Hey folks, I was going to keep my mouth shut, but have decided to go ahead and post a little bit on the difference between a religion and a cult. And no, my answer is not that a deity is in charge of one and man is in charge of another.
Here's the deal. A person can leave a religion without having to fear for their life. Or let me say it a bit better. A person in a religion has the option to leave a religion. A person in a cult does not have the option to leave. They can't.
Cults are real. There are approx 2 million people in the US in cults, and they range from religious cults to weight loss cults, and I've even heard of a cult on horsebreeding. The actual topic or reason for a cult doesn't matter. It's the level of psychological control that the leader imposes on its members the defines a cult. Most seemed to be formed around religion, but they don't need to be. Nazi Germany was, by definition, a cult.
No sane person can see themselves joining a cult, so it's easy to distance one's self from the problem and say that only the weak-minded or the desperate or people with unfortunate circumstances get sucked into cults. The truth is that nobody joins a cult. Cults recruit people, and they need people they can use for further recruiting and also for their financial needs, so one key target group for cults is bright and possibly wealthy college students.
Rather than writing a whole thesis, here's what they do, using the college campus example. A new guy shows up at a school. He's wanting to get involved in some activities and make some friends. He was involved in the youth groups at church, so he goes around looking for what similar activities there are at his new college. He meets a girl who is involved in a "bible talk" that has some great friends and she starts talking to him and then goes on and on about how good it is, so he decides to check them out.
He goes to this Bible talk, which has about 10-15 students his age. They all get along so much better than anything he is used to. There aren't cliques. Everyone seems more authentic than he has ever experienced. Being something of an idealist, this really appeals to him. He had always considered church to be "going through the motions" and it never felt completely "real" to him. This is different. These guys were excited about religion and the enthusiasm was contagious. At the end of the meeting, two guys approach him, asking if he liked it so far. Then they say they are looking for some more one-on-one Bible study and if he would like to join them and make a threesome, to get together like twice a week or something, which he agrees to. He's intellectually curious, so he decides that an in-depth Bible study would be exciting.
These guys start working on him and breaking him down without him knowing it. They call at the middle of the night about some "spiritual" issue that they need to talk about. Slowly they start controlling him more and more, but it doesn't feel like they are controlling him, because whenever he does what they want, they do what's call "love-bombimg" him. They feed his ego or self-esteem or whatever you call it, by overdoing it on attention. Through sleep-deprivation and even the avoidance of eating protein, he starts breaking down. They finally break him and force him to commit to the group.
This is getting to be too long, but I'm just wanting to introduce (and I'm not sure how well I have done it) the fact that cults use a systematic way to gradually break someone down. In the case of Scientology, if recruits were told on the first day that they were all poisoned with Thetans in their bodies, which got there millions of years ago in an intergalactic war, and they must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to rid themselves of this problem, then most likely, there wouldn't be many Scientologists.
What cult members do know, once they get deep inside their groups is that they cannot leave. There are real and imagined psychological barriers to leaving. The real ones are things such as former members of the Unification Church (Moonies) have reached into their mailboxes at home and been bitten by snakes that were placed there by the church. More commonly though, people honestly fear that they will die, their families will die (because their mindless chanting or speaking in tongues for hours on end is the only thing that kept them, or even the world, alive), or that they will go to hell and there is no turning back once they leave the fold. When they do leave, they are nearly paralyzed with fear and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here are some bullet points, sort of a cult "check list" to see if a group is a cult, which I found on http://www.scientology-kills.org/cults.htm
- The group is focused on a leader to whom members seem to display excesively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-numbing techniques) such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what type of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
- The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religion).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify the means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
- Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
- Members are encouraged to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
This might be my longest post other than trip reports! Cults are a very real problem, and one of the reasons for their success is that nobody takes the problem seriously, which allows them to thrive.
I'm happy to answer any (legitimate) questions here or privately.