Happy belated Turkey Day, y'all.
Today, I'd like to post some musings on the nature of cults vs religions in fantasy settings. This is particularly flavored by D&D lore, so pardon me if this is old hat to some people out there.
In most high fantasy settings, religions follow the teachings of what are verified gods and tend to have a very visible presence in society; cults on the other hand, follow creatures that aren't really gods but are powerful (demon lords, elemental princes, really powerful dragons) and tend to be shunned and persecuted by society.
Going off of the above, it seems that religions=good and cults=evil but there are plenty of evil gods kicking around in most settings also, which makes cults seem redundant. There have also been good cults that worship archangels or their equivalent in some settings, which I'm not sure I like but serves to balance the moral position of culthood.
The question of the day is why someone would sacrifice social position and community ties by rejecting religions and joining cults. Being a hipster is one reason but I later thought of another: Power with no strings attached.
Religions have bureaucracies and gods have tenets that they demand that you follow; the powers that a cult worships give power without any fiddly doctrines up front, using foot-in-the-door salesmanship to slowly entice cultists into a deeper devotion.
This also complicates matters because while a worshiper of Killdeath, god of murder, will be very clearly murdering people to appease her god, a cultist might have signed his soul away for something as simple as a promotion at work. The spectrum of petty to serious evil runs a much broader gamut in evil cults than in evil religions, making disposal of a cult something that isn't as clear-cut as disposal of an evil religious cell.