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Religion and Culture: Religions and Cults - Is there really a difference?

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
The Reverend Jim Jones
David Koresh


"If the Bible is true, then I am Christ."

- David Koresh


"We have been so terribly betrayed ... so be kind to the children and be kind to seniors and take the potion ... and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide; it's a revolutionary act ... ."

- Jim Jones, Suicide Tape Transcript


"Any religion that punishes you with hell is a damn cult. You pray, go to church, have followers, rituals even. But unlike a club or special interest group, people let religion dictate their lives and instil fear and hate in our community."

( are cults)


I have long criticised organised religion, convinced that there is something unsettling about the sectarian, tribal and false sense of exceptionalism it breeds.

Despite its shortcomings, religion cannot and should not be compared to a cult, as some have argued. To say that religions are cults is a sophomoric view that has been loosely peddled.

In the classical sense of the term, religion is defined as the union between a devotee and God. Here, God is perceived as an omnipresent, omniscient, invisible entity that resides in a dimension beyond human understanding. In this setting, a priest or holy person serves as an intermediary between this higher power and his creation.

Rituals and orations are created over time to appease or find favour with this God. Eschatology plays an integral role in most religious philosophy, hence there is an indissoluble connection between life on earth and the hereafter.

Devotees are taught patience, to endure hardship in this life and direct their attention to the meed that awaits in the afterlife. While there are various strains of religious expressions there are commonalities that make interfaith dialogue possible. Now, some might argue that religion is a cult by virtue of devotees invariably holding core beliefs, seldom challenging scriptural dogmas or the authority in their organisations. However, when we examine cults we see a distinctly different dynamic.




Over the last four decades, the world has witnessed the tragic denouement of cults, such as Heaven's Gate (39 members committed suicide in a California mansion); Order of Solar Temple (murder-suicide secret society founded in Geneva that claimed the lives of close to 100 members); Aum Shinrikyo (Japanese doomsday movement responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin attack); Branch Davidians (76 members perished after a showdown with US federal authorities); Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments (780 or more members perished in a church fire deliberately set by its leaders); and Osho, a mystical movement that unleashed the first biological attack on United States soil.

But no cult in modern times has captivated more attention than the People's Temple headed by Jim Jones.

Its apocalyptic end in Guyana serves as the classical study in the phenomenology of cults. While it is true that all religions speak of the end of days, members patiently wait for that tumultuous time, cultivating love through prayer if only to be spared the impending cataclysm. Cults, on the other hand, precipitate this Armageddon by violence, murder and suicide. Like most cult leaders, Jones usurped God's role (Note that founders of the world's great religions have never claimed godhood). He was magnanimous and equally punitive.

One of Jones' spellbinding sermons speaks for itself: "Will you tell me you believe in God out there? So what? What's your sky God ever done? Two out of three nations in the world are hungry. Misery in every one of your homes. The only happiness you've found is when you've come to this earth God!"

He continued: "Your children were in difficulties. No one came to the jails. You prayed to your sky God and he never heard your prayers. You asked and begged and pleaded in your suffering ... . He never provided a home, but I, your socialist God, have given you all these things. When your world has failed you, I'll be standing because I am freedom. I am peace. I am Justice. I am God!" (Source: Raven: The Untold Story the Reverend Jim Jones and His People).




Cult leaders meet the psychological, spiritual and the physical needs of members. They tap into their existential desires with rhetorical genius, separating them from the outside world as they slowly create a siege mentality - "us" against "them".

Cult leaders fill a gaping void where traditional religion, family and society at large have failed. Cult members are neither naive nor simpletons as many imagine. Many are highly educated and professionals (Heaven's Gate ran a respectable technology company).

However, their idealism, their shift in perception through skilful grooming and manipulation, and their belief in a higher calling or mission render them vulnerable. The cult becomes their new home, their new family. In this new subcultural ethos, new boundaries are established, new laws are written and new behaviours are adopted. While traditional religions aim to cement social mores, cults tear down social walls and establish new antithetical parametres that ultimately lead to a direct confrontation with outside agencies or, an implosion that destroys the lives of victims and loved ones.

Cultic practices counter traditional religious dogmas adopting a world view of spirituality. Mysticism and occultism are fused with orthodoxy and Marxist rigidity. (Jones called his experiment Apostolic socialism).

Also, sexual manipulation at the leadership level is not uncommon.




Moreover, the leader takes on a mythical standing, assuming the role of the most important religious figures in history.

Jones said he was the incarnation of Lenin, Jesus, and Buddha, and of course, God; while Koresh laid claim to being Jesus.

At the outset, their perceived goodwill and love-bombing give way to their defected, twisted personalities.

Narcissism, delusions of grandeur, self-righteousness, and paranoia surface with terrifying, combustible consequences. Their fears, anxieties, successes, ambitions are bound to the fate of their group.

Conversely, members, in surrendering their identity, are unable to discern their peril as they abandon their own critical reasoning skills, thereby creating the perfect storm.

Are religions really cults? The facts speak for themselves.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity' now available as an audiobook at Amazon and iTunes. Send feedback to or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.