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Cult Or Religion?

Richard’s off today, C.R. writes:

I was recently interviewed by a young woman who was interested in having me edit a manuscript she’s writing. Lisa was a cult member and though she has left the cult and wants to begin a career writing and speaking about her experiences, she doesn’t yet feel safe enough to go public.

Her attorney has evidence that shows that the cult Lisa belonged to, though not one of the largest or wealthiest, is still powerful and rich enough to launch a multi-million dollar defamation suit against Lisa.

Even though Lisa and her attorney and her psychotherapist feels Lisa would eventually win, they all agree that the stress of going through such a public, drawn-out process will almost certainly trigger Lisa’s PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Lisa isn’t ready to take that step.

For most of us who never give cults a thought, it is surprising to know that at least five million Americans belong to a cult. The cult they belong to might be a pretend  “religious” path recently invented by a charismatic leader. Or it might be a pretend, “religious” path recently invented by a charismatic leader that liberally borrows from and distorts an ancient religious path. Or they might not be any of these things.*

Lisa told me that’s a problem. “Identifying what is a cult isn’t so easy. In my case, the cult I was seduced into entering is actually accepted or at least tolerated among the main-stream. What people, even responsible people like serious journalists don’t know or want to admit is that even the celebrities they admire can get seduced.

“Lots of people view these “mainstream cults” as sort of non-religious religions. The stuff that they require of newbies is so mild that many anti-religious people can easily get attracted into a cult, which is in some ways a pseudo-religion.”

So how does one tell the difference between a cult and a religion?

When I searched for the answer, I found that non-religious anti-cult groups tended to lump together cults and religions that might not be popular in some quarters. For example, although there can be cults that are break-offs from any religion, even though they don’t represent the religion as a whole, they often get the most attention from the press. What springs to mind (and which we discussed in a previous post) are the fringe elements of Mormonism which does not represent main-stream Mormonism. Just about every religion has fringe elements and even cultish elements.

Although I did find a host of cult-faqs and lists, this page, , a Jewish organization, seemed to me to offer the most succinct, accessible information on cults vs. religions without sensationalism or jargon.

They say that unlike religions, cults use deceit in recruitment, are totalitarian in organization, destroy the family unit, isolates members, keeps non-believers out, limits development of the individual, exploits and manipulates its members with mind control techniques, commitment is encouraged during recruitment process, criticism is met with threats of legal action [and/or other punishments, shame, torture, etc.], leader and follower consider leader to be above reproach, and questioning the leader, or basic tenets, is not allowed.

Now there are some elements of the above that may be found in some religions, political parties and organizations, political activism groups, even university classrooms (!), but these elements usually exist and/or are implemented to a far lesser extent. All groups must promote the cohesion and focused goals of the group or lose the status of “group-hood”. But a group does not a cult make.

I was a bit freaked out a couple weeks ago when I watched a gathering in New York City’s Union Square. Everyone sat in a circle and in unison, repeated the words of whoever spoke. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against chanting in unison. After all, you can experience this in sporting events, school events, religious events, and so on. It’s just that the speakers weren’t always making sense—some of it frankly, was an assortment of strung-together odd slogans and sound-bites that even contradicted each other.

It gave me chills. It felt to me cult-like.

Lisa strongly disagrees. “At the end of the day, most of those people went home to their families and friends.”

They might be sheep-like, but they aren’t cult members.

More about cults, soon…

*Update: I just received an email telling me that it wasn’t safe to identify particular cults. I decided to remove the name of any cults from these articles.

Cult Or Religion?

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC & C.R. Zwolinski

Richard Zwolinski, LMHC, CASAC is the author of Therapy Revolution: Find Help, Get Better, and Move On Without Wasting Time or Money and is licensed in addiction and psychotherapy with over 25 years experience as well as a consultant to organizations and companies in the fields of mental health and addiction. He is the executive director of an outpatient behavioral health program. Learn more about Richard here.

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APA Reference
& C.R. Zwolinski, R. (2019). Cult Or Religion?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Mar 2019
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