Differentiating Believers

Let’s have a conversation about the distinction between religion, sect, and cult.

These distinctions are meant to develop understanding and not to force or pigeonhole ideas.

Belief is complex. No single definition is going to cover any particular phenomena and everything exists along a continuum.

It’s important to differentiate these ideas as points of identification. If someone identifies themselves as part of a particular group that is belief oriented then it becomes useful to understand what they are about and why. That’s different than profiling or stereotyping.

But to be clear, and this is the most important piece to get out of this: Instead of assuming what you know perhaps you should ask them what they believe. Have an honest conversation. You may learn something.


In the case of most religions, we can see an underlying wisdom in their philosophy and compare the wisdom to the actions of its adherents, and fairly levy a judgement value – this person is a good or bad example of this religion. That judgement value is not based on whether they are good or bad people. You could have your own opinions about whether you agree with a believer or not and that becomes a separate conversation compared to whether they understand and/or  act in accordance to the tenants of the announced religious beliefs.

Here are my basic understandings of these ideas:

Religion – A dogmatic structure of belief usually revolving around articles that clearly state their tenants, rules, and structures. Often religions have some text from which they develop these ideas (and texts may be defined through oral traditions). Religions describe a mythology around the beliefs, justification, source of authority, and some direction or examples on how to exemplify the religion’s beliefs. Examples of religion (not complete or exhaustive): Buddhism, Gnosticism, Atheism, Islam, Odinism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Obeah, and the belief systems of the Maori, Navajo, Yoruba, Inuit, and Haida.

Denomination – An established branch of a religion. Often on good terms with other denominations, and often require more involvement from the lay members than the “church” but less than expects in a sect or a cult. Examples might be Shiites, Sunnis, Lutherans, Zen Buddhists, Shaivis, Secular Humanists, Catholics, etc.

Sects and New Religious Movements* – A group with radical new ideas, often an expansion/restriction on the primary adherents. Both act in protest of some aspect of the mother religion. Sects tend to lean toward admonishing the parent religion for not adhering to base principles and relying on older, more established dogma, while New Religious Movements expand to new, more esoteric practices, or some new found principle.

Cults* – Groups often formed through charismatic leaders offering some revelatory perspective on theological ideas. They employ manipulation, isolation, and deception to indoctrinate their followers, often resorting to corporal or emotional punishment to control adherents. Cults can branch from religions, denominations, sects, and new religious movements (often the latter) often with a hidden agenda on behalf of the leadership. By definition a cult is dangerous to its members, and many cults prove dangerous to the world at large.

Many cults and new religious movements seek to relate to recruits and be able to claim authority, using established religious dogma as the backdrop to their otherwise divergent views. That is not to say the leadership of said organizations don’t believe in the religious tenants by necessity, however, the link to those religious ideals are tenuous at best.


So let’s take a quick look at where ISIS stands within religious categorization:

Islam was founded about 500 AD by the prophet Muhammad. The book was transcribed by a number of his followers, recalling Muhammad’s words as told to him by the angel, Gabriel.

Upon his death a rift was formed between two of his followers, Abu Bakr and Ali. While there are some more obvious differences in practice (number of times one prays daily, position of hands during prayer, etc) this split created a division of interpretation or schools of Islamic thought. Religious descendants of Abu Bakr make up an 80% majority in the Sunni denomination and those that believe the line carried through Ali as the fourth Caliphate are the minority Shiites.

Within Sunni dogma lies a sect known as Salafism. Salafism is a fundamentalist division that believes in a more literal interpretation of Shar’ia (Islamic Law). The adherents to strict Shar’ia principles are analogous to the Christians that believe adulterers should be stoned based on Biblical scripture.

However, even among the Salafi there are three categories. The majority silent purists, those who involve themselves with politics, and the smallest minority with the movement, the Jihadi. The Jihadi take certain fundamental interpretations to mean that mass murder in the name of Allah is justified. It is important to note that these ideas aren’t present in the Quran, as written, rather carried down by respected theologians and interpreted, much like there are Christian and Judaic scholars who interpret the Bible. And within these interpretation the Jihadi choose a very select group of teachings to justify their beliefs.

ISIS is referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and later a cell was created for Syria currently under the leadership of  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (see what he did there?) who has proclaimed himself the caliph, commander of Jihadi Muslims worldwide. Al-Baghdadi proclaimed his independence from Ayman Muḥammad Rabīʿ aẓ-Ẓawāhirī, the Egyptian leader of Al-Qaeda, and predecessor of Osama Bin Ladin. Sects within sects within sects.

There are an estimated 1.57 billion Muslims in the world.

ISIS estimated 35,000 and growing.

We often see cults as small enclaves of followers. While ISIS should obviously be regarded as dangerous, keep in mind that Scientology (also a cult) claims approximately ten million followers. Aum Shinrikyo had an estimated one million followers worldwide, on the brink of purchasing nuclear weaponry and stockpiled enough Sarin gas to kill 4 million people before their barely failed attack on Tokyo’s Diet, killing 12. An estimated six thousand people needed to seek medical assistance due to the cult’s Sarin attack in 1995.


Timothy McVeigh killed 160 with a truck bomb in Oklahoma City in protest of the government’s involvement in the Waco siege against David Koresh the Branch Davidians. McVeigh’s actions can’t in any way be a reflection of Koresh’s beliefs, any more than the Branch Davidians are representative of Seventh Day Adventists or Christianity as a whole. These differentiations are critical. There is a fair amount of information you can attain if someone identifies as a Branch Davidian. You can have a sense of who someone is if being a Seventh Day Adventist is part of their core identity. But you cannot reflect on McVeigh, the Branch, or even the Seventh Day Adventists when someone separate identifies as a Christian. The Aum is in no way a good example of what to expect from someone claiming they are Buddhist.

ISIS is not a religion. ISIS is barely even Muslim and certainly not representative of 99% of Muslims in the world.

Of course, what scares us is that we cannot tell the difference by just looking at someone. We naturally want to make our interactions with others easy. We don’t want to waste precious mental energy and resources toward discerning between the good guys and bad guys.

In 2006 an estimated 201,000 muggings happened in the United States. And those numbers are increasing. In reality you are more likely to be mugged by your white-christian neighbor than have a run-in with a Jihadi. Yet, you’re likely to get to know your neighbor. In fact, getting to know people is the most predictable way to route out crime. The more you know someone, the more you interact, the closer you are to a human being, the more you confide in one another, not only increases the chance of discovering any indiscretion, it actually lowers the chances that they will commit crime. The more you help one another in your daily lives with school, work, housing, mental stability, substance abuse (including alcohol), and familial relationships, the more you help reduce crime itself. Unless, of course, you are the criminal. Bigotry begets bigotry. Antisocial behavior begets antisocial behavior. Be a compassionate, present human to your fellow humans and you will consistently make the world a better place.