When Is A Religion A Cult?

Could Be Wrong
7 min readMar 8, 2020


Another kind of holy trinity

Several times in the last week I’ve had a conversation where I’ve only realised the true motivations between both parties after the conversation ended.

It started with a conversation around religions and cults. It went something like this (heavily modified due to poor recollection ability):

Friend: … or a cult like scientology
Me: Hang on, is scientology really a cult?
Friend: Of course it is, the guy who made it up only died recently
Me: Does that mean Christianity was a cult back when Jesus had only died recently?
Friend: Well I think cults are different because they have more secrecy and less transparency
Me: How transparent is the Vatican? And by that definition something can transition back and forth from a religion to a cult over time as the institution becomes more and less transparent.
Friend: But religions actually believe in a god, Scientology doesn’t even have a god. Xenu is just a galactic dictator
Me: Whether or not there’s a god, there’s still claims about the supernatural and things that happen after you die, and if it feels spiritual to go through all the rituals, I don’t think a religion really needs to actually invoke a god.
Friend: So is North Korea’s obsession with Kim Jong Un a religion or a cult?
Me: I’d call it a cult
Friend: Why the double standard? Internally to the citizens of North Korea there are spiritual elements to it. Children believe Kim Jong Un can read their minds.

This went on for a while but eventually we settled on a definition for ‘cult’ that satisfied our intuitions. A cult, as opposed to a religion, involves the intentional exploitation of people’s belief systems. By that definition, it’s quite possible that many religions started as cults, but then over time became less cult-y as more people rose to power who sincerely believed the dogma themselves. Intentional deceit is what matters. Kim Jong Un wants to control his people with a cult of personality, for his own benefit (presumably). L. Ron Hubbard knew he was full of shit (presumably) and wanted to see how far he could take his ideas. If he thought he was actually speaking the truth when founding Scientology, would it still be a cult? These questions are yet unresolved.

But after this conversation had finished I realised what my friend and I were actually doing throughout the conversation. Ahead of time, we knew the religion-like things that we wanted to denounce, and the religion-like things we wanted to affirm. I vaguely felt like Christianity and its cousins Islam, Bhuddism and Hinduism were fully-fledged religions worthy of respect, and that Kim Jong Un’s cult of personality was not, and should be denounced. I also felt like Scientology, however questionable its roots, was closer to Christianity than it was to North Korea’s state religion. My friend was similar in her convictions but felt that Scientology belonged on the other side of the line.

Looking back it feels silly that we weren’t just upfront about this in the first place. We could have said ‘I want A, B, and C to be given this label that lets them all share a positive connotation in our culture, and I want X, Y, and Z to all share a different label that forces them to all share a negative connotation in our culture. And I don’t care what the existing definitions are, I’m going to tweak them until they fit my intuitions’.

You might respond by saying that an easy way to settle the dispute would be to pull out a dictionary. From a quick google search, a cult is:

A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.

Sounds like basically all religions to me. Maybe the fact that christianity has a trinity means it doesn’t count as a cult because there’s three targets of religious devotion? But when was the last time anybody directed a prayer to the holy spirit specifically? Besides, North Korea’s state religion pays lip service not just to Kim Jung Un but also his father and grandfather, creating a trinity of its own.

Deferring to predetermined dictionary definitions will only get you so far. The way I look at it is that definitions only really exist as pointers to regions in thingspace. Any thing you can think (phones, hands, jealousy) exists as a point in thingspace, where there is a dimension for every attribute you can think of. Parrot, sparrow, crow, raven, all of these points sit alongside eachother in thingspace, forming a cluster that you might label ‘birds’.

But not far from the center of that cluster you’re going to come across the point representing ‘penguin’. Is it useful to extend the label ‘birds’ to penguins? Well you might say ‘by definition, birds have feathers and wings, so penguins are birds’. But then what about the Moa bird? They don’t have wings. Okay let’s adjust our definition to just include feathers. Well the Rhea is a species of bird that doesn’t have feathers. Now what? We can come up with a definition that tries to circumvent these concerns by considering the genes of each animal, but that’s similarly hairy. No matter how we slice it, our definition will always fail to include things we feel belong in the cluster, or fail to exclude things we feel don’t belong.

The fact of the matter is that categories were made for man, not man for the categories. Thingspace is infinitely complex and nuanced, but we need to be able to talk about the things inside it if we are to have any chance of cooperating as a society and making sense of the world. So we cautiously ration out words to pin on our thingspace map, knowing that they’re imperfect and that, just like on the world map, on the boundaries there will always be border disputes.

Last week, my work team went to an axe-throwing venue to let off some steam, and at some point I asked the question ‘Do people come here for professional axe-throwing competitions?’. We agreed that people would come here to formally compete, but my friend took issue with the word ‘professional’. ‘Is it really a profession if you only do it on the side? I don’t think there is a profession of axe-throwing’. We then had a big discussion on what it means to be a professional and whether that involves fulltime work or just being paid at all, and soon enough we found ourselves in category hell, the place you go when you mistake the map for the territory and forget that all these words are really just there to direct us to clusters in thingspace. Just like with the word ‘religion’, the real motivations here revolved around finding a definition of ‘professional sport’ that meant that olympic swimming was in, and axe throwing with friends every two weeks with a chance of prize money was out.

I’m not saying it’s a waste of time to try and find these definitions so that everybody can be on the same page, what I’m saying is that we keep having these bizarre conversations when we refuse to admit what’s actually happening. First we see the things, then we group them based on vague top-down intuitions, then we find bottom-up definitions that would have led us to the same groupings, and then we forget that the definitions were based on vague top-down intuitions in the first place and we find ourselves painfully contorting the definitions to fit new edge cases.

At best this leads to weird conversations around what words really mean, but at worst it gets abused. I’m still dumbfounded at how there is a sizeable minority of people who believe that the ‘true’ definition of racism is prejudice plus power. This is just an obvious example of co-opting definitions to fit your intuitions.

‘I don’t think that the kind of injustice taking place when a majority race suffers the prejudice of a minority race should be put in the same bucket as when the inverse power dynamic exists’. That line of reasoning makes perfect sense.

‘I’m therefore going to take an existing definition that everybody has agreed to and change it so that the things I don’t care about are no longer included, and then act as if the definition is objectively true, and the previous one is objectively false’. I’m not so sure about that one.

If I had a crystal ball, it might tell me that demoting minority-on-majority racism to the label of ‘prejudice’ while retaining majority-on-minority cases in the definition is a good thing for society and that if all of society gets on board the dialogue will lead us all to a better tomorrow. But why can’t the proponents of this new definition just be honest about the fact that they don’t know and they’re taking a gamble on a language change that they hope will improve society? I suppose saying ‘prejudice has many forms but let’s see if we can improve society by only sanctioning some of those forms through language’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as ‘racism is prejudice plus power’

For the rest of us, it helps to remember that the map is not the territory, and no matter how we tweak definitions to satisfy our intuitions, reality always sits beneath, undisturbed.



Could Be Wrong

Less and less certain of my opinions with every passing day