cult or no?

A friend and I were having a discussion regarding cults and were debating whether Catholicism is a cult or not. If not, how large must a cult get before it is considered a religion? Thanks!

Cult status has nothing to do with size, everything to do with just what level of control over the minds and lives of members the cult has - or wants to have.

First of all - lots of Catholics disagree very openly with the teachings of the Church. This would not be allowed to happen in a David Koresh or Jim Jones style cult - you would either agree with literally almost every word put of the leaders’ mouths or be totally shunned and ostracized by the cult community - forbidden any contact with any members and the like.

Secondly - Catholics are very much in the world. Their schools and hospitals are open to all, although Catholics may get priority at the schools. Their churches and church services are open for any member of the public, Catholic or not, to wander in and attend at any time. Catholics likewise are permitted to attend non-Catholic worship, although they must also attend Catholic mass weekly.

Catholics are engaged in literally every profession and occupation, excepting a handful which we consider immoral, most of which are also illegal. Catholics have no real problems eating, socialising, living and working among non-Catholics, or marrying them. They participate fully in the civic life of the country, paying taxes and exercising their right to vote and all the other duties of citizens.

Most cults tend to withdraw and isolate their members from the world, living in settlements that are partly or wholly forbidden to outsiders, being taught that the world is evil and that they are not to associate with those not of their faith community, that secular government is evil so they are not to pay taxes and the like.

Perhaps most strikingly - there are psychologists and other professionals who specialize in ‘deprogramming’ members of cults who leave - and are too messed up emotionally to function outside the cult. Never heard of a single one ever suggesting that Catholics leaving the church required the same help.

These are all the differences I can think of off the top of my head.


Depends what you call a ‘cult’.

There are typically two types of ‘cult’, societal cults and religious cults. Societal cults typically have a strong charismatic leader; and use methods like brainwashing, peer pressure, isolation of members from family and friends, and sexual and physical abuse to keep members attached.

Religious cults on the other hand are called as such because they are groups that are very unorthodox to the faith they supposedly prescribe to. An example would be the Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witness, who claim to be Christian groups but are so heterodox they no longer accurately represent the religion they claim to be. Some religious cults are also societal cults. This common definition is very subjective however, and depends largely on one’s own perception on what is ‘unorthodox’. Many fundamentalist protestants will call the Catholic Church a religious cult for instance, because in their eyes it is apostasy and un-biblical.

The Catholic Church is none of these, so unless you define a cult as simply a religious institution, I don’t see how you can call the Catholic Church a ‘cult’.

Hope I helped.

God Bless.

I feel that in these kinds of discussions it is always necessary to define the terms since often times there can be a difference between what people understand when they hear a given term.
I like to begin at the Dictionary so here goes (From
1.a particular system of religious worship, especially with reference to its rites and ceremonies. instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3.the object of such devotion.
4.a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5.Sociology . a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
6.a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
7.the members of such a religion or sect.
8.any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.

In anthropology, an organization for the conduct of ritual, magical, or other religious observances. Many so-called primitive tribes, for example, have ancestor cults, in which dead ancestors are considered divine and activities are organized to respect their memory and invoke their aid. A cult is also a religious group held together by a dominant, often charismatic individual, or by the worship of a divinity, an idol, or some other object. ( See animism, fetish, and totemism.)


  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.
  6. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.
  7. religions, Archaic . religious rites.
  8. Archaic . strict faithfulness; devotion: a religion to one’s vow.
    These then are the “dictionary” definitions.
    As can be seen, there are many similarities between the two.
    If I were to offer my own view of the difference, I would say that a Religion (like Catholicism) is more encompassing than a “cult” which tends to be more specific. I would go even further and say that “cults” can exist within a religion and not necessarily as a negative thing.
    But I will stop here for now and just suggest that everyone review these definitions and see what the similarities and differences are.


But you do see “softer” version of these cult-like methods in many main world religions. And even if the methods are not as obvious and don’t seem as extreme on the surface as the cultes, they have similar effect. The psychological process is similar and the goal is the same:
–to make the person afraid to dissent by promising great punishment (for example, hell. Or removal from church)
–to keep the person in line because if they leave the group, they will leave their community and family (therefore, “isolation”)
–to tell a person if they disagree or do something differently than the others, they are wrong (peer pressure)

For example, I know a woman of one religion who got a divorce (it was a very bad situation). She had started a whole group for mothers and daughters in her church years earlier and it was a big success, she led it for years, taking girls on hikes and camping and educational trips, etc.
When she told the others she was to get divorced, they warned her not to, because they said they could not fraternize with her any more if she did.
After she got divorced, the group decided she, the leader, should not be allowed to be a part of the group anymore because her divorce would be “a bad example” to the other girls.
Thus, she and her daughters were ousted. “She has to see the consequence of her actions,” one of the other mothers said.
So she and her daughters were isolated and punished because she didn’t follow the rules the same way everyone else did. But staying in the marriage was not an option.

I think this is a “softer” example of cult-like behavior that permeates a lot of religions.

The things you describe are so common as to be useless in determining if something is a "cult. After all, our civil systems contain many of these same elements both formally (through the legal system) and informally (cultural norms).
For instance…Laws are enacted with certain punishments prescribed for the purpose of deterring a person from certain actions. Committing these acts results in arrest, conviction and prison (isolation from the community)
Our society can impose it’s own form of “shunning” etc for those who are not, to use a common catchphrase) “politically correct”.

Also, pretty much any private organization will ask someone to leave it they violate the organizations rules, code of conduct etc. Although we sometimes want to, it really isn’t always fair to place blame.

The example you offer is really a prime example of this. It might be natural for you to defend your friend and say that the group was wrong to isolate her from something that she built and enjoyed and, by extension, from that community as a whole.
However - the group is not wrong. The group has a code that it expects it’s members to adhere to. Your friend likely knew this during the time that she was a member of this group and before she had decided on divorce.
Now - assuming everyone is acting in good conscience - was the woman wrong for obtaining a divorce? No she was not. Was the group wrong for deciding to exclude her? No they were not. There is no “right or wrong” in these decisions - there is simply a “parting of the ways”.


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