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"Cult" or "Religion"? How Many Followers Does A Particular Faith Need?

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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:37 PM
Original message
"Cult" or "Religion"? How Many Followers Does A Particular Faith Need?
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 06:46 PM by DistressedAmerican
I first got to thinking about this back during the Branch Dravidian siege.

My basic understanding is that the only thing that separates a "cult" from a "religion" if the number of people that believe in it. At the time I really pissed off some of my Christian friends by suggesting that there really was no significant difference between themselves and the Davidians.

I have asked many people since about the difference. All seem to agree it came down to how many followers there were. But, nobody seems to be able to peg a number.

If I remember the Branch Davidians had about 1,000 followers. The Catholic Church has 1.1 billion. I presume the number lies somewhere in between.

So, let me ask you. When does a "cult" become a "religion"? Is it even about the numbers or are there other factors I'm not considering like tax-exempt status?

(note: this is not an anti-religion thread. I really am curious about the definitions that are being used.)

On edit here are the definitions out of my handy Webster's:
Cult - 1. a particular system of religious worship esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies. 2. A group that devotes itself or venerates a person, ideal or fad. 3. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox or extreme

Religion - 1. A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe. 2. A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects. 3. A body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.
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Fridays Child Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:41 PM
Response to Original message
1. It's the size of the bank account that makes the difference...
...and how successfully the leaders manage public perception of the group.
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lenidog Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM
Response to Reply #1
11. Not always Scientology has very large bank accounts
and has gotten a lot of flack over the years because people and governments consider it a cult
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BrklynLiberal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:42 PM
Response to Original message
2. Excellent question. Here is how a dictionary differentiates them:
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 06:43 PM by BrklynLiberal
cult:
A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.

relligion:
Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.

sect:
A group of people forming a distinct unit within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions of belief or practice.
A religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.

EDIT: So obviously, size does matter.


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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM
Response to Reply #2
7. Just added a couple of very similar defs to the original post.
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tammywammy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:43 PM
Response to Original message
3. I think a cult tends to isolate you from others
They tend to make a person break off from their family. They'll tend to encourage you to live with each other.
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signmike Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:45 PM
Response to Original message
4. Ask a tax person or the IRS.
I knew people who were constantly trying to call themselves a church to avoid paying taxes - 20 years ago I think it was 5 or 10 followers.
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BrklynLiberal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:45 PM
Response to Original message
5. So, don't you think the Romans considered the Christians part of a cult
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM by BrklynLiberal
at the time they were first preaching their beliefs?
Actually, that was probably what people who folowed all the other religions of the time thought of Christianity.
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ragin_acadian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:46 PM
Response to Original message
6. i don't think it is a numbers issue,
generally, when cults go mainstream, and have multiple congregations, they become religions. or, when everyone else stops laughing at it or deriding it, it is no longer a cult.

just my opinion. which would explain why "rapturemania" type people are still good for a laugh.....for now. in a few years, there might be a church of the sky taxi on every corner - at that point "rapturemania" will be a religion, and not a cult.
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mattclearing Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:48 PM
Response to Reply #6
12. Church of the Sky Taxi - LOL n/t
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TexasSissy Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM
Response to Original message
8. I have a different understanding of what a cult is.
There are certain characteristics of cults, and they have nothing to do with membership numbers. That's what I've read, anyway. Following are a few things that come to mind.

1. Followers are encouraged or required to cut off communications with family members, or with family members who don't also belong to the cult.

2. Followers are encouraged or required to hand over to the cult all or most of the follower's assets.

3. There is one lead guy, who is all-knowing, never mistaken, and who is worshiped by the followers as some sort of God himself.

4. Control is exercised by the cult directly over the followers' children.

5. You probably belong to a cult if the organization wants you to commit suicide.

That's not all, but it's some of what I've read. Cults recruit members, then alienate them from their loved ones, then work at getting whatever assets the recuits have, and then exercise almost total control over the followers. Some cults encourage followers to kill themselves to show their love, loyalty, or because the end is nigh, or some other cult-related belief (but basically, it's because the head guy says so). Cults, in particular, seek to control the children of the followers, supplanting the role of the parents. That's a key thing, I've read. Once someone lets you discipline their child, you know you have them in your control.
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:51 PM
Response to Reply #8
16. That is certainly the popular conception of a cult these days.
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 06:54 PM by DistressedAmerican
But, it does not really hold up historically.

As someone already pointed out, Christianity was considered a cult on Imperial Rome. In that case, state sanction was the big factor in being considered a religion. I think the stamp of legal legitimacy does matter a great deal.
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BrklynLiberal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:01 PM
Response to Reply #16
20. The state sanction and legal legitimacy do appear to be the big factors.
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 07:02 PM by BrklynLiberal
Constantine's making Christianity a state religion in 323 AD did a great deal to help make it recognized as more than just a "cult" by other religions and nations around the world.
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Radical Activist Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:15 PM
Response to Reply #20
25. State sanction and control also
completely changed Christianity after 323 AD into something Jesus and the apostles never would have recognized.

Mixing government and religion doesn't make a cult into a religion. It perverts religion and makes it a political tool.
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BrklynLiberal Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 09:55 PM
Response to Reply #25
33. Absolutely true....
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mattclearing Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM
Response to Original message
9. It raises the question: Is it possible to start a new religion today?
I'd guess no. It would probably scare the shit out of people.

When was the last time a new religion was successfully formed and grew into a recognized faith? LDS?
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PassingFair Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:09 PM
Response to Reply #9
23. Sikhism is only 500 years old...
and what about those cute little Raelians?
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mattclearing Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:23 PM
Response to Reply #23
28. LDS is only 150 or so. n/t
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Salviati Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:47 PM
Response to Original message
10. In my mind...
the differance between a cult and a religion is this:

A cult is like a doorway between it's members and the world. All interactions with the world must go through the doorway. If you go on a trip somewhere, it's as a part of a cult, if you meet up with someone, it's as some sort of cult gathering. The cult has a total monopoly on your life.

Religion, on the other hand is more of a filter that you see the world through. You go and do things seperate from your church/temple/etc. and may filter your perceptions through your religion, but your religion does not maintain a strict stranglehold on everything you do.

The differance is not one of size, it's a matter of the control it has over your life.
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Lydia Leftcoast Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:50 PM
Response to Original message
13. The marks of a cult include
1. Absolute obedience to a supreme leader who is often emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abusive but has a charismatic personality

2. The leader lives in luxury while the followers live in poverty; the leader makes a lot of super-strict rules for the followers but doesn't follow them himself

3. Cutting converts off from outside sources of information and former associates

4. Allowing no doubters

Individual churches of mainstream denominations can become cult-like. If you know what a mainstream church "feels" like emotionally and then visit one where the minister has turned it into a cult, there are creepy vibes that are totally unlike a normal church.

I had such an experience visiting an Episcopal Church where the priest went a bit crazy and started creating a cult within the parish. What really creeped me out was when he said that anyone who criticized him was blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and had therefore committed the sin that even God couldn't forgive.

Fortunately, the Episcopal bishops have quite a lot of supervisory control, and that priest soon got the boot.

In a denomination where the congregation has absolute authority, it would be easier for an evil charismatic leader to create a cult, which is why most of the craziest fundamentalists are in the so-called "non-denominational" churches.
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alphafemale Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:50 PM
Response to Original message
14. It's not about numbers at all really. There are cult danger signs though.
Edited on Mon Apr-04-05 06:55 PM by alphafemale
Trying to take up all of your time is one.
Isolating members from other family and friends is another.

Important ife decisions being made by a leader or group.

Threatening to "Cut You Off" if you question or leave the group. (Becoming a non-person)

Numbers don't really matter.

For example an old religious order - The Shakers - is down to 16 members now.

And some established religions, such as JW are considerd cults by some because of their "shunning" of former members as well as other things.

And The Rev. Moon leads what is considered by nearly everyone a cult, but those members probably numbers in the millions.
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Taxloss Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:51 PM
Response to Original message
15. This question has been tested in court, re Scientology in Germany
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/23555.stm

http://slate.msn.com/id/1045 /

The German courts were concerns that Scientology was not a democratic structure, and that it raised money from its memebers. How this differs it from other religions - search me.
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:54 PM
Response to Reply #15
17. Very Interesting Links.
The German court couldn't even figure it out, huh? :shrug:
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Taxloss Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 08:42 PM
Response to Reply #17
32. Which rather indicates there might not be too much difference. nt
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Blue Gardener Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:56 PM
Response to Original message
18. So are the Moonies a cult or a religion?
When I was in high school in the 70's they were definitely considered a cult. I would still consider them a cult now, only a much more powerful one.
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:08 PM
Response to Reply #18
22. A Little From Column "A" A Little From Column "B"...
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Lars39 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 06:57 PM
Response to Original message
19. Or when does a religion become a cult?
Like southern baptist convention...
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:10 PM
Response to Reply #19
24. With All Of This Government Sanctioning Of Their Beliefs,
They will be the official STATE RELIGION soon!

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Lars39 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:20 PM
Response to Reply #24
27. And here's just the bill to accomplish it!
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=1...
The Constitution Restoration Act
<snip>
In the worshipful words of the Conservative Caucus, this historic legislation will "RESTORE OUR CONSTITUTION!", mainly by barring ANY federal court or judge from ever again reviewing "any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity's, officer's, or agent's acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.

In other words, the bill ensures that God's divine word (and our infallible leaders' interpretation thereof) will hereafter trump all our pathetic democratic notions about freedom, law and rights -- and our courts can't say a thing. This, of course, will take "In God We Trust" to an entirely new level, because soon He (and His personally anointed political elite) will be all the legal recourse we have left.<snip>
more at:
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=1...
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 10:01 PM
Response to Reply #27
34. That Is Creepy Stuff You've Found There.
It always frightens me to stuff like that written up as legislation. In past I would have laughed off as some rigth wing nutcase working for some attention. These days I take stuff like this far more seriously!

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Radical Activist Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:07 PM
Response to Original message
21. Size doesn't matter.
That's really true in this case.

Cult is used as a smear word used so often that it has becoming meaningless. Its most often used by older, more established religions to delegitimize newer ones.
I don't call something a cult unless it's very harmful to its members.
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FloridaPat Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:18 PM
Response to Original message
26. Fernwood Tonight did a skit on the Catholic Church being a cult.
Yes, sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
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ayeshahaqqiqa Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:31 PM
Response to Original message
29. Mindset is more important than numbers
My Sufi Order numbers in the thousands, but not in the millions. But no one is required to hand over their assets or even donate anything at all. Discussion and disagreement are ok-I've known people who argued with their spiritual teachers or even the head of the Order and are still members in good standing. There is no "cult of personality". We are encouraged to reach out and be a part of the world, as well as take personal responsibility for our individual spiritual development.

I've read of religious organizations far larger than mine that do demand the follower's wealth, strict allegience, etc, etc. That's why I don't think size has anything to do with the modern definition of "cult".
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leftofthedial Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 07:36 PM
Response to Original message
30. semantic difference for the same thing
number and wealth of members

wealth of the organization

relative length of time spent indoctrinating members

if our society "likes" a religious group, it is a "religion."

if our society is suspicious of or unfamiliar with a religious group, it is a "cult."
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-05 08:37 PM
Response to Original message
31. Kick!
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DistressedAmerican Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-05 07:43 AM
Response to Original message
35. Kicker.
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corksean Donating Member (419 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-05 08:35 AM
Response to Original message
36. "A Cult is a Religion with no political power" - Tom Wolfe
IMHO the main difference is that a "Cult" worships and pledges obedience to it's (mortal) leader (Davidians, Raelians etc.) as opposed to a supernatural entity . By this definition Christianity would have been classed as a cult when first established. The veneration of the Pope within some sections of the Catholic Church today would also leave them open to this charge. A cult become a religion once there is general acceptance that their object of veneration is, indeed, a God.
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