How Mainstream Religion Is Just a Larger Cult

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Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Growing up, I used to attend church nearly every Sunday. This was because my mother attended church every Sunday, and this was because her own mother did the same. It was a family tradition, being handed down the generations. The church we attended was a single room brick building with hard wooden pews that we had to travel more than an hour to get to. It was set way back in the woods down a gravel road in the Kentucky countryside, and it did not even have indoor plumbing. If you needed a restroom, you had to use an outhouse. Bear in mind, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s.

Attending this church, which was a southern variation of Baptist Christianity, the tenets of the faith were straightforward: this version of Christianity was the right version, all others were deceivers meant to lead you astray, and it should be your life mission to tell everyone you know to come to your church so you can save their soul. If you slipped from your faith, you should publicly confess this to the church in what they called “testimony.” After the preacher gave his sermon, which often involved telling the congregation how much danger their souls were in of being damned to an eternal hell of fire and brimstone, a sermon meant to put tribulation on the hearts of the young and unsaved souls, everyone would sing songs and shake hands, and then stand and wait for their members to give their testimonies because they felt the voice of God on their hearts. The other members were the “witnesses” to this testimony, and this was supposed to cleanse the sinner of their wrongs.

As a small child, I saw members of my family give many such testimonials: aunts, uncles, grandparents, and my own mother. After I joined the church because I had been compelled to seek salvation myself, a ritual experience that involved praying on an altar in the front of the room until I felt the “presence of god,” or I had cried myself to a dizzying state of euphoric dehydration, I even gave such testimonials myself a few times, before I started to feel out of place in this environment. I don’t know if it was the prominence of guilt’s place in the routine of this cyclical event, or if it was just my mind’s resistance to commitment to a schedule, but as a teenager, I began to feel repelled by this weekly ceremony.

I was attracted to the more welcoming and relaxed atmosphere of the Baptist church my high school friends attended. As such, occasionally I would go to church with them on Sunday rather than with my own family. You have never felt the power of guilt until you have been guilted by a grandmother who refused to speak to you for attending another church. The inner dynamics of family, and tradition, are a powerful force on the mind, and especially the young and impressionable minds still in development. But from their perspective, to leave the church in favor of the newer more modern Baptist version, was to betray their version of the truth. It was siding with the Devil, rather than with God.

What I found appealing to the modern Baptist church was just the overall easiness of it. It was exactly what my family church warned against. They didn’t preach with threats of damnation, although hell was still often in their sermons. Instead of having people pray on an altar before the congregation, you merely had to join the church and state that you were committed to Jesus in order to be considered “saved.” What mattered to this church was that you didn’t judge people, that you welcomed everyone and opened your heart to love. Because of this, the services and the congregants here were exceedingly kind, almost to an unnerving degree. I began to feel uncomfortable at this church at well, but for different reasons. Talking to people who were devoted to this church felt a bit like talking to The Stepford Wives. The kindness felt forced, almost robotic, and their eyes gleamed with a stressful pretense that I found disturbing.

The real interesting thing to note here, despite the fact that the congregants of my old church would look down on those of the newer modern version, the services and ritual of attending both churches were basically the same. Both churches began service by singing songs. They both had a pastor that delivered a message of devotion to the audience. Then they both had more singing and a communal shaking of hands that often coincided with a passing of the collection plate. It’s interesting to me that even the evangelical services of the mega-churches that get televised follow this same basic pattern. As if singing songs in a group setting, or experiencing music together in a crowd, puts the people in attendance on a similar wavelength, opens their minds up for experiencing the message, and joins them all together in mutual purpose. I have noticed this pattern to be similar across the board to all these belief systems. There will be music, chanting, some kind of group repetition, then a message, followed by more music or repetition. It all seems a bit like allowing yourself to be programmed.

Because of this, for the most part, I stopped attending these churches altogether. I started seeking my own truth, and it took me several years of being apart from this ritual subservience to break free from the conditioning, or the indoctrination of faith. It was literally painful and traumatic to break this control over my mind that had been there for as long as I can remember. Even though I have long been out of the woods of this mentality, I still to this day struggle with it. It’s hard, but it is a well-earned level of freedom that you just don’t experience under the yoke of a conditional faith. I came to realize, due to the reactions of people who were still attending the church, and namely, members of my own family, that the things I believed were never my own, they were part of a more insidious deception. I realized that organized religion was simply another version of a cult.

When I talk about guilt and shame, I was mainly shunned by the majority of my family. I was blocked on social media. I was ignored at family gatherings. I was treated like an outsider, an interloper, a pharisee.

The tactics of organized religions and cults are exactly the same. What separates them by definition is a thin line of acceptability by the general public. Think about it and you will see this is simply undeniable.

A cult is defined as : a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object, a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.

A religion is defined as: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods, and a system of faith and worship.

You should probably notice that embodied within the definition of CULT is the word RELIGIOUS. The main separation of these two things is that the general public regards the cult belief to be strange or fringe, whereas a religious belief is widely accepted by the public to be okay. When I was growing up, people were extremely worried about Satanic cults for instance. Satanic cults were publicized as dangerous and capable of ritual sacrifice and murder, much due to dramatized portrayals made popular by Hollywood horror films. No one seemed to notice the irony here that Satan is an extremely prominent figure in their own religion. But it is extremely revealing to the thinness of the line separating the two types of belief.

The reason the cult beliefs are usually too far out there to be acceptable to the public comes down to a deviation from accepted societal norms. A cult usually forms around a charismatic leader who claims to have particular insights to enlightenment, or a direct connection to god. Leaders like Jospeh Smith and L. Ron Hubbard had cults grow in stature to the point that they are now even recognized as religions. It’s all a numbers game. When it comes to outlandish beliefs, let’s be real, the main religion on Earth right now holds it as an incontrovertible truth that a human was the son of god who was murdered and came back to life three days later. This man turned water into wine, walked on water, healed lepers just by touching them, and is prophesied to return one day, descending down out of the heavens to reclaim his followers! And this is on top of believing that a god created everything, knows everything, and has the power to give anyone eternal life after death. Completely normal system of beliefs!

Let’s talk about cult tactics. Cults convince people to join them because they offer a place for people to belong and to feel loved. They offer people a culture of family and fellowship. Then they introduce their own path to enlightenment. They tell their people that the others outside are trying to deceive them, that their own path is the only true path, and everyone outside can’t understand it or want to destroy it. This is a layered approach to indoctrination. If a person who has joined the ranks of the cult tries to back out, they are shunned and guilted by their fellow members. They are ostracized and made to feel alone.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to the story of my own experience with the Christian faith you haven’t paid attention. In fact, it probably sounds pretty similar to your own experience, if you are willing to be honest about it.

Here are the steps broken down for you:

  1. Love. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Family.

In Scientology, the tactics of manipulation and terrorizing of their members is well known, but you can find similar stories in Mormonism, Islam, and Christianity. Maintaining control of a flock is a primary concern of a cult belief system. The larger the congregation, the more powerful it is. The more accepted it is, the harder it is to publicly deny it. The more ingrained in popular society it is, the harder it is to publicly deny it. The more entwined the belief system becomes in the culture and history of the society, the more the beliefs outside the religion start to become the fringe and outlandish beliefs. The more normal it becomes to believe in a religion than to not believe it. The easier it becomes to convince followers they need to eliminate their competition. They need to start a war. This is how religion takes over the world.

So, you need to ask yourself, am I in a religion? Or am I in a cult?

Written by

Provocative truth teller, author of 14 poetry collections. Cat dad. Dog dad. Currently working from Portland, Oregon. Learn more at:

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