So, what exactly is the difference between a cult and a religion? Now, I bet you guys are expecting me to say that there essentially is no difference. They both subscribe to irrational belief systems that aren't based on any kind of evidence.
Well, if that's what you were thinking, you'd be thinking incorrectly.
I've been mulling this one in my mind for some time now. It all started when I finally realized what the difference was.
The whole thing started when I had my seniors do a "cultural excursion" project. The point of the project is to go out and do something that broadens their horizons a bit. So, they can go to art museums and things like that. Also, I encourage them to attend a religious service. However, they have to go to one that is not their own.
Last year's seniors had some pretty good entries. One girl, who was raised Catholic, went and spent a lot of time with the Mormons. She didn't just go to one service either. She actually spent time in their morning study groups. She wound up giving a really great presentation, and her paper was nicely done as well. It was a rare instance of me giving 100 percent on an assignment. There was one other one though. Another girl, who was raised Syrian Orthodox, went to a Synagogue. She just went for one service, but she came back with a lot to tell, and she also spent some time just talking to the rabbi and members of the synogogue.
In both instances, my students found the people to be very open about their beliefs and practices. Now, I'm aware that there is a lot of stuff about Mormonism that they don't like to tell you right away (like magic underwear and getting your own planet after you die), but my student found them to be very open and forthcoming with their views.
What woke me up to the difference is when another student went to check out the Scientologists. Now, I have a whole story about them that I should probably post some time, but I'll save that for later. He went to their offices in Berkeley, and he tried to find out what their beliefs were. Instead of getting answers, he was just told over and over again by the followers as to how much better their lives were once they got involved with the church. He also got a DVD and some brochures - neither of which was very forthcoming as to exactly what it is that they believe.
Now, you can find out exactly what it is that they do believe by doing a little online research. Still - why so secretive?
Personally, I don't have much use for religion. However, if we're going to be fair, there's a big difference between the types of religious beliefs that the average person has and the brainwashing that goes on with groups like the Scientologists.