A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the difference between a church and a cult?

November 11, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

As a believer in God that does not belong to any particular religion, I would like to know the answer to a certain question. Here it is: what is the difference between a church and a cult?

SDStaff Eutychus replies:

Why anonymous? Got questions about your church? Your pastor? Don't be drinking any church-sponsored grape Kool-Aid until we get this thing straightened out.

The initial problem is semantic, as the word "cult" nowadays has been largely co-opted by the religious right who use it to describe anything from the Roman Catholic Church to your Uncle Jake's New Orthodox Church of Discount Straight Lines (Reformed). As SDStaff Dianne comments, "A church is the religious organization I belong to. A cult is the wacko outfit you belong to."

In the broad sense, both "church" and "cult" refer to a group of people who share a set of beliefs. However, churches tend to be larger, older, and place great stock in tradition, while cults tend to be smaller, less traditional and usually more esoteric.

Walter Martin spent most of his life studying cults. Martin is hardly an unbiased source; he was a fundamentalist Christian, and he lists Zen Buddhism, Islam and pretty much any eastern religion as cults. But in his book "The Kingdom of the Cults" he does give us a few good clues to go by. Cults, he says, tend to:

A: center around a specific charismatic leader or personality

and/or

B: center around a traditional religion with certain specific doctrinal deviations.

So far so good. To be honest, for all the bad press they get, most cults are relatively harmless. The question I'm assuming you have in your mind while you're standing in line at the punchbowl is what signs should to be looking for to be sure they're not going to try to hitch a ride on the next comet.

The website of The American Family Foundation (http://www.americanfamilyfoundation.org/) gives us some good guidelines to go by. Dangerous cults might exhibit some of the following characteristics :

a: preoccupation with bringing in new members and making money

b: discouragement or punishment for any doubt or questioning of authority

c: a polarized "us vs. them" mindset

d: leadership is not accountable to any authority, either financially or morally

e: belief that "the ends justify the means" and readiness to use unethical means to achieve their goals

f: requiring members to socialize only with members of the cult

g: in more extreme cases, requiring members to cut ties completely with family or the outside community

The great thing about most cults, though, is that given enough time and longevity, pretty much any cult will either disappear or develop into an accepted religion. Especially when you consider that Christianity itself began as a first century Jewish messianic cult; hey, if you're going to start your own religion, you could do a lot worse.

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