If Scientology is a “cult,” then why is Mormonism a “religion”?

The age-old question of just how big a cult Scientology really is reared its ugly head this week when the Atlantic found itself in some hot water for publishing an advertorial (sponsored content) from the Scientologists.  But what’s interesting to me isn’t Scientology per se, it’s Mormonism – and the larger question of how we as a society decide whether one religion is real and the other fake.

Sponsored content is always a tricky question – in terms of how well you indicate that the content isn’t real news, but rather is an ad – I sense that the bigger problem people had with the ads was that they were paid for by the Church of Scientology, an organization many consider little more than a bullying cult.


Mormons via Shutterstock

But why do so many of us accept without question that Scientology is a cult, and no one other than Scientologists gets very upset about the appellation, but when discussing another relatively-new, pushy, and reportedly difficult-to-leave religion on the scene, Mormonism, suddenly the PC hairs on our neck stand on end, and we quickly distance ourselves from anyone who might suggest that the Church of Latter Day Saints is also a cult, or at the very least, not Christian?

When is a church a church, and when is a cult a cult?  And why do some of the same people who get so incensed when Mormons are disparaged have no problem when the target of our scorn and derision is Scientology?

Some on the left will say that every religion is a cult, and be done with it.  But whether or not that argument is valid, most Americans would reject it, I think.  While most Americans don’t consider Catholicism a cult (though the phrase “criminal conspiracy” does increasingly come to mind with regard to the Catholic’s ongoing, and not yet fully resolved, pedophilia scandal and cover-up), Southern Baptists consider Catholics akin to Satan worshippers.  So it’s not even completely cut and dry as to what end of the cult-religion spectrum even “traditional” religions fall.


Mormon via Shutterstock

And even amongst traditional religions, each faith considers the other somewhat of a phony.  Catholics consider their faith the one truth faith, as do Orthodox Christians (even if we don’t think Catholics are going to hell, we still think they’re involved in a slightly-off venture).  And no Christian religion thinks the Jews have it right.  And let’s not even get started on Islam.  So, clearly, we don’t have a problem judging the relative merits of religions, but only up to a point.  Folks on the left get upset when Republicans disparage Muslims.  But those some lefties probably have made a crack about Scientologists.  And while religious right Republicans are incessantly incensed about some new outrage against their faith, their strident views on freedom of religion fly out the window when the topic is Scientology, Islam, or for many, Mormonism.

When asked whether Mormons were Christians in 2011, three-fourths of American protestant pastors said “no.”  And the French government, like other European states, considers the Mormons a cult.  Though others, like Billy Graham, have suddenly changed their minds, and what was once the Mormon cult is now the Mormon church.

The religious right even has a history of trashing mainstream American religions that embrace gay rights, like reform Judaism, or the Quakers.  Religious right groups routinely dismiss the pro-gay views of those religions as irrelevant because, they claim, those religions aren’t “major” American religions (they claim, falsely), so their pro-gay vote doesn’t count.

So clearly we don’t have a hard and fast rule against knocking religion in this country.  So where do you draw the line, how do you draw the line, and how did Mormons fall on the barely-acceptable side of the line, while Scientologists are “clearly” a cult?  Do you really think we’d have had any kind of ethical debate over the propriety of knocking a Republican presidential candidate who was a Scientologist?  I doubt it.

Now, far be it for me to be making any attempt to exonerate Scientology.  Hardly.  I find the entire thing rather creepy.  I’m more interested in how Mormons have become increasingly exonerated for their once-“heresy,” and why the contradiction between the treatment of their “religion” and the treatment of Scientology’s?

If anti-Mormonism is truly the “prejudice of our age” (I always get a kick out of it when virulent bigots suddenly discover the evils of prejudice), then why isn’t it just as discriminatory to be anti-Scientology?

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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123 Responses to “If Scientology is a “cult,” then why is Mormonism a “religion”?”

  1. disqus_8LRrePnKhM says:

    Jews don’t try to actively recruit people and the term is used as a broader definition of a culture, that is based on a religion. Many people who are Jews are not religious.

  2. J says:

    I’m guessing that Crowley and LRH both were exposed to this from their Golden Dawn research, but purposely chose to reject it, going further and much darker. They went and embraced the Goetia instead of the Shemhamphorasch, and sadly, I think it proved to be their own personal undoings – both cases stemming largely from unresolved childhood and adolescent issues. Hopefully, they’re both healed, forgiven and well in the afterlife.

  3. J says:

    The exoteric, outer church Christianity is complete BS. Once you dump Fundamentalism, go deeper into some of teachings, and cut through the fairy tale allegory and parables, you’ll discover that JC was really the greatest White/Right Hand Adept that has ever lived. But even then, you have to careful which order or mystery school you join up with.

  4. Junoh315 says:

    It seems like you sometimes have to threaten legal action to have your name removed from the records at the LDS headquarters. I’ve read a few articles like that.

  5. Junoh315 says:

    Also an alien and some golden plates.

  6. Junoh315 says:

    You dare blaspheme against our venerated emperor? Heresy grows from idleness and your idle hands speak more about you than your waggling tongue does. You might want to get back to praising the emperor before you find yourself made an example of.

    Burn the heretic. Kill the mutant. Purge the unclean. All for our glorious emperor!

    (I might have to stop playing so much Dawn of War. I’ve been making too many references to the Warhammer 40k series lately.)

  7. Junoh315 says:

    There is no required tithe in most churches as far as I remember. You won’t be kicked out if you don’t give the church a tip. I don’t know if the LDS does that but it seems like it’s impossible to progress in Scientology without a lot of money.

  8. Comments Disquis says:

    “Cult” vs “Religion” is nothing more than “child” vs “adult”. Every religion starts as a cult, small and secretive in order to protect itself. As more people join and as society grants them greater relative acceptance, they graduate through the rankings to become a religion. The connotations of good and bad are subjective and nothing more than the perspective of observers. A religion is not better than a cult in any way. It is just more common.

  9. exmormon says:

    Mormons do the exact same thing

  10. Naja pallida says:

    And Jesus accepted his punishment, instead of fleeing from authorities repeatedly, but that aside… the only real account we have of Jesus’ activities are the Bible, which is not a source which would hold up as fact, even by Biblical scholars. So I can’t say whether he was a con man or not. But Smith’s actions, however, have numerous contemporary accounts, including newspaper articles. There is no comparison, on any level, between the two.

  11. Sambo says:

    That Jesus guy was found guilty and sentenced to death…he was whipped, stoned & nailed to a cross. Maybe you think he was a con man too though, going around preaching, healing the sick and performing other miracles.

  12. Sambo says:

    Or maybe spoken like someone who has been in a tithing interview BlueIdaho…?!? How does that make them a Mormon apologist? I am a Mormon and have never been asked for my tax return.

  13. BlueIdaho says:

    Spoken like a true Mormon apologist. Sorry but I will take the statements from my ex-mormon friends as truth over yours.

  14. Half Canadian says:

    The US government owns over half of the land in Utah.

  15. Half Canadian says:

    That’s not true. The extent of tithing verification is “Do you pay an honest tithe?”. No tax returns are given, no income verification is made.
    Someone is yanking your chain.

  16. BlueIdaho says:

    I live in Idaho and I have friends here who are ex-mormon. All members are required to submit their annual tax return to the local Stake or Ward. Therefore the Stake president knows exactly how much you need to tithe. Also, they send out “collectors”, usually on Saturdays, to collect if you are in arrears.

  17. Houndentenor says:

    Agreed. I don’t like being in the position of defending the Catholic Church but if I showed up at their doors and asked to join but pointed out that I didn’t have any money to donate, they would not turn me away. Scientologists? It costs more and more to get to each new level. That to me is the line between a religion and a cult.

  18. Quentin Jersey says:

    Mormonism is not more a cult than any other faith that expects tithing and is insular…whereas Scientology demands tithing (or a “fee” to learn its practices), tries to “retrieve” those who flee and actively goes after “apostates” or “suppressive persons” who leave their “faith.”

  19. tealeclipse says:

    Hi, John, Thanks or the article. My definition of “cult” includes, among other items, the practice of gender-based discrimination. In a church with which I was once affiliated its demon-(OOPS!), denominational articles limits its leadership roles to those “male in gender.” And if that weren’t enough, the word “Free” was in its title.

  20. Ryan says:

    It’s disturbing that the majority here can’t seem to distinguish between cult like Scientology and religions. Scientology isn’t a cult because it’s beliefs are crazy. Scientology is a cult because it trolls for vulnerable people, isolates them, and maximally exploits them. The fundamental question of whether something is a cult is how easy it is to leave.

  21. Bill Williams says:

    I had never heard that they were required to tithe, beyond what’s normal in most churches (wherein most Protestant churches have less than 10% of the congregation actually tithes regularly), but you brought up something that I should look into, so thanks.

  22. Bill Williams says:

    Interesting. Thanks for the reply. I don’t know much about the LDS overall, so the idea that tithing is subject to scrutiny by leaders is interesting, and may keep the LDS Church in the cult category.

  23. Sweetie says:

    Mormons are required to tithe. That’s a cost.

  24. Sweetie says:

    It’s also about money and size. Mormonism is growing rapidly and amassing a lot of money.

    Religions that don’t amass money and size continue to be dissed, generally.

  25. runfastandwin says:

    The Mormon church is really nothing more than a gargantuan tax dodge. They are the largest single landowners in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. All the money donated (as we have seen in the last election) comes with a 1-1 tax credit. Further, all of their holdings (and they are vast beyond belief) are tax free. Utah is basically the governing arm of the LDS.

  26. runfastandwin says:

    I look forward to the day when everyone says “L RON HUBBARD!” instead of “JESUS H CHRIST!” and that day is coming…

  27. bushtheidiot says:

    Cult seems to be gaining a more modern definition — the deciding factor seems to be how mainstream the belief system is. Scientology is relatively marginalized and has a relatively small following, Mormonism has approximately 14 million followers and is one of the fastest growing religions in the world.

    If we label Mormons cultists, then we should label jews as cultists too, as they have roughly the same number of followers.

    If you define cult by how wacky the belief/faith principles of the religion is/are, on the other hand, you can label just about every religion a cult.

  28. quark says:

    and a few $$ billion …

  29. Hatfield says:

    Here’s a good reason why Scientology is a cult:


  30. UncleBucky says:

    Haw, yes. Like a cult is a “bait ‘n’ switch” operation. Religions tell you the regular retail and sale price for all time. Cults play around with that. Now, that could include the RCC at times when they are playing games. Hah.

  31. UncleBucky says:

    Succinct! :P

  32. UncleBucky says:

    What? Mormonism is truly a cult. Personality cult.

    And here’s an interesting thought. What we think of as Christianity was also a cult started by Paul. It should really be called Paulism. Yep. (But don’t confuse that with Jesus the Man or the words that survived from him)

    If Joey Smith “saw” angels, Jesus and God, then surely Paul was Version 1.0 to Smith’s later version.

  33. Jim Olson says:

    Thats another mark of the difference between a cult and a religion, at least as it is defined in the US. Religions generally allow you to walk away freely, though there may be some guilt associated with the departure. Cults make it much more difficult to leave without serious deprogramming or legal assistance, or both.

  34. Badgerite says:

    I sort of draw the line at any religion involving aliens. But it is true that religion is not a rational exercise. Yet that is not what makes it at times intolerable. It is when it is used as an excuse to further personal or institutional hatreds and bigotries that it becomes that. And as you pointed out in your post, that can happen even between religions that emanate from essentially the same set of beliefs. And when there is some violent, cruel and indefensible act taken by an adherent of any particular religion there are always those in that religion that come to its defense and claim that their religion is all about ‘peace and love’. But I believe that religion, like sexual orientation, is neutral. How any given religion is expressed will depend on the kind of person you are. There are decent people in all religions and not so decent people in all religions and you can see that in the disputes that go on within the religions.

  35. John Masters says:

    It should be noted that much about the Temple activities within Mormonism is a closely guarded secret. Information does leak out, and I’ve not heard of the Mormons suing anyone for disclosing. However, it’s also not really “free.” Now, I consider myself a Christian (probably marginal by the standards of many, but I’m comfortable where I am on that spectrum), so I readily admit that “tithes and offerings” are always mentioned in most Protestant religions, and the Catholic Church. But I can tell you that in the Mormon Church, the Stake President usually has a pretty good idea of the personal finances of each member of the Stake, and there is a tremendous amount of pressure to “tithe.” And in fact, it’s my understanding that tithing is one of a number of requirements to achieve the highest spiritual level in Mormonism. So Bill, I like your definition, and I think Mormonism fits.

    Furthermore, if one digs deep enough into the Mormon beliefs (not just what they present publicly, because they have been very good at their PR over the years), some of the their basic tenants aren’t so far from those of Scientology. As I’ve studied the LDS Church, I’ve often wondered if Hubbard wasn’t familiar with, and copying from the LDS for some of his inventions.

  36. Krusher says:

    I think it’s primarily a matter of longevity–any cult that sticks around long enough is mainstreamed to religion status. From my completely unreligious point of view, all cult/religions are pretty wacky, including the cult that was mainstreamed around 2000 years ago. Those folks believe their god implanted his seed into a married mortal woman who was still a virgin, and she gave birth to his son. Then that son went around turning water into wine, did something with loaves and fishes, and died and came back to life. Oh, yeah, and there’s something about a flaming bush that talked–I just can’t keep track of that particular mythology, it’s very confusing. Not to mention that the God father and his son seem to be completely interchangeable when people talk about them. That one totally flummoxes me.

  37. bbock says:

    When did Christianity go from “cult” to “religion. They’re all cults. All religions. Whether is space aliens and volcanos or magic gold plates or a magical immaculate conception or a man who hears talking burning bushes, they’re all nutty cults.

  38. ginger_katz says:

    Al religions are cults. And they’re all nuts.

  39. Ferry_Fey says:

    Isaac Bonewits developed The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (“ABCDEF”). He wrote, “The purpose of this evaluation tool is to
    help both amateur and professional observers, including current
    or would-be members, of various organizations (including religious,
    occult, psychological or political groups) to determine just
    how dangerous a given group is liable to be, in comparison with
    other groups, to the physical and mental health of its members
    and of other people subject to its influence.” I wonder how both Scientology and Mormonism would fare looking at them through this lens? http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html

  40. EdA says:

    Bill has much of it by noting that one difference is whether one has to pay to become a believer, and others have noted that a lot depends on how long a belief system has been around.
    I think that another differentiator between a “cult” and a “religion” is whether the proponent is likely actually to believe the oddities s/he puts forth, and also whether it seems that the original scamster probably kept making up stuff of increasing improbability in order to see how much suckers would actually fall for.
    Of course, in the case of Mormonism one critical differentiator is whether a self-proclaimed believer is running for the presidency against a Methodist who happens to be uppity.

  41. Indeed — the difference between Mormonism and Scientology is on the order of a century…

  42. start thinking of all religion as a cult and the fog will begin to clear

  43. You’re precisely right and Hubbard realized that. He even looked to the Mormons of how to go from cult status to “respected” religion. He surmised that if you could just wait out the attacks long enough, like the Mormons did, you would achieve “legitimacy”. He was looking to follow the path of the Mormons.

  44. They’re both cults right along with Christianity and the other “god” cults.

  45. Tim Kane says:

    The late, great, M. Scott Peck, M.D. made a point that it is beneficial for most humans, mentally and emotionally, to be in communities with certain healthy characterisitics. For a lot of people, that is religion.

    I spend a lot of time in Mesa, Arizona – a very Mormon town – it is as Mormon as St. Louis is Catholic. Most of the Mormons you bump into in open, civil society seem like decent, good, well adjusted people, just like the Catholics I grew up with in St. Louis, even mores so. If you have to do business with someone, it’s is almost relaxing to come to realize that they are a Mormon because they are so tied into their community, you know they are highly unlikely to do something untoward that might cause them to lose face in their community.

    So HEALTHY community makes people healthier, better adjusted, emotionally better adjusted, more mentally stable, and so on.

    In many other countries, there are a lot of different ways to stumble into community. When I was in Omskirk, Lancashire, a cricket club was the center of a community. A lot of others in Ireland and England find it a local pubs. In Australia it is found in beach clubs.

    In the United States, we are so driven apart, geographically, technologically, etc… I now live in a suburb where no one really seems to know their neighbors, just wave as you enter or exit while driving by, the only place for community is found in religious congregations.

    The need and utility for community is what is keeping otherwise absurd religiosity afloat these days. What makes it worse is that movement conservativism has made a conscious effort to co-opt and highjack most religions and driving them into fringe right wing positions.

    In the case of most protestant religions, money was used to co-opt religious leadership. In the case of Catholicism and Mormonism, the authoritarian hierarchy’s attraction to conservativism was enough to who in the religion. I would caution people to think that demographic diversity is going to create a left of center nation. Those folks need community too and as long as conservativism is aware of this, they will continue to try to co-opt those communities too.

    Mormonism may be a cult, but the people I meet from it, seem normal enough to me.

  46. MerryMarjie says:

    Excellent assessment. I love that remark from L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, saying that the way to make big money was to start a religion. I guess some people just need to buy a vowel, and will blindly follow whoever is in charge of the lemmings this week.

  47. Tim Kane says:

    If you have secret rights, you are a cult. If you don’t have secret rights then you are a religion.

    Now the Catholic church is a religion, BUT the college of cardinals is definitely a cult.

  48. AdmNaismith says:

    I don’t make any distinction- pray to whoever or whatever you want, leave me out of it, leave public school and public school money out of it, and we won’t have any trouble.

    You start getting in my face about this and spending my tax money on this stuff and you do not want to know what I really think.

    Oh, and they are ALL cults.

  49. VictorGNYC says:

    They are all cults and should have their non-profit status rescinded as they practice politics instead of paying attention to their gods.

  50. eltoca21 says:

    Q – Why are all religions not called cults?

  51. chexmix says:

    Joseph Smith wasn’t a crappy pulp science fiction writer?

  52. CattyNineTails says:

    It’s easy to SAY that all religions are scams. In the case of both Scientology and Mormonism, there are mountains of proof.

    The difference is that where Scientology is currently being investigated and exposed using modern methods, the LDS church has spent nearly 200 years concealing, re-interpreting and even re-writing its dark history.

    Fortunately, there are books like “Mormonism Unvailed [sic],” published in 1834, which contains numerous statements taken under oath (no small consideration in those days) from neighbors and acquaintances of “church founder” (and convicted con artist) Joseph Smith and his family, describing them as drunkards, low-lifes and liars:


    There are the stories of the women Smith coerced into polygamy which reveal his methods for accumulating 33 wives (in short: tell ‘em God sent ya) :


    Proof that the Mormon church will knowingly lie provided their elders have decided it serves God can be found in examining their practice of baptising people of other faiths AFTER THEY’RE DEAD – in particular, by noting how many times they’ve flat-out lied about discontinuing it:


    And I think even the most passionate athiest can understand how outrageously insulting it is that Mormons have baptized not only a vast number of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but also Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun – and even gone so far as to ceremonially “seal” the pair together for all eternity:


  53. pappyvet says:

    LOL! absolutely! Of course,being a member of the Lollypop guild would trump them all

  54. pappyvet says:

    If scientology is a cult,why not mormonism? Body count.

  55. Bill Williams says:

    Gotcha. It is odd how corporate-like the Catholic Church is. I have always found it strange that, as a corporate entity, the Pope own so much land. 177 Million Acres (276,562 sq. miles) is a lot of land.

  56. colin hurt says:

    Leave a message…

  57. karmanot says:

    Yes. all that is true. I was alluding to the corporate, authoritarian structure of the organization.

  58. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I don’t mind dancing with the snakes, but I really hate biting heads off of chickens. I’m a vegetarian for Pete’s sake.

  59. Charon says:

    This question of cult v. religion really only matters for tax status, though. And tax exemptions for religions should be done away with anyway, getting the government out of the business all together. All religions deserve condemnation.

  60. Charon says:

    In addition to longevity and member numbers, there’s also degree of fervency. Which really distinguishes followers from each other, rather than religions/cults, but might still be useful to think about.

    I would say “cultists” are much more fervent than “religious people”. Scientology consists largely of cultists. Catholicism has plenty of cultists, but I’d guess the vast majority of followers are simply religious. Mormonism has both (not sure of the relative numbers – grew up in a family with one branch all Mormons, and they were mostly just religious).

    So all of these people are deluded and can’t deal with reality, but cultists are much more so. Cults have a higher proportion of cultists in their membership.

  61. melbach007 says:

    Every time I dance around with my snakes I pity these disillusioned fools.

  62. Stev84 says:

    That’s not how *I* use the word “cult”. I reserve that word for churches that exert extreme control over members’ lives and use specific techniques to do that.

  63. Stev84 says:

    It’s a matter of degrees in many cases. In western countries for example you can freely leave normal Christian churches. They are not going to forbid you from having contact with people still in the church. Many Calvinist fundamentalist churches of the JWs on the other hand shun apostates. Getting advice on relationships is also a lot different from pressure and commands to break up ones they don’t like. Mainstream churches may try to get into people’s lives, but they don’t do so by force and immediate punishment. The Catholic Church doesn’t force adults to confession, at least not anymore. In cults and cult-like churches most these things are turned to 11.

  64. Sakka says:

    Why is one a religion and the other a cult? 1. Mormons believe in Jesus – in their own special way – but he’s the man. 2. Scientologists don’t. Not really. Not strongly. According to R. Philip Roberts in The Apologetics Study Bible, “Scientology’s upper-level materials tout the concept of Jesus as God as being a fiction that ought to be removed by ‘auditing'”.[6]

  65. Monoceros says:

    LDS isn’t Trinitarian so it’s not Christian. Pretty basic difference, that. Whether it’s a “cult” or not I leave to more strident persons to debate.

  66. Bill Williams says:

    Not really. Not defending Catholics, or other faiths, but the core values and teachings of the Catholic Church are readily available for free, either online or otherwise. No Catholic organization has sued because a person that placed the information found in the Bible online. No Catholic Organization has claimed the teachings found within the Bible are trade secrets. Nor has any Islamic, Buddhist, Protestant or Mormon group. You may not agree nor care for the Catholic Church or their actions for many rational and realistic reasons; but it costs nothing to attend mass, it costs nothing to obtain or study the book at the center of the faith, it costs nothing to be as involved in the faith in as much as you want AND the teachings of Christ are not claimed to be a trade secret. None of which can be said about the Church of Scientology.

  67. Naja pallida says:

    You are certainly correct, but most, if not all, of those characteristics encompass the majority of organized religions. One could even look at what are often considered more benign religions, like Buddhism, and see the same kind of aspects. The more “liberal” religions reduce the relationship and time control aspects, but retain pretty much all the rest of it. I, personally, wouldn’t be part of any organized religion that wasn’t entirely open with how it was founded, who it was founded by, for what purpose they were founded, how the leaders are chosen, and a full itemized accounting of where every penny of the organization’s money went… among other criteria I’m sure I’m not thinking of.

  68. Naja pallida says:

    Entirely plausible, but there’s no concrete evidence of such… and their writings were basically right at the time Christianity was just starting to transition from upstart cult to mainstream acceptance. It’s hard to think that they would have had much influence on such well-respected Roman or Jewish historians of the period. Though, they could have easily been sympathetic to the relatively new religion.

  69. Stev84 says:

    It depends on how you define it. There is a definition of the word “cult” that is used among some scholars and cult experts that revolves around the level of control a church exerts on its members and how they wield that control. Not all of them apply to ordinary churches.

    *Deception: they keep their exact beliefs a secret from the outside
    *Exclusiveness: they promote an “us vs them” mentality and isolate themselves from the normal culture, which people are taught to fear
    *Leadership through fear and intimidation
    *Information control: an extension of deception
    *Reporting on members: people are encouraged to snitch on all misdeeds
    *Exclusive language and jargon
    *Group pressure
    *Love bombing: new members are swarmed by new “friends”
    *Time control: keep members so busy and tired with chores that they can’t think
    *Relationship control: the group monopolizes all of a social interaction and all activities are done through the group. Also extends strongly to romantic relationships, which need to be approved by the church
    *Identity replacement: exchanges old believes for new ones by systematic indoctrination
    *A charismatic leader that needs to be obeyed
    *Punishment for defection, e.g. shunning

    Mormonism fits many of those points. They do indeed use mind control techniques like having secret rituals, keeping their true history even from members, extensive cultural isolation, prophets who speak for god, people needing to confess even tiny sins to be able to go to the temple

  70. karmanot says:

    Same with Mormonism for that matter.

  71. karmanot says:

    Or the other end if you have a colon problem.

  72. Indigo says:

    Neither word has anything to do with spiritual validity, both words are used merely as judgmental assertions. We use the word “cult” to indicate spiritual claims that we consider entirely bogus. We use the word “religion” to indicate those spiritual claims to be powerful enough to be respected. And the louder we shout “cult” the more clearly we demonstrate our judgmental attitude. Ultimately, the only question worth asking in this context is, WTF? Why do you bother your pretty little head about nonsense like that?

  73. karmanot says:

    “they’re still just wafers ” and thus subject via transubstantiation into Smors at religious Summer camp

  74. sam says:

    Many scholars think the writings were corrupted by early christians.

  75. karmanot says:

    Does one get dental work on Kolob?

  76. samiinh says:

    The Book of Mormon was fabricated by Smith and that portions of it were plagiarized from various works available
    to him. Works that have been suggested as sources include the King James Bible,The Wonders of Nature, View of the Hebrews, and an unpublished manuscript written by Solomon Spalding. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Mormon

  77. karmanot says:

    However, Orbiter has discovered the mummified body of a middle aged woman in a blue veil trapped in Orbit around Pluto, thus confirming the ascension of the Holy Mother into Heaven.

  78. karmanot says:

    A cult and a corporation with proprietary software at every expensive level of advancement. These refinements are modernist adaptations of the oldest cult/religion on earth: The Catholic Corporation LTD

  79. Flying Spaghetti monster FTW!!!

  80. karmanot says:

    And Tinkerbell will back you up, because she rose from the dead! :)

  81. Mighty Korgo of Teegeeack says:

    A cult is not a religion someone doesn’t like. It has various characteristics.

    It pretends to be something other than what it is when recruiting members.
    It has a self appointed leader, usually living, who is the source of all policy.
    It centres around money.
    The money isn’t used for the betterment of those who donate it.
    It has an US/THEM view of the world.


    But some organizations, like Scientology have most aspects of this to a high degree.

    Something else– in the USA, Scientology is a religion. In Canada it is a para-religion. In France it is a sect. In Greece it is a philosophy. In Mexico it is a business. In Sweden it is a religion but in Sweden there is no major advantage in being a religion. Anyone can make up a religious organization in Sweden. In the USA it is a religion because one man in the tax office, Fred Goldberg, under enormous pressure from lawsuits, named it a religion. Personally, I think he made a huge mistake.

    Cult is an excellent description of Scientology, far better than religion.

    I am no expert on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


    Professor Mighty Korgo of Teegeeak (Teegeeack is what we now call planet Earth, for those of you not initiated in Scientology)

  82. Naja pallida says:

    Mainly the writings of Josephus and Tacitus, though even they were not first-hand accounts… but are generally accepted as historical than fictional. And being non-Christians, had nothing to gain by referencing Jesus at all in their writings.

  83. Richard R says:

    My theory is that it’s largely about the numbers:

    When isolated individuals have preposterous delusional beliefs, it’s called mental illness (or the individual could be a clever con man).

    When relatively small numbers of people, including a leader, share the same preposterous delusional beliefs, it’s called a cult.

    When large numbers of people, including leaders, share the same preposterous delusional beliefs, it’s called a religion.

  84. confusion says:

    Religion ..a belief . Cult..a belief not well thought out . If one makes this a business one needs to pay taxes.

  85. A W says:

    [quote]valid historical documents[/quote] like what exactly?

  86. jenius says:

    Ever hear the theory that the Mormon Church was founded as a spy operation for the British Crown?

  87. Blogvader says:

    Why is Christianity a religion?

    Because it was militarized.

  88. Naja pallida says:

    There are valid historical documents from around the period that have most mainstream historians agreeing that there was such a man, who traveled the area of Galilee and Judea preaching… but as for his actual deeds and results as described in the Bible there is no proof.

    There were actually at least a good half-dozen well-known men who did much the same thing Jesus did, claiming to be the messiah and had groups of followers, like Simon Magus and Dositheos. Some of whom even had miracles ascribed to them. Who is to say how the world would have turned out if one of them had caught on more than Jesus, and their texts would probably have denounced Jesus as the charlatan. One could argue that Jesus just had better public relations, assuming you ignore the faith aspect.

  89. francine says:

    I think it became a religion when it had to be talked about in a political campaign. since no one is allowed to trash another’s religious beliefs in politics, mormonism had to be at least called a religion. the same would have been true if a scientologist had run. now that that is over, we can all go back to calling mormonism the cult that it is.

  90. Bill Williams says:

    The difference between cult and religion is if it cost money to learn the fundimentals. If a faith system can explain their faith, beginning, middle and end, at no cost, it’s a religion. (i.e. “Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, and then died as a sacrifice for your sins, if you accept him, you’ll go to heaven.” That’s Christianity in a nutshell) You can find out all you need to know about Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism and all other major religions without spending a dime. You can find a free Bible, Book or Mormon, Koran and know everything there is to know about these religions. You can talk to any rabbi, monk, imam, priest or pastor, and the will happily tell you all about their beliefs and answer any question. The foundations of those faiths are open and public; not trade secrets like Scientology. You MUST pay money to advance in the faith of Scientology. Scientology sues people to dispersing information about their faith. You must pay for testing and classes that are the only means of advancement to higher levels of their faith. They consider their beliefs a trade secret, and use legal means to halt the public and free explanations of their faith. That is why Scientology is a cult, and the others are religions.

  91. samiinh says:

    No one can demonstrate that there ever was an historical Jesus, other than through the books of mythology that say he existed.

  92. Monz says:

    They’re synonyms.

  93. BeccaM says:

    As others have remarked, cult vs accepted religion (that is, accepted as a ‘valid’ religion by society in general) seems to be a question of time and number of adherents.

    Christianity was considered a cult for its first couple hundred years. Nowadays, our world’s societal timeframe seems to be compressed such that a given faith is considered to be an established religion if it manages to last a few generations.

    The major connotative difference is the general presumption that “religion = accepted, benevolent” and “cult = weird, malign.” And those a matter of personal and societal judgment, which is not usually objective.

  94. Skeptical Cicada says:

    I think it’s no longer the private concern of the members when they decide to run to the government and try to get it imposed on everyone by law. If we’re to be ruled by it, we have every right to critically rip it to shreds. The idea that it gets forced down our throats and we’re not allowed to question it is just too self-serving.

  95. Dave of the Jungle says:

    Hey, it turns into body and blood only after it gets to the stomach. No, REALLY.

  96. Skeptical Cicada says:

    LOL, exactly.

  97. rovibo says:

    All religions are cults. All followers of religions are cultists. Religious people are hypocrites and the most hateful group of humans in the world. All religions are after money, power and control of members.

  98. Skeptical Cicada says:

    True, but Mormonism’s Christian roots are pretty flimsy. It’s a bit like taking all the characters from Star Wars and writing your own book about them. “The New Adventures of Jesus in America” isn’t really derived much from Christianity.

  99. Dave of the Jungle says:

    No one can demonstrate that Jesus is not the Son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

  100. theophrastvs says:

    But whether or not that argument is valid, most Americans would reject it, I think

    This is the sole rejection of the “every organized religion is a cult” assertion? That maybe most Americans would disagree? I guess I can only reply, if properly explained to them, especially with regards to the definition of the terms that most people (Americans being a sub-set) would agree that all organized religions have a greater or lesser degree of cult practices. To a first approximation a religion is the practices being a cult.

    Since the word “cult” is central to this posting, it really is worth-while to consider its exact origin and meaning:

    cult (n.) 1610s, “worship,” also “a particular form of worship,” from French culte (17c.), from Latin cultus “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence,” originally “tended, cultivated,” pp. of colere “to till” (see colony).

  101. Skeptical Cicada says:

    I mostly agree, but the whole thetans inhabiting your body thing is a little more out there. Mainstream Christians are at least a little embarrassed by the whole exorcism history.

  102. BeccaM says:

    One could say the same thing about a magic incantation that supposedly turns wafers and wine into ‘body and blood’ — even though by any visible, rational analysis, they’re still just wafers and wine.

    Nearly every religious practice seems silly except to those who practice them.

  103. Buford says:

    Obviously, the only difference between a religion and a cult is how long they’ve been around. Also obviously, the newer they are the crazier they seem, since it takes a lot of nerve to decide to worship supernatural beings after the Age of Enlightenment.

  104. BillFromPA says:

    Don’t you dare tell me that the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t real, and Pastafarianism is not a cult.

  105. Skeptical Cicada says:

    No PC hairs stand on my neck. Mormonism is an ideology and, like any other ideology, is subject to legitimate criticism, particularly when it is used to establish public policy to govern everyone.

  106. Naja pallida says:

    The term cult is entirely based on public acceptance level. Nothing more. Every time we accept their righteous indignation, including with “debates” like this one, it lends them that much more credit.

  107. OK, I think that there are differences between religious beliefs, and generally they are up to those religions. They are not my business.

    For example, on an intellectual level, the Scientologist creation story is no more absurd than Genesis, which is to say that on a purely intellectual level, they are both absurd.

    That being said, there are certain PRACTICES that I feel justified to talk about, so, when we talk about the shortage of priests in the Catholic Church, which leads to errant priests being protected because there are no ready replacements, I feel justified in saying that the Church should devolve authority on non ecclesiastic issues so as to free up priests to minister.

    There is no reason that the members of a church cannot take care of managing the care and upkeep of the church. Why should a priest be deciding who does the landscaping?

    In the case of Scientology, the practice that I feel justified in criticizing is “Fair Game” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Game_%28Scientology%29), in which individuals who are, “judged to be a threat to the Church and, according to the policy, can be punished and harassed using ANY AND ALL MEANS POSSIBLE.”

    This practice is akin to burning infidels at the stake.

    Does it make Scientology a “cult”? I don’t know.

    But it is clearly an organization that aggressively uses surveillance, intimidation, and slander against its critics with unprecedented (by today’s standard) ferocity.

  108. any religion which has someone standing behind a curtain waiting for a secret handshake is false

  109. Naja pallida says:

    Smith was also arrested for being a con man, and had warrants for fraud which he fled from, long before he was declared a “prophet”. One would think that should have been enough for anyone to not take his religious “revelations” seriously… but when it comes to wanting to believe in something, people will often stoop to any depths, even if they don’t make any sense. The mark of a good con man is to be able to say anything with confidence and conviction, and make people believe whatever you tell them even if it goes outside the bounds of their better judgment.

  110. Marc Headley says:

    As someone who worked for Scientology for 15 years and saw Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology and escaped with the help of law enforcement, I am appalled that The Atlantic would accept money from Scientology for them to push their blatant lies masked as an “ADvertorial”.

    Scientology is the fastest shrinking cult in the world. They have been scooping up real estate and that is their definition of “expansion”. In actual fact, they are losing more members than in their entire 50 year history of scamming people.

    When I left in 2005, their members statistics had been going down fast and steady since 1996.

    Now that more and more media outlets are not afraid of exposing the scam that is scientology, they are having a very hard time getting new “raw meat” through the door and out with their credit cards.

    This Atlantic flap should serve as a lesson to other media outlets. Scientology is the Al Qaeda of the Internet. Stay away – far away. Their money is not worth the trouble.

    Marc Headley

    15 Year Scientology International Headquarters Employee

  111. SkippyFlipjack says:

    Mormonism has Christian roots, so it’s a little tougher to make the case that it’s a cult; Scientology has its roots in a wager by a hack science fiction writer over whether he could create a religion, so the case is easier. Either way it’s in the eye of the beholder (or the writer); there’s no National Cult Registry we need to worry about.

  112. SanFranGuns says:

    Whatever Scientologists believe, its no weirder than what Christians believe. Jesus returning to earth (or that he was ever physically here in the first place) are pretty “out there” beliefs. All religions are cults. To suggest otherwise is to legitimize one whacky belief set over another

  113. caphillprof says:

    With respect to non religious “cults”, the term is used as metaphor.

  114. caphillprof says:

    Cults are proto-religions. It’s mostly a matter of time and stability.

    In common usage, one man’s religion is another man’s cult. Cult has become more derogatory than descriptive.

  115. Don Chandler says:

    They become a religion when they have amassed enough political power to say they aren’t just a cult.

  116. Thom Watson says:

    Yep, I’m with Peter. Virgin births, water into wine, coming back from death, turning a couple of loaves and fishes into lots of loaves and fishes, ascending bodily into heaven, people turning into salt, parting seas, bleeding and weeping statues, etc., – none of this is one jot less crazy or easier to believe than any of the wacky stuff Scientology or Mormonism proposes. It’s all just as unbelievable — but far less satisfying or edifying a read — as pretty much any fantasy novel, and all the religious miracles are much less believable than a lot of what is called science-fiction.

  117. Drew2u says:

    Because mormons spend money on advertisements that play in front of youtube videos that you can’t skip.

  118. offspring says:

    sorry but i tend not to listen to anyone playing the victim card when they are allowed to be tax exempt while influencing elections, state and local rules laws, and being exempt from zoning laws and legal requirments that all companies make.

  119. Harry Bell says:

    Because the founder of Scientology openly admitted that he founded the organization as a scam.

  120. Mike_in_Houston says:

    I’ve heard this argument on and off for years. One time the test group was the Christian Scientists; why are they a cult and the Catholics are not? I think it has to do which each individual’s personal reaction to the group in question. I have more antipathy for the Scientologists than I do for, say, the Masons or the
    Shriners, so of the three, I’m most likely to call the Scientologists a cult.
    I think the best answer is that all religions are cults in one way or another. The early Christians were probably regarded as a cult, or whatever the equivalent of a cult was back then. On the other hand, not all cults are religions. I’ve heard speak of the “Maria Callas cult,” but it isn’t a religion. Some would probably disagree with me on that…

  121. quark says:

    My sky fairy is the One True sky fairy and yours is a fake.

    Saying otherwise simply PROVES you are a heretic and should be burned at the stake.

  122. Peter says:

    Frankly, they’re all nuts. But humans need easy answers and religion provides them

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