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Difference between a Cult and a Religion?
The truth (or otherwise) of any particular belief set doesn't depend on how many people believe in it. Plus, if you're going to have actual religious tolerance, people are allowed to believe things that aren't the same as your own beliefs, regardless of whether they are wrong.
So it seems an uncharacteristically outdated thing, cynically to declare other people's beliefs to be a "cult" and yet one's own beliefs to be a "religion" or a "church", as if it had some greater reputability.
Odd as it may seem, there have been cases of mainstream religious groups condemning minority beliefs as CULTS! It's a particularly dirty trick, and it smacks of notions or moral authority just by having been deluded for longer. It's almost like a "Union of Reputable Religions" standing up as a united front, (despite having been at war with each other for centuries), and denouncing the smaller groups as crackpots, and hoping no-one notices.
Another aspect to the "we're a religion but you're a cult" thing, is that there's a curious misconception to do with time. If a lot of people have believed in something for a long time, that's supposed to somehow make it alright? No, that doesn't excuse it. For many centuries people believed the Earth was the centre of the universe, but that didn't make them right, and in the end some heretics (who said it wasn't so) were proven right by science.
Playing the "We've believed in this stuff for longer" card, could be easily trumped by Pagans, whose traditional beliefs have been around for a lot longer than the more recent fad of monotheistic religions. However, Pagans don't seem to feel the need to play that card, as it's not a "holier than thou" religion and doesn't need to denounce other faiths to discredit them.
Probably the earliest belief set was something quite different again, and was most likely a natural notion such as "The powers that be are against us. What are we going to do about it?". It may have been some time later that someone thought "Let's pretend the powers that be are on our side, and then we'll feel better".
Some of the stuff you see about cults being different to mainstream religions is based on convention. That's generally never a good idea. There are supposed to be these reputable religions which believe in conventional things which everyone's supposed to agree on, and then there are the minorities who believe in things that are "crazy". OK, maybe some of the beliefs are crazy, wacky, unorthodox, etc, but that doesn't mean they are necessarily better or worse than the "conventional" churches' beliefs. Take a look at some of the stuff believed by "normal" religions, often very silly things, and with no proof or evidence, and see if they have any justification to throw the first stone!
Cult leaders are often criticised and accused of various things. Although it's tempting to believe cult leaders are in business for the money, it's more likely they are deluded by the same beliefs that they preach. That doesn't mean they are true, simply that they are sincere. Also, in terms of a business plan, setting up a religion or cult is a risky business. Often the cult leader ends up dead, usually by some gruesome means, such as hanging, crucifixion, or being burned by flame throwers when the government sends the army in!
I agree that many religious cults are harmful and are guilty of brainwashing people, but the mainstream religions have also been doing bad things, and for a lot longer. In terms of "brainwashing", take a look at mainstream religions setting up schools! If political parties did this, they'd be criticised for raising a new generation of voters.
Most of the things cults are accused of, are things which are also practised by conventional religions, either currently or in their history. I don't think any of them have any credibility, regardless of their accusing each other of having less credibility than themselves. Most mainstream religions believe in things that are ludicrous, so it seems a crass hypocrisy to accuse the minority belief-sets of being less credible. It is like The Silly Party making a political statement denouncing The Very Silly Party.
Ultimately the worth (or otherwise) of a religion (or cult) can only be found by putting it to the test, scientifically. So, if you've got a religion, test it! I know they say you aren't allowed to test it, but really that's part of the con-trick. If it can't be tested, then it has no credibility. I have tested my current belief-set, and it works! That's why I still have it.
The fact that I've got a system that works doesn't mean I'm going to expect you to be converted to it. (However, it's released as shareware, so you can give it a try and test it to see if it works for you. It's Direct Drive). I've noticed it isn't for everyone, and different people feel better with different systems of thought. Putting up with other people having different beliefs from your own is something we have to cope with as a matter of religious tolerance, like being good neighbours. Belief is a matter of personal taste, whatever feels right for you. It's up to you to make a free choice of what to believe in. You can shop around. ...and don't let the supermarkets disparage you if you decide to buy from the small shops!
Footnote: Please don't write in with the usual religious stuff! Instead, if you have FAITH, prove it by winning at the casinos!
If you're a cult leader (founder of new religion!), and you're looking for inspiration which will give those conventional traditionalist rulers of normal established religion something to think about, consider this: Is yours the TRUE religion? If so, and you feel the END IS NIGH, the End of Days, the Apocalypse? 666? how about predicting a precise date for the End of the World? Make it clear and definite, so there's no room for reinterpretation, publish the exact date for the End of the World. That'll show them!