Cults and Religions

HBO recently released their new documentary “Going Clear” based on the bestselling book with the same name by Lawrence Wright and many people learned about the crazy past, their charismatic and crazy founder, and practices associated with Scientology. I highly recommend watching the documentary, especially if you are not that familiar with Scientology. Many consider Scientology to be a cult and not a religion, but I find the differences between the two concepts to be pretty blurry. Generally “religion” is seen as a positive thing that has some benefits to society and individuals, it’s also something that should be respected without question. When people use the term “cult” it’s used to describe a group with religious aspects that also has various negative and many times outlandish aspects; cults are also often known for having very crazy and extreme doctrines. That leads me to ask the question, what makes one doctrine that is not supported by evidence more valid than another doctrine lacking in evidence? It’s easier to see that a set of beliefs seems silly or crazy if they are brand new and unfamiliar. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, was a prolific science fiction writer before he began to form his church and it wasn’t too many decades ago. So as an outsider it’s very clear to see that the religion is made up. If we use Christianity as an example of a mainstream religion to compare it to, we do not exactly know who the writers of the doctrine were so there’s a lot more mystery surrounding it and easier to make various claims about the authorship. In the western world the bible has been protected by the unfounded notion for centuries that its words are infallible and divinely inspired. A highly accepted idea that has been around for a long time often goes unquestioned because it’s popular amongst the majority and those in power, and for the most part it’s much easier to go along with the majority and the thought of questioning doesn’t come up. I think a Christian would be just as offended as a devoted Scientologist if they were to be told their beliefs are just made up, but more would be willing to stand up for the feelings of the Christian than for the feelings of the Scientologist. When I have said something along those lines to Christians they have taken great offense to it.


I think the special treatment the bible gets is partly because many in the western world are told how important and highly valued the bible is starting at very young ages, and this is reinforced by their family members, peers, and culture.  People often like to believe that brainwashing is just something that happens in cults, that’s one of the big differences between it and proper respectable religions. It’s very obvious that the Church of Scientology uses brainwashing tactics to make their membership numbers grow. I’d like to argue that mainstream religions such as Christianity use forms of brainwashing to maintain and grow their membership. I thought of this because the other day on Twitter I said “people that make the argument that Scientology isn’t a proper religion just don’t want to analyze what’s wrong with religion in general” and to sum it up quick a tweeter claimed I was making a lazy argument because I could not conflate and compare the criminal cult Scientology with “actual religions”. When I asked what they meant by “actual religions” I was told that for starters it meant upfront disclosure of church doctrine. I do admit that when Scientology is bringing in new members they slowly spoon feed aspects of the doctrine and while they are doing that they are also doing things to make their mental state revert to that of a child’s. Those are classic brainwashing tactics. If you think about a young child being brought into Christianity, it is not that different. Unlike the Scientologists, they don’t have to work on the reverting back to the mind of a child because characteristics needed for brainwashing like lack of knowledge, trust in authority, and desire to please those around them is already there. Christians rarely wait until their children are old enough to understand many aspects of their doctrine, I’m pretty sure things would be pretty different if many people were explained Christian theology at the age of 18 instead of from early childhood. I remember for years as a child not understanding bits and pieces of the Christian doctrine I was being raised in. I distinctly remember as a very young kid wondering what the word “virgin” meant when the Pastor talked about the Virgin Mary at Christmas time. For a long time I just assumed it meant a very nice and good person. Of course when I understood what it actually meant and had to wrap my head around the idea of a “virgin birth”, the doctrine got a bit crazier to me. So I wouldn’t say that personally anyone was upfront with the doctrine with me because I barely had the comprehension skills at the time to understand it. Threats and put downs are often used during brainwashing to make the victims easier to control. I think teaching children that they’ll go to Hell if they don’t believe in Jesus sounds like a threat. The notion that we are all born miserable dirty sinners which is foundational for many sects of Christianity sounds like a put down, also the idea that people are powerless without god in their lives. These concepts do sometimes brainwash the minds of adults who are at low and desperate points in their lives and are looking for answers and acceptance within a group, many “born again” Christians fit that description. Many adults who join the Church of Scientology would fit that description as well.

A big difference between a cult and a religion is that a cult is like watching a sped up more intense version of religion in a petri dish. Many of the negative aspects we find in cults we can find all over history in many sects of mainstream religions. Those mainstream religions have just been able to get a lot of respect and power, and many want to keep a blind eye to the negative aspects. It’s great that many people don’t want to make excuses for an awful religion like Scientology and can easily speak out against it, but if people have a problem with criminal activities and crazy ideas within religious institutions why is there not more of an outcry against certain practices of the Catholic Church, various Evangelical groups, or other mainstream religious groups that are connected to criminal or underhanded practices? I hope more notice this double standard.


18 thoughts on “Cults and Religions

  1. “Cult” is certainly in the eyes of the beholder. Bottom line, as you point out, is that every religion preys on the weak or the young. The fact that many people can’t see the similarities is just further evidence of their own thorough brainwashing.

  2. Master Mischief is right. The Essenes were a breakaway sect who told stories of one of their leaders who was persecuted. Apparently he could heal the sick and had risen from the dead. Although these stories were never authenticated, this certainly seems to be the model for Jesus.
    An interesting discussion you have given us, pooroldkilgore. Look where Christianity went over the centuries, from a breakaway doomsday cult to a ‘major religion’.
    I was going to complain about Scientology’s harmful ‘drug detox vitamin regime’ bullshit, but after so much fake artefacts, weeping virgin statues and healing waters stuff from Christianity, I cannot single L. Ron Hubbard’s cult out for unscientific and un-progressive crap.

    Thanks for that post, pooroldkilgore,

  3. “The difference between a cult and a religion in a cult there is a person at the top who knows it’s a scam, in a religion that person is dead” -who said it? Not sure but it’s true!

  4. The documentary was amazing. Being a devout catholic, & a collegiate scholar I agree 100% with your “brain washing” comprehension that begins for most in Christianity as kids. Every book known to man in every religion, is written by our fellow man. If devine intervention came to a “prophet” in todays world, we would say their kooks, or trippin’ some great drugs. lol. From every “good” book man has twisted & molded the bottom line message of love into something to outcast everyone unlike themselves & their past generations. Just like most in society, the doctrines of most faiths are never fully studied by a majority of it’s followers. They are never actually even given a once over. What most do, is find the aspect that fits them best & since all you have to do is have blind faith to be a member, use your new found “knowledge” to save others. Most being uneducated use harse criticism, fear, hate, bigotry & consequence to some how give validity to their own life & cast a shadow of doubt upon others who are different. Not many know that acceptance of everyone & everything is the message of most faiths. That equality can be achieved spiritually and not just socially & monitorily. That one can have a peace with in themselves with happiness & love no matter how the world is. But people don’t look at it that way. Especially Americans. They do it half assed. They look for not the good in others, but what is wrong. Like the doumentory showed, most who go into faith without using their heads are those who aim wonderlessly through life in every aspect. They need to be spoon fed everything from their 6am news to what type of cereal to eat for breakfast. For they go by the, if I keep my head in the sand & don’t see or hear anything, then it actually is not happening. I think anyone who looks at anything without that is leading a pitiful life. From the scientist to the clergymen. For even most of science is based on calculated theory. Theoreticals that can be proven one day and some may be right, some may be wrong. But the cold hard facts are not as common, just like in religion. I think if anyone uses any type of non factual based belief to cast hate upon oters they are “sheep”. They lack a sense that we think is common but truly is not. The one thing I think people forget is life each day is about learning in order to grow, but most don’t look at it that way, they look at being proven wrong is a bad thing, but it is not. It is actually a chance for us all to learn something we did not know and that is truly living. That is truly how you see beauty in something you did not even know existed. 🙂

  5. This is an excellent comparison that shows solid understanding of how group and collective behavior functions as a societal phenomenon.

    Having said that, I like to think of riots as a great example of how totally irrational people are in groups. I like this example precisely because of how compressed the time is on a riot’s life. A riot lasts maybe a few days. A cult lasts a few years[?]. A religion (like Christianity) can last thousands of years because the behavior is accepted as the norm.

    The rationality behind beliefs in any of these group interactions is completely irrational. It’s the ability to see them in the context of time that clarifies.

    • Yikes. I really should proof read stuff…lol. My point is that all three of these groups displays behavior[s] that I would consider sociopathic insofar as they are detrimental to society. It’s just much easier to recognize or label them as nutty when their duration is short and in groups that do not have established and/or accepted beliefs.

  6. Regarding the characteristics of cults in general, I thought this brief summary by Drs Lalich and Langone was useful:

    To list just the first few characteristics of a cult which they cite and which are certainly true both of scientology and of some Christian religious sects:

    “1. The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

    ‪2. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

    ‪3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its

    ‪4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what type of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

    ‪5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

    6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. ”

    These things are true of Scientology, of some Christian groups, and of other religious and non-religious groups. They’re not, however, true of all Christian churches or all religious groups in general. And the things that make a group a cult aren’t really the core beliefs (i.e. the Bible or Dianetics or some belief with scientific pretensions like Marxism or Eugenics) whether they happen to be actually true or just made up. It’s not the beliefs by themselves, it’s the leadership and the group dynamics, if this makes sense.

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