Cult vs. religion: what's the difference?

A pastor supporting Rick Perry calls Mormonism a "cult." Is that untrue?

Well, what's the difference between a "cult" and a "religion"? Not easy to say. Many people think they know the difference when they see it. Scientology and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church are cults — aren't they? And Judaism and Christianity are surely religions.


But in fact, early Christianity was considered just a cult by both Jews and Romans; Islam was long considered just a cult by medieval Christians; and, of course, many Protestant groups, from the Baptists to the Quakers, were considered cults by other Christians.

Moreover, if your definition of "cult" is a group with a charismatic and very odd leader who thinks he or she has direct access to the divine and spreads a theology that seems both heretical and confused to the established religions around it, then Christianity and Islam and Buddhism were certainly cults when they began — and no doubt the Jews were as well.


Here, I suggest, is the real difference between a cult and a religion: about 100 years. Once a cult is able to establish itself for several generations, we call it a "religion." Before that, we dismiss it as a dangerous threat to real religion.

This may seem a mocking, cynical dismissal of the difference, and hence of religion itself. But I don't mean it that way. For there are good reasons to respect a group that can maintain a vision of how to live across two or three generations, ones that do not apply to groups that come and go within a single generation.

To start with the most obvious points, a group that survives over generations cannot afford the sort of self-destructive, oppressive or anti-social behavior that appalls us in cults. It cannot engage in mass suicide, of course, nor is it likely to continue if it prescribes extremely unhealthy practices. And it is likely to fall apart, or draw upon itself harsh attention by the political authorities around it, if it oppresses its members or engages in attacks on outsiders. To become a religion, a group with a shared vision of what God wants, or what makes human life worth living, is therefore likely to develop a morality much like that of the society around it — and indeed declare that morality central to what it has to teach.

A group that survives over generations will also have to develop institutions for teaching its message to its young. But no system that has horrific or very bizarre implications is likely to retain the loyalty of its young (they, after all, do not join the group out of some unusual personal experience: born into it, they need to be persuaded of the group's message in a very different way from their parents). Nor is it likely to inspire a cadre of teachers or enable its educational institutions to solve their administrative and interpersonal issues harmoniously.

Finally, a group that survives over generations will normally need to reconcile its religious message enough with what the rest of the society around it believes and does that its members can find jobs in that society, maintain neighborly and economic relationships with others in that society, and function as citizens. All this requires that it temper or reinterpret the stranger claims and practices of its founding generation.

Of course, this is exactly what the Mormons have done. Today, they are clearly a religion, in the eyes of most Americans, and not a cult. They may once have been a cult, but those days are over, at least for the purposes of equal respectability in a multi-religious society. It is not hard to understand why some traditional Christians, looking out from a theological perspective, might think otherwise. But they should realize that from a theological perspective, most Christians look like heretics or pagans to Jews; Bahais look like heretics and Christians like idol-worshipers to Muslims; and Buddhists and Hindus see each other as severely confused. This is the perspective from which religious wars used to be launched, and one of the great triumphs of America is that it has allowed, instead, for a society in which people of different religions, while disagreeing sharply on theological issues, can yet live together as citizens in peace and mutual respect.

We undermine that wonderful achievement when we accuse fellow citizens, who are perfectly decent and reasonable in every way that matters publicly, of belonging to a "cult."

Sam Fleischacker, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago-Illinois, is the author of "Divine Teaching and the Way of the World." His email is