I’ve been thinking about what differentiates cults from religions. So, let me get the obvious concepts out of the way.
It’s not size. Every religion starts small. Buddhism started with Buddha giving a sermon in Sarnath, near Varanasi. Christianity started with Jesus and his dozen disciples. Islam started with Mohammad seeing a demon in a cave, who scared him to the point of wanting to kill himself, and his wife telling him he’s not crazy, he’s a prophet (true story).
So, the fact that something at one point has billions of followers doesn’t mean it didn’t start with a lunatic having a psychotic episode in a cave.
The other thing to get out of the way is the etymology. In some languages, “cult” is negatively charged while “sect” is neutrally charged, in others it’s the other way around. For instance, the Croatian translation for “cult” is “sekta”. So, when the Croats try to make some big thing about false etymology, trying to prove that “sect” derives from “secare, sectum”, “to cut”, not only they are wrong (it derives from sequi, sectum, “to follow”), but their etymology would be meaningless to the English audience to which “sect” is a neutral word. So, the word itself has no sinister connotations.
If I had to make a very simple definition, sticking to English language, I would say that “cult” is a “sect” you happen not to like. It’s like the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists. Freedom fighters are the terrorists you happen to like, or they work for you.
There’s no significant formal difference in appearance or organization between the craziest and most vicious cults and the best, noblest spiritual movements mankind has ever produced. They all start with some guy with an idea, he attracts followers, and it either grows from there or dies out. So, the cult-like form doesn’t really tell you anything valuable or informative. So, saying that something is a “cult” because it consists of a spiritual teacher and his followers is a completely non-sequitur argument. It doesn’t tell us anything important about spiritual, ethical or intellectual merits of the entire thing. It’s like saying a car is red. OK, it’s red, but what brand is it, what engine does it have, how fast does it go? To say that something is a “cult” is essentially saying it’s a following of some kind. But whom are they following, why, how, and to what end?
The interesting thing is, there are other very similar social structures, but they are not called cults. A gang, for instance, is a cult in all ways but one: it has no spiritual pretensions. But to turn it around, how many cults are so bad that you can say they are gangs with spiritual pretensions? I can make a good case that Islam was exactly that. It was a gang that robbed caravans around Medina, and later spread throughout the world using primarily violence and deception. If anything, it is more a gang than a spiritual teaching in its social structure, even now. But in case of Buddhism or Christianity, that doesn’t hold. There some Buddhist sects that behave like gangs – Aum Shinrikyo, for instance, and I could make a case for Nichiren. In Christianity, I don’t think I can remember of any notable sects that acted like gangs. In Hinduism, there are unfortunately several examples, for instance the Thugee, a sect of Kali worshipers who made a ritual out of strangling and robbing passengers on roads. So, what does that mean, that within religions you can have sects that are cults? Yes, but what does that tell us about cults? First of all, if you describe such a religious gang as a cult, any sane person will agree on the definition. The problem is when detractors use the term to denote any religious group that they wish to slander, pointing out superficial similarities with known evil cults, in hope that they will avoid having to point out what exactly is wrong with the group they wish to malign.
So, let me give my definition of a cult. A cult is something that has the formal qualities of a religious group, behaves like a gang, and has no deep and authentic spiritual guidance.
What does that mean? It means that the only difference between early Christians and early Muslims is that Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to go out and rob the caravans of “infidels”, and that unlike Mohammad he actually had an authentic spiritual connection with God. You can’t judge them on superficial similarities, because the crux of the matter is whether they are good or evil and whether they are from God or not. People today try to present it as if the bad thing about a cult is that it follows a spiritual leader. It’s not. If you followed Jesus or Buddha, how is that a bad thing? It is only a bad thing when the spiritual leader of the group is false. But that’s the difficult part – how will you know whether the leader is authentic? It’s easier to just claim they are all false and then what remains for you is to see whether a group matches a simplified description. That’s what atheists do. I advise against it.
There’s another interesting phenomenon – heretical sects within an evil religion, that are authentic spiritual followings; an example of this are the Sufis in Islam. They had an interpretation of Islam that was more Vedanta than Islam, they were thought of as heretics by the Muslim main stream, but if anything, they were on the path of sainthood. So, the fact that something is a heretical off-shoot of some religion doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Being main-stream isn’t necessarily a good thing.
There’s another thing – trying to define moderation as good, and radicalism as bad. If you want to say someone is good, call him a moderate, and if you want to say someone is bad, call him a radical. That actually works only if you’re talking about a philosophy that is inherently evil, and so if someone follows it consistently he becomes an evil person, and if someone doesn’t really take it seriously, he can be a good person. This is the case with Islam. The more consistently you follow it, the more evil you get to be. That’s why you can equate “Islamic radicals” with “evil Muslims”. However, it doesn’t work with other religions. For instance, what’s a radical Jain or Buddhist or Christian? What’s a radical Yogi? Does someone become more evil if he practices pranayama with kumbhaka of over a minute? Does he become evil if he walks around in soft slippers and a mask so that he doesn’t kill bugs and microbes because violence is the ultimate evil? Does he become evil if he does japa of 32 rounds a day? Does a Christian become super-evil because he’s so radical he enters a convent where he does nothing but pray, fast and commune with others like him? Such people are not the summit of social productivity, and they frequently exclude themselves from society at large, but even the most anti-religious advocates couldn’t describe them as “evil”. Weirdos, maybe. But not evil.
Evil, that’s what you become if you have your daughter’s clitoris cut off because of your religion, or if you kill other people while shouting how great your God is. Yes, you can become evil by taking religion seriously, but it does matter which religion you take seriously. They are not all the same. If you take some of them seriously you are more likely to become a saint than a thug. However, if you take a thug religion seriously, you become a thug. So, there’s another definition of a cult: it’s a gang of thugs who take an evil religion seriously.
So, basically, if you don’t like some religiously-flavored group that takes its teaching seriously, it’s a cult and the members are referred to as brainwashed zombies or Borg drones. If you like it, it’s referred to as a convent of monks. If you like a rebel group, they are partisans or guerrilla fighters. If you don’t like them, they are bandits or terrorists.