Cult or Religion? How to understand the difference

“What’s the difference between a cult and a religion?”

It’s one of the most common questions in cult discourse. Most people seem to ask from a place of concern, that maybe their own religious upbringing was more abusive than they thought. Others ask out of genuine confusion, because the categories so often blur and inform each other.

What helped me to understand the difference between cults and religions is that there isn’t necessarily a difference at all. Cults occur on a continuum. Religions can have cultic qualities, but may be more lenient in other ways.
Here’s a made-up example: a group might be cultic in that it requires members to “donate” a large portion of their paycheck to fund the group, but the members may be free to leave with no threat to their safety and without being excommunicated.

Another way to understand the “difference” between cults and religions, is to think of cults as a dot inside of a concentric circle, like so:


Imagine that the central dot is the cult leader and all associated co-leaders.

The innermost ring, represents the most heavily indoctrinated and abused members. They have the least freedom, in that the cult leader is able to keep a closer eye on them and has a stronger influence on them from up-close. (In a one-on-one cult, this is the only ring.)

In the middle ring are the people who are moderately involved in the group. They have the potential to be pulled either closer towards the center, or outwards towards the less-intense fringes of the group.

The final, outer ring represents the people at the fringes of the group. They have more freedom to interact with the outside world, and their involvement tends to be voluntary, because they aren’t under as much influence from the leader or other members.

This illustrates why, when it comes to spiritual belief-based groups, the people at the outer rings tend to have the religious or spiritual experience, whereas the people closer to the center tend to have the cult experience.

Many people understand the religion/cult phenomenon as a hierarchy, resembling a pyramid, in which the leader is at the top and members are beneath him. But I find the concentric-circle model more helpful than the classic pyramid model, for a few reasons. Let’s compare the two:


A pyramid structure is a vertical arrangement, which suggests that the people on the bottom know or feel like they’re on the bottom. But if we are to understand the complex group dynamics of cults, we need to keep in mind that cultists often vascillate between feeling special for their association with the group (elitism/top), and feeling unworthy of affiliation with the leader (submission/bottom). They are simultaneously elite and unworthy, simultaneously top and bottom. Circles represent this dynamic more accurately.

A pyramid structure carries the connotation that the people closer to the top (closer to the leader) are in a better position than people on the bottom. In contrast, the circle model visually allows us to understand that as one gets closer to the leader, pressure from the surrounding group intensifies, and tension from the concentrated central point draws the member further in (think: black hole). So they’re not better off, they’re worse off.

Finally, a pyramid structure visually appears sturdy and immobile. But cults are quite busy! We can attribute the constant internal motion of cults to the way they offer rewards for good behavior (pulling in) and punish bad behavior (pushing out), generating an incentive for members to constantly drain themselves in order to earn higher ranks in the group. Circles visually appear more mobile than pyramids, and combined into a concentric circle, they even appear spiral-esque, representing the simultaneous inward- and outward- spinning nature of cultic group dynamics.


Anyway, this is how I understand the religion/cult continuum. Feel free to challenge this idea, because this is my personal musing and I’m still developing it. Let’s talk about it in the comments!



2 thoughts on “Cult or Religion? How to understand the difference

  1. Hmmm this makes sense to me. I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist and the church, while cultish, was nowhere near to your experience. I have definitely found that those on the “inner” circle tend to be more “into” the whole thing, than do others though. Your story is just…wow. I have no words. I’m planning to write about this topic (maybe not soon, but at some point in the future) and I’ve learnt a lot from reading your blog…even things that I experienced that I probablywould have no idea how to explain.


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