Events in history have been defined by cult leaders amassing followers and causing a change in ideologies or a mass thinking pattern that went on to to be precursors to historic scenes. The word cult has often been confused with religious thinking, and is this correct? There have been phrases that have cropped up in social content, where a cult has been referred to as an organisation, a group with a high level of commitment, and so on. Our definitions for religion may overlap with these, and this brings us to the question of whether there is a stark difference between religion and cult?
What is religion and what is a cult?
When in doubt, definitions that have existed right since the beginning of the formation of the two groups come in handy. A religion is defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” The word superhuman is to be noted here, as in religion a divine power is invoked. Cult on the other hand is defined as “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.” While in religion, the greater supreme power seems to be the focus, in a cult, it is the ideology that is more of the focus.
Why is religion often confused with cult?
What has become a topic for thought, is how the word ‘cult’ is used so freely these days to refer to authoritarian groups that engage in brainwashing. The confusion with religion arises as, through history, many religious groups have shown strict discipline, authoritarian beliefs, high levels of commitment and undying love for group ideologies. Hence, in this case, the word ‘cult’ would be applicable due to the definition fitting what was happening, but common knowledge of the precedence of events tells us that ‘religion’ is a more appropriate term.
The concept of ‘brainwashing’ in cults may not be entirely true. Research has proved how what is commonly perceived as a way of inducting people into the cult - brainwashing, does not always work, and thus, one cannot make the mistake of considering that mind control is a very common phenomenon in cults. The Unification Church - a cult, would isolate people who were newly recruited and use a technique called ‘love bombing’ wherein the people were shown love and attention. If this brainwashing technique worked, this would mean an increase in new recruits, but this was not the case.
Sociologist Eileen Barker pointed out that in spite of the technique, the recruitment rates were not great.
Can political groups be called cults?
Religious groups that live together should not be confused with groups that have political motivations. The leader plays an important role when referring to a cult, and that is essentially why the relationship between the leader and the followers determines if the group is actually a cult or simply one that is...well, a group. Can you think of one such political group that had a slogan and ideologies and everything and was even known as a ‘cult’ by many around the world?
MAGA, the famous Make America Great Again.
Donald Trump, the former President of the United States was said to be pushing to turn the MAGA group into a full-on cult. Now for the real stats. In March when the pandemic was at its worst, a poll was conducted to assess American’s beliefs in religion. Bear in mind that this was done at a time when most people were turning to God, as the pandemic was at its worst. The poll showed that only 47% of Americans were actively religious, that is attended a Church, a mosque etc.
Public Religion Research Institute chief Robert P. Jones said in an interview that “White evangelical Protestants have been losing ground among young people. As they have shrunk over the last decade, their median age has risen from 53 to 56, compared to median age of 47 in the country overall.”
Now, get this. A poll was also conducted during the same time to check how many believed in QAnon, a far-right fringe conspiracy theory. One in five Americans believed! They even agreed to the statement “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”
So is it a cult? Well, at least that is what people seem to think.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that groups should not be termed as ‘cult’ without proper study. This is because, once a group is termed as a ‘cult’, it is a kind of finality associated with it, which eliminates room for study or discussion and gives the wrong idea.