I believe that what distinguishes a cult from a religion is the number of members. Historically, all religions start as "cults", that is a small group of adherents devote themselves to a heretofore set of wacky ideas that have no basis in reality and revolve around the worship of a deity or at worst the guy who rented the hall. For example, in Ancient Rome the various Jewish sects that sprung up to challenge the established order and worship this guy named Jesus were thought of as cults. Of course, originally they were one of hundreds or maybe thousands of such cults mostly pagan that worshiped one thing or the other. When they got enough Romans to believe (especially Constantine) they attained the status of "religion."
Historically, obtaining "religion" status does not change the validity or underlying logic of the ideas but it does mean that enough people believe in it to wreak havoc on the emperor.
If David Koresh had worn a big white hat and sat on a throne with a sceptor and said he was the voice of God then perhaps Janet Reno would have blown up his compound even sooner than she did (by the way, religions have churches, cults have compounds). However, if the Pope does the same thing he gets nominated for a Nobel Prize. Oh wait, God really does speak to the Pope. Sorry.
Recently, Scientology has made a run at religious status asserting that they now have enough members to achieve such official status. Environmentalists, who worship the deity Earth or "Gaia", are now on a similar path although Janet Reno apparently is not paying attention.
In the past, I have claimed the Environmental movement has all the hallmarks of a religious movement, but now it is official. For the non-believers, I submit the above link related to a march by a group called "Religious Witness for the Earth, a 6-year-old national interfaith environmental organization. Supporters include clergy from the Catholic, Unitarian, Jewish, Episcopalian and Muslim faiths" who "started walking across the state Friday to bring attention to global warming."
Recall that Michael Chrichton once said:
"Today, one of the most powerful religions in the Western World is environmentalism. Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists. Why do I say it's a religion? Well, just look at the beliefs. If you look carefully, you see that environmentalism is in fact a perfect 21st century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.There's an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there's a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all. We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe."
Hmmm... think Chrichton is crazy?
“God has given us this Eden, and our behavior is making a mess of it,” said the Rev. Jim Antal, president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the state’s largest Protestant denomination.
“The interfaith aspect of what we’re doing heightens awareness among everyone,” said Rabbi Justin David of Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton. “Climate change is a moral issue and it’s a collective issue. It transcends the differences of faith and politics and generations. This is something everyone needs to pay attention to.”
It is only a small irony that their walk to heighten awareness of global warming took place in a raging snow and ice storm as the "faithful walkers kept their spirits strong by singing 'Keep on walking forward, never turning back,' a hymn they had chanted in prayer services before the march to Boston", and the "group warmed up on bowls of lentil and minestrone soup after walking eight miles in deep snow from Northampton to Amherst."
You see, throughout the millenia, reality and truth have little to do with religion.