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Religions, cults and wacos

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

Yes, I’m aware that it’s spelled “wacko” but when people start talking about cults, they often have in mind the insanity that led to the Waco compound disaster.

The “Church” of Scientology has used a SLAPP suit to try to stop a “cult-rescue” group from characterising it as a cult. This is entirely in character for the Scientology scammers, and raises no interesting points. What it does raise, though, is the following question:

Np970519What is the difference between a church, a religion and a cult? Is there one? Some time back Wiley, of Non Sequitur comic fame, had a comic in which proselytisers had one of those fund raising temperature gauges, scaled from “handful of wackoes” to “cult” to “religion”, and in another comic, he had the Dad tell his evil daughter that the “gold standard” for being a religion was a million followers. [Anyone who can find these without the copyright tag will get Full Credit (a small font acknowledgement after the references in an abstruse paper).]


The terms are loaded, but let’s consider this: all religions begin as cults, and for a historian of religion, one talks about the Cult of Apollo (a west semitic deity taken up by the Hellenes early on) even when it is regarded as a central state religion. That is, the religion never ceases to be a cult – if it is in competition with other approved religions.

In that sense all Christian denominations are cults. They have adherents, they are one of a number of state approved cults except in countries that are still theocratic, if there remain any such beasts, and they started out as a small movement (of less than a million adherents). Islam is a cult, Hinduism is an agglomerate of millions of cults, and Buddhism is also a series of cults.

Established cults tend to try to denigrate those that come after them in a society. Christianity has been privileged in the west for so long it can, without a trace of irony, say of another religion that it is a “cult”, meaning, “not a real religion”, but the only substantive differences between them is that they have acquired state sponsorship at some point, and that they reached some proportional threshold of the population (the “million adherents” or gold standard level).

So yes, the “Church” of Scientology is a cult; technically speaking all religions are. It is also a malignant scam. Just like many other “proper” religions…


  1. Josh Hayes Josh Hayes

    I was going to shoot for something snide here, but the more I think about it, the more I think you (and Wiley) are right: it’s all a question of P.R. But a million followers doesn’t cut it, does it?

    A lot of “mainstream” Christians, for instance, regard Mormonism as a cult, and yet I’m pretty sure there are well over a million Mormons in the world (gosh, seems like a good fraction of a million have knocked on my door at one time or another). I think there are also what might be characterized as “teams” involved: I understand (though of course, as a nearly-atheist agnostic, I don’t really KNOW) that Moslems, for instance, have a grudging respect for both Jews and Christians because they all, after all, share some of the same early scriptures (they are “Children of the Book”).

    This sense that, underneath their largely-sacrilegious beliefs, there’s a soupcon of “us-ness” might go some way to providing a working definition of a cult: someone whose beliefs are just too damn different from mine. And where does that leave us poor atheists and agnostics? Is atheism a cult?

  2. I always thought the difference between a cult and a religion was a couple of hundred years.

  3. Man Mountain Molehill Man Mountain Molehill

    It’s easy.
    I practice a religion
    You belong to a sect
    He is a cultist

  4. I’ve heard that “cult” versus “religion” can often be based on establishment, recognition, the basis of a “living icon” as worship or devotional leader, etc. In many ways, a “cult” doesn’t even need a mystic or so-called existential teaching to be one, such as Chinese communism following Mao (an outgrowth of Confucian ancestor worship mixing with avowed secularism).

    So I don’t think there is an effective distinction, although “cult” is a loaded and aggressive term that brings with it both the expectation of the Branch-Davidians as well as the holistic rise of Buddhism, which is quite different from the Davidians.

    That the State recognizes “religion,” but not “cult,” enforcing this through tax-exemption and such, only hurts the terms, because it means the State is playing with faith. For example, if the State doesn’t recognize your beliefs as being fundamental or established, them you have no “free-religion” claims to safeguard your actions.

  5. “In that sense all Christian denominations are cults.”
    I have to agree. All religions are cults. It’s funny here in South Georgia (USA) I’ve heard Southern Baptist claim the Catholic Church is a cult. They don’t seem to remember the Catholic Church has been around a lot longer that the Baptist denomination! Guess thats the same as saying only my religion / denomination is real and not yours.

    • The Babtists get around that by saying that they are actually older than the Catholics but had to hide for 1500 years.

      • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

        That’s what my Southern Baptist grandmother claimed – Baptists were an independent lineage originating with John the Baptist and did not arise during the Reformation.

        • chris y chris y

          Was she confusing them with the Mandaeans? Common mistake.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          No, her claims were not based on any evidence – just a virulent anti-papism.

  6. It may be useful to lump cults, sects, and religions together for polemical purposes and it is true that what are now religions were once cults; but if you’re interested in doing sociology or history, marginal and extreme groups (cults) operate differently than expanding, socially significant groups (sects) or large, stable institutions (religions). Once a religious movement becomes established, its personnel develop vested interests in stability. What was laudable fervor in the founding generation becomes schism and heresy later on. An old story, many times repeated.

    I’m not trying to sell a particular version of the sociology of religion, but I did want to point out that cult, sect, and religion are loaded terms if and only if you load ’em. Otherwise, they may be features of a perfectly reasonable taxonomy of social formations.

    • No, that is not the case. Cults are small religions. Some cults are extremist, some are not. Some mainstream denominations and religions are extremist, some are not. Some are expanding and some are not, and no general taxonomy of religions will suffice the way you set it up, sociologically. It is an empirical matter which groups evince which traits, not a theoretical one.

  7. Jeb Jeb

    I always had the Branch Davidian’s down as a sect rather than a cult.

    I think the legal problems scientology has are the result of the fact it is a cult and represents something new and exotic with no prior religious history. Scientology can’t claim the religious status and past that a sect can.

    The range of movement in a cult and the engagement of its audience is different from the membership of a religion.

    Engaging in an hour of transcendental meditation a week in an attempt to reduce workplace stress is different from believing that through the activity you will be able to fly, read minds, develop perfect health and become immortal.

    I think its when a cult moves from offering specific solutions or services i.e. meditation reduces stress/ using an e-meter will improve health to addressing bigger questions that it starts to move towards looking like a religion.

    You could be a member of a different cult, sect or religion and still be part of the audience for the solution or service offered by a specific cult. It does not require an exclusive membership card at this point to engage with it.

    As it moves in scale it is going to demand more active commitment and engagement from the individuals involved.

  8. I’m not trying to sell a particular taxonomy of religious formations. In fact, I don’t have one. I’m just pointing out that claiming, as you do, that “religion never ceases to be a cult” makes sense in a polemical context but not in a historical or sociological one since the modern use of the word “cult” as opposed to sect or religion–it only goes back to the 1930s, I believe–specifically refers to the differences between small informal groups and established denominations with political support. The whole point is that socially and politically, cults (in this sense) work differently than religions. Of course if you are going to say that, for example, the Roman Catholic church acts like a bunch of Polish Jews meeting with a charismatic self-appointed rabbi in an abandoned farm, be my guest. (Maybe part of the problem here is that the word “cult” has the older meaning of liturgical practices or devotions as in locutions such as the cult of a particular saint. In that sense, it does make sense to talk about the cult of Apollo even though most ancient pagan religious groups didn’t act very much like what we think of as cults. The Greek ones I know something about were rather like a chapter of the Rotary Club.)

    You are quite right to point out that I shouldn’t have suggested that cults (in the sociological sense) are necessarily extremist or that religions can’t be extremists. I was thinking about particular examples. I should have been more abstract since the gist of what I was trying to say was pretty meta.

  9. Jeb Jeb

    “all religions begin as cults”

    One seems to start life off as a Jewish sect and becomes a cult only when it moves into other cultures.

    • Thus unveiling the origins of “culture”…

  10. Paul D. Paul D.

    In anthropology, cult means “a set of practices and beliefs of a group, in relation to a local god”, and I think this is the specific usage meant when we say Cult of Apollo, or when biblical scholars refer to the Yahwist cult in Jerusalem.

    This is different from the generic sociological meaning (a system of religious veneration for a person or object) and the vernacular meaning (a small, exclusive religious group regarded with suspicion by others).

    • Well I’m not so sure that there’s much difference to the sociological meaning (the cult of personality treats said personalities as if they were, in fact, deities, for the right definition of “deity” – one who has preternatural power; consider Stalin or Kim il Jong); and it’s the vernacular use I am objecting to, with its implicit privileging of the official and approved religions.

  11. Jeb Jeb

    Thus unveiling the origins of “culture”…

    and also what makes it extremely adaptive in highly localised and constantly changing environments. Its ability to morph from one type to the other when faced with environmental pressure.

    In the U.K. in the late century Christianity seems to present itself as political radical and revolutionary it’s appeal is lower down the social ranks. It threatens the established order. A few generations later among Germanic society it’s appealing to the social elite with mass baptism at sword point for the mass of society.

  12. Jocelyn Stoller Jocelyn Stoller

    Isn’t this a matter of semantics?

    Words truly mean different things to different people (as seen in the whole
    tiresome debate about definitions of agnostic/atheist/secularist/naturalist.)

    The word cult is loaded and has multiple meanings: sociological, anthropological, political, psychological, historical, etc. And its use and context have frequently changed.

    The current value-neutral sociological definition of “cult” was changed to “new religions” because of cross-accusations: “You’re the cult” “No, you’re the cult.” “You’re the fanatic, I speak the truth.” “You’re the terrorist, I’m the Freedom Fighter.”

    The colloquial word “cult” goes far beyond “small religions” and can cover any intensely-identified social group from Lady Gaga fan clubs to mercenary groups, World of Warcraft players, Amway, Trekkies, Ayn Rand followers, and on and on and on.

    Needs for belonging, certainty, and meaning will continue to manifest in endless permutations.

    However, having worked directly with former members of many extremist groups, [including ex-Moonies, ex-Mormons, false memory of satanic-ritual abuse, UFO “abductees”] as well as survivors of equally-destructive “deprogramming” methods, I believe we do need an “empirical” —but highly flexible—criteria to identify patterns of manipulation regardless of doctrinal content or proclaimed values.

    To review, elements found in dangerous authoritarian “cults” include: insularity, isolation, control of access; coercion; dogmatic certainty based on absolutist tenets; denialism, dissonance and system justification; shame-based moralism and rigidly-approved social roles . . .

    Individuality is merged into group identity and “Us and Them” tribalism becomes entrenched group polarization through many methods: sensory and sleep deprivation, group bonding, immersion, instilling of a sense of mission and being chosen.

    Byproducts of being brought up in or converted into absolutist traditions include: (sometimes temporary) impaired cognitive and emotional faculties, literalism and concrete reasoning.

    My interest is what happens in the brain and body during belief formation in general, and a subset of that is indoctrination and conversion.

    So far, research indicates that brain patterns from coercive indoctrination are similar to those found in OCD, addiction and PTSD. Overactive blood flow/metabolism found in neural networks related to fear, disgust, flight-fight, obsessive loops, linked to sense of self, feeling-of-knowing and hyper-salience. Some areas involved: amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, insula and other limbic and basal ganglia areas; hypothalamus imbalances; higher levels of cortisol and norepinephrine, etc.

    In other words, coercive indoctrination may be considered a form of induced trauma that leads to acquired impairment in learning, reasoning, self-awareness and cognitive flexibility.

    The disillusionment process itself can resemble traumatic shock: which is why PTSD symptoms are so common after leaving a cult: disorientation, depersonalization, flashbacks, sleep problems, startle response, hypervigilance, crippling survivor’s guilt, etc.

    One reason that draconian “deprogramming” techniques can be so destructive: they continue to traumatize the “cult” member.

    Coercive cult elements can be found in institutions within any arena and on any scale: Wide-spread Nationalistic and charismatic personality cults: Hirohito, Kim Il-Sung, Stalin, Mao, Haile Selassie, Ceausescu, Khmer Rouge, Taliban, Apartheid, as well as small fringe groups: neoNazi, patriot movement, etc. The U.S. “Tea Party” is not a small fringe group. It is at the seat of power: but it can be defined as a cult (as can MacCarthyism, Reagan-worship, or the “war fever” after 9/11.)

    Of course, conditions of isolation and deliberate behavior-control are not necessary—PR and groupthink alone can produce mass indoctrination. Hate-mongering and scapegoating are highly effective persuaders, but so are simple anchoring and the mere-exposure effect. It is extremely easy to draw on innate human biases and heuristics to shift attitudes and public opinion [As John well knows].

    Unfortunately, I could talk about all these issues forever, so I will cut myself off now.

    John S. Wilkins:
    No, that is not the case. Cults are small religions. Some cults are extremist, some are not. Some mainstream denominations and religions are extremist, some are not. Some are expanding and some are not, and no general taxonomy of religions will suffice the way you set it up, sociologically. It is an empirical matter which groups evince which traits, not a theoretical one.

  13. Jocelyn Stoller Jocelyn Stoller

    Just to clarify that my comment was supposed to come after this last one by John.

  14. Owen Ronalds Owen Ronalds

    I absolutely agree with Jocelyn Stoller. What needs to be addressed are the ways people are manipulated, whether by cults, religion or sales people.
    On the other hand people like to argue about words and if you have given up arguing about the holy words in your scripture of preference then I suppose any other words will do.
    Carry on

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