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What is a Cult?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Question: What's the difference between a Cult -- Where you're supposed to donate your assets to the cult, accept brain-washing indoctrinations, follow exactly what the leader says under threat of religious penalties, are expected to die for your beliefs, etc -- and a Religion, Where you're expected to donate your assets, accept indoctrination, ... Is the only real difference longevity? All religions seem to have started as cults. I don't see any real difference.

Answer: Cults are, as you describe, based on compulsion. The term "religion" is a very general one, but also a technical term in academic disciplines of study, like sociology, psychology, philosphy of religion, etc., so it varies in specific connotation.

Voluntary Religion
But in general a religion is voluntary. Most religious organizations or societies are based on voluntary gifts from members. Some may have a more formal subscription type of contribution scheme. But the members are free to join or leave, unlike a "cult," by which we usually mean a controlling, closed group.

Membership Expectations
I wonder why you would think only religious groups have their particular doctrines members are supposed to follow? When you join anything, however, there are certain standards, or expectations, so religious groups have theirs. And most people will want to contribute to the causes they believe in.

Even businesses have their own doctrines for their industry or even that company, and the employee is usually expected to be loyal, etc.

If a person wants to accept the expectations of a group, fine, they can join, and would then be expected to contribute or participate in whatever way way agreed. This is very different from a sense of compulsion and entrapment. If someone does not wish to agree to the general expectations, fine, they would be free to join something else.

Salvation is referred to in the Old Testament as a covenant relationship with God. In David's Psalms, he expresses his deep faith relationship with the Creator God. 

He speaks of God in terms of a deep awareness and close personal relationship with God, not just a loyal obedient servant following rules. Sin is spoken of as the breaking of the covenant in some way that hinders the relationship. This is the concept of sin in the Old Testament.

Religions Differ
However, you will find a lot of difference between various religious organizations. So a general statement that they are all cults, or all started as cults would be very hard to demonstrate.

Incidentally, most "cults" would not call themselves cults. This is a term used by "non-cultic" religious groups, movements or organizations to designate this undesirable use of religion to coerce people's minds and separate them from competing forces, rather than lead members to certain vountary convictions.

No Labels
So no cultic group is likely to label itself as a cult. You won't know a cult by the name on the sign, and there may be a "church" which has some cultic characteristics. But if its people can come and go, it would not be called a cult.


First written on an Internet discussion group 8 November 2000
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 15 May 2004

Copyright © 2002 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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