Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

What Makes a Cult? Does Your Religion Qualify?

Posted by Ethan Clow on September 15, 2009

We recently talked about cults on the show. Last week we discussed questions like “what is a cult?” and how do we determine what is a cult and what is a religion. If you get a chance why not download that episode right now, you can find it on Itunes or at–RadioFreethinkers

If you liked that episode be sure to tune in tomorrow when we spend the whole episode talking about scientology!

But getting back to cults, on the show we discussed how a cult may refer to a religious group with relatively few adherents whose beliefs or practices are regarded by others as strange or sinister.
Since about the 1970s, the word cult has attained much more derogatory, negative and judgmental connotation. Oftentimes we use the term to refer to any religion we deems “dangerous.”

Rhetorical question: What if we deem all religions dangerous? Never mind, let’s get to that later.

Now, if a movement displays all or most of the following traits, you might have a cult on your hands. But…and I want to be careful here, most mainstream religions also have these traits. Now I don’t want to suggest that mainstream religions are cults in the same sense that the Ku Klux Klan is a cult…because they aren’t, but it’s interesting to note the parallels.

Central Authority in a Single, Charismatic Leader: Check. Classic examples could be the Pope but also figures such as the Dali Lama.

Control Over Life and Death: Depends on how we classify that. Do we mean the religion has control over which of its members live or die? If so, well we’ve spoken of many religions that “discourage” science based medicine. Could that be interrupted as control over life and death? Or what about the Pope stating condoms will spread HIV? Or what about the churches sanctioning exorcisms that are glorified torture sessions that often result in the victim dying?

Commission of Felonies: To continue to pick on the Catholic Church, it was the current Pope Benedict XVI that wrote an order that all sexual abuse cases were to be kept private by the church.

Strict Control Over Lives of Members: Most religions impose rules and regulations about what is considered moral and what isn’t. I’m sure we can all think of a few examples.

Separation From Contacts Outside the Group: Depends on how you look at it. Many religions want to convert more people so there are often pressures to bring more people into the faith.

Polarized Worldview: Again, this is true of all religions. But again, it’s true of virtually all people.

Living in Communal Isolation: When we talk about isolation we should also mention economic and social status. The Pope lives in a giant palace.

Large Required Donations: Most religions request donations. But so does the Red Cross.

Conformity: Subjection of Individual Desires and Thoughts: Again, depends on which religion we’re talking about here. Some are actually very open to new ideas.

Punishment for Defection or Criticism: Excommunication.

Group Is Small: Well this one probably doesn’t sync up very well. Most religions aim to be big.

Since most religions – including mainstream – show at least a few of these traits, mostly in a moderate degree so care needs to be taken before denouncing an unfamiliar belief system as a dangerous cult. But I think purely as a thought experiment, it’s interesting to compare how some religions have cult like elements.

Ethan “the Freethinking Historian”

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