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I was watching a programme the other day about the wacky world of Scientology and it’s general level of sheer fuckedupness when I remembered the rocky road said religion took in its quest to be recognized as a religion. I remember specifically seeing a programme – probably 20/20 as I used to fucking LOVE 20/20 circa Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters – about how a Scientologist group had bought the American Cult Helpline so that when people called in worried about friends and family being brainwashed by L. Ron Hubbard they would calmly be told that Scientology was not, in fact, a cult but rather a full-fledged religion.

I also vividly remember how important it was in my Catholic school religion classes to define cults as scary and evil and not to be trusted. It seems to me now – as an adult atheist – that such a grand effort was made in this area because religious people are inherently more likely to fall into a “cult;” religious people being far more likely to blindly believe unsupported dogma uttered by someone believed to be closer to an imagined deity.

That aside, watching the above mentioned programme I found myself trying to figure out what my own self-definition for the word cult was. Before looking on wikipedia at the mess of explanations there I came up with the following:

A religious practice considered strange by a significant proportion of the general population; particularly one that sees its adherents come to harm at the hands of its teachings.

Further thought, however, got me thinking that this definition was somehow deficient. Wikipedia’s main reference finds the word cult described as ” …a pejorative reference to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.” This matches up rather well with my definition but I couldn’t help but think our definition of cult is simply as a “baby religion” in that all new religion’s are inherently strange to non-believers and will therefore almost always be described pejoratively.

Taking the existence of God out of the picture, cults are then inherently no worse than religions on a very base level. If however I examine my second point that cults usually do harm to their adherents I also find myself running quickly into issues. While suicide cults and their ilk do see small groups of people literally taking their own lives for the “greater good” how many thousands – or millions – of people will die as a result of the Catholic Church’s teachings on condom use in Africa? If people are being taught that using condoms is ineffectual in the spread of HIV/AIDS by their religious leaders this is significant harm at the teachings of their religion. And what of Islamic jihadists?

My definition, and wikipedia’s, fail to recognize a difference between a new religion and a cult so is a cult just a religion that hasn’t gained enough traction or political support to become a religion?

My answer is yes.

Both cults and religions are essentially unfounded in reality and neither deserve our respect but if we are going to allow religions some special place in our society then we shouldn’t automatically baulk when the word cult arises. And we shouldn’t allow religions to subjugate cults, rather we should work to remove religious influences in general from our public spheres.

In fact, atheists need to start getting organized because god knows – Ha! – that theists are and that organization is allowing them to sway political and social power with increasing might.