Difference Between Religion and Cult

One short definition of the difference between a religion and cult:

A religion is an old cult. A cult is a new religious movement.

A religion is a formal organised body who generally meet various criteria such as:

  • Belief in some kind of supreme being or principle.
  • Belief in the importance of certain spiritual books as a source of spiritual truth. (Bible, Qu’ran, Bhagavad Gita)
  • A set of principles to guide living of members.
  • Membership in religion often tied to ancestry or bloodline.
  • An established organisation, often with a hierarchy of priests.
  • The geographical existence of holy places to visit.

The concept of Religion invariably is associated with the main religions which have been in existence for 100s or 1000s of years. The main religions are:

  • Hinduism
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Sikhism
  • Taoism

Within these religions are many subdivisions of different religious branches, e.g. within Christianity, we see, the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox and the various Protestant churches.


The term cult is hard to define. There was a time when ‘cult’ was not a pejorative term but referred to a certain branch of religious devotion. For example, the Catholic church would allow the worship of a particular cult (of a certain saint) e.t.c

However, during the twentieth century, the term cult has become laden with negative and pejorative connotations. These negative associations can include ideas of ‘brainwashing’, conversion and abuse.

The term cult is often used to describe new religious movements or alternative religious movements by those who wish to stereotype the movement in a negative way. These new religious movements involve a wide diversity of different groups/movements/sects. But often involve:

  • A new spiritual movement
  • Different teachings to established religions

Many scholars no longer use the term ‘cult’ except in the case of groups which exhibit extreme forms of manipulation and mind control such as David Koresh’s Branch Davidians.

However, concepts of what constitutes as mind control will differ depending on different perspectives.

For example, to become a monk or nun within a Catholic Church would involve giving up many outer freedoms and surrendering to the abbot or Mother Superior. To adherents, the concept is that the surrendering of the individual ego is necessary for a spiritual life, which enables true freedom. To critics, this kind of outer and inner discipline involves ‘cultish’ behaviour. When new religious movements offer similar teachings, it is often claimed this is evidence of cultish behaviour. Though for established religions to practise such strict disciplines, the word cult is generally not used.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Religions and Cults”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 01/10/2013 updated 19 September 2017

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