cult, n.

A particular form or system of religious worship or veneration, esp. as expressed in ceremony or ritual directed towards a specified figure.

A relatively small group of people having (esp. religious) beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister, or as exercising excessive control over members.

The Oxford English Dictionary

The rise of interest in cults in the 1970s and 1980s cemented them in the American consciousness. The Jonestown Massacre in particular—when nearly a thousand people were brainwashed into committing mass suicide via cyanide-infused Kool Aid—left “cult” with a negative connotation that it hasn’t since been able to shake.

So what is the actual difference between a cult and a religion? And is the word “cult” even an appropriate term to describe any spiritual groups? Can a cult grown into a religion and can a religion birth a cult?

We reached out to psychologists, theologians and spiritual leaders to get a clear sense on where the line is between what we call a religion and what we call a cult, and where this line sometimes blurs.


Ted Peters

Theology professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, author of The Cosmic Self and UFOs--God's Chariots?

Like Classic Coke and Diet Coke, both religions and cults look alike even if they taste different. A religion belongs to the wider culture; its adherents come and go freely. A cult tends to be counter-cultural, restricting the social life of its adherents to other cult members. The key characteristic of a cult is the axis mundi, the shamanic leader at the center of the organization. The cult leader claims exclusive access to transcendent reality, and dispenses power and grace as he or she sees fit. It is not theology that distinguishes a cult from a religion; in fact, cults may appear within a religion, for example, the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones' Peoples Church were both cults within Christianity. The most interesting cult operative today, in my opinion, is the UFO cult oriented around its leader, Rael (Claude Vorilhon), who connects his 60,000 adherents to extraterrestrial wisdom and power.

I suspect that each of the higher religions underwent some cult-like stages at their beginning. When a cult grows too large for the leader to control or when the leader dies, spontaneous leadership democratizes the belief system and a religion can begin to spread. Note that the distinguishing characteristics have to do with leadership more than with theological content of the belief system.

In the 1970s, the word "cult" became quite pejorative due to anti-cult organizations. Scholars such as myself tended to substitute the term "new religious movements" or NRMs so as to ascribe a level of legitimacy to otherwise innocent experiments with religion. Even so, when a NRM exhibits a tight organization around an authoritarian leader, I get worried. This almost always leads to violence. If the word "cult" connotes the potential for violence, I suggest we simply exercise care in using the term rather than dispense with it entirely.

Cult Stats

There are over 4,000 cults in the US, with approximately 4 million members. They fall into 4 basic types:

Religious: cults that use a belief system as their base

Commercial: promise you that if you join them and follow their special programme for success then you will become very rich (aka the "Pyramid Scheme")

Self-Help: Offer expensive "enlightenment" seminars, people manipulated into spending more for "advancement"

Political: Organized around a political dogma, like rebel extremists

How Cults Work


Rabbi Tamara Kolton, Ph. D.

Private practice psychologist, Ph. D., and ordained rabbi based out of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

One major difference is the "cost" of disagreeing with those who are in positions of authority. A cult wields fear as a way of keeping people and secrets inside. Religious communities can become cultic with the most dramatic example resulting in the crimes perpetrated on children by Catholic priests. I would only support and trust religious communities that tolerate, and even encourage, a healthy amount of dissonance. Individuals do not surrender their rights by joining the group. The group rather, allows the individual to become a fuller being by embracing each soul as an equal reflection of God.

Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption

In July 2015, John Oliver established the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption in order to expose televangelists who defraud members by preaching that donations will buy them God’s blessing (“The Prosperity Gospel”) and prove how easy it is to establish a tax-free church. He says, "We have received thousands of envelopes with thousands of dollars."



Bruce Robinson

“Chief architect” of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance

One definition of "cult" is "the church down the street from yours." There is no generally accepted definition of a cult. But it is often restricted to those faith groups who exert a high degree of control over the membership, and limits the flow of outside information into the group.

There was a time when many people felt that cults were a real threat because they tended to trap their members. However, in reality, the average interval that a typical person stayed in a cult was only a few years.

There is no line of demarcation between a religion and a cult. Almost all faith groups have a degree of cult-like control over their membership, attempting to  have them hold the same beliefs. The term "cult" is a handy one, much like "sodomite" and "homosexualist" are with regards to the LGBT community. It poisons the beliefs of people who have no direct understanding of what a faith group stands for.

World distribution
of religions

31.50% Christian

22.74% Muslim

13.8% Hindu

6.77% Buddhist

0.35% Sikh

0.22% Jewish

0.11% Baha'i

10.95% Other

9.66% Non-religious

2.01% Atheist

The World Fact Book, CIA



Fr. Albert R. Cutié

Episcopal Priest, Rector of St. Benedict's Parish in Plantation, FL, author of Dilemma: A Priest's Struggle with Faith and Love and the forthcoming Talking God: Preaching to 21st Century Congregations

Authentic religion is focused on God and never puts another human being in the position of "playing God" or as someone who has power over the rest. Religion leads us to faith with a deep and profound respect on freedom and an individual's ability to make choices regarding his or her own life.

Some religious groups do become cults or "cultish" by displaying more respect for an individual pastor or leader then they do for God and God's Word. Following any leader blindly and without thinking is always a problem.

Many people have a warped view of religion and even a warped view of what God wants for humanity. When people join cults they are hungry for something but that something may not necessarily be something spiritual.


From its inception, Scientology has been among the most controversial new religious movements. The church is often characterized as a business, a criminal enterprise, or a cult. In 1978, top-ranking members were convicted of espionage after infiltrating, wiretapping, and stealing documents from the offices of Federal attorneys and the Internal Revenue Service. Members framed a journalist for making bomb threats. In France, Hubbard was tried for fraud and convicted in absentia.

In 2008, a teenager in London was arrested for calling Scientology a “cult” because the term is considered "threatening, abusive or insulting” under section five of the Public Order Act.




J. Gordon Melton

Distinguished Professor of American Religious History at Baylor University, founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion ordained minister in the United Methodist Church

The term cult is a negative label we place on religions that we want to defame, for whatever reason. Taking that idea as a starting point, we can say that all cults are religions, but not all religions are cults. Religion is a descriptive term that we use to describe groups that perform worship and develop ethical systems based upon their relation to things supernatural. Cult is a more subjective term to identify religious groups who have additional characteristics of which we disapprove--authoritarian leadership, separatism, immoral activity, socially unapproved violence, etc.

Groups called cults lose their negative traits and join the larger religious community all the time, though few religions have escaped the label cult at sometime.

Scholars have largely discarded the term cult as it has no descriptive value. It primarily survives among religious polemicists who appreciate its emotive value.

People join religions for a variety of reasons. I tend to think it is basically a drive to answer the ultimate unanswerable questions of where we as humans came from, why are we here, and what is our destiny. But we associate with a particular faith for a variety of reasons that has to do with social factors (not the least being where we are born) and taste. Happenstance plays a role. People tend to identify with an unpopular religions because they are already socially alienated.

Routinization of Charisma

"[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.

Max Weber, Theory of Social and Economic Organization



Rodney Stark

Co-Director, Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, author of Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution

The word cult is a nasty judgmental term applied to small, unconventional religions (at least small in the society in question, but may be large and conventional somewhere else--Christianity is dismissed as a cult in India, Buddhism often is in Europe). Sociologists, myself included, once tried to use the word cult in a value-neutral way, but it was impossible to rid the term of notions about nasty, abusive, false, wicked, etc. groups, so we use "new religion" or "minority religion" or "unconventional religion" instead. Of course, all religions began as new, small, and uncoventional, and some of them became major world faiths. The use of the term cult is never appropriate. If a religion has nasty habits, just say so without any need for a special term.




Dorothy Billings

Cultural Anthropologist at Wichita State University

We usually use the word "religion" for an organized set of beliefs and processes, an "institutionalized" cult. Religions have institutionalized structures as well as beliefs.

"Cult" is the term often used for a new idea, put forward by self-selected individuals, and put forward as ideas that are true in which you must have faith. No social structure has been proposed or leadership, although leaders tend to evolve. The term "cult" is often used in a derogatory sense by more "established" religions.

Probably the best known "cult" that ever became a "religion" was Jesus' ideas and followers, which became Christianity. Max Weber's work in various books should be read--he writes of the "routinization of charisma"--that is how cults become religions.


Number of People's Temple members who killed themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at Jonestown. 276 were children. (source)


"To me death is not a fearful thing. It's living that's cursed."

Reverend Jim Jones



ILLUSTRATION: Yulia GoldmanEditor: Gabriella Garcia