(Part of a series of ongoing thoughts about cults. See Online Cults and A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults.) I suspect that the fundamental problem with defining a cult is that a cult is, essentially, a parody of legitimate religion. This gets complicated because not all legitimate religions are correct; Christianity is correct and legitimate religions are correct only insofar as they agree with Christianity. But they can still be legitimate religion—as opposed to a parody of a religion—where they are wrong. And now I need to explain what the heck I mean by this.
A legitimate religion offers several things to a person:
- Something greater than themselves to exist in relation to
These are related things, in that peace comes from living in a proper relationship to the ordering of the universe, which means in a proper relationship to that which is greater than oneself. Meaning and purpose are related, since purpose comes from meaning; meaning is intrinsic to reality but comes from religion in the sense of “is learned about from religion”, which consists of knowing how one’s life fits into a greater whole.
And of course these are the things which a cult offers. What makes the cult a parody is that the thing greater than themselves is typically just another thing in the world which itself needs justification—the cult itself. Sometimes it is a sort of esoteric knowledge, but always a kind of esoteric knowledge about which no thinking is possible, and therefore the only real concern is, once again, the cult. And there are some cases where the esoteric knowledge might legitimately be something one can think about, but it comes with the provision that the one revealing the knowledge is the most important man who ever lived. As such the man and not the knowledge is the focus of the cult. That last type is, I suspect, the sort of cult which actually lasts and becomes something of a real religion—once the man is dead. Though the degree to which that happens probably varies; and worshiping a man is worse than worshiping even a god, which is much worse than worshiping God. And such a cult will probably be plagued with the difficulty of keeping its later religious adherents from learning about its origins; that will probably trap it in cult-like behavior since there’s no way to escape from a bad founding.
Similarly the purpose a cult offers is a parody in that it all relates to the cult itself, and not to any greater good. The expressions will vary, but cults are often quite destructive of family ties, for example; they tend to discourage any sort of involvement with outsiders beyond proselytizing.
And relatedly, the peace that a cult offers is a parody because it consists of unthinkingly accepting the teachings and practices of the cult, that is, the meaning and purpose which a cult gives. This acceptance without understanding is essentially reducing a man from a rational animal to an irrational animal; it is the peace of giving up being a man and instead being a horse. That brings relief from the troubles of being a man, but not by rightly ordering one’s life but instead by simply refusing to live most of one’s life.
And all this is what makes it so difficult to distinguish a cult from a legitimate religion. Counterfeits are, of their nature, hard to spot. That superficial similarity is where the counterfeit gets all its power from, so there is both a motivation and an evolutionary selective pressure on cults to be superficially similar to legitimate religions. In short, distinguishing unrelated things tends to be easy but spotting fakes is much, much harder.