The Difference Between Cult and Religion
October 4, 2017 • Sarah Jean Gosney
In French, the world “culte” (cult) is often used interchangeably with “religion” (spelled the same in French and English). We tend to make more of a distinction in English, never really mixing the term used for the settlement at Jonestown with the one used to indicate Catholicism or Hinduism. This blurring of lines in the French made me wonder about the blurring of the definition itself. I have heard it argued by atheists and agnostics that all religions are cults, explaining their distaste for the institutions.
And while I saw their point (being an atheist for perhaps a few months and an agnostic for a few years), I could never fully accept this argument. There was just something so markedly different about Jim Jones and his followers compared to Jesus and the Christians that follow his teachings. It was obvious to me that the societal reaction was different; one of horror and morbid curiosity versus one of respect or, at worst, resentment. And how do groups like the Mormons factor in? Where do you draw the line?
It wasn’t until I recently read Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the difference dawned on me. Religion is antifragile. Cults are not.
For those of you who haven’t read the book (which I highly recommend to anyone with a philosophical inclination), Taleb defines antifragility, a term he created, as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors […]” He uses antifragility to mean something more than “robust” or “resilient” in that, the more you test a system that is antifragile, the stronger it gets. Antifragile systems stand the test of time. Simple examples he uses are lifting rocks (vs. going to the gym) for exercise or avoiding any beverages besides the ancient water and wine.
Another, much more significant example of antifragility he proposed was the Orthodox Christian Church, which in its most recent form has been around since 1054 but which claims that it is a continuation of the original Christian church. So, let’s chalk it up to almost 2000 years of it being around.
Now, Taleb himself is not an Orthodox Christian, despite his Lebanese Christian origins (he praises Baal–a much older deity than Christ–one too many times in his book). He does, however, follow the antifragile Orthodox fasting calendar (which includes two vegan days a week), having come to the conclusion that the steady three square meals a day has not stood the test of time and therefore could be harmful in ways we don’t yet understand.
Compare this to Christian Science. A movement less than 150 years old, it is widely criticized for its rejection of medicine–modern or otherwise. Since its inception, the church has gained only a small following and over time has largely garnered disdain from the public. The reasons for this are twofold: the engagement in antisocial behavior (avoiding vaccinations required to attend public schools, endangering the lives of children by obstructing medical care) and the sheer fact that fewer people survive to create more followers. (My guess is that the former is probably more significant).
Only time will tell, but if I had to put money on it, I’d say the Orthodox Church is more likely to survive for another 1000 years than is the Church of Christian Science. Regardless of your religious beliefs, major religions provide many obvious benefits for their adherents: community, a code of morality, culture and traditions, and faith in a higher power. However, it’s my belief that religion knits us together and benefits us in ways we cannot yet quantify. The more sciences probes into the mysteries of the human psyche and the universe, the more religion seems to be validated.
For example, up until recently, affirmations and mindfulness were in vogue in the world of psychology (and these methods are still widely recommended in treatment). If you examine these methods, they begin to look a lot like prayer. And while they surely don’t solve every problem, these methods have proven effective for many people. Makes “the power of prayer” sound a little less crazy, doesn’t it?
If you find yourself asking questions like “what do Jesus jammies have to do with God?,” maybe give it a couple hundred years before you worry about it too much. Then again, with its 15 million members, maybe the Mormon Church up to something.
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