What is, really, the difference between a cult and religion (and the origin of the word ‘religion’) explained

Turns out, this question is a popular Google search.

The debate centered around the difference between religions and cults are showing no sign of abating.

One thing remains unchanged: everyone has their own idea of what constitutes religion and when it becomes a cult. Problem is, this is a conversation that always goes backwards as everyone is convinced they’re right. Every reader and every opponent is confident in their beliefs. Otherwise, there would be no argument.

What it means is that however good intentions you may have, it’s already too late to change their minds. The weight of a subjective opinion can’t be validated by a more elaborate presentation. Many common definitions seem nothing more than a reflection of someone else’s views on the matter.

Even Google can’t provide an easy answer.

When the disagreement has emerged, it’s time to go back to the roots. It’s good time to recall what the words actually mean.

Going back to move forward

Whenever you can’t reach a mutual understanding of the meaning, you should look for clues in the word’s origin story and explore its etymology.

Etymology of the word ‘cult’

Etymology of the word ‘religion’

The termcult’ first originated from the Latin word cultus meaning “care, cultivation, worship”.

The word ‘culture’ has the same root.

I wrote an article on the origin of the word ‘culture’ where I noted that the ancient Romans used the word ‘cultura’ solely in the context of farming: it meant cultivation — soil treatment and crops growing.

As we can see, the underlying idea behind the deity worship and land cultivation is that you need to devote a great deal of attention to it.

In a way, cultivation is worship because she determines whether the harvest would be bountiful and therefore if there would be life. Various offerings are meant to appease the god while the land thrives on water, cereals and weed control.

In Russian, the link can even be discerned in the phrase that may be described as ‘nursing the land’.

The origin of the contemporary word ‘religion’

The true history of the word is much more interesting. In Latin, the verb religare means — to reunite, to bind together.

The Russian Wikipedia page states that this verb is used define the process of restoring the bonds between humans and their god, locating the link between us and the reality that is inherently organized and systematic.

So apparently what’s written there is pure nonsense. For one thing, it doesn’t explain much. Even if it was all about the connection to the Divine, why would it result in practicing religion as it is now?

Furthermore, the same page claims that ‘religio’ is Latin for moral soundness, integrity and piety. Which would be okay if it actually was a Latin word, not old French.

In fact, even Romans themselves adopted the modern definition of religion.

In the 1st century BC, Cicero wrote:

Quos deos et venerari et colere debemus, cultus autem deorum est optumus idemque castissimus atque sanctissimus plenissimusque pietatis, ut eos semper pura integra incorrupta et mente et voce veneremur. Non enim philosophi solum verum etiam maiores nostri superstitionem a religione separaverunt.

The last three words literally mean ‘the difference between superstition and religion’.

This would imply that, unlike the case of the word ‘culture’ where Europeans took the Latin root cultura and invented its new definition, with religion we would need to dig deeper to find the origins in Latin.

Why Romans invented the word ‘religion’

Let me make a quick digression. Latin was the first language to incorporate religion as a separate concept which called for a new term. A quite curious theory was outlined in The Forward journal: religion was everywhere in the ancient world and no aspect of human existence was divorced from it.

It was the Romans who, having dominated half of the civilized world for centuries, recognised the common denominator for all сults and beliefs which separates them from other parts of everyday life.

They weren’t the first to conquer many foreign lands populated by nations adhering to a wide range of dogmas and beliefs.

But they were the first civilization to have this strong and continued commitment to maintaining order and discipline which constituted a cornerstone of their empire. After all, they built their entire socio-political system around this very principle.

It was therefore no wonder that the controversy surrounding the status of all the deities and supernatural beings caught Romans’ eye. An issue required to be examined on its own merits. And classified. If anything, just to keep order.

Latin origin of the word ‘religion’

Concerning the origin of the word ‘religion’, the main contemporary hypothesis suggests that the etymology of religion lies with the Latin word religare.

It’s supported by the quote given by the Roman grammarian Servius who in 4th century BC wrote in his Commentary on the Virgil’s Aeneid:

religio id est metus, ab eo quod mentem religet dicta religio.

The Christian philosopher Lucius Lactantius (c. 250 — c. 325) quotes the expression from De rerum natura (‘On the Nature of Things’), the didactic poem by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius:

religionum animum nodis exsolvere pergo

— «free the mind from the tight bonds of religious superstition».

According to this line of thinking, the verb religare is formed by the latin prefix re- (which usually implies repetition) and ligare (from Proto-Indo-European leyǵ-) — to link.

However, in De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), Cicero, a contemporary of Lucretius, derives religio from another verb — relegere:

Qui omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter pertractarent, et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex eligendo.

Relegere is the present infinitive of the verb relego which comes from the root verb lego (from Proto-Indo-European leǵ-) — to gather.

Lego is Latin for choose, select, read. It became the basis for many other words such as intellect (intellegō — to understand), lecture (lēctus — selection) and even legend (from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere).

‘Religion’ could likewise be coming from the same root as Cicero wrote that religious people are the ones who, having read everything that there is to read on the matter, know exactly how to praise the gods and perform their rites properly.

Choosing the Right Theory

Lucretius uses the word religionum as ‘religious superstition’ while in Cicero’s work religiosi indicates a person who explored the canon of their faith and acts in strict compliance with its rules.

We could ask a counter-question: where does such a dilemma come from? Lucretius wasn’t trying to define the term ‘religious’, all he did was use it in a sentence.

The expression ‘freeing from the bonds’ (nodis exsolvere) isn’t referring to the etymology of the word religionum in any way. This makes about as much sense as trying to figure out its meaning from Karl Marx’s celebrated dictum, ‘religion is the opium of the people’.

Whereas it’s literally what Cicero does in the Second book of De natura deorum.

Moreover, an extended quotation reveals that he basically was asking himself the same question I’m aiming to answer: what is the difference between a religion and a cult.


[72] nam qui totos dies precabantur et immolabant, ut sibi sui liberi superstites essent, superstitiosi sunt appellati, quod nomen patuit postea latius; qui autem omnia quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, [i] sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, [tamquam] elegantes ex eligendo, [tamquam] [ex] diligendo diligentes, ex intellegendo intellegentes; his enim in verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem quae in religioso. ita factum est in superstitioso et religioso alterum vitii nomen alterum laudis. Ac mihi videor satis et esse deos et quales essent ostendisse.


72 Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them were termed ‘superstitious’ (from superstes, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called ‘religious’ from relegere (to retrace or re‑read), like ‘elegant’ from eligere (to select), ‘diligent’ from diligere (to care for), ‘intelligent’ fromintellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of ‘picking out’ (legere) that is present in ‘religious.’ Hence ‘superstitious’ and ‘religious’ came to be terms of censure and approval respectively. I think that I have said enough to prove the existence of the gods and their nature.

So essentially Cicero describes a cult (worship) and two possible scenarios people could stick to in this regard.

  1. Superstitious people. They only scrape the surface of their faith and live in constant fear reducing their religion to superstition.
  2. Religious people. Those are the ones who take a serious approach to their cult, consume its mythology and hold dearly to its principles.

Thus spoke Cicero.

Lactantius, being a christian theologian, on the contrary, was a prominent supporter of the Flat Earth theory.

Even ancient philosophers knew Earth was round. Lactantius, who was referred to as the ‘Christian Cicero’, only ridiculed them. By virtue of his authority, Lactantius became a champion of opposition to the concept of a spherical Earth. The Catholic Church’s insistence on a flat earth had prevailed for another thousand years until the myth was ultimately debunked during the Age of Discovery.

Religion vs cult

Now let’s go back to the definitions. After a lengthly historical overview and one small linguistic discovery we can finally revert to the term ‘religion’ that we originally intended to find.

The traditional meaning of the word ‘cult’ implies that worship, namely, the performance of religious rites, is the essential core of this concept.

This religion focuses on Mother Nature on whom the livelihoods of the communities rely the same way they depend on the fertility of arable land.

The depictions of this force comprise the heart of the cult’s mythology.

Mythology = object of worship

Cult = mythology + rites

And if you take a closer look, this definition is also valid for cults of secular nature, particularly cults of personality.

Cults of personality, such as those that surrounded Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao, were built around their own lores and were considered a precondition to the coming of the Better Tomorrow.

Drawing on Cicero’s observations on what constitutes a religious person, it’s safe to say that cult turns into a religion when:

  1. Rites get systematized and rules are established. This leads to expansion of the religious presence making the practice extend beyond the present to future generations affecting neighbouring nations.
  2. Ritual performing becomes organized. The institution of the priesthood is introduced to the society.

Enter the Church.

Church = lore + priests

Religion = mythology + rites + lore + priests = cult + church

Religions may be represented by many branches as long as they’re are associated with one cult — like judaism or christianity.

When mythology becomes the lowest common denominator, yet acquiring the new lore, rites and priests — the movement turns into a separate religion. For instance, Islam is considered an Abrahamic faith and shares the common myths with Judaism and Christianity.

Two types of the believers, according to Cicero:

Religious person = cult + awareness of the lore + compliance with the rules

Superstitious person = cult + limited knowledge of the lore + chaotic and inconsistent rule-following

I really don’t suppose that even The Russian Orthodox Church would be unhappy with this definition.

Perhaps they won’t be thrilled about the inclusion of the word ‘cult’ but what we’re talking here is the actual meaning of the word and not it’s perception.

There’s nothing wrong with this word. Cult is just another Latin word we use to define celebrating the force of nature.

So cult is an integral part of any religion, whether it’s traditional or secular, as in totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.

However, not every cult is a religion. Cult is as different from religion as the village blacksmith from the steel mill.