What’s The Difference Between A Religion And A Cult?

I’ve heard people say, “in a cult, there’s one guy at the top that knows it’s a scam. In a religion, that person is dead.” Basically saying that all religions are cults. So what IS the difference between a cult and a religion? Is it that cut and dry? Let’s talk about what all cults have in common, and how they’re different from religions. Let’s get into it.

So what’s the difference between a cult and a religion? I’m sure a lot of you guys have heard of the BITE model, but in case you haven’t, let me explain what it is. The BITE model was written by Steven hassan, who wrote the book Combating Cult Mind Control. I think it was written in 1989. He details his life in the moonies, a religious and political cult most active in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The book is a standard read for ex-cult members to this day. But in that book he talks about the BITE model. BITE is an acronym. It stands for Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control. It’s basically just a big list of logical fallacies and cognitive distortions that people commonly use to justify bad behavior and unreasonable beliefs. Any psychology major will vouch for the items on the list. Let’s take a quick glance through the list and see what’s involved. As we go through it, think about how strongly this stuff applies to your group. If it does any of this stuff to a high degree, or even at all, you should put some thought into possibly leaving the group. Unless that’s forbidden, of course. Then you should definitely stay forever.

Anyways, the first category is the B in BITE model: behavior control. It has these points:

  1. Promote dependence and obedience
  2. Modify behavior with rewards and punishments
  3. Dictate where and with whom you live
  4. Restrict or control sexuality
  5. Control clothing and hairstyle
  6. Regulate what and how much you eat and drink
  7. Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep
  8. Exploit you financially
  9. Restrict leisure time and activities
  10. Require you to seek permission for major decisions

Next on the list is the I in BITE: Information control.

  1. Deliberately withhold and distort information
  2. Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics
  3. Discourage access to non-cult sources of information
  4. Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine
  5. Generate and use propaganda extensively
  6. Use information gained in confession sessions against you
  7. Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory
  8. Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors
  9. Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”

Here’s the list for the T in the BITE model — Thought control:

  1. Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking

Now, I’ve been doing this work for 3 years. I saw something that all cults have in common that wasn’t on the list, so I added one right here under thought control. Overreaching or exaggerated importance placed on events or ideas. Like Jehovahs witnesses separating their people from a major cultural event like Christmas over something as minor as supposed pagan roots. But interestingly, not having a problem with wedding rings, even though that has pagan roots, too. Next on the list, still under thought control, is…

  1. Change your identity, possibly even your name
  2. Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought
  3. Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate
  4. Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts
  5. Allow only positive thoughts
  6. Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts
  7. Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt

And finally, the E in BITE model — Emotional control:

  1. Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group
  2. Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong
  3. Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness
  4. Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness
  5. Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)
  6. Threaten your friends and family
  7. Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve
  8. Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group

It’s things like black and white, us versus them thinking, controlling clothing and hairstyle, discouraging access to outside sources of information, and others. And I personally added an item to the BITE model, which is “exaggerated or overreaching importance placed on simple ideas or events”. Like Jehovahs witnesses separating themselves from a massive cultural event like Christmas over something as insignificant as having pagan roots. So let’s take a look at the BITE model and talk about a few key points which I consider to be extremely relevant.

Pretty much every religion does everything on the BITE model to one degree or another. It’s just that some groups are WAY worse about some of them than others. So what’s it take to be a cult? In my opinion, to be a cult, there has to be some centralized person or group of people enforcing or encouraging the logical fallacies and control mechanisms. For example, a lot of these points apply to flat earthers. Using loaded language or cliche’s to stop complex thought, thought stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts, black and white, us versus them thinking, withholding or distorting information, discourage outside sources of information, and others. But I don’t call flat earth a cult because for one thing, there’s no centralized person or group of people that enforce the rules, beliefs, and control mechanisms. In my opinion, to be a cult, it has to have at least that. now, that being said, that stuff can be self-enforced. And in a lot of cases, it is. even in full blown legitimate cults, like Jehovahs witnesses, mormonism, and others. And it can be just as destructive to people, whether it’s enforced by a hierarchy or not. So I call it a cult-like mindset as opposed to calling it a full blown cult. But in my opinion, one of the most relevant and distinguishing features of a cult, one of the things that makes cults different from religions, is the second point under behavior control: modify behavior with rewards and punishments. I did a whole video on catholicism and how the BITE model applies to it, so I’ll use it as the example for this one. In catholicism, you’re expected to report thoughts, feelings, and activities to superiors in the form of confession, at which point the information given in confession is used to assign something called penance. They have you go through steps to, quote unquote, “regain god’s favor”. It usually comes in the form of praying the rosary a number of different times. So you’ll take your rosary beads and touch each bead on the necklace. Every time you touch a bead, you repeat a certain mantra. The “our father” prayer, or the “hail mary” prayer. That’s modifying your behavior with rewards and punishments. And it’s using excessive meditation to block thoughts. In my opinion, that one is required to be a cult: modifying peoples behavior with rewards and punishments to form out a christian personality, if you will.

When you meet a cult member, you’ll know. It isn’t like meeting a religious person. It’s a core part of their identity. I’m sure a lot of you guys have probably been visited by Jehovahs witnesses or mormons before. Have you ever noticed how they’re just a little too smiley and happy? They have glassy eyes. And their smile doesn’t go away. The entire time you talk to them. It’s borderline creepy. That’s the cult personality shining through. That’s the end result of that behavior modification. Jehovahs witnesses call it the christian personality, or the new personality. In fact, they wrote a while article about the new personality in one of their magazines from august 2017. It’s called “how we put on and keep on the new personality”. Here are a couple of excerpts from it. It says “the new personality refers to a personality that is created according to god’s will. Developing such a new personality is within our reach. why/ because Jehovah created humans in his image and thus made it possible for us to reflect his beautiful qualities.” There are a few subheadings under the intro, which are basically detailing what qualities they want the cult members to have, as a result of the behavior modification. The first one is called “you are all one”. It mostly talks about how Jehovahs witnesses want to draw the “us versus them” line on “members of the religion” versus “outsiders” rather than drawing it on race or some other attribute. Which leads to Jehovahs witnesses being very accepting of everybody, as long as you’re a member. They’re VERY guarded with non-members, and most of the time, they flat out refuse to talk to ex members or critics.

The next subheading is “tender affections of compassion [and] kindness”. In practice, this translates to being very timid and largely lacking confidence. unfortunately, a lot of the time, when this stuff is programmed into people from a young age, like it was with me, it’s there to stay. There’s really no practical way of deprogramming something like this out of somebody. The paragraphs under this subheading say things like “to support one another in our suffering or adversity, we need to have genuine compassion. Feeling tender compassion will move us to acts of kindness. These aspects of the new personality will help us to imitate god and be of comfort to others.”

The next subheading says “clothe yourselves with humility”. So they’re basically trying to program in an ultra-humble attitude. It says “Remember that even a once perfect spirit creature sinned because he allowed himself to become filled with pride”. In the case of Jehovahs Witnesses, they don’t believe that people should be prideful. But it goes a little beyond just that. Because pride is listed as one of the seven deadly sins. Lots of christians believe pride is a bad thing. But Jehovahs witnesses outright believe that you shouldn’t be proud of your accomplishments. They think it’s wrong. You shouldn’t want to show off in any way. It’s a step past standard christian doctrine. And that adds to the separation between themselves and the rest of society, because their goal isn’t to excel in their careers, it’s to wait it out and survive until armageddon comes. You shouldn’t be proud of the grades you got in school. You should only go to school exactly as long as you’re legally required to. You can go to a trade school or something if you feel like it’s necessary to support your family, but college is pretty much out of the question. You should be devoting your entire life to converting people to jehovah’s witnesses in preparation for the end times.

The next subheading is “clothe yourselves with mildness and patience.” it says “people who are mild and patient are often considered weak. How far such reasoning is from the truth! These beautiful qualities originate form the most powerful person in the universe.” A little further down it says “jesus was mild and patient right up to his wrongful execution. While suffering agonizing pain on the torture stake, Jesus prayed that his father forgive his executioners because, as he said, ‘they don’t know what they’re doing’”.

2 more subheadings. The second from last one is “clothe yourselves with love”. It says “love is also patient and kind, and does not get puffed up”. strangely, they quoted 1 corinthians 13:4 there, but it’s an inaccurate quote. They have their own translation of the bible, which has some really significant problems, but I won’t get into that right now. For now ill just read straight from the verse they cite. 1 corinthians 13:4. It says “love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous. It does not brag, does not get puffed up.” The NIV version of the Bible, which has its problems too but I think is a lot more accurate than the Jehovahs witnesses version, words it a little differently. It says “love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” I feel like Jehovahs witnesses are reading into this verse a lot more than they should be.

Anyways the final subheading under the “new personality” article Jehovahs witnesses wrote is entitled “continue to be made new”. It says “each of us should ask himself, ‘what more can I do to trip off and keep off the old personality?’ We need to pray fervently for god’s help and work hard to overcome any attitude or practice that will prevent us from inheriting god’s kingdom. We also need to ask, ‘do I continue to be made new in my dominant mental attitude?’ Putting on and keeping on the new personality is an ongoing process for all christians until we are able to do so to the full. Imagine how wonderful life will be when everyone we know is clothed to perfection with the new personality!”

Does not get more cult-like than that. That’s really the defining feature, as far as I’m concerned. They’ve defined their goal of putting on a new personality, and they set up a system of rewards and punishments to enforce it. You can see this kind of thing in some religions, usually to a reasonably mild extent, at least compared to this. This goes above and beyond standard religion. You can usually tell somebody’s personality has been modified because of that glassy, smiley expression on their face. They’ve ceased being “owen Morgan”, and they’ve become “brother morgan, Jehovahs witness”, or “elder morgan”, the mormon. Or “owen morgan”, the catholic. You see behavior modification in lots of different religions, and to varying levels. But as I said, it isn’t the only factor. There are lots of other control mechanisms and logical fallacies involved in being a cult member. Just keep a look out for this kind of thing. If you see a celebrity with huge fans who employ any of these fallacies, like black and white thinking, or suspension of critical thinking, like bill Cosby fans, for example, or if you see a group discouraging people from talking to critics or ex members, think about it. Think about what you’re seeing, and think about the group as a whole. Why don’t they want you communicating with ex members? I went to a super moderate methodist church once. now, extremism varies from church to church, so don’t take this as a blanket endorsement of the methodist church. But I don’t really go there anymore. Guess how the church acts toward me now? They don’t care. It doesn’t matter to them if I go or not. Doesn’t matter if I used to go or not. It’s irrelevant. If you’re part of a group that discourages you from talking to ex members then there might be a problem. Maybe try thinking long and hard about your continued membership.

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