t see much difference between cults and religions. To me the only difference is in size and age. As soon as you have enough members a cult becomes a religion (Scientology?).

    To your points:
    1. Your criteria is very subjective. As an outsider of both religion and cults it seems to me that both are lead by people who have their own interest in focus.

    2. Here too I disagree. Religions lead their followers to be inflexible. That in turn makes it difficult to be healthy. What you seem to be talking about are taboos, which sometimes are good for you, especially if you don’t know why something is bad for you.

    3. Sorry, no. Religions, as cults too, can lead to hatred of others (Catholics vs. Protestants in Belfast?). Religions keep good technology from helping the sick (Stem-cells). Take apart your own statement “some of the money that is donated to religions is used for helping disadvantaged people”. Why not all? And the Rolls-Royce argument does not apply tho the Pope?

    4. Religions break up families just as efficiently, have seen it myself, for the same reason you posted.

    5. Not true. Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8Aq00yJSxo for an example of respecting personal beliefs.

    6. True, they don’t necessarily prevent them but I think cults don’t do that either.

    7. That might be true if your religion is the cultural foundation of the particular country you live in. But being catholic/christian in a muslim country requires you to break some laws (wine anyone?).

    It just seems to me that you are cherry picking what you like about religion and contrast it to what you don’t like about cults. To me they are the same side of the coin, just different hues of gray, if that makes any sense. You seem to be drawing a line where non is to be found. In contrast, there is a line between cults/religions on one side and agnostics/atheists on the other.

  • mamalujo

    “Religions don’t needlessly prevent people from being happy. A forced vow of celibacy is a cult feature.”

    I think you should make some actual case that celibacy prevents people from being happy. If we’re talking religions here, attitudes on sexuality vary significantly, and most at least include some irrational restrictions on sexuality.
    I don’t for instance see how forced monogamy is less a needless prevention of personal happiness than celibacy..

  • Benjamin Seidenberg

    I think you’re missing one of the most key distinctions. In a religion, the leaders follow the tenants of the religion, usually even more strongly than their followers do. In the cult, there’s usually a different set of rules for the leader than the follower.

  • Michael "To summarize" Howell

    In other words, the difference between a cult and a religion is the difference between morality and immorality. If its moral, its a religion. If its immoral, its a cult.

  • etbe

    http://www.xenu.net/

    Elkin: It is widely believed that Scientology is a cult, see the above URL for background information.

    Point 1 is not subjective except when dealing with border-line cases. The extreme cults impoverish almost all their victims while the poorest people in a typical church will receive more money from the church than they donate.

    Being less flexible does not inherently mean being less healthy. There are a huge number of unhealthy things that I reject without consideration every day.

    Catholics and Protestants get along well in every other part of the world. It’s more a matter of tribal loyalty and gang warfare than religion. If you study the history of Ireland then it all started politically not due to religions.

    You seem to be obsessed with a boolean idea of religions vs cults. Cults can have some religious attributes and religions can be cultish.

    mamalujo: Look at the history of sex scandals and the Catholic church…

    Benjamin: Good point!

    Michael: Morality is difficult to define and there are many different ideas about it. If you define something to be based on morals then you have to define what the morals are, which gets you to the same end point.

  • Well, from what you write -and I won’t quote it all as Elkin says- basically a religion is a cult in which you happen to believe. All religions I know err on one or more of the points you mention (I’ll be happy to ellaborate if you ask so). All cults and religions can be seen as positive and empowering for some people, while as pure opium for others.

  • A few years ago, when we used to have clever and courageous politicians, a law designed against cults and sectarist movements was written, introducing among other things a “mind manipulation” crime.

    However, it soon turned out that most of the facets of that law could be directly used against major religions. The religious leaders complained loudly enough so that the project was abandoned.

    A religion is just a cult that succeeded, and brought itself enough connection to the political world. As of today, Cults still go on manipulating minds without being threatened. And religions do as well.

  • mamalujo

    mamalujo: Look at the history of sex scandals and the Catholic church…

    Point being? If its difficult for most, its cultish? By what leap of logic?
    If so, then look at the history of sexual infidelity in any civilization, its voluminous, as is the case with any other random sexual taboo, yet sexual taboos are pretty close to the prehistoric origins of religiosity, so to make a particular one counterindication for a religion seems totally ahistoric and quite random.
    But far more troubling is the concept that ‘religions don’t needlessly prevent people from being happy’ – well it is religions themselves that define what it is to lead a happy life, and certainly, none would see their injuctions as needless, so again by what criteria does celibacy diminish personal happyness, and furthermore, does so needlessly?

    Regarding the broader point, I think there are two problems with the concept of ‘cult’ as distinct from religion. First, the term is already taken, as in ‘Cult of Artemis’. And in such use, it has a clear meaning. Secondly nobody has yet ever been able to give a meaningful definition of cult as opposed to religion. Your own try excludes every existing religion at one point or another to some extent at least.
    As far as celibacy of priesthood goes, apart from christian church since the middle ages, catholic and in a significant sense and percentage though not exclusively orthodox, its also an integral characteristic of Jainism and Buddhism, as well as various ancient beliefs, like pythagoreianism.
    Then, relationship to family. While hardly a norm of behavior, in buddhism, the abandonment of family was a kind of ideal, in emulation of the Buddha. The going forth to homelesness. Further there are certain vows like in mahayana or maybe tantrism, of not sleeping under the same roof as non-believers for more than a week or something similar. Even in religions that actually consider family as something valuable, not a wordly burdain, like christianity, many saints have similar stories of abandonment of their families. I’m sure similar cases could be found in different cultures as well.

    People who are religious are often encouraged to adopt practices that will increase their income??? For instance, by going off to live in the middle of the desert or forest, as many early practitioners of christianity did? Encourage people to be healthy?? like ascetics of all religions certainly make themselves by limited consumption of food, unhygenic holes in the middle of nowhere where they live and possibly additional forms of self punishment, frequent choice being self-flagelation? The last point, not promoting the violation of the law is usually true, for the reasons that religions are well integrated in the customs of the country where it is present, but practicing a religion in a country of different religion easily leads to a conflict of what that religion sees as higher laws with the laws of man. For instance, the worship of a roman emperor as god – unproblematic for any kind of polytheistic religion, yet reason for christians choosing to lead an underground illegal life, because this law is in the fundamental conflict with their basic tenets of monotheism..

  • mamalujo

    I think at most one might try to differentiate in particular individuals in some religious office, if one finds them to be honest to their beliefs or just pulling off an elaborate hoax with a goal of hoarding money, power. Point 1, 5 and Benjamin’s comment I think point to that characteristic, but I don’t think you can even attempt to judge an entire ideology or even organisation (if large and heterogenious enough) by such yardstick. The rest frankly just seem as your particular belief preferences.

  • Like many of the other commenters, I know of no religion that, if assessed objectively, wouldn’t be classified squarely as a cult by your criteria.

    Indeed, I know of no objective criteria for distinguishing a cult from a religion. They seem to be two different terms for the same thing.

    For what purpose are you attempting to distinguish the two?

  • Michael "Reply" Howell

    @Ben Finney: “For what purpose are you attempting to distinguish the two?”
    He feels that they are different, and wishes to express that. Also, these points tend to make flexible statements:”cult leaders _tend_ to regard people as a resource to be exploited”, “Religions _tend_ to encourage people to be healthy”, “Religions _tend_ to focus on making the world a better place”, etc (emphasis added). The idea seems to be that one or two exceptions may be made on border cases, as long as the majority match. For example, even if one religion misses one or two points, its still a religion. Even if a particular cult misses one or two, its still a cult.

    @etbe: “Morality is difficult to define and there are many different ideas about it.”
    I understand and agree. People with different sets of morals would consider those things that match the morals religions, and things that don’t would be cults to them. “Religion” has a positive connotation, whereas “cult” has a negative one.

  • Religions are tax exempt, cults aren’t, pretty much all the other differences stem from this one.

  • etbe

    Gunnar: It is however possible to recognise the value of mutually exclusive religions. I know Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists who claim that their lives have been improved through their faith. I can’t find any objective measure for rejecting such claims.

    np237: There are many different definitions of religion and cult. I believe that the definition I described is more representative of popular ideas than the one you propose.

    mamalujo: There is a great difference between allowing someone to swear a vow of celibacy, poverty, etc and compelling someone to do it. The Anglican church allows vicars to swear a vow of celibacy if they wish, I have met an Anglican vicar who felt that it was the right thing for him to do so. But they don’t compel such behavior.

    Ben: Unless you want the words “religion” and “cult” to be synonyms then there must be a defined difference in their meanings. All religions will have some cultish tendencies, and some modern religious groups have unbroken connections to their origins which match most of the cult criteria I propose.

    Michael: The use of objective criteria allows for recognising a religion without agreeing to it’s morals. For example I recognise the validity of religions that ban gay marriage or believe that women should not be treated equally to men while disagreeing with such positions.

    Simon: Many groups have sought religious status to avoid tax. In most countries the government makes no real attempt to assess the validity of a religious group – I think that the discussion here has demonstrated the futility of trying to legislate such things given the difficulty in establishing rough consensus in blog comments.

    I believe that religions should not have tax exemptions. Major religious groups such as the Catholic and Anglican churches (the two biggest religious organisations in Australia) should have the same tax laws as corporations. Donations that are used to repair church buildings and cover other operating expenses should be counted as tax-deductable expenses of running a business. Donations that are given by the church to a registered charity (such as helping feed the poor) should be treated in the same way as corporate donations to charity. Donations that are used to buy cars and living quarters for clerics should be taxed as business profits, fringe-benefits, or some other form of taxable income. For the Catholic and Anglican churches the majority of revenue would be tax deductable via such measures – those religions don’t follow the “twenty Rolls-Royces” model.

  • Just because a definition represents popular ideas does not mean it is right.

    Putting this definition in a formal, legalese way, turned out to be impossible. You can try to twist things however you want, but the evidence remains: everything you said about cults apply to religions as well. The only thing that changes is popular acceptance. As a result, the only distinction your are able to propose boils down to popularity.

  • > Ben: Unless you want the words “religion” and “cult” to be synonyms then there must be a defined difference in their meanings.

    There can be differences in the definitions of the words, sure. That doesn’t mean that they mean anything more objective than “irrational belief system that I need to speak about respectfully” versus “irrational belief system that I feel safe in deprecating”.

    > All religions will have some cultish tendencies, and some modern religious groups have unbroken connections to their origins which match most of the cult criteria I propose.

    So I ask again: what is your purpose in distinguishing between the two? That will necessarily inform the criteria you choose to discriminate them.

  • mamalujo

    ” There is a great difference between allowing someone to swear a vow of celibacy, poverty, etc and compelling someone to do it. The Anglican church allows vicars to swear a vow of celibacy if they wish, I have met an Anglican vicar who felt that it was the right thing for him to do so. But they don’t compel such behavior.”

    Agreed. I understood and though you meant only forced celibacy of clergy, and no examples I gave were contrary to this.

    But one is free not to become a member of clergy, so really only if layman were forced to be celibate as well would it truly be coercive. If this was your criteria, I might tentatively agree (I still would not understand the reasoning behind it), for no institution that demanded this of laity would be as long-lived as common religions are, I presume.
    But if you see catholic church in this group as well, then you should definitely add buddhists and jains, its just as compelling. Monkhood originated in those two religions and is the primary and typically only form of religious office. In orthodox christian churches as well, while an already married man might become a priest, no priest may marry. Not sure on the statistics of people actually celibate because of this though, they frequently get their ordering of precepts correct so are frequently married :)

    A further interesting point occurs to me, Jains are a specific religion in terms of compelled austerity, in that they are the only religion requiring of their laity as well as clergy strict vegetarianism, for their strict adherence to not harming sentient beings, and generally ascetic origins and tendencies. I think its difficult to argue that strict avoidance of harming other beings is a needless limit of seeking personal happiness. But that only makes it more difficult to draw the line. Sexuality might well be considered just as destructive by a religion, for instance, by being a strong form of attachment which are to be abandoned. You may disagree even though it coherently and necessarely follows from the general beliefs of a particular religion, so by what criteria external to a religion might you decide so?

    I’m still wondering on the broader point , why would this specific institution – celibacy, or monk organisations, be cultish? I can for instance imagine nothing less invoking of the popular concept of a cult than for instance the great ancient monasery-universities of late medieval period like Nalanda, with tens of thoustands of students, extensive libraries, public debates with strict rules and clear winners, multiple competing philosophical positions..

    And even more broadly, inclusion of advocating practices good for one’s wallet seems so contrary to the rich history of religious poverty, found in probably every religion (well I don’t know much of protestantism, and know Max Weber saw the spirit of capitalism originating in protestant ethics so perhaps this is coloring your perception of this point).

    Precisely irrelevance of ones wallet, life of a beggar, abandonment of householders life and voyage to the wilderness – or as wilderness became less wild, the surogate simplicity of monastery life – are a key ideal of religious life in at least taoism, hinduism, buddhism, jainism (it is particularly central to Indian spirituality), historic and to some extent current catholic and orthodox christianity (don’t know of islam), and often is coupled with practices damaging to ones health, in terms of hygiene, food, and even sometimes explicit practices of self-mortification (well documented in Catholic history, as well as in Sufi Islam, hindu Sadhus, Jainism and various indigenous practices).
    In other cases, like syberian, some african, historic vedic and amerindian shamanism (naming only proven cases), the ingestion of various drugs – fly agaric, peyotle, psilocybe genus mushrooms, ayahuasca, ephedra, iboga – are key enablers for the shamanistic voyage, the central experience of those religons, practices possibly contrary to your claims of religions encouraging healthy behavior, but certainly of avoiding drug use..

    In short, the jab on asceticism as cultic is both extremely ahistoric and very culturally narrow.

    After such objections to your points 1 , 2, 6 and 7, let me take some issue with your point 3 . Religions , that they tend to focus on making the world a better place. Just like with the unwarranted pragmatism of your points 1, 2 and 6, this point incorrectly assumes that religions actually primarly focus on this world. Generally, quite the contrary, they tend to dedicate this life to some future, beyond-existence benefit. While they might and frequently do act to benefit the disadvantaged, this is done as (both) an expression of and practice of virtues of altruism, rather than expectation that the nature of the world will be permanently improved upon. Taoist would even see action through inaction as ideal. The point is more likely one of coming to terms with the world as it is, be it with God, its creator, or the natural flow, or in the extreme, even with the fact of the necessarly unsatisfactory nature of existing, or possibly search liberation from it.

  • mamalujo

    Not having said anything but criticism yet (;P ), I feel I should note that I find this discussion very interesting and relevant, and appreciate the attempt at definition, but am a bit skeptical as to some of its characteristics and even more broadly, chances of finding any more or less satisfying one.

    Was in some extent on the other side of this debate recently, defending at least the value of making such distinction subjectively, and hope to explore possible axis of differentiation between the two somewhat more, in company of other participants of this blog-discussion.

  • etbe: No, there is no measure rejecting the claims that various religions have improved some people’s lifes. However, there is also the undeniable claim that atheism has improved some people’s lifes. And many cults have also improved some people’s lifes.

    On the other hand, also religions, cults and atheism have deteriorated other people’s lifes, and that’s also an undeniable fact.

  • – those religions don’t follow the “twenty Rolls-Royces” model –

    Certainly here Anglican Bishops are restricted to a maximum of two palaces each – although I believe they can have as many cars as they like. Even corporations in low tax areas generally don’t have directors with two palaces.

    Difficult to compare the Anglican salaries are low here, but include accommodation, which can vary from basic to historic monument.

    I agree tax breaks for religions are archaic.

  • etbe

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opus_dei

    Ben: My purpose is to find consistent definitions of terms that can get some general agreement and thus facilitate discussion. My disagreement with Diane is based on her focus on circular logic – which is a feature of all religions. I presume that if asked she (and most people) wouldn’t call the Catholic church (the largest organised religion) a cult, so therefore we need to find a definition for the term which excludes organisations such as the Catholic church which do many things that are regarded as good. Note that the Catholic church has a history of doing some cultish things, the Numerary Assistants in Opus Dei seem a lot like cult victims to me.

    mamalujo: Please keep in mind that religions do have cult features and cults do have a religious basis.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jain

    You make a good point with reference to Jains. There is evidence to show that beyond a certain point increases in wealth do not make people happier. I am willing to accept the point that a set of religious beliefs may lower the amount of wealth required to attain maximum statistical happyness for the population. But I will not accept the point that cult followers should give their money to a leader who has twenty Rolls-Royces.

    I am also prepared to accept the point that some psychological benefits may be obtained through giving up on sex etc. But I am not prepared to accept that a church should ban sexual relations for some part of it’s population (EG Catholic priests).

    Regarding “practices good for one’s wallet”, there are few groups that are commonly described as religions that would advocate owning even a single Rolls-Royce. But most religions seem to accept a certain measure of physical comfort as essential.

    Gunnar: I believe that in many cases changing religion can be beneficial. If someone’s life isn’t working out then there are benefits in contemplating many issues related to it, and a change of religion can provoke this. On a number of occasions I have spoken with people who have various problems and suggested that they consider the benefits of a different religion. There are a range of relatively harmless religions to choose from.

    I believe that if a cult has improved someone’s life by objective criteria (IE not just making them say that they are happy because they were programmed to do so) then that’s an indication of a non-cult aspect to it.

    Simon: Two palaces sounds like a cultish aspect to the Anglican church. I’ll raise this issue the next time I speak to an Anglican cleric. ;)

  • > Ben: My purpose is to find consistent definitions of terms that can get some general agreement and thus facilitate discussion.

    I’m all for that purpose. I don’t think it’s achievable while still using the term “cult”, though; see below.

    > My disagreement with Diane is based on her focus on circular logic – which is a feature of all religions. I presume that if asked she (and most people) wouldn’t call the Catholic church (the largest organised religion) a cult

    Right. The whole point about a religion is that its members suspend rational thinking in regard to that specific religion. A term of deprecation like “cult” will be freely used by members to talk about some *other* religion, but never their own.

    > so therefore we need to find a definition for the term which excludes organisations such as the Catholic church which do many things that are regarded as good.

    Why should “does many things that are regarded as good” exclude an organisation from the term “cult”?

    For example: The Church of Scientology does many things that could be regarded as good. They have a number of branches devoted to good deeds, such as rehabilitating and educating children about drug abuse. So, as an organisation that does many things that are regarded as good, should that exclude it from the label “cult”? Not in my opinion, no.

    If you want to facilitate discussion, I don’t think it’s necessary to even use the word “cult”. It’s enough to focus on what the organisation does: whether it propagates demonstrable falsehoods, whether it discourages critical thinking, whether it claims privileged access to knowledge or morality, whether it shelters sociopathic behaviour, whether it actively increases social division based on arbitrary labels, and so on.

  • etbe

    Ben: If we are to differentiate good and bad behavior in any area we need terms to define them. “Religion” seems to be commonly used as the term to define unproven (often disproven) and sometimes irrational beliefs that are regarded in a positive manner by society, while “cult” is the term that is commonly used to define beliefs that are equally irrational and unproven but which are regarded in a negative way.

    You seem to believe that religious groups regard all competition as cults. There are many clerics in major world religions who have great respect for competing religions. Anyone who has a belief that some invisible entity will reward people for “good behavior” should respect people who believe that a different invisible entity will offer a similar reward for similar good behavior.

    Regarding your example of Scientology, you would first have to prove that Scientology is less of a danger to children than drugs. I think that it would be very difficult to prove that.

  • mamalujo

    “You make a good point with reference to Jains. There is evidence to show that beyond a certain point increases in wealth do not make people happier. I am willing to accept the point that a set of religious beliefs may lower the amount of wealth required to attain maximum statistical happyness for the population. But I will not accept the point that cult followers should give their money to a leader who has twenty Rolls-Royces.

    I am also prepared to accept the point that some psychological benefits may be obtained through giving up on sex etc. But I am not prepared to accept that a church should ban sexual relations for some part of it’s population (EG Catholic priests).

    Regarding “practices good for one’s wallet”, there are few groups that are commonly described as religions that would advocate owning even a single Rolls-Royce. But most religions seem to accept a certain measure of physical comfort as essential.”

    I can essentially agree with your first point – a religion with such double standards for wealth of their clergy and laity is indeed suspiciously dishonest. I’d take issue with the concept of ‘maximum statistical happyness’ – for the presumption that individual’s happyness is actually a goal religions would find worthy pursuing. It seems to me contrary to the typically rather otherworldly concerns of religions.

    Re Opus Dei, I too percieve that organisation as rather cultish, and would like to be able to put my finger on exactly why.

    I would wish you tried making a case why it is that a ban on sexuality of a deeply devoted core of followers is something some church shouldn’t do. Apart from suspicions towards the pleasures of this existence that many religions share, a further more pragmatic reason is that a life like that of monks, devoted to simple life, religious practices and study, rather isolated and free of attachments to the society, is severely threatened by any sexual involvement of the members, a pregnancy might force them back to a householder live, obligate them to the families of partner in question..

    It seems to me a rational consequence of the beliefs and structure of some group. Though, i think I should make a caveat that in the particular case of catholic priesthood (and unlike the case of catholic and orthodox monks), I too fail to see any justification for it, for that office is not one of isolation to a purely religious life, but of living in and engagement in the community, and the tradition of married clergy in that religion is even longer than the medieval innovation of a celibate one.

    However, I most strongly disagree with your view on relationship of religions and physical comfort.

    I’m not convinced there actually exist _any_ religions that would insist that a certain measure of physical comfort beyond perhaps not blatantly starving oneself to death (except for Jains, where starving oneself to death is actually the most honored way of death) is seen as actually being _essential_. The inverse, religions that insist on abandoning physical comfort, are frequent – some examples:

    In western monasticism, vows are chastity, _poverty_ and obedience , plus one that varies according to the order, not infrequently among closed orders – those that don’t leave monasteries, one of complete silence.

    In buddhist monasticism, full ordination includes around 230 vows, but most generally, and beyond those taken by devout laity, are those of celibacy, of not wearing any jewelry, perfume or cosmetics, not sleeping on raised beds or sitting on elevated chairs , not eating after noon, not singing, dancing, playing music or attending any such sort of entertainment, and not having _any_, or even touching any money. There are other rules forbidding them to work the land, to preserve food.. They generally must beg for their food.

    A significant subgroup of Jain monastics is forbidden to ever wear any clothes, and are only allowed to possess a peacock feather broom, and a water gourd – both to protect small or invisible animals from accidentally killing them. they walk barefoot (and very carefully), and eat only vegetarian food, plus excluding some root vegetables like onion. Capuchin order in western monasticism has some similarities with some of these practices, for example they are also barefoot, without possesions either individually or collectively, must beg their food and musnt preserve it. Benedictine rules include provisions for corporal punishment.

    I think that any attempted definition should not simply gloss over this by saying that certain religions have characteristics of cults and vice versa. Particularly without any explanation for the identification, a definition that simply concludes that monasticism is a cult has pretty much given up on making any distinction between religions generally and cults.
    It blurs its usefulness completely and furthermore doesn’t explain much about what a cult is or why any specific characterisics were chosen to be characteristics of a cult.

  • mamalujo

    Ben, while I mostly agree, I think only a minority of ideologies generally do not claim privileged access to truth or good – finding such privileged point as been and still mostly is a characteristic of speculative thought, in the modern history since its dawn in cogito ergo sum to positivism. Also different beliefs easily produce social divisions, not only among religious groups.

  • etbe

    mamalujo: Opus Dei treats Numerary Assistants as slaves. According to a TV documentary I watched the more important members (Numeraries and Super-Numeraries) are not permitted to speak to NAs. That just seems to be bad for everyone.

    For someone who examines a religion from the outside things like having an invisible friend reward people after they die is not actually a benefit. But being happy while alive is a provable benefit and thus can convince non-believers that the religion does some good.

    I feel obliged to note that only STRAIGHT sexual relations have a risk of pregnancy. It does appear that the Catholic church has been extremely tolerant of gay relations among the clergy, so your point seems good. I can’t imagine a priest being forced to join a different denomination because of being photographed on a beach with a man (at least not unless they were flagrantly breaking the laws regarding public decency).

    Incidentally have you looked up the definitions of the words “fruit”, “vegetable”, and “herb”? I’m sure that there are many other words where the definitions are unclear and where dictionaries have leading definitions that contradict common popular use. This doesn’t prevent such words being used or attempts to clarify the meaning.

  • > You seem to believe that religious groups regard all competition as cults.

    I’m saying that members of any particular religion will, by the nature of religious belief, never accept the term “cult” for their own specific religion. So you can’t use that term, which objectively applied could very well apply to that person’s religion, and still expect to have reasonable discussion with that person about religion-versus-cult.

    > Regarding your example of Scientology, you would first have to prove that Scientology is less of a danger to children than drugs. I think that it would be very difficult to prove that.

    The example of Scientology was to respond to your expressed desire that “we need to find a definition for the term which excludes organisations such as the Catholic church which do many things that are regarded as good”.

    I’m pointing out that such organisations can *still* deserve the label of “cult”, or whatever other label for “harmful critical-thought-suppressing organisation”, and “they do good things too” is no reason to exclude that organisation from such a label.

  • Elkin

    Etbe: my point with Scientology is that the terms cult and religion are just the same side of the coin. Regardless if a group of believers is “widely believed” to be a religion or a cult is splitting hairs and subjective at best.

    As you pointed out correctly, an extreme cult will impoverish their victims. But any “extreme” religion will do that too.

    “The extreme cults impoverish almost all their victims while the poorest people in a typical church will receive more money from the church than they donate.” I think I would need some kind of study to believe this. In Germany any believer of the “true” religions (those that are big enough) will pay tax on their income for being part of that religion.

    “Catholics and Protestants get along well in every other part of the world.” So do most cults. Whats your point? Your argument was, that religions make the world a better place and I gave you just one of hundreds of examples where that is not the case. A good summary, of just wars about religion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_war

    “It’s more a matter of tribal loyalty and gang warfare than religion.” Exactly my point, religions and cults are just gangs. Their difference is just in the size of their followings.

    “You seem to be obsessed with a boolean idea of religions vs cults. Cults can have some religious attributes and religions can be cultish.” No obsession here. If your arguments are good, I’ll thankfully change my mind (as I am concerned, I am on earth to learn). But for now I am not convinced, as the attributes you have proposed for a religion pretty much equal those for cults.

    “But being happy while alive is a provable benefit and thus can convince non-believers that the religion does some good.” Here too, I would love to know a study that shows this argument to be a fact. By that I don’t mean a poll asking people if they are happy because they believe if a deity (subjective). I mean a quantifiable scientific look into the subject.

    “Regarding your example of Scientology, you would first have to prove that Scientology is less of a danger to children than drugs.” Not if the only thing Ben was arguing against was your statement: “Religions tend to focus on making the world a better place.” If you stand by that, then Scientology would be making the world a better place. I don’t agree with your first statement. I think that by my criteria cult=religion just size being the difference, then Scientology has become a Religion in many parts of the world. Not that I like it any better than any other religion or cult.

    Ben:”I’m pointing out that such organisations can *still* deserve the label of “cult”, or whatever other label for “harmful critical-thought-suppressing organisation”, and “they do good things too” is no reason to exclude that organisation from such a label.” AMEN

  • mamalujo

    “For someone who examines a religion from the outside things like having an invisible friend reward people after they die is not actually a benefit. But being happy while alive is a provable benefit and thus can convince non-believers that the religion does some good.”

    Heh, now I at least understand your motive in the rather pragmatic bent of your criteria. I dunno, I’m not sure how much one can really understand about a religion analysing it only from the outside, for this uncovers only superficial characteristics of it. On the other had, if an ideology provided a deep intellectual edifice and organisational capacity for their however wacky ideals, I’d be hard pressed to dismiss it as a cult. If they can make interesting points in a discussion, I’d feel I should respectively listen to them.

    “I feel obliged to note that only STRAIGHT sexual relations have a risk of pregnancy. It does appear that the Catholic church has been extremely tolerant of gay relations among the clergy, so your point seems good.”

    Yes indeed, and where taboos against homosexuality were less intensive, pederasty among clergy was quite present – I think I read wiki mentioning something about the connections between the founder of a rather old and influential sect of buddhism in Japan and wide acceptance of pederasty in that society, there’s even supposedly a genre of writing about the sexual encounters of monks and young men on the slopes of the mountain of their main monastery. I’m having troubles re-digging that reference though.

    Incidentally, japanese monks were banned in the rapid modernization of meiji reforms, and their clergy still seem to have little and infrequent interest in re-establishing celibate orders.

    Though relationship between clerical rules and homosexuality is more bivalent than that – probably because a certain circular logic was at play here – since sexuality was banned by rule and avoided among other measures, by unisex communities, a sexuality not affected by such measures was seen as all the more threatening to the principles of the order. So such behavior stayed mostly a public secret.

    I also think traditional homosexuality, apart from being more stratified by age than today’s egalitarian partners, also had less taste for penetrative anal sex, perhaps for some medieval notions of hygiene, and preferred intercrural sex (between thighs) – with the added benefit of being less against the rules as well . but I’m digressing too much :)

  • Jana

    Tom Wolfe (American Journalist),

    “The only difference between a religion and a cult is political power”