Religions are such a touchy subject.  There are thousands of religions in the world today, but they all differ in ideology. Anytime anyone brings up a matter of his or her “beliefs,” everyone seems to get uncomfortable and changes the subject.  Cults, are an even touchier subject.  Every time someone says “cult,” our brains automatically associate with Heaven’s Gate, Children of God, People’s Temple, David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, or Aum Shinriyko. What is a cult, exactly?  What makes a religion a religion?  Is there that big of a difference?  I am going to explain what a religion is, what a cult is, and the commonalities and differences between cults and religions.  This is important because when someone is looking for something to believe in or follow; one must know exactly what they are getting into.  Converting to a religion is a big commitment, so people need to be aware of what they are getting themselves into and to notice to signs of a possible faux religion. 

According to the Lexico Dictionary, the definition of religion is, “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” (Religion).  Having faith in a god, or numerous gods, usually means that is a religion.  A religion has a set of beliefs that lay out a set of guidelines on how to reach the path to God, or the gods.  Eric Dietrich Ph.D. states in his 2015 article, “Why Are There So Many Religions?,” “that there are tens of thousands of religions on planet Earth today” (Dietrich 2).  The fact that there are so many religions in the world can be a little confusing.  A theory of why there are so many variations of religions is that, “we are each seeking our own path to God, and our own paths vary because we vary” (Dietrich 2).   Mostly all religious groups always feel like they are practicing the right religion over the others in the world.  It is hard to say which is wrong and which one is right.  The basic ideology of religion varies since they all are so different.  The oldest religion, that is still being practiced today, is Hinduism.  Hinduism’s ideology is, “the goal to become free from the law of karma” (Adamson).  Hindus believe in numerous gods and goddesses, karma, and reincarnation, so in other words, one’s soul will continue to rebirth on Earth until the soul has fully reached spiritual perfection and can finally rest at peace.  A more familiar religion in America is Christianity.  Christians believe in the one almighty God, and the basic ideology is to worship only Him, follow the Ten Commandments, and to live for God.  Even though these two religions are vastly different, they are similar in that they believe in a higher supernatural power, which is not here on Earth, and they also try to follow a peaceful way of life to reach the path of their god. In retrospect, even though each religion may be different in names and whom they exactly believe in, they both are very similar in the fact that they live for someone higher than them. 

 “The term cult used to refer to a minor religious sect that practices its own peculiar rituals,” but, “nowadays, it suggests a secretive and dangerous group” (Galanter 1).  Cults have always been a taboo to society.  There is always a bad connotation with the word cult.  A cult is traditionally defined as a new religious movement.  From the beginning of religion, any branched off religion that was not the original religion, was considered a cult.  Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity were all technically associated with being a cult at the beginning of their debut.  They only became religions when they got enough real estate and followers.  Cults have basic ideology as well because they “align themselves with mainstream religions” (Coughlin).  Members of cults believe in a higher power, but the higher power is usually the leader of that cult.  They promise the path to a divine afterlife alongside God, or themselves, the leader.  These religious groups, cults, are so appealing to people because “they offer the simple path to happiness, to success, to salvation by following their simple rules,” and “each member contributes to the power of the leader by trading his or her freedom for the illusion of security and reflected glory that group membership holds” (Zimbardo 2). 

The lines between a religion and a cult are very blurred.  Because cults are based off of well-known religions, or religious beliefs, that we all are very familiar with, so it comes down to logistics to see the differences.  The first difference is that cults “can be financially exploitative, like Scientology, which requires its members to literally buy into the religion at different checkpoints on their road to total faith” (What’s 2).  Although, orthodox churches do ask for offerings or donations, but it is not mandatory to prove your faith to that church or god.  On the other hand, these orthodox churches will have an “alms-giving policy that requires members to donate ten percent of their earnings out of charity” (What’s 4).  Understandably, every organization needs money to operate, religion or cult.  Another difference is that religions believe in worshiping the followings and teachings of a supernatural power, whereas a cult will have the leader, here on Earth, be the higher power.  This contrast is where the idea of manipulation comes into play.  Many argue that cults will twist the words of the religious beliefs they run off to make them have faith in “committing suicide upon command or destroying the cult’s enemies,” anyone not in favor of them (Zimbardo 4).  Mainstream religions continuously preach to do no harm to others or yourself.  In these popular religions, committing suicide or murder is a cardinal sin and against all teachings, and any act of it will be automatic damnation to Hell.  Philip G. Zimbardo Ph.D. states in his journal, “What Messages Are Behind Today’s Cults?,” “that the major difference between a religion and a cult is what happens when a member tries to leave” (Zimbardo 4).  His theory is that if a member of a conventional church isn’t happy with the way the church is being ran, or even disagrees with the teachings, one can choose to leave the church in search of a new path, no problem.  If one doesn’t agree with a cult’s teachings once they have already pledged their allegiance and attempts to leave, that member is now looked at as a traitor and can be held hostage, be punished, or even killed for their unsupportive feelings toward the group and it’s leader.  These points of differences are very subtle, but they are a big factor is what distinguishes the two groups. 

The resemblance of a religion and a cult are so parallel, that they overlap in many concepts.  Both groups “demonstrate great zeal and unquestioning commitment to their leader.  Doubt, skepticism, and debate are discouraged and sometimes even punished.  Current members are always looking to acquire new members and money.  There’s a mentality that there are two kinds of people in the world: this in the group, and everyone else” (What’s 1).  No one in a mainstream religion wants to hear that there are so many similarities in religions and cults, but this is reality. The two groups practice rituals and ceremonies, have reverence for spiritual leaders, have dogmatic adherence to myths, have a system of moral laws, have supernatural or deistic beliefs and have a veneration of sacred symbols.  “A religion is an old cult.  A cult is a new religious movement,” (What’s 3). 

Religions and cults go hand in hand.  Even though people may not want to admit it, every religion started off as a cult because it was anew way of thinking.  With all these new teachings and more options to follow, it allowed people all over the world to choose what worked best for their lifestyle.  It is true, we all think differently and we all have a different outlook on which higher power is looking down on us, guiding our every move.  Even though cults have now gotten a bad reputation for the radical groups that have been associated with them, all cults are not bad.  Cults are the beginning to a new movement and a new path to salvation.  Without the start of cults, branch offs of mainstream religions, we would not have any of the religions we have today. 

Works Cited

Adamson, Mariyln. “Connecting with the Divine.”,  This article gives the run down of the five major religions in the world still practiced today.  It covers Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.  I am using this information from this article to compare and contrast the different religions today and how they are similar and how they are different.  I want to prove that even if religions are not the same, the ideology is basically the same, with the exception of a few particulars.  This is more of a blog post, but I feel like it is credible because the author has done religious studies and has traveled to many countries to study religious culture. 

Coughlin, Sara. “Where Is The Line Between A Cult & A Religion?” The Difference Between A Cult And Religion, Explained, 31 Aug. 2018,  This article explains the differences from cults and religions.  It really highlights  the more modern cults that have a bad name.  I think this article does a good job of comparing and contrasting the things alike and different from religions and cults.  I am using this article to show some of the different points it makes aside from the journals, since this article in particular describing the bad cults that can be very manipulative and harmful.  Although this source is from an online article that is just more opinion based, the author did an interview with Janja Lalich, Ph. D, who is a professor of sociology ar California State University, Chico.  The author quotes the doctor and their findings in the research that they have conducted about cults over the years. 

Dietrich, Eric. “Why Are There So Many Religions?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Apr. 2015,  In this article, it breaks down the estimated number of how many religions there are in the world.  It also continues to explain why the number of religions in the world is so high.  The main point of the whole article is that everyone has a common goal, which is to find the path to their God, but everyone’s paths do not always align.  There are many ways to findings one purpose, so that is why there are many different derivatives.  I am using this information in my report to show the number of current religions in the world.  I want to show that religion is such an open statement and can be interpreted in many different ways.  This source is not scholarly, but it was written by, Eric Dietrich Ph.D., whom is a professor of philosophy at Binghamton University and is a current editor in chief of the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence.  I think his words are valid since he teaches philosophy of religion.

Galanter, Marc. Cults: Faith, healing and coercion. Oxford University Press, 1999.  This book is a sequel to the study of cults with updated research.  In this book, the author goes into detail about what a cult actually is.  Cults never used to be a bad, awful, terrible thing, it was just a new movement of a religious culture.  Nowadays, cults are always associated with a bad reputation, but it is more complicated than that.  I am using this information in my report to explain how cults came about and how they took a total left turn into what we know today.  I am trying to prove the point that religions and cults are not that much different if you lay out all the facts that this book displays.  This is a reliable source because it is scholarly.  Marc Galanter wrote this book and he was a Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he taught religion and law.

“Religion: Definition of Religion in English by Lexico Dictionaries.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, 25 June 2019,  This is an online dictionary sponsored by The English Oxford Dictionary, so I feel like it is a credible source to get a proper, and valid, definition.  I wanted to use the definition of religion to have my audience get a better understanding of what exactly a religion is. 

Tremlin, Todd.  Minds and Gods: The Cognitive Foundations Of Religions.  Oxford University Press, 2010.  In this book, it lays out a plethora of different types of religions and every single one of their ideologies.  It explains the foundations of the religion in Sri Lanka all the way to the Catholic Church teachings.  This book highlights the commonality between all the types of religions, which is the beliefs in gods.  I am using this research within my report to explain the base foundations of religions and how they really are similar once you get down to the base of all the different teachings.  It also goes into depth about the power of the mind and how religion goes hand in hand with what you believe to be right or wrong, or even which god is valid and which one is not.  This is a scholarly book that was written by a Professor at Central Michigan University, whom is also the head of the religion program. 

“What’s the Difference Between Religion and a Cult? Is There?” Guff, 2015,  In this article, it does a good job of really comparing and contrasting cults and religions.  It lays out soe base foundations and asks the reader to really think if those characteristics of a cult or a religion.  This article states that the lines distinguishing cults and religions are really blurred, since technically, all religions were cults at one point in time.  I am going to use the information form this article post to really drive the point that there is no difference between a cult and a religion because of ideologies are very similar, almost identical.  This source is just more of a blog post, but I do believe that this post is credible because they do cite researchers that have done their research on religions. 

Zimbardo, Philip. “What messages are behind today’s cults.” (1997).

 In this journal, the author talks about the ideology and the appeal about cults.  This author explains why a person might voluntarily join a “cult.”  It also explains how the ideology of cults can easily be manipulated by it’s leaders into thinking this is really a new revolution.  I am using this information to highlight the rational perspectives of the people who get wrapped up in these “new religious movements.”  There are always two sides to the story, and in all cases, cults aren’t necessarily meant to be a bad thing.  This information is from a scholarly source.  The journal is written by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, who is a renowned social psychologist at Stanford University, and is also apart of the American Psychological Association.