As an atheist, I am always amused when the religious folks make fun of "cults." The other day, a born-again Christian neighbor was having jokes at the expense of Adventists. Believers of practically every kind routinely make fun of Scientologists. To me, ahem, I wish I could make fun of the older established cults of all kinds.Question: What's the difference between a #religion and a #cult?— sriram khe (@congoboy) June 7, 2017
Answer: 200 years
Which is also one of the reasons I liked Harari's description that I blogged about a month ago:
What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).A cult makes up bizarre rules to play the game as much as any religion has bizarre rules.
The historian J Gordon Melton of Baylor University in Texas says that the word ‘cult’ is meaningless: it merely assumes a normative framework that legitimises some exertions of religious power – those associated with mainstream organisations – while condemning others. Groups that have approved, ‘orthodox’ beliefs are considered legitimate, while groups whose interpretation of a sacred text differs from established norms are delegitimised on that basis alone. Such definitions also depend on who is doing the defining.It is a power play.
Of course, the uncomfortable truth here is that even true church (large, established, tradition-claiming church) and cult aren’t so far apart – at least when it comes to counting up red flags. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin? (Heck, what was Jesus Christ?) A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates? Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list.I have no hassles condemning both )
If we refuse any neat separation between cult and religion, aren’t we therefore obligated to condemn both?
One of the earliest benefits of my decision to bolt out of India came in the form of my friendship with Shahab. It was from listening to his personal, family, stories, and about their fleeing the Ayatollahized Iran, that I came to know about the religion that they had traditionally practiced--in secret for the most part--for centuries: Mithraism.
The way he broached that topic I remember all too well--because he was terribly disappointed that I had never even heard of Mithraism. I hadn't. Why do I bring up Mithraism in this context? Because, back when the religion of Jesus was a new thing in Rome, Mithraism was rapidly spreading among Romans. Christianity was a new cult, and Mithraism was an older cult. They were competing for followers. Mithraism lost out. Christianity grew from a cult to a religion. As kings converted to this new religion, so did their subjects and the people in the conquered territories.
Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and, as we’ve seen, for society at large. Even Christianity itself proliferated most widely as a result of a similar vacuum: the relative decline of state religious observance, and political hegemony, in the Roman EmpireIn the US, we have plenty of new cults: professional football. golf, ... and we pay plenty of taxes to support these cults ;)