Religions are cults

If I had any vision at all when I was younger, I’d have become an atheist religious scholar. Francesca Stravakapoulou is brilliant. She’s fielding the big questions of how we deal religious fundamentalism as if they are no big deal. At just before 45 minutes, she mentions about how Scientology could be recognized as a place to get married, a religions essentially. To her, it’s a cult, then she says,

. “Every religion is a cult. Cult means practice and action and belief. Every single religion began as a cult, an offspring of some other form of religion. Scientology, Mormonism, whatever it is, is just as valid as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. We need to recognize that. Why privilege these monotheistic texts just because they come lugging with them a huge bit of baggage that primarily is scripture and a few guys with beards. I think it’s time for a change. A change in the way we see religion.”

. “Every religion is a cult. Cult means practice and action and belief

True enough. The Abrahamic faiths have another nasty cult-like aspect; control over their members, especially through guilt and fear. Perhaps worse, both Christianity and Islam are death cults.

Yeah, I’d like to see some massive changes. Religions need to be recognised as the businesses they are. Let religion and its priest-caste lose their privileges: Make it mandatory for priest to earn their own living, Churches of all kinds should pay tax, just like any other business. Religious organisations should not be permitted to own property or any significant assets. Thy should belong to each individual community. The end of the “seal of confession” bullshit-----I’m sure there are lots more.

I look forward to seeing the Royal Australian Squadron Of Flying Pigs flying in formation when any of these sensible changes occur.

The vast majority of the world’s population are believers. It is my belief that like any pervasive human belief or behaviour, religion meets some important human need(s). If it did not, it would simply not exist.

Not sure who wrote the following, perhaps Epicurus :

(Something like) . “To the ordinary man, religions are true. To the wise man, foolish. To the ruler, useful”. Constantine, at least was aware of how useful Christianity could be, and exploited that usefulness. The downside was Christianity ended up with great power, which it used to control, murder and rob for over 1500 years. Churches still control.

Perhaps the ghastly TV preachers are the logical conclusion to blind faith. Yesterday, I saw a piece in Huff Post, where one of these parasites was questioned about his private jet. His (to me) creepy response ; “I’m a very wealthy man”. I say ‘creepy’ because it came across as ingenuous.

Because I think all of us or at least most of us agree that all religions are cults, so I’m not sure where this discussion will go, but I’d like to see where it goes. I do think those who truly believe it are very well brainwashed or are too afraid not to believe because they are scared something bad will happen to them, which is basically what Marlene Winell calls “Religious Trauma”. So many adults, both believers and non-believers have been traumatized by religion.

“So many adults, both believers and non-believers have been traumatized by religion.”

Sadly, tragically, too true.

The damage done to of millions of children at the hands of religious zealots doesn’t bear thinking about.

The argument that religions also do a lot of good, is not disputed. However, I dispute that good comes within a light year of the harm religions causes.

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the debate linked below. The proposition is " The Catholic church is a force for good in the world"

The contra; Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens. The positive; Anne Widdecombe and a bishop from Uganda

I declare my position: I like and admire Stephen Fry for his intellect , his acting talent and his wit. Could never stand Chris Hitchens.; I think he was a bigoted and facile polemicist who did a lot of harm.

I’ve always thought of Anne Widdecombe as a stereotypical kind of English female moron found amongst the English bourgeoisie.

I don’t know anything about the Archbishop. From the Devil’s dictionary: “Archbishop; A Christian ecclesiastic of a rank higher than that attained by Christ” (H L Mencken)

A change in the way we see religion.”

Religion - Wikipedia

According to the philologist Max Müller in the 19th century, the root of the English word religion, the Latin religio, was originally used to mean only reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety (which Cicero further derived to mean diligence).

Other Meaning: “state of life bound by monastic vows,” also “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power,” from Anglo-French religion …


Move forward on the timeline and you have the IRS viewpoints on the Moon Organization and The People’s Temple massacre at Jonestown, Guyana. The legal term of “Churches” and “religions” had not been defined in IRC or any of the other IRS regulations. Case law used common meaning and usage.

In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that government has no authority to pass on the legitimacy of a religious belief or to define permissible religious belief. Ref: 1979 EO CPE Text

As the 1978 EOATRI topic on Churches points out, the problem is not in the law but in the proof.

The Constitution requires only that, in dealing with civil actions, the government apply the rules neutrally and equally among all churches and religious organizations.


My viewpoint.

Does Francesca’s viewpoint strengthen or weaken the deity? Weaken

Does Francesca’s viewpoint strengthen or weaken the moral fabric of religion? Weaken

It seems to be a tossup.

Just let the religious fundamentalisms live in their own world. Fighting them is what they want us to do. A friend took me to a huge church in Los Angeles where the people babbled. Scared the hell out of me. I thought I was in zombie land. And what was preached was – Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, and Jesus. The more Jesus was repeated at a louder and louder resonate. The more hysterical babel took place.

Point being there are cults and religions, but what I saw needs a new definition.

“Just let the religious fundamentalisms live in their own world. Fighting them is what they want us to do. A friend took me to a huge church in Los Angeles where the people babbled. Scared the hell out of me. I thought I was in zombie land. And what was preached was – Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, and Jesus. The more Jesus was repeated at a louder and louder resonate. The more hysterical babel took place.”

Had a similar experience. Was dragged along to a Pentacostal revival. It was also creepy; people singing in tongues, and on stage, the main act was ‘healing’ people. He would push them on the forehead, and they would fall down, “slain in the spirit”.Later, my believing female friend asked ‘Well, what did you think of that?’ Stupidly, I honestly replied “it was the most amazing example of mass hypnosis I’ve ever seen.” She never spoke to me again.


I would truly love to see the kinds of changes you envisage; then perhaps we wouldn’t have Scientology as a church, or say"The Children Of God" or even the vile Westboro Baptist shower being accepted as a church.

However, redefining the meaning of ‘church’ is I think problematic. Not sure new definitions would eliminate the scammers and cults. Nor do I think it should. People can/should only be protected from themselves so far.

I don’t care if my next door worships his cat, and has founded the First Church of Tabby -as long as he and his flock stay out of my face AND as long as they are not feeding from the public milk bowl.

I’m not so much interested in changing names, as I am in removing religion/churches privileges, wealth and INFLUENCE. I fear that is no easier than coming up with new definitions. Can’t think of any politician here who would have the nerve to even try to remove any privilege currently enjoyed by the churches.

Scientology has already been banned or refused Church status in nearly 20 countries.

Not sure new definitions would eliminate the scammers and cults.
We already have a process for giving organizations special status if they do certain types of work. It's the various 501 designations. Churches should have the same scrutiny. They could still be private organizations if they wanted be held to all the applicable laws, just not get tax exempt status.

But there’s just the pesky 1st amendment, which includes:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


Don’t know how each state regulates religions. In California, churches that are non-profit are by law owned by the people of California. That is the reason you never see a church for sale. They are allowed be taken over by another church.

Point being. It brings up the question. Are churches socialistic in structure? Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers’ self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. Wikipedia

Hmmm. So, if we tax a building at the same rate as other buildings, I don’t see that as prohibiting what goes on inside that building. That includes taxing the person who works there and their property, or if the org wants to give that person a house, they still get taxed, just like everyone. Now, if they want to do the same kind of work that allow to be tax exempt, like feeding homeless people, then, we treat them just like anyone else who wants to do that.

We don’t have any say about what they say in their speeches or what books they use, that’s only line that shouldn’t be crossed.

When I think of cults, I don’t just think of religion. A group of atheists could be a cult, too, and so could a political group. It’s possible to take the religious trappings out of a group and still be stuck with the core features of a cult.



I’m not a master at logic, but here goes. I said, or agreed with Francesca, all religions are cults. Other groups can be cults too, so you’re second sentence is fine. Cult here is the larger group, so all those could fit in it, and you could exchange the “trappings” and they’d still be cults. So I guess I’m left not understanding why you don’t think of religion when you think of cults. Francesca’s definition is “Cult means practice and action and belief.” Which is pretty broad. Maybe you are thinking of something more narrow.


I should’ve said, “When I think of cults, I don’t think of just religion.” When I think about it, I actually do think of religion when I think of most cults. I’m using “cult” in more the colloquial sense than the anthropological and sociological sense. I need to study the science of religion more so I can talk about it better.



First, as regards the legal advantages afforded religions in many countries, the simple answer is to convince enough people of this and get the laws changed. If you can’t make that happen, despite decades of effort, then perhaps your logic is faulty - there may be something there that’s being overlooked.

Second, as many have said here, religions have much in common with cults - as does any other belief systems, indeed, and group, including political groups, environmental groups, etc., and including us skeptics. As proof of this, I offer two points. (1) To the definitions of cult listed above, I would add another - members of a cult stop listening to those who do not belong to it, and we see repeated warnings of this from other skeptics, about skeptics. (2) Biases tend to be used to reinforce cult beliefs. On this forum and in Skeptical Inquirer, I often see, among the authors, clear examples of the same biases repeatedly attributed to those with whom the authors disagree. A major failure of the skeptical movement, therefore, is its general failure to be skeptical of ourselves and our own beliefs/positions.

Many will say that I’m wrong, that we skeptics are different, we are not a cult, we do not have a cultish belief system, we base our positions on facts and logic, on proven science. While it seems to me we do generally try to base our positions on better foundations than most, we’re far from infallible, and it would do us all well to remember that. We sometimes become too focused on one aspect of a problem and miss the larger, core problems. Religion is a great example.

Religion isn’t a core problem, but merely a manifestation of a much larger one, as is every other group, past, present, and future. To be sure, religions are one of the more successful examples (which may indicate it meets more human needs than most other groups), but it is far from the only such group. Indeed, I suspect that part of the core problem is that, as social animals, humans are driven to form groups, from neighborhood associations to nations - all part of spectrum, all more or less cultish. These groups are, in reality, human tools generally formed for a common purpose. Another other part of the problem is that, like any tool, groups can be used for good or ill, sometimes simultaneously. Their purpose may morph over time, they may be misused, broken, discarded, restored, etc., just like any other tool. We see this in religions - they’ve had many purposes and uses over time, they have morphed, been used well, misused, discarded, restored, etc…

The final part of the core problem is perhaps the most important. Like any tool, what its used for and how its used depends, fundamentally, of the group leadership. Over the millennia, group leaders have used this group tool to accomplish - and destroy - much. And it is this group leadership that must be studied - how do they gain control of this wondrous human tool? How do they turn it to good, to evil? If we can’t prevent or mitigate the human need to form groups, perhaps we can find ways to minimize its leadership’s ability to use the tool for evil (assuming we can agree on what that is)?

We can complain about ills of religion all we want, but we’re missing the point in doing so. Unless we address the core problem, all we’re doing is wasting our time, and much more.

Gene - yes., anarchism advocates rules without rulers. No Gods, no masters, no hierarchy.

Which is why anarchism is a historically invalid approach. The human race will always have those who will find ways to exert power over others.

Those anarchic societies that have/do exist largely did/do so in temporary isolation or at the sufferance of overarching national governments or powerful neighbors. Beyond a certain size, they also tend to take on hierarchical aspects. Also, I suspect most, if not all, even among the smallest, have those among them those who, while not designated as rulers, fit Shaw’s adage that “some are more equal than others.” Some might call these leaders, not rulers, but, in reality, both are part of the same spectrum, and it can be difficult to separate one from the other - peer pressure, personality and manipulation can often impose will as effectively as any weapon.

Gene; I think we (American culture) are at the point where we’ve realized something was overlooked. The US is an exception to how religion is protected and has flourished and there are more subtle forces at work than expected some 40 years ago.

To your points (1) If you stop listening to others, you are not skeptical, by definition. (2) Just a repeat of (1).

Of course we’re fallible, that’s the reason for have scientific methods. You’re thesis on leadership is pretty much just a statement that leaders avoid using rational scientific methods and get away with it. If that’s what you mean by “the core problem”, I guess we agree.

Lausten, The US may be an exception to how religion is protected, but the US is not the only country where cults of one flavor or another were/are protected, even made mandatory.

As regards my points, perhaps they do say similar things, but people can stop listening for a variety of reasons, not all associated with their biases. Not listening because of a bias implies that the person is at least engaged enough for a bias to come into play. I suspect that, for a large number of people, even that level of engagement no longer occurs - they no longer even really hear any argument, pro or con - their minds are closed on the topic.

As regards the core problem, leaders may well be using some rationality in their decisions, or at least think they are. My point is that blaming the tool (cults, religions, isms, etc., whatever you want to call it) for what a leader does, good or bad, is not rational. A tool is just that, a tool. The core problem is the person or group that’s using the tool - we need to understand and address the dynamics associated with how they gain control of and use the tool for their own purposes.

but the US is not the only country where cults of one flavor or another were/are protected
I don’t want to write a thesis, but I’m referring to the unique history of the US, both how we wrote the religion laws and how the evangelical culture developed.
even made mandatory.
Mandatory? How?
they no longer even really hear any argument, pro or con – their minds are closed on the topic.
If their minds are closed, then they aren’t skeptics, so I don’t know why you bring this up.

I don’t know what you’re trying to saying. A cult is not “just a tool”, it’s a specific tool used to control people. Cults should not be privileged, or their ideas get special consideration just because their cult has been around for a while. This thread begins with a discussion that was a riff off of the debate about whether or not Scientology should be classified as a religion and therefore get to do marriages. The bigger question is, why can’t I perform a marriage? If you want to give me a test showing I know about marriage laws and won’t marry a man to his cat or something, fine, but there is no reason why a certified religious person is more qualified than me to perform a wedding.

Lausten, regarding your comment “referring to the unique history of the US,” I was unaware that you were limiting discussion here specifically to US religions - perhaps a topic title change is in order.

As regards an example of mandatory cults, as you quoted Francesca earlier, “Cult means practice and action and belief." To expand on what you have also said, and without judging the rightness or wrongness of a belief system, all belief systems are cults, each has specific beliefs, practices, and goals; and each has some form of leadership. Religions, political parties, ANTIFA, the Boy Scouts, and CSI are all cults. Each seeks to control its members beliefs and actions towards specific goals, some of which may only be known to its leader(s). Leaders influence or even direct cult member activities, just as the wielder of a tool directs what the tool does. And, in the world, there are numerous examples of mandatory cults, from theocracies to political systems such as China’s brand of socialism, and to personality cults like Russia and DRPK.

Regarding why I brought up closed minds, and their not being germane since, by default, closed minds can’t be skeptics, if all we’re going to talk about is cults involving skeptics, why have this discussion at all?

Specific to your marriage point, assuming you’re referring to ordained ministers being able to perform marriages and not you, I’m not sure of your point. There are clearly also secular marriage authorities that can also perform weddings. Marriage has deep traditional roots in both the secular and religious arenas. If you don’t want to get ordained (the religious route), then keep it secular and become a justice of the peace, and have at it. Both marriages are equally legal.