What’s the difference between a cult and a religion? It’s an important question to ask, as we live in an often dangerous and very religious world. Many of our decisions are based on religious belief (or a lack thereof), or taken in reaction to the strong religious beliefs of others.
According to a Pew Research Center study, around 84 percent of Earth’s population is associated with one religious movement or another. That means Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, the top three faiths in terms of adherents, along with all the rest, lay claim to the souls of roughly 5.8 billion people.
So, I’ll ask again, what’s the difference between a religion and a cult? These days, if you live in the Middle East and belong to an obscure minority religion (seen as a cult by many) and run into the wrong armed group vying for a theocracy, you could very well be murdered for your beliefs. If you tell your non-Mormon parents that you met a nice Mormon girl and are planning on converting in order to settle down, they may or may not be on board with your decision. That really depends how religiously tolerant they are, and how they view Mormonism, a fairly new offshoot of Christianity.
If, on the other hand, you tell your folks that you fell in love with a member of the Aetherius Society (UFO Yoga Christianity) or the Universal Life Church (become a minster in any religion in mere minutes) and are converting right away, they might sit you down for a long talk about the cons of joining a dodgy cult.
The difference between a religion and a cult is simple: numbers. The great world religions of today started out as the new religious movements of yesterday, which is just a nicer way of saying cult. Once you get enough followers you can file for tax exemption, protected civil rights status, declare wars, decide who gets into heaven and who doesn’t, and, in many cases, who gets to live and who doesn’t.
If you happen to belong to a new religious movement others disparage and ridicule as a cult, just hold on. After several hundred years (maybe more, maybe less) of discrimination, humiliation, persecution and suffering — and if your group isn’t wiped off the face of the planet — you, too, could join the ranks of world religion and shed the negative connotations of cult status. Welcome to the club! Feel free to mock and hurl stones (literal and metaphorical) at the “new” religious movements coming up behind you.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.