It has been said that the differences between a cult and a religion lie in duration and number of followers. This isn’t really a bad way to think about it and points to the obvious conclusion that all religions began as cults. However, in my opinion, we should abandon one word or the other from our normal discourse.
Why do I think so?
Well, whether one is speaking of Scientology or Judaism, Objectivism or Christianity, Mormon or Islam, Hindu or Astrology, Greek Pantheon or Norse, the classification of what is being discussed is the same. It is blind unquestioning faith. If one is to call the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Mormon a religion and then refer to the faiths of Scientology, Objectivism, Wiccan, Astrology, Druidism, or some other faith as a cult, my concern is not that members of these latter faiths may feel that their faith has been put down. My concern is that members in the former group may feel that their faith is legitimized. I wish to avoid giving encouragement to any belief based on unfounded or outlandish claims.
Why abandon cult not religion?
Well, it might seem fun to abandon the term religion and call all faiths cults. However, this is unlikely to actually happen. It seems far more likely that those of us of no faith could encourage use of the word religion to describe all of these. In fact, members of the faiths of Scientology, Wiccan, and many others will likely feel offended if their faiths are termed cults while others are still called religions. So, we have a perfect moral high ground for referring to all irrational beliefs of this sort as religions; we can just claim we’re being politically correct.
Perhaps relabeling all of these faiths the same way will take the edge of the religious right’s claim that each of the religions owns the one true faith or even that some have more validity than others. When all faiths are treated equally, perhaps we can encourage some recognition that none have any great claim to be the one true answer. In fact, from where I sit, all have equal validity, i.e. none at all. Once there, maybe, just maybe we can then begin to drop religion altogether.
Why would this be good?
Well, people have always found ways to divide Us and Them. This is unfortunate because in reality we are all Us. There is no Them. So, if we drop religion on its pointy little head, we will lose one of many sources for divisiveness and xenophobia. We will lose just one of many reasons people commit horrific atrocities. It is always OK to kill Them. In fact, religion often requires it.
So, just as some religious individuals claim to hate the sin while loving the sinner, I would say that I hate religion even though I have nothing against the religious people themselves. As a misanthrope, I’d be dishonest if I said that I loved everyone. But, I do not hate individuals (at least until I get to know them better 🙂 ). I just hate our species. Perhaps if we could learn not to divide ourselves into sects, I’d have one less reason to hate our species.
So, while I’d really love to get rid of the word religion and just label all of them cults or even mass delusions, I think that it unrealistic. Let’s at least make a move for consistency in naming. Let’s see if perhaps we can at least take the mainstream religions down a notch or two by recognizing that they are no more or less valid than Scientology and the like. Perhaps it will be one small step toward a less theistic society. Perhaps it will be one small step toward an age of reason.