Yet, this “obvious” difference between cult and religion does not stand up to the analysis.

According to Anne Morelli, assistant director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for the Study of Religions and Secularism of the Université Libre de Bruxelles, all the objective criteria imagined to characterise cults ((size of the group, longevity, sacrifice of personal life, unconditional power of the leader, distinctive signs, obedience, break from “normal” life, etc.) can be applied to the major religions..

We will now review some examples she mentions in her essay « Open letter to the cult of the opponents of cults » regarding these pseudo-criteria of distinction between cult and religion.

These excerpts have been presented on various free-thought websites and are taken from a text by Anne Morelli published in the magazine SPS n° 283 of October 2008

Money and sex

Mr. Homais will tell you : “Cults are after your money and seek to dominate or exploit your sexual urges.” In a small polemical essay [3] I took pleasure in comparing the situation described for the cults, to the Catholicism of my childhood.

Three of my aunts had entered the convent at a very young age. Had their order not duly tamed their sexual impulses and, in their case, stifled any aspiration to motherhood? Was this really less serious than the group marriages where Mr. Moon gets his young followers to marry after assessing their chances of a good match? Why do they cause a scandal and not the chastity imposed on nuns? Aren’t all religions aspiring to control the sexuality of their members? They are passionately interested in their activities, want to know everything about them, and impose prohibitions on them.

My three aunts had entered the convent with a large dowry to ensure that they would not be required to do any degrading manual work. However, if they had decided to leave the convent, thereby bringing dishonour to the whole family, this money would not have been returned to them under any circumstances. When a financial scandal shakes the Vatican or when the Capuchins, devotees of Padre Pio, are convinced of embezzlement, no one dares to say – or even think – that these swindles are intrinsically part of the Catholic faith or are a normal consequence of its structures.

But if a cult “forgets” to pay its taxes or takes advantage (as priests used to do in the past) of the distress or sympathy of a person in order to obtain gifts or inheritances that are subsequently disputed, these embezzlements will obviously not be presented as disastrous exceptions, but as practices that are characteristic and inherent to cults.


The harmfulness could be a criterion for distinguishing between cults and religions, if it could be objectified.

Catholic penitents who flagellate themselves certainly have the right to do so since masochism is not punishable by law, but is this behaviour more or less “harmful” than that of the vegetarian Krishna?

Moreover, we have seen cults commit collective suicide [4]. This behavior, unanimously condemned in their case, is magnified in the case of the great religions. Pilgrimages to Masada, over the Dead Sea, invariably end with an admiring refrain about the 2,000 Jews who – more or less voluntarily [5] – committed suicide in order to maintain their faith and customs and not to be Romanised.

As for the number of deaths caused by “cults” or religions, the picture is all too unequal. While the cults can only claim a total of a few dozen victims (but they are very effectively covered by the media), every day hundreds of people are victims of the hatred supported by the major religions: it is not good to be a Catholic in Algeria, a Jew in Iraq, a Muslim in India, a Hindu in Pakistan, a Jehovah’s Witness in Israel or a Baptist in the Ukraine…

In this sector, the results of small independent entrepreneurs such as the cults are poor compared to those of the large multinationals of religion.

Indoctrination versus catechesis

Few people find it shocking that children are defined by the religion of their parents: young Jews, young Muslims, young Catholics… And there is no association fighting for the rights of the child that would object to seeing them participate in the “Catho Pride” or go to mosques or synagogues. One rarely condemns as an abuse the implicit violence that presides over the choice of the future Dalai Lama, who is taken as a small child from his family.

But words obviously have a weight to value or devalue a group. What could be more honourable than to “pass on your faith” to your children or to send them to the catechism?

But when it comes to “cults” one will immediately speak of indoctrination, which contributes to spreading the idea of mental violence against the child or against the future « follower ». The latter term is itself pejorative because, in the case of a honourable religion, one would rather speak of the faithful or believer. It is understood that if one joins a “cult” it can only be as a result of an intensive mind filling. Some legislation even claims to fight it by calling it « Mental manipulation ».But this term is only applicable to cults, not to the honourable citizen who converts to Islam or Christianity following a respectable spiritual process. Yet conversion is often described as immediate: St. Paul on the road to Damascus or Constantine on the Milvius Bridge were suddenly struck by the revelation. If a devotee of Krishna or a Pentecostal tells a similar story, he is hardly considered worthy of serious consideration…

The definition of cult in legislation and regulations

« “Officially Canada ignores what a cult is. Without a legal definition, the fight is very precautionary, even discreet. In French-speaking Europe, on the other hand, many laws drastically restrict sectarian aberrations, to the point of making public lists of organisations, bordering on defamation. Comparison of two extremism in the fight.” [6]

The same degree of caution is observed in Switzerland. In 1998, the Federal Council declared: “… There can be no specific legislation concerning groups wrongly or rightly qualified as “cults” by the public opinion. The only distinction between religious communities in Switzerland is that of the public law status that the cantons may grant to certain communities. However, it is not for the Federal Council to determine which group should or should not fall within the indefinable category of “cult”, nor to pursue a particular policy towards certain religious groups, as long as they respect the principles of our rule of law and of the laws in effect. Nevertheless, if the activity of certain groups were to cause serious disturbances, article 50, paragraph 2, of the Federal Constitution provides that the cantons and the Confederation may take the necessary measures to maintain public order and peace between the various religious communities. However, the situation in Switzerland today does not seem to call for such measures on the part of the Federal Council.” [7]

Meanwhile, France and Belgium are much more committed to the fight against cults, but are torn between their determination to maintain public order and protect citizens, and on the one hand, their determination to respect individual freedom. These States have set up bodies responsible for risk prevention and for fighting against the sectarian phenomena. However, the working groups that have examined this thorny issue were immediately confronted with the difficulty of working on a legally non-existent concept. These commissions have published non-exhaustive lists of associations considered as sectarian, but in both Belgium and France these lists have been the subject of fierce controversy and criticism, and have been officially discontinued.

In its “preliminary provisions”, this law stipulates: “For the application of the present law, a harmful sectarian organization is defined as any group with a philosophical or religious vocation, or claiming to be one, which, in its organization or practice, engages in illegal activities that are harmful, harm individuals or the society, or violate human dignity. The harmful nature of a sectarian grouping is examined on the basis of the principles contained in the Constitution, laws, decrees and ordinances and international conventions for the protection of human rights ratified by Belgium. [12]

Small religion = cult?

One could believe that the difference between cult and religion can be measured objectively by the number of believers (for “cults”, the pejorative term “followers” will mostly be used, as we have just underlined, to designate their members).

This is far from obvious.

In Brussels, there are 22 Kingdom halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses, most of which are crowded, and four synagogues that rarely are. But it would never occur to anyone to equate Judaism with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Perhaps because the term “religion” would be reserved for the oldest denominations? Also not true. The reference to Krishna is millennial, and the Anabaptists are several hundred years old, but that does not prevent them from being labeled as “cult” and not “religion”, at least in our country, because we can be labeled differently depending on where we live. The Mormons are considered a “cult” by our governments, but form the majority of believers in the state of Utah, where they are obviously not marginalized.

Belgium provides a rather interesting example of the double vision one can have of the same group. The French-speaking Minister of Education has distributed to high school students a small brochure warning against “cults”, with a list of names of movements to be wary of. It explicitly mentions the Steiner pedagogy, whose schools are recognized and subsidized, a few kilometers away, by Flanders!

If therefore neither the size of the group nor its seniority constitutes a criterion for distinguishing between “cult” and religion, one can imagine that the psychological hold on the members, or the difficulty to leave the group will finally bring a solution to our quest. But the directors of conscience, the submission demanded from the novices and the difficulties (material or psychological) in leaving the orders until very recently also invalidate this criterion. The rationality of some and not of others?

It may be convenient to imagine that cults believe and propagate nonsense, unlike what is spread in religions.

Obviously, the doctrinal content of some “cults” is often surprising. Such await the return of Christ, such other the return of extraterrestrials, or the reunion of families through all their generations …

This is certainly hardly rational, but in the religions we find respectful, don’t we hear of waiting for the Messiah, of Parousia [13], of a mother’s virginity or of the return of the dead to life?

This “nonsense” is part of our culture and we have learned not to laugh about it, or at least to do so only in private. But objectively the questions that have plagued theologians for centuries (Do unbaptized children go to purgatory? Did Mary remain a virgin during childbirth? What is the nature of the “soul”?…) are also far from rational.

Then what is the difference?

It is, however, obvious that “cult” and “religion” are not synonymous and that the first term is tainted with a pejorative meaning.A book reviewing this double classification from antiquity to the present day [14] allows us to understand how and why religious groups were registered under one or the other label.

The most obvious answer is that the honourable label of “religion” is granted to one or the other group by the political power. Those who have not been granted this controlled appellation are labelled “heresy” or “cult”, depending on the era.

Honour and respect go to the former but in return they must legitimize political power. The other religious groups are to be monitored, pursued and even exterminated without anything in their social behaviour or beliefs predisposing them to this particular fate.

Political power is the one that dictates the fate of each other and it legislates in that regard. The list of “harmful” cults and the public subsidies to the major religions (more or less official depending on the country) are to be understood in this perspective.

[1] See the contributions of Jesuit Denaux and Father Ringlet :….
[2] That is to say, the monks’ way of life.
[3] Lettre ouverte à la secte des adversaires des sectes, Labor, 1997.
[4] The most common example is the Order of the Solar Temple.
[5] See on this subject the narrative of Flavius Josèphe.
[6] Quartier Libre – Le journal indépendant les étudiants de l’Université de Montréal – « Lutte contre les sectes en Occident – Entre laxisme et “sectisme” », article de Thomas Gerbet et Vanessa Gauvin-Brodeur –
[13] That is to say, the return of Christ on earth to judge the living and the dead, a return in which Christians must believe according to the Creed.
[14] « Sectes » et « hérésies » de l’Antiquité à nos jours. Le rapport au pouvoir, Alain Dierkens et Anne Morelli (dir.), Presses universitaires de Bruxelles, 2002. Disponible en ligne.





 The term “cult” has become offensive


We no longer say a « boche » to speak of a German, nor a « nigger » to speak of an African; unless, like Jean-Paul Guerlain, we wish to be dragged to court for insult.

Google. ( The Google search engine had escaped their control and referred to the company Kriss Laure as a « cult ».

Kriss Laure won their case because the term « cult », once neutral, is now considered offensive.



Same topic:


Has violence against religious minorities known as “cults” become institutionalized? (cf here )


In France: the French Senate and the subjective dimension of the difference between the notion of cult and religion (cf here )


Is the word sectarian as offensive as the word “cult” ?  (cf here )