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Religion and Cult Relations

People have always needed a system of specific beliefs to explain events unknown to them. Since the emergence of the first organized groups of people and civilized societies, mythologies, religions, and cults became integral elements of the human world. Moreover, some worship systems transformed into dominant paradigms or religions peculiar to the majority of people and affecting their lifestyles. While others, less popular ones, were considered cults and were treated differently. In such a way, some features were used to differentiate between these two concepts and determine specific set rituals. The terms religion and cult remain close to each other as they possess multiple similarities, and the factors differentiating them are the number of followers and time.

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The word cult has multiple definitions regarding the perspective and context. One of the most generalized ones defines the term as a social group that has unusual religious, spiritual, and philosophical beliefs or shares the same interest in a person, object, or goal (Stein and Stein 37). A more archaic definition of cult views it as a set of religious practices within a specific culture devoted to a certain figure (Stein and Stein 37). Today, the term has mainly negative connotations and is used to describe a social phenomenon that is not accepted by the majority of society.

Another discussed term can also be viewed in different ways. Thus, religion is a specific socio-cultural system characterized by common behaviors, practices, morals, worldviews, ethics, sacred texts, and the belief in the existence of supernatural creatures or forces affecting people’s lives (Stein and Stein 64). Today, there are several global religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, that affect millions of people and their lives. As against cults, the attitude to the term is neutral or positive, and it is rarely used in negative contexts. It means that the scope of religion and the number of individuals involved shape the attitude to it and people’s readiness to join it or respect dominant values.

When it comes to the definition, both religion and cult presuppose the existence of a developed organization. It is needed to ensure that people worship in ways accepted by the existing paradigm and follow all rituals or rules established by a system (Stein and Stein 111). Religion presupposes a strict inner hierarchy of priests to distribute tasks and influence followers (Stein and Stein 67). Cults might have less developed frameworks and systems because of the limited time of their existence and the lack of human resources. However, with further evolution, they can develop a sophisticated system of relations and subordination to ensure that the existing morals are followed by individuals.

Comparing the cult and religion, the first and the most meaningful difference between them is time. If a cult can become influential enough to exist for several centuries, it can become a religion and enter a new stage of its evolution. A social group that survives over numerous generations cannot be destructive, oppressive, or promote dangerous practices, such as suicide or unhealthy behavior (Stein and Stein 114). For this reason, this cult cares for its adherers and acquires resources sufficient for the attraction of new individuals and the creation of a special society around it (Stein and Stein 114). All global religions existing today are comparatively old, meaning they had enough time to evolve.

Another differentiating factor is the number of followers. At the first stages of its evolution, Christianity has considered a dangerous cult in the Roman Empire practiced by a limited number of people. The attitude to it was also negative, and Christians were punished. However, with the emergence of new followers, the cult managed to become more influential, attract powerful individuals who sponsored its evolution, and influenced the social attitude to it (Stein and Stein 67). In such a way, the number of followers is another factor influencing a specific set of morals and spiritual practices and their definition.

Consequently, time and the number of people involved are the two central factors differentiating the cult and religion. Nevertheless, they remain closely connected as a cult can transform into religion and vice versa; with the gradual decline, the dominant set of values can lose its importance and become a cult. The example of the Roman Empire can evidence this statement, as being considered a dangerous cult, Christianity managed to evolve and become a state’s religion, while polytheism degraded into insignificant and unpopular practices and completely disappeared in the course of time.

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Altogether, religion and cult remain two related terms with multiple similarities between them. That is why the question of the difference between them remains a disputable one. From the discussion, it is possible to conclude that time and the number of people affected by a certain spiritual paradigm remain the two central elements that can help to distinguish these two terms. Cult is always less popular because its existence is limited, while religion has millions of followers globally and has enough resources to evolve over multiple centuries. However, a cult can become a religion if it manages to survive, and religion can lose its importance and transform into a cult.

Work Cited

Stein, Rebecca, and Philip Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 4th ed., Routledge, 2017.

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