Friday, January 26, 2007

Religion V. Cult: What's the Diff

I heard recently that the German government does not recognize Scientology as a religion. I'm sure the arbiters of American freedom might also call into question the L. Ron crowd. Do those guys have a bible? Or at least a Koran? And hey, why give tax breaks to weirdos?

So who gets to have a religion? And who is relegated to the wings with mere "cult" status?

Both religions and cults evoke the supernatural. Or at least fantastical leaps of faith. Both religions and cults revolve around rituals steeped in hokum and dogma and doctrine. And as much as some would like to profess being "open to all," both religions and cults are rather tribal and exclusive. Not everybody gets a back stage pass.

I've come up with an aspect of cults and religions which could be used to tell the diff, to distinguish a full fledged Religion from a fledgling cult.

Here's the gist:

A religion is public about its weirdness, and a cult is private about its weirdness.

Religions are so audacious as to think their gigantic leaps of faith are normal that they assume they'll be accepted by millions. Religions thrive on their bigness and inertia. Cults don't have that sort of track record, so as they experience growth pains, they are much more guarded. Cults thrive on their tight knit size, on seclusion and specialization.

Some religions, especially the major ones, do a pretty good job of duping the masses, having them think almost everything out in the open. But not so fast. They are quick to establish uppity ups who don't let on their special connections and special powers. The pope is not exactly an approachable extravert. And the big religions seem to really encourage everyone speaking to God, whoever their God is. But they also like to make it seem sort of rare and special to hear back from God, directly and with authority. The uppity ups like to think their particular conversations with and declarations from God are bonified.



Say, for example, in your religion, you got mysterious space aliens? Who were they really, and how did they get here? Cult.

So that knocks out Christianity, of course, off the charts for a religion. Now clearly a cult. Heaven? What kind of major hokum is THAT? Got a MAP?

And as for the all-mighty Allah, he's nothing more than a made up Wizard of Oz. Prove otherwise. Sure the pious can prove their anger and the "power" of their faith, but they can't prove that there is any "higher power" better than a set of secular principles meant to help us be good, good for ourselves and good for one another.

So it turns out that a true religion, a REAL religion, is a completely open and clear set of moral and ethical principles. Nothing more. And nothing less. A true religion lacks doctrine, dogma and any higher authority. It is freely chosen and thus the responsibility of each practitioner.

Meanwhile, most of what passes for "religion" is really down deep just a top-down power play, on the surface a sheepish cult dressed up like a lion, a bleat meant to roar.


At 6/28/2008 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was just discussing this subject with my sister (who had studied religious anthropology), and I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. The only thing I might add is that when people are FORCED to do something against what they believe in, that too could be viewed as either cult or religious behavior -- depending upon the circumstances.


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