My daughter asked me what the word "cult" meant and I had difficulty giving her a definitive answer. Can we ever really define what a cult is? What are the differences between a cult and a new religion?

asked 05 Jul '12, 15:14

Catherine's gravatar image


edited 05 Jul '12, 16:19

Kathleen%20Kelly's gravatar image

Kathleen Kelly ♦♦

Cults deal primarily with fear, using it as a stimulus. They further erode the power of the individual, so that he is frightened to leave. The group has power. The individual has none, except that the power of the group is vested in its leader.

There are religious cults, and there are also scientific ones. There are people who follow a cult that is purely private, with rules and regulations as rigorous as any sent down to a group of frightened followers by a despot of whatever kind.

Source: The Individual and the Nature of Mass Events (A Seth Book)


answered 06 Jul '12, 07:21

T%20A's gravatar image



@T A - yes, it is the FEAR element that makes it different. Some people refer to Abraham as a cult but it has never ever felt that way to me and it is the fear factor that is they key. Thanks for this.

(06 Jul '12, 07:36) Catherine

@ T A I have marked your response as my favoured one - there is simply no arguing with Seth . The key things are the fear and the fact that the power is at the top whereas in my opinion the individual should be empowered by spiritual teachings.

(08 Jul '12, 12:39) Catherine

It's funny but out of all the spiritual/religious people I've met over the years - and I've met alot - I've never met anyone who said they were in a cult.

But, strangely enough, I've met plenty of people who say other people are in cults :)

So, to me, that implies that the old saying holds true:

We are a religion.
They are a cult.



answered 05 Jul '12, 16:29

Stingray's gravatar image


@Stingray - That is an interesting point because Tom Cruise was interviewed by Michael Parkinson who asked him what he thought about people's disparaging remarks about his Scientology beliefs. There followed a genuine moment of extreme awkwardness because TC didn't know what he was talking about. You could almost sense the light dawning in MP's brain - Aha of course he doesn't think Scientology is odd. Nice observation Stingray.

(06 Jul '12, 04:23) Catherine

@Catherine - Yes, that's right. Even Scientology, who many believe is the ultimate cult, is absolutely not so in the opinion of their genuine followers. One of my favorite-ever quotes comes from Gurdjieff who basically pointed out that everyone believes they are acting for "good" - it's just that different people have different opinions of what "good" is: What is Good and Evil?

(06 Jul '12, 04:31) Stingray

Good question, Catherine. I look forward to reading what the scholars on this site have to say, but in my opinion, I think the answer to what the word cult means may just be in the mind of the speaker. The word can be used to describe anything that is not widely and currently known or accepted, and sometimes used with a derogatory and condescending slant because of that.

Same for pagan, gentile, and my personal favorite, heathen. :)

I think people often confuse cult with occult, which just means hidden or suppressed, but is the name for the undefined creepy section at the used bookstore! (Also my personal favorite!) LOL!


answered 05 Jul '12, 16:25

Grace's gravatar image


@Grace that's what I think - The dictionary defines it as "new religious movement with bizarre beliefs" ... who says what "bizarre" means? The cult/occult - both often used quite in a derogatory way. Yup - Mind Body Spirit - also my very favourite bit of the bookstore.

(06 Jul '12, 04:43) Catherine

I believe a cult requires its members to do and believe things which are not good for them personally and spiritually, even if they don't realize it yet. A true religion should guide you to reach YOUR highest good, in which ever way necessary.


answered 05 Jul '12, 20:40

PurpleRose's gravatar image


@Purple Rose - "even if they don't realize it yet" ... spot on. Thanks for responding.

(06 Jul '12, 04:46) Catherine

@Purple Rose-Very Good! Nice answer! <3 Jai

(07 Jul '12, 14:11) Jaianniah

Great question take is little different on this so I took help of some people about the whole cult/religion thing from a very reliable source we call the Internet:))...

"When 10 people meet on the street, its a protest! When 1000 meet, it's a riot! When 10,000 people gather together, it's a revolution! When 100,000 gather on street, it's a cult! When millions gather together, it's a religion"! - Anonymous me

Now, if those first 100 gather together in a tool shed in someone's backyard, it'd also be a cult:) I think, generally, a cult or specifically a religious cult is a movement which is not mainstream yet! Doesn't mean it ever will be, but that's a close definition as is used in 'mainstream' media:)... Or, you can say...

"A cult is a religion with no political power" - Tom Wolfe

Which to me sounds quite accurate!

I know in regards to explaining to your daughter, you are referring to religion and religious cult, but consider this that...

..there are all kind's of cults - The rock band KISS has a global cult following - the whole nine yards, costumes, rituals etc. There is some fanatical worship going on there. Another example would be, a movie, like 'Lord Of The Rings', is said to have cult following. Yes, it is mainstream but some follow it fanatically to an extent that its geeky and have their own cult around it- as compared to say a 'Spider-Man' movie! Even Oprah has a cult audience (fixed, unwavering, dedicated) while other viewers will come and go!

Yes there are some very mis-guided (okay the bad-bad) cults as we see in the news - like those UFO abduction ones or 'lets do this in the middle of the desert and aliens will come and take us to the elixir' or the 'mass-suicides' ones...but I would argue the word 'cult' itself doesn't automatically mean 'bad' ...

...Like this evolved lady says :)...

"Being a rock star is like being a cult leader - you really have to be in your own religion"- Courtney Love

That's a great example, closer to the 'cult' definition you are looking for- the band NIRVANA, it's lead singer, Kurt Cobain had a gloomy, depressing, Gothic philosophy that spawned true cult movement amongst his fans! A cult- Not mainstream but not bad, just different. At it's peak, for lots-n-lots, millions of people, 'Nirvana' was their religion.

"I admire the Pope. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can tour without an album."- Comedian Rita Rudner

Human beings find comfort in large numbers. Believe it or not, most people want to be told that 'there's the yellow line, follow it and you'll go to heaven'. Unlike us here on IQ:)), most want their religion simple and uncomplicated.

Like this woman asks:)...

"When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, 'Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don't believe?" - Quentin Crisp.

In regards to religion- all religions - when they started I am sure there were more 'nay-sayers' than 'yay-sayers'. I believe all religions are man-made and they take their foothold over 1000's of years. So probably what was a 'cult' say 5000 years ago is probably a religion today. Somewhere, in some part of the World!:)

Obviously I am not saying a cult is good or bad, but one does question, when one hears this...

"Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."--L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology

but then, there's this guy who sees it different...

"If someone doesn't want to be a criminal anymore, I can give them tools that can better their life. You have no idea how many people want to know what Scientology is." - Tom Cruise

Ultimately, it boils down to this...

"When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself." - Peter O'Toole.


answered 07 Jul '12, 11:58

Xoomaville's gravatar image


edited 08 Jul '12, 04:25

@Xoomaville, to use those quote blocks insert a > symbol before each sentence. It won't show up correctly in the preview (that is a bug that needs fixing) but it will show up as a quoted block when you save the changes

(07 Jul '12, 13:33) Barry Allen ♦♦

@Barry Allen, thank you for that tip:)

(07 Jul '12, 14:00) Xoomaville

@Xoomaville - Thank you for your response Xooma :-} I love the Rita Rudner pope joke!

(08 Jul '12, 12:40) Catherine

@Catherine, thanks:)

@Barry Allen, how do I insert a link that says 'link' rather than the whole actual link? Sorry, I looked at Markdowns but couldn't find any info on it. Thanks

(09 Jul '12, 01:16) Xoomaville

@Xoomaville, select the text you want to show as the link words then in the editing toolbar, choose the third button from the left and paste in the link. The button looks like a globe with an arrow on it

(08 Aug '12, 12:27) Barry Allen ♦♦
showing 3 of 5 show 2 more comments

Astara had a great article in an old issue of "The Voice" about cults. For me to find that would be a massive undertaking. Cults try to control and cut off outside influence. They put you down and raise the leader up so that you will be subservient to the leader as supreme that you feel obligated to serving.

It is mainly about control and growth for the cult. Here is an article that I did find on the Internet about cults that is close to what I remember. It is too bad I don't know where that Astara article is because it had a point by point definition of a cult.


answered 08 Aug '12, 12:47

Wade%20Casaldi's gravatar image

Wade Casaldi

@Wade Casaldi - Thank you Wade - the control element is definitely worth noting.

(08 Aug '12, 14:48) Catherine

Some great answers here have already been posted.

Clearly, from a semantic standpoint, we can say that whether or not something is a cult simply depends on one's point of view.

From a practical standpoint, and as one who has looked into (and trained with) numerous teachers, I can offer the following.

If the teacher is viewed with a saint-like, or god-like status, one who is superhuman and can do no wrong, it could potentially be a big problem, as this is the environment wherein students can cast away all judgment and be taken advantage of by unscrupulous teachers. HOWEVER. I know of at least one case where this environment existed, but where the teacher really was "all that." A bona-fide sage, and one who had a spotless record with regard to his students.

Sometimes really great teachers are accused of being cult leaders because their students revere them so much...but it's only because they are so darn good!

On the other hand, there are many instances (easily found by searching on the internet), where this sort of environment led to sexual abuse, etc., at the hands of an unscrupulous teacher. The worlds of American zen and yoga (both of which I am a part) have unfortunately had their share of this sort of thing.

And of course we have groups like Scientology, where (according to numerous reports) you are never really allowed to leave, and are subject to harrassment and blackmail if you do.

The same goes for the world of martial arts. Plenty of unscrupulous teachers out there who bully their students, or are just plain frauds, etc..

What I can say that has helped me, is, when you are looking into any religion, spiritual group, or martial arts group, just do your research. The internet has made it impossible for truly dangerous cults and sinister teachers to cloak their reputations completely. If someone went through a lawsuit, or a string of accusations...if you Google it, you will find it.

And in some cases, you will find that legitimate teachers have been accused of things which are insubstantial...this usually comes down to one, or a few, disaffected negative people on the internet, who may have their own motives for knocking somebody else. So there are many cases when accusations hold no water and are without substance. Also, the students themselves might have a very different experience and see things through completely different lenses. Some students are so sensitive that they can not possibly endure a stern rebuke from the teacher, even if it is merited. They might not like the "harsher" style of a traditional, old-school master, and after receiving a rebuke, bad-mouth that teacher as being a jerk, even if the rebuke was made with the sincere intention to help the student. Things like this happen.

You have to use your own judgment to figure out if it has merit or not. Personally, a few bad comments on internet forums are not enough to make me stay away from a teacher or group that I was interested in...I would still seek them out and meet them, so that I could get my own reaction and make my own decision. However, if they have been accused multiple times, over say, a decade, of sexual assault, by different students, and in a court of law, then I would probably stay away.

As Jesus once said, "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them."

For me, meeting the teacher or spiritual leader has always been a clear giveaway. I look for the warning signs, and if there are none, and the teacher seems like he really knows his stuff, then I go with it. This approach has never steered me wrong thus far. But this obviously does not hold true for everyone. Some people's guts are wrong. Or they have to go through a bad experience in order to know what the warning signs are.

So my final answer is...there are no "rules" you can really go by. Research the heck out of a group or organization, and meet the teacher or group members for yourself. I think once you have all of that information, plus the experience of meeting them and seeing who they are, you'll be in a pretty good place to make a decision...whether that is informed by knowledge, feeling, intuition, or a combination thereof.


answered 08 Jul '12, 13:36

lozenge123's gravatar image


@lozenge123 - thank you for your answer - we should honour our gut feelings always.

(09 Jul '12, 04:39) Catherine

Spiritual curiosity ultimately causes an individual to awaken to and begin to trust that inner unknown wisdom that gently whispers to the seeker to awaken to its existence within one’s self.

This moment marks the important threshold where the follower of a religion begins to realize that the teachings are meant to cause the spirit within to lead one's curiosity and not follow one's curiosity.

This is a critical point in one's journey.

The expression "I am the way" as spoken by another could mean "Connect with the "I AM" that spoke to him".

Then again, perhaps it is not meant to be understood this way.

Nevertheless, one's ability to express such an opinion without criticism essentially differentiates a cult from a religious worship.

Consequently, almost every non-religious dictionary defines a cult as a form of religious worship.


answered 09 Aug '12, 01:05

The%20Traveller's gravatar image

The Traveller

@The Traveller - I always look forward to reading an answer from you because I know it is going to make me think. It is an interesting point you make - I've been reading a lot about the new Aquarian age being much more about the individual finding their own spiritual path.

(09 Aug '12, 04:56) Catherine

Thank you Catherine!

(10 Aug '12, 03:40) The Traveller
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