Religions may differ from each other in many ways, but they have one thing in common: respect for life.
That also distinguishes religion from evil cults, which challenge social norms and inflict damage upon human life, dignity and liberty. By placing their misguided tenets above everything else, such cults not only break laws, but also offend religions.
The May 28 tragedy in Zhaoyuan, Shandong province, in which six members of the "Church of Almighty God" beat a woman to death because she refused to join their order, is a typical case of cult killing.
After being arrested, Zhang Lidong, one of the suspects, said the victim refused to join them so "she is demon and deserves to be killed", reflecting the anti-human trait of cults of terminating anybody who refuses to follow their path. Using violence against non-believers has been the common practice among cults.
An estimated 14 cult organisations, including the "Church of Almighty God", are operating across China. Until the 1980s, such organisations used to be active only in China's western provinces.
But in the 1990s, they started infiltrating big cities, and by the turn of the century some of them had even established contacts with brotherly organisations abroad. Other countries, too, have their share of cults; for example, Japan has the Aum Doomsday Cult and the US, the People's Temple, both of which have been involved in killings.
A true believer follows the tenets of his religion without violating the law or social norms. And if a believer breaks the law in the name of religion, he/she deserves to be punished like any other criminal.
On Oct 8, 1999, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate jointly published a document describing cults as illegal organisations because they are established in the name of religion to control their followers with lies and are thus detrimental to society.
Cults are different from religions in terms of culture. A religion develops by absorbing the cultures and values of human civilization, which is often mingled with philosophy, law and morality. But a cult refuses to follow moral principles and disdains social order.
Religions and cults differ in terms of organisation too. A religious organisation is formed voluntarily by believers and formally registered with government departments. Besides, members of a religious organisation enjoy legal rights and their activities are legal and beneficial to society.
A cult, on the other hand, more often than not is not registered and does not hold activities legally. Some cults even worship mysterious chiefs, who issue orders to their followers in the name of faith.
Unlike religions that are transparent in procedure, cults often hide facts from their ordinary followers. In this sense, cults are more like underground societies, in which every follower has to obey one above him/her in the order and those who want to leave are often threatened with dire consequences and even murdered.
Social influence is another aspect that distinguishes a cult from religion. Religion is very important to society because it provides spiritual support to the people. Through its rituals and prayers, a religion also forms a kind of transcendental tie that makes people feel secure in a world of uncertainties.