In which we discuss the differences between religions and cults.
NVH, an atheist, asks:
What’s the difference between religions and cults? Aren’t they the same thing?
When I think of cults, I tend to think of Scientology or Heaven’s Gate or the Rajneeshees in Oregon back in the 1980s. These groups seem outwardly rather kooky to most of us, but the question of what really distinguishes them from traditional religion is a legitimate one, especially considering that at least some traditional religions were initially considered very strange by the larger culture (think Christians and Romans). There are similarities between religions and cults — and cults can form within religions — so it can get confusing, but there are three key ways to distinguish between the two. We’ll compare Christianity specifically with cults in general to demonstrate, since that was the context of NVH’s question.
Let’s first look at the similarities:
- the origin of the universe
- the origin of human life
- the meaning of life
- why things are the way they are / how the world works
- what’s going to happen in the future.
Cults attempt to explain the same things as Christianity or any other religion.
The first key difference is in their truths; in other words, how the explanations are presented. Let’s look at the differences between truths in Christianity and cults.
Christianity’s claimed truths are:
- often evident in nature, the world, and ourselves; one can arrive at a basic understanding of most of these truths through observation, experience, and reasoning
- consistent with what we observe in the world
- preached openly by prophets, who were messengers of God; most were unwilling and/or faced opposition or martyrdom for preaching these truths
- freely available to everyone.
Cults claimed truths are:
- often not at all evident in nature, the world, and ourselves; one can only arrive at these truths through special revelation (see third and fourth items below)
- at best speciously consistent with what we observe in the world, and at worst not consistent at all
- revealed under special circumstances by spiritual leaders who have exclusive access to a special knowledge of reality; most actively seek to gain adulation, power, and fortune
- available only to a select group through special revelation by the spiritual leader.
The second key difference is earthly goals and rewards promised by religions and cults.
Goals and rewards of Christian faith:
- redemption / reconciliation with God
- eternal life in the new world.
Goals and rewards of cult devotion:
- material improvement and advancement in this life and/ or
- greater power or improved status in the next life.
The third key difference is in how these goals and awards are achieved.
How to achieve the goals and merit the rewards of Christian faith:
- you can’t achieve the goals on your own
- you will never merit the rewards
- simply accept that God will grant you these things through Jesus Christ.
How to achieve the goals and merit the rewards of cult devotion:
- good works
- payment or other sacrifice to the spiritual leader.
This is what makes Christianity not only distinct from modern cults, but unique amongst traditional religions. I came to Christian faith, despite virtually no contact with traditional religion growing up, through the evidence in nature and the world. That’s straight out of Psalm 19 and Romans 1:20. Ever since, I’ve devoted this ministry to explaining how the truth of Christianity is:
- often evident in nature, the world, and ourselves; one can arrive at most of these truths through observation, experience, and reasoning
- consistent with what we observe in the world.
If you’re wondering how, a good place to start is my presentation on the Six Days of Genesis and my comparison of Genesis 1 and Modern science.
Christian cults tend to embrace a form of Gnosticism. Secret knowledge gains salvation, and subjugates the material realm to the wielder of purified spirit that possess that secret knowledge, for worldly gain.
In some ways they are funhouse mirrors of Christianity. Conversion to Christ happens in the private chambers of the heart and mind. That Christ saves is like secret knowledge to those that have ears but don’t listen, and eyes that don’t see.
The disciple can command the elements to obey him, but only in the name of Christ and as God wills it, never to enrich himself.
The cult leader seeks to have his followers replace their will for his. The Christian leader asks his flock to place God’s will over their own.
Rituals, good works, tithing and offerings are done to further glorify God and help our fellowman, not to glorify and enrich the cult leader.
And so forth.