Is There Any Difference Between a Cult and a Religion?

by birtanpublished on August 5, 2020

Tell me if you've heard this before Blanc is not a religion it's a cult people have filled in this blank with all types of groups whether Scientology Wicca some people have even put Mormonism in this category in fact many new religious movements that have popped

Up in the past hundred or two hundred years have been accused of being a cult but this is a problematic way to think about religious groups because cult is not a neutral academic term it's a term that people use to accuse groups that

They think are deviant fringe or illegitimate given enough time cults have an uncanny ability to eventually be considered a religion by the broader public as they become more socially acceptable so even though the old joke

That cult plus time equals religion is true on one level or another the scholar of new religious movements dr Megan Goodwin puts it a little better cults equals any religion I don't like my fellow youtuber tearsa Chesky has

Already gone over this topic at her channel ground up religion so if you're interested go check that out I'm gonna approach this topic from a slightly different angle how has the term cult been used and

Should we ever use this term to describe small sectarian religious groups the word cult comes from the Latin cultists which basically refers to a sense of worship reverence or cherishing we see this in other English words like

Cultivate or agriculture and ancient historians today often use this term in this ancient sense so when we talk about the cult of Mithras were referring to the veneration of the god Mithras when we say the Imperial cult in the Roman

Empire we're talking about the veneration of the emperor as a God the ancient historian and one of my personal heroes Peter Brown even wrote a book called the cult of the saints where he explores the development of

Christian veneration of certain godly humans like Saint Simeon and how people built up shrines to venerate these saints and their relics in this sense ancient historians use it all the time as an adjective so sacrificing to the

Goddess Artemis could be called cult practice the image of Artemis inside her temple is called the cult image this term cult is just referring to the institutional veneration of the goddess Artemis but this sense of the word

Doesn't have any of the modern connotations it's not referring to small sectarian groups because the imperial cult was a huge Empire wide institution and it's not referring to groups with a single authoritarian leader and it

Certainly doesn't have any of the pejorative connotations of religious deviancy so in my recent video on the cults of Mithras people were asking me why are you using this term it's not a neutral academic term but I'm an ancient

Historian by training so it was completely uncontroversial for me to say the cult of Mithras I just hang out with a lot of ancient historians but what about the modern sense a lot of people use the term cult today to refer to

Small groups small groups that they see as exploitative abusive with a slavish devotion to an authoritarian leader and extreme examples like this do exist the People's Temple founded by Jim Jones immediately comes to mind

Jones's sect famously led to the mass suicide at Jonestown in 1978 or the Japanese religious group Alma Shinrikyo which carried out a nerve gas attack at a Tokyo subway station in 1995 now these are some really scary examples but even

For these groups I wouldn't use the word cult I would say religious group or apocalyptic religious group that carried out a nerve gas attack the instant that we use the word cult we're joining a non-academic discourse that's

Labeling certain religious groups as legitimate and other ones as illegitimate while at the same time lumping in other new religious movements along with these violent examples spoiler alert

Not all new religious movements are apocalyptic not all small new religious movements are violent to illustrate this point I'm going to use some examples from the historian Philip Jenkins but first of all I want you to ask what do

You mean when you use the word cult if cult means groups that are ideologically sectarian and controlling of their members behavior why don't we count the Amish or Hasidic Jews as cults who are by definition insular groups

With strict behavioral expectations I can't think of anyone that refers to the Amish as a cult if by cult we mean religious groups that are violent or involved with sexual abuse then that unfortunately will

Include a lot of religious groups throughout history small or otherwise and if by coat we mean groups with beliefs that are outside the mainstream suddenly we need to ask whose mainstream the more you look into it the more you

Realize that the word cults just is not useful for academic discourse it just has way too much ideological baggage and it's too relative one man's cult is another man's religion Mormonism is a good example many people called it a

Cult in its early years and many people still do but Mormonism is now a global religion with millions of followers some are even calling it the new world religion even Billy Graham the famous evangelical preacher removed Mormonism

From his official list of cults when Mitt Romney ran for president back in 2012 bringing Mormonism to the center stage spotlight so if cult is a concept that is just so changeable and so wrapped up with

Personal ideologies why use it at all well as it turns out scholars of these types of religious groups don't use this term at all they use the term new religious movements new religious movements are diverse and they're small

But they are genuine and you might think they're weird or eccentric but it's best to keep a level head and assume a neutral stance when you study them because portraying new religious movements as freaks and

Irrational weirdos has actual real-life consequences a lot of these groups have suffered persecution throughout the past hundred years during so-called cult scares so next time you hear someone use the word cult you can ask yourself are

They using it to label some group as weird or deviant are they using it just to describe a new religious movement or maybe they're just talking about the cult of Mithras as always thanks for watching there are some great resources

On the topic of new religious movements and I have barely scratched the surface so check out the bibliography in the description below this episode was brought to you by our amazing patrons on patreon that keep this show afloat

Financially if you'd like to support us even just a few bucks a month click on the patreon logo and head over to the site thanks again and I'll see you next time

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