The supposed differences between cults and religions stem from common contemporary perceptions
It was a Sunday afternoon in the midst of that awkward and fundamentally useless time frame that is the week between two exams. Instead of using this time to refine my academic finesse, I decided that a better idea would be to join a TV audience. This week the BBC’s The Big Questions discussed the notion: Is there a difference between a cult and a religion?
So, is there? On first consideration of the question, I have to admit that my initial response was a very blunt ‘yes’. But when I asked myself what exactly that difference was, I was stumped. ‘Religion’ can be defined as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. A ‘cult’ can be defined as a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over its members. From an objective viewpoint, these definitions are probably quite interchangeable. But subjectively, I’d say that most people would consider themselves part of religion, irrespective of whether society has decided their community is a cult or not.
The idea of a cult has a very negative stigma attached to it, often conferring ideas of isolation, rigid rituals and strange beliefs. It is these negative connotations of the place of a cult in society that seed the reluctance of members to openly call themselves part of a cult. However, when you consider the most obvious world religions, ones that would never be defined as a cult, you’d find that they, too, were faced with scepticism and hostility when they were first established – almost a pivotal part of new practices. A prime example of this lack of distinction comes from, of course, Scientology. Initially considered as a cult – despite its founder’s, L. Ron Hubbard’s, characterisation of it as a religion – Scientology has recently been recognised as a religion.
Viewers who have ever seen an episode of The Big Questions before will know that the questions are rarely, if ever, answered. And this week was no exception. It was easy in this debate to let your curiosity get the better of you. With the likes of the Raelian movement which holds the belief that mankind was created by aliens, and the Branch Davidians, memorable for the infamous Waco Seige in 1993, there was a lot of controversy to be discussed, mostly focusing around child abuse scandals. Yet to me, all this seemed inconsequential and, frankly, pointless. Accusations are thrown around, denied and never proven or disproven. No one gets anywhere. Child abuse, bribery and blackmailing are obviously horrible practices; they are, however, mediated by individuals or groups of individuals, making them independent to the fundamental beliefs of the cult or movement. The question was not to address the humanity of those who are members of a cult, but to explore differences in the concepts. Sadly, this point was missed.
What did become obvious, though, was the subjectivity of these experiences. To comment on the fundamentals of a belief system from the outside is academic. It’s anthropology. But subjectively, an individual’s beliefs are what define their existence. They may move onto a different belief which makes more sense to them but, fundamentally, a belief is a belief whether it originates from a cult or a religion.
Every movement, cult or religion includes rogue or extremist individuals who commit unsavoury acts in the name of their faith, and new belief systems are commonly met with hostility by established religions. This happens now, it happened a thousand years ago and will probably still be happening a thousand years from now.
The objective differentiation between a cult and a religion is not just a grey area; it’s an amorphous myopic haze sprinkled with opinions, feelings and emotions making any hope of objectivity impossible. This, and the fact that believers will always consider their movement a ‘religion’, effectively makes the term ‘cult’ obsolete. And kind of judgemental.
Image from: http://theholyprepuce.tumblr.com/post/9291051865/the-raelian-movement-teaches-that-life-on-earth
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.