Cult is a Bad Word

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.

18 Responses to Cult is a Bad Word

  1. bobbo says:

    You gave a good working distinction between religion and cult and then propose that the distinction should be ignored because of some vague similarity?

    Bad Thinking.

    The beauty of words is in the distinctions they draw. Misanthropic or not, the beauty of words should be recognized, appreciated, and expanded==not killed off in some effort to bring reason to the world.

  2. Misanthropic Scott says:

    I disagree with both points on this one bobbo. My working distinction is as vague as it can be. How many followers make a cult a religion? How much history does it take? On which sides do Mormons and Scientologists fall and why? To me, the fact that morans have been believing in Judaism and its derivatives for over 2,000 years gives no more credence to the religion than the religions of Scientology and Objectivism. So, really, what is the distinction?

  3. bobbo says:

    “So, really, what is the distinction?” YOU already posted what the distinctions are THEN you ignore these distinctions and make NO distinctions based on the similarities.

    Bad Thinking.

    Read your own post and note that just because people may disagree on certain cases, there will still be general agreement.

    This is a discussion about linguistics and not religion right? I am FOR the former, and against the latter. You seem to be against both===smile!!!!!!!

    For what its worth.

  4. bobbo says:

    It occurs to me the distinction is about “size” and the moderating enfluence that has. I’m thinking of the Westboro Baptist Church run by that Phelps guy?

    Now, given the numbers involved–Phelps and his immediate family members is about it?==not fair to even call it a religion, a church, or even a cult in my book. Just a nutball claiming whatever status you want.

    If you view Pehlps as a religion, then your argument is made, but few will agree with youl

    Further, all religions atart out as cults==but they grow==again, size and moderations. To grow and get big, you can’t be a CONFRONTATIONAL nutbag like Phelps==get large enough with those attitudes and you get into fights. Same with the kool aid types in South America? Cults can be self destructive==they don’t become religions because they don’t grow.

    So–similarities are important, but so are distinctions.

  5. Misanthropic Scott says:


    I did a bit more research on this as a result of a discussion with a friend. Here’s what I learned from a pretty good unabridged dictionary I have. I’m going to pick the definition I find most relevant.

    cult n
    4. a group or sect bound together by devotion to or veneration of the same thing, person, or ideal.
    5. Sociology a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
    6. a religion that is considered or held to be false or unorthodox, or its members.

    religion n. 1. concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates through faith or intuition rather than reason, and generally including the idea of the existence of a single being, a group of beings, an eternal principle, or a transcendent spiritual entitry that has created the world, that governs it, that controls its destinies, or that intervenes occasionally in the natural course of its history, as well as the idea that ritual, prayer, spiritual exercises, certain principles of everyday conduct, etc. are expedient, due, or spiritually rewarding, or arise naturally out of an inner need as a human response to the belief in such a being, principle, etc.

    That last def is a bit long-winded for my taste, but very clear. So, it seems to me now that all religions are cults but not all cults are religion. And, I guess I have to concede that the words are different enough to need both. Oh well. I’ll probably use cult more often now that I know this, since I hold all religions to be equally false, thus rendering them cults by def 6, for me at least.

  6. Mister Fusion says:

    What is the difference between a cult and a religion?

    As a bishop in the Double Dish Extra Cheese Pizza (Pepperoni Synod) Church, I think I should point out that we are the only true religion. We praise the heavenly delight ensconced in every bite. We crave to have the last crumb tingle our taste buds. Tantalize our noses with savory fragrances. Tickle our chins with wonderful strands of cheese string.

    Everyone else is a cult off worshiping false gods. When you agree with me, you’re OK. Disagree and you’re a heathen.

    And thus is the dispute between cult and religion settled.

  7. bobbo says:

    Mister Fusion—you sound like a quiche eater to me.

    Scott–don’t you love dictionaries? I didn’t know that all religions were cults either. I wonder if in the venacular that is true? Absent overwhelming or personal experience, I have to go with the good book.

    Thanks for your extra work and posting.

  8. Misanthropic Scott says:

    Mr. Fusion,

    It is a rare talent to be hilarious and make a valid point at the same time. Well done.


    Dictionaries are descriptive rather than proscriptive. If we really do consciously change our use of the words or even change usage unconsciously, the dictionaries will have to change accordingly. For now though, I’ll call everything a cult more often as the general category, much like referring to all rectangles as rectangles, even when they happen to also be squares. When I do need to specify the particularly ludicrous beliefs associated with religions, I’ll still use the term religion for that. I will try to be careful to note however, that cults that are not religions are actually more respectable in at least not necessarily being founded on fairy tales. So, perhaps cults like Scientology and Objectivism are less bad than those old time religions.

  9. bobbo says:

    Scott–or those cults not founded on religion are worse because they are harder to disprove/ignore?

    For your pleasure–over on Dvorak Uncensored, one poster mentioned that something was not a “cult” it was an “occult.” And by definition, that seems a further refinement to Xian religions but even though a noun, the characterization seems a bit strained==funny and telling, but strained.

  10. HonestAbe says:

    “Of course there’s a God. Do you think that billions of years ago a bunch of molecules floating around at random could someday have had the sense of humor to make you look like that?” — Emo Phillips

  11. Misanthropic Scott says:


    Religions are cults, as stated above by the dictionary. Cults that are not also religions are better than religions in that they are often at least founded on something with good wikiality and truthiness. Religions are founded on obvious fairy tales.

    Long slow toke on the joint … “Let’s see if we can get ’em to believe in … virgin birth .a hahahahaha choke cough”

    Dude … I can do better … how about two of every animal on the planet crammed into a medium size boat for 40 days? … What were we talking about?

    Dunno, pass the brownies.

  12. HonestAbe says:

    Why are you so angry about religion, MS? Were you molested by a priest or something?

    Why is a virgin birth so difficult to understand? How else do you suggest that God impregnate a woman? Would you be more tempted to believe that a fiery penis appeared from nothingness, parted her sea of pubes, and then penetrated her burning bush?

    As for Noah’s ark, why do you assume that every animal on the planet was involved in the boat ride? Why do you assume that the flood was worldwide and not centralized in a given area?

    The stories in the old/new testament are only fairy tales to those who choose not to believe. What may be obviously “made up” to you, may be obviously “factual” to another. And what good does it do you to knock someone else’s faith and/or religion? Do you get some twisted satisfaction challenging someone’s belief system? Tell you what… I won’t put down your anti-religious views if you don’t put down mine. Does that sound fair?

    I think you need to get a double order of those brownies, because you definitely need to mellow out!

  13. Misanthropic Scott says:


    Why are you so angry about religion, MS? Were you molested by a priest or something?

    Millions of people have been killed by priests or as a result of their teachings. Genocides have also been ordered by Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, if the bible is in any way an historical account of the time. It is my firm belief that the purpose of religion is to further divide people into Us and Them. It is always OK, often ordered in the name of religion, to kill Them. We would certainly find other reasons to do so without religion. However, religion steps up the order of magnitude of our xenophobic genocidal tendencies by orders of magnitude. That is its prime purpose, hence the term sectarian.

    My problem is not with any particular religion; my problem is with the very concept of religion.

    Why is a virgin birth so difficult to understand?

    Because it is impossible. Because it is an extraordinary claim which would demand extraordinary evidence. Because no evidence has ever been presented. And, oh yeah, because there’s actually a big pile of evidence that Jesus as a flesh and blood human never even existed.

    [Later addition: Forgot to post a link to support my claim. Here it is: ]

    As for Noah’s ark, why do you assume that every animal on the planet was involved in the boat ride?

    Because that is the statement made in the number one best selling book of all time, an obvious work of fiction.

    The stories in the old/new testament are only fairy tales to those who choose not to believe. What may be obviously “made up” to you, may be obviously “factual” to another.

    Fact and fiction do not vary this way. While it may be difficult to ever know the complete truth on some subjects, fact and fiction do not vary from person to person.

    And what good does it do you to knock someone else’s faith and/or religion? Do you get some twisted satisfaction challenging someone’s belief system?

    It does me good to knock religion down a peg at every opportunity in hopes of eradicating a huge force of evil on this planet. This is my way of attempting to improve the meme pool.

    Tell you what… I won’t put down your anti-religious views if you don’t put down mine. Does that sound fair?

    Nope. It sounds to me like an infringement on both of our liberties. Why not each speak our own minds? Why is religion the only topic on which we do not allow criticism? Were I to criticize your politics, you would react very differently than if I were to criticize your religious beliefs. We might have a friendly and heated debate if I criticize your politics. Both are opinions. Why is one quite literally sacrosanct? Why is one topic off limits?

    Do you consider the observable fact that when religious moderates demand the right to be uncriticized in their beliefs that it gives fundamentalists the same right in theirs? Do you consider that the fundamentalists then go on to topple tall buildings, blow up clinics, shoot doctors, bomb school buses, and otherwise deliberately kill civilians and then claim that they are merely following their beliefs to which they are entitled without question?

    I think you need to get a double order of those brownies, because you definitely need to mellow out!

    You’re perfectly welcome to be mellow if it makes you happy. I like being a cynical and surly old curmudgeon. When I have strong opinions, I express them strongly. If you don’t enjoy doing the same, don’t. But, don’t infringe on my liberty to do so.

  14. bobbo says:

    Scott—given the subject, I think you are being very mellow.

    Abe—you too are “relatively” mellow in presentation, but your ideas are destructive to the rational mind. Problem is, too many people, at least here in the GOUSA, agree with you. Progress–at a snails gate.

    Its a nice rhetorical device to go after the “emotions” of a speaker rather than what he says.

    A says “I like vanilla ice cream.” B says “I like chocolate==why do you hate chocolate ice cream?” See it all the time.

  15. Web definitions for cult – adherents of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices.

    Web definitions for religion a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny.

    So basically you are in a cult if you believe exclusively in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny and adhere to certain practices related to the belief.

    In other words you are not rational, you take matters of destiny on faith in the supernatural. Meaning not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws; not physical or material.

    Think of the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of OZ when he says “I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do! I do! I do! I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do! I do! I do! I do!”. It is very much like a religious service.

  16. Misanthropic Scott says:


    That’s a good one. I hadn’t thought of that “do believe in spooks” analogy before. I think you’re entirely correct. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Hi Scott,

    I can’t help but to appreciate your views. Like Sam Harris I will do my best to direct people to your blog.


  18. Misanthropic Scott says:

    Thanks Norm! I always appreciate a plug.

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