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Cults Vs Religion Essay Ideas

Warning: This is the working essay I promised to release earlier tonight.  It deals with certain common cult beliefs that arise throughout human history and civilizations.  It contains mature themes, images, and concepts.  It was written for myself as a way to process and understand these recurring patterns.  Due to the length of the essay, I have removed the sidebar to make reading the essay easier.  Given the nature of the discussion, reader discretion is advised.  This is not a piece that has anything to do with you, your beliefs, your society, or your culture.  This is a working document, a tool, that I use myself to understand how the world fits together and what is driving human behavior.  It is meant to show you how I work through these problems, not actually discuss the particular topic mentioned in the essay.  It is a sample.  Nothing more.  The final version, which may take years to complete, will look very different.  None of this was originally intended for public viewing.

Throughout my life, I’ve read more history, philosophy, religion, and sociological texts than almost anyone I’ve ever met.  There has been a pattern that I’ve been studying for several years that has bothered me.  Seven consistent themes continue to arise throughout most civilizations, races, societies, and continents.  I’ve taken to calling them “the 7 Great Cult Beliefs”.  Perhaps there are more, but for now, these are the most prevalent and the cause for much human suffering and poor cognition.  I’m purposely excluding the core cult belief – that the followers are somehow chosen for a special purpose – because it is the fundamental foundation upon which all irrational beliefs flow.  Therefore, discussing it when it is already well understood is not worthy of the time it would take to do it justice; particularly as I am already intimately familiar with it through past study and writings.

Each cult belief addresses a fundamental emotional or physical need deeply rooted in human psychology.  I’m working on them to create a sub-set of mental models to add to my collection of tools.  When you recognize them, you will begin to see them everywhere.

These seven great cult beliefs are:

  • The Fertility Cult
  • The Death Cult
  • The Prosperity Cult
  • The Blood Cult
  • The Self-Denial Cult
  • The Unknown Object or Process Cult
  • The Personality Cult

Each cult belief has its own unique ingredients, causes, and weaknesses (the chief among these weaknesses is rationality – none stand up to a rational mind using critical thinking and the scientific process; this is why a good education is absolutely vital and, I would argue, a fundamental human right).

I need to study these cult beliefs, and understand them, because they are one of the few things that make me feel physically ill, and cause me to grieve on a deeply emotional level for mankind.  I understand why they evolved.  I understand the role they play.  But just as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings or Michelangelo’s David, carved from marble and imagined from nothing, make me think that humanity can someday reach the stars and become truly great, elevated above the animals and into something beyond flesh and bone, the fact that so many people believe these superstitious cult ideas makes me feel as if we are nothing but mindless animals crawling around in the mud.  It depresses me that humans can be so foolish as to be caught in these primitive beliefs.  It makes me feel as if I’m watching people get sucked down into a great abyss of ignorance and I can’t throw enough ropes to people fast enough to save them.  And, yet, there is a small glimmer in the back of my mind that makes me think, “If they can’t make the journey, I’ll do my part for them.  Maybe they won’t benefit, but their children will.”

1. The Fertility Cult

In the fertility cult, everything is about reproduction for the sake of reproduction.  It is the highest priority, endowed with all sorts of metaphysical and spiritual characteristics.  Anything that hinders reproduction, in any manner, is seen as a grave moral sin.  Fertility cults often have complicated, and intense, rules, regulations, and teachings about sex, sexuality, plant reproduction, animal husbandry, and the role of women in society. The fertility cult is successful because it leads to behavior that propagate genes and increase population levels.

Fertility cults have been around since the beginning of known time, from savages in huts carving fertility goddesses to a modern woman invoking St. Anne to help her conceive.  It is caused by a drive that is wired into the very deepest part of human DNA – to pass on genetic material as a mechanism for survival after the death of the parent organism.

Some derivations of the fertility cult lead to enormously positive societal outcomes (e.g., the Catholic Church’s teaching about the importance of marriage before procreation and the responsibilities of both parents to care for the child or the Mormon Church’s teaching about the importance of having a lot of children and being able to provide for them through self-sufficiency), which result in greater stability and economic development due to a higher investment in subsequent generations, causing lower crime, better education, and longer lifespans.  Although these beliefs can become problematic – what makes them successful is non-examined adherence to their absolute truth in absence of the evidence, which can cause a lot of personal suffering for anyone who doesn’t conform to expectations (e.g., look at the suicide rate among Mormon households; it is far above average) – they, overall, produce significant societal net positives.

Some derivations of the fertility cult lead to terrible societal outcomes and increased pain (e.g., the ancient pagan ritualized prostitution), which lessen the individual commitment to offspring and encourages the spread of bacterial and viral diseases.  These rarely last because they contain within themselves the seeds of their own demise.  For example, a fertility cult that required wanton promiscuity would eventually be wiped out by a single sexually transmitted virus of sufficient lethality.

The biggest weakness of fertility cults is the rise of modern reproductive science.  We now know that a human is conceived when sperm and egg merge to begin a chemical process that begets life.  We now can do this in a laboratory and then implant the embryo in a uterus to carry to term.  Fertility cults are acts of desperation for those who have no other mechanism to have a child and, because of a mental model called action bias, feel as if they need to do something to remedy the situation.  They offer hope.

2. The Death Cult

In the death cult, this world is fallen, evil, and forsaken.  Only through death can it be redeemed, true happiness found, and peace with god, gods, or the universe made manifest.  Like the fertility cult, it has been around almost since the beginning of recorded time, and has taken on many forms.

The death cult is almost always most popular among the lower economic classes and the poorly educated.  It spikes during times of severe economic crisis, displacement, or oppression.  To put it bluntly, one can almost perfectly project the rise of such beliefs based on declines in income stability among the lower classes.

The death cult tends to focus obsessively on eschatology, with followers believing that we are living in the last days.  They believe the world will end in their lifetime and everything has been previously foreseen by a great oracle, prophet, or holy book.  More importantly, they believe that only a few select among them will be saved from the coming destruction, and that they are part of that special class of people.  Of course, the millennia continue to roll onward, yet this doesn’t stop the death cult.  “This time,” the followers insist, “is different”.

The death cult requires enormous levels of cognitive dissonance, denial, and brain washing.  To maintain its stronghold, it often relies on sanctification bias, fear, anxiety, and what I call “the meme of the false prophet”.  Without these tools, it crumbles as the beliefs are so absurd, they cannot be taken seriously.  Many death cults are built upon a foundation of sand so instable, the members insist that the believer should cut his or her family off from the world and shun anyone who begins to express any doubt.

The death cult believer has a siege mentality.  He or she believes down to the deepest core that the world is at war with them, that they are party to some sort of cosmic battle, and the best thing they can do is get off this planet to a better future elsewhere.  The death cult believer often has an extreme anxiety about the world, cultural changes that are happening, and the fact they are largely irrelevant, causing them to find solace in the teachings he or she studies.

The death cult tends to attract a disproportionate number of mentally ill, as well.  You see people who are undiagnosed schizophrenics (they see or hear demons, angels, spirits, thinking they are real), for whom the death cult is a rational way for their brain to attempt to make sense of the things they are experiencing.  In an ironic way, they are rational in their irrationality; they simply do not realize they are suffering from a sickness that can be treated.  You see psychopaths and sociopaths.  You sometimes see those who have suffered from brain-altering strokes or had near death experiences.

The underlying connection between death cults is that the believers have a deep seated anxiety about the world.  It is an anxiety so overwhelming, and so terrifying, that they only time they feel at peace is when they are wholly absorbed in whatever god, gods, or scripture they believe will save them.  That is why they cannot tolerate open discussion, or ideas that they consider heresy.  The two things they want more than anything in the world is certainty and purpose.

The four largest present day manifestations of the death cult North America are:

  • UFO cults that believe aliens will take the person away from the Earth if they commit suicide when an astroid passes, planets align, or another cosmic event occurs
  • A minority strain of a radical version of Islam that teaches one should die in the service of punishing unbelievers to be rewarded in paradise with 40 virgins and life everlasting.
  • The Jehovah’s Witness movement in the United States, which has been predicting for 99 years now that we are in “the last days” and that all world religions other than theirs are “the Great Babylon” harlot seen in the Book of Revelation.  There is an interesting graphic going around the Internet that illustrates the depths of the delusion and how, prediction after prediction fails, yet they keep on believing.
  • A radical, minority strain of evangelical Christianity found in the Southern United States that builds upon the teachings of a rich farmer named William Miller who, in the late 1800’s, became convinced that the Book of Revelation had been incorrectly interpreted for more than 1,600 years.  (The Book of Revelation was eventually added to canon scripture in 397 A.D. by a vote at the Council of Carthage.  Some early Church fathers believed it was nothing more than the ravings of a lunatic madman or a hoax as it has no known author, draws from things in the Book of Adam and Eve which was not considered inspired by God (and hence, removed from the Bible), and were furious, approaching apoplectic, that it was included, while other books, such as the Book of Enoch, which many of them believed were inspired by God, were removed because they were considered too frightening for the new believer and might scare them away from salvation. Miller used his money to preach that the Book of Revelation was true, and that he had been given special insight into it.  He taught that what was really going to happen was that there would a guy called the anti-Christ who would come to Earth, take it over, true believers in Christ would disappear overnight in an event called ‘the rapture’, and then God would come back to destroy this anti-Christ figure as those who rejected Christ suffered on Earth.

    It was a radical, fringe belief at the time, but it eventually lead to the founding of a group called the Seventh Day Adventist, who set to work convincing Americans that it was the right interpretation and that they had been wrong for all these centuries.  They waited in a field and, when God didn’t come back, they decided that they just needed to believe harder (that is another mental model that should be apparent to anyone who studies them).  They continued to spread the word and it took until the 1970’s for it to catch on with a specific minority group of poor, undereducated, mostly white Southerns, who began writing books about last day prophecies.

    Like all death cults, it fell out of favor when the economy was good, but following the 10-years of economic pain we experienced recently in the United States, came roaring back with a vengeance in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Interestingly, these believers have used their collective savings to send missionaries to Africa, so there is now a significant stronghold of comparable beliefs in certain nations, such as Uganda.

There are some death cults with comparable beliefs in both Judaism and Islam.  Rehashing them here is not necessary since I am already familiar with them and an abundance of examples has already been given.

The death cult very rarely takes hold with the rich or educated (individual exceptions exist, but generally it is true), because it requires a combination of ignorance, gullibility, economic instability, and anxiety.

What is remarkable about the death cults in the United States is how out of touch the adherents are with real world facts.  As I mentioned the other day, by all accounts, “we are standing at a point in time when abortions are at historical lows, murder rates are at historical lows, standards of living are at historical highs, famine is at historical lows, lifespans are at historical highs, violent rapes and muggings are at historical lows … the list is endless.”  There has never been a better time to be alive.  There has never been a moment in history where the average person had it so good.  Yet, they don’t believe it.  They are so deluded they have lost all touch with facts and all ability to examine objective criteria.

The biggest protection against a death cult is a society where the lower, under-educated worker is constantly experiencing an increase in living standards, as well as an education based on critical thinking.  We also need to reintroduce mental health facilities in the United States to provide treatment options for those who have auditory and visual hallucinations.

3. The Prosperity Cult

Prosperity itself is good, and the goal of almost all moral civilizations is to increase per capita standards of living in real terms generation after generation so that the average person is able to live more comfortably, with less pain, and greater freedom than his or her parents enjoyed.  What differentiates a prosperity cult from the general drive toward prosperity that good people desire is that prosperity cults are almost always behavior driven “if / then” incentive patterns that have no basis in rationality and are often merely schemes to enrich a handful of people at the top of what amounts of a ponzi scheme.

When societies were agrarian, prosperity cults were almost always based on crop patterns and rain cycles.  The most dangerous prosperity cults of all times involved infant sacrifices to gods in exchange for a good harvest.  The harmless or near harmless involved prayers and rain dances.  The middle of the road involved “first fruit” transactions, such as the ancient Jews taking the first 10% of their fields and giving them to the temple.  In the modern world, when society switched to fiat currency, the prosperity cults changed their focus to greenbacks.  The most positive were things such as the “third year of the tithe” law in ancient Judaism that required the people of Israel to give ten percent of their income to the poor, the widows, and the orphans, lessining the suffering in society.

Prosperity cults rely on economic ignorance.  Though a few exceptions exist, they tend to only work on the poor and lower middle class, those with no college education, those of below average intelligence, and those who have zero understanding of money or economics.  You’re talking about people whom you can try to get to do intelligent things, but who will sell their stocks or bonds the first chance they get, liquidate their retirement accounts, and incur enormous penalties to do it, while still writing checks to a ministry.  They are the “fools” in the host of proverbs about fools and their money.

The United States has become ground zero for prosperity cults over the past twenty five years.  This is done by using a bait-and-switch term called “sewing and reaping”, which was originally used in scripture to tell the Jews, almost all of whom were farmers, that if they didn’t sew (plant seed in the ground in spring), there would be nothing to reap (harvest in the autumn), so they’d go hungry.  It was Newtonian cause-and-effect.  It’s been bastardized and twisted to prey on the ignorant.  In a non-agrarian society, the equivalent would be investing or advancing in your career.  “If you don’t put money to work today, you won’t have any compounding tomorrow” or for a bakery owner, “If you don’t wake up early and turn on the ovens, you won’t have anything to sell”.

You have millions of devoutly religious families living below the median household income of $52,000 per year.  Instead of following scripture and setting up trust funds for their children and grandchildren (Proverbs 13:22), amassing capital for their own needs (Proverbs 14:24), and accumulating the nicer things in life by virtue of their own hard work (Proverbs 15:6), (Proverbs 21:20), they live in rented homes, have disposable furniture, very little savings in the bank, and then go and write a check for ten percent of their earnings to a religious organization that provides no disclosure, no accountability, and no audit trail.  When the ministry’s finances do come to light, they almost inevitably show that the cash has been used to “hire” family members and friends, who are now earning massive salaries despite very few qualifications.  The abuses are almost incomprehensible in scope, yet these folks are so brainwashed they have no idea they are being systematically plundered like chickens in a henhouse.

This is evil and stupid.  If you are giving money to a man or woman who oversees a multi-hundred million dollar ministry and your own children have nothing in their college fund, you are guilty of the very same transgression spelled out in Proverbs 22:16 – “showering gifts on the rich will end in poverty”.

The people who buy into the prosperity cult are told to “have faith”, not realizing they are being robbed blind.  The fact they lack mathematical acuity makes it impossible for them to realize that if giving 10% of your income as you make it were likely to lead to greater prosperity, a significant portion of the Forbes list would be made up of tithers.  Instead, they are under represented.  There is a negative correlation between tithing and amassing wealth.  If you want to give money, give money, but you’re an idiot if you think it is going to have any influence on your own ultimate net worth because we can look at data.  Very few of the world’s rich give 10% of their money away.  Period.  Far more of the world’s poor do.  There is a correlation.  We can see it.  There is no opinion involved.  It is a fact.

I have people in my own family who earn way below the American median income, who have nothing in the bank, very little in retirement savings, and yet have given more than $100,000 in their lifetime (which is, to them, a lot of money) to various prosperity churches and ministries, convinced that it is going to help make them rich.  They’ve provided nothing for their children in terms of college savings, they still have credit card debt.  It is insanity to me.  Yet, when I offer to help them, they say, “That’s not for me.  I know you and everyone you know has money but my system is better than yours; I know this will work.  Stop telling me I have to do it your way.”  What they fail to understand is that there is no “my” way.  There are simply two formulas: “Cash In – Cash Out = Surplus” and “Surplus Invested x Rate of Compounding = Investment Income”.  That’s it.  There is no rocket science involved.  There are no metaphysical forces or spiritual laws at work.  It’s mathematics – the basis of the universe.  The law that governs all other laws.

The prosperity cult is a con game.  You know how you can be absolutely certain?  As already mentioned, the same scriptures that insist on tithing also insist that every 3rd year, the tithe was not to go to God, but to be used to help widows and orphans.  I’ve never heard a single ministry tell people, “Don’t give us anything this year.  Go down to the local food bank and pay for new refrigerators.  Go to the local homeless shelter and buy winter coats.”

Here is the best part: The prosperity cult can work if – and this is a big if – it convinces the person who believes it to go out and take action that he or she would otherwise be too scared to do for fear of failure, convinced that “God is on my side”.  Thus, it’s ultimate influence on society and individual happiness is nebulous.

4. The Blood Cult

Before modern medicine revealed how the human body worked, the mere association mental model resulted in people recognizing that blood had something to do with life.  They didn’t understand how red blood cells carried oxygen, or how white blood cells killed disease – they didn’t even know germs existed.  This lead to some bizarre, violent, and unsanitary practices involving blood that took on religious connotations.  Blood became both holy and evil; capable of carrying both blessing and curses.

Some blood cult beliefs are beneficial and promote life based on the harm principal of morality – think of the vegetarianism in India or protecting the life of a cow.

Most blood cult beliefs are superstitious and stupid – think of the ancient desert religions believing that the “blood of the goat” or the “blood of the lamb” would somehow wash away their iniquities and transgressions.  They would literally stand in a pit and get washed with the blood of these animals like this (see picture).  This still goes on throughout the world today.  It’s a staggering thought.  Stop and truly contemplate that.  There are humans alive on the planet today who still get washed in the blood of the lamb, thinking it somehow does something.  They take a lamb, slice open its throat, stand in a pit, and cover themselves in the bodily fluids from the murder.  It’s deranged.

As insane as it sounds, the superstitious blood ceremonies of being “washed in the blood of the lamb”, or sometimes goat, still go on in the world today.  Source:

It’s so ingrained in people’s subconscious, and goes unexamined, that the practice has even carried over into the analogies used in modern day Christianity here in the United States!  Take a look at this famous hymn, called “There Is Power (Wonder Working Power) in the Blood of the Lamb”.  This is what they are singing about!  The modern American sitting in a pew has absolutely no idea what the meanings behind their beliefs are!  It fascinates me and repulses me at the same time.

(As a music major in college, I realize the actual underlying meaning of some of these hymns are horribly macabre, but I still love the tunes.  The gospel genre is one of the greatest things to ever come out of the United States.)

To appreciate this connection, you need to hear the music.  Listen to the words, then scroll above and look at the image of the blood ceremony.  That is what what the origin of the words are.  You’re looking at it.

Or how about “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” …

Or how about “There is a Fountain (filled with Blood)” …

The key component that makes a blood cult work is the belief that the blood has some sort of power to remove a real or perceived transgression so that the person is able to redeem themselves socially, with fellow men, or eternally, with a supernatural deity.  In some cases, blood offers protection from a threat, such as physical harm, or from a malevolent spirit or devil.

Bood sacrifices are still going on all over the world, even today.  We’ve already talked about Christianity and Judaism, but the same thing goes on in certain minority strains of Islam (e.g., the Shiite ritual to show mourning for the murder of Husayn, even though such acts of self-abuse are forbidden by the Qur’aan and rightly denounced by mainstream Muslims).

I don’t feel comfortable showing large images of the rituals because they are so horrific, but a quick click on a Google image search will take you to all the imagines you could ever want to see.  The most disgusting are the ones where innocent babies are being cut, drenched in their own blood.  This is barbaric.  The idea that it should be tolerated under the notion of cultural diversity is misguided, harmful, and dangerous.  It’s animalistic and primitive.  It is a good thing that most mainline Muslims condemn this behavior.

Examples of blood rituals of mourning that still happen in the world today.

5. The Self-Denial Cult

The people who fall into the self-denial cult are so twisted and damaged, they believe that all pleasure, which is one of the motivating goods in the harm principal of morality, is fundamentally evil, suspect, or forbidden.  From physical luxuries such as silks, cashmere, and fine linen, to basic necessities such as a comfortable bed or indoor plumbing, the self-denial crowd rejects the things of this world under the subconscious belief that this world is somehow imperfect.  In this regard, it is closely related to the death cults, with an eye always on the hereafter, while real pain and suffering is occurring in the here and now.

The irony of the self-denial cult is that self-denial is a virtue, when taken in moderation and not slavishly enforced.  Just like too much water can kill a person, too much self-denial can kill the joy in life.  Still, self-denial applied solely to the practitioner and not forced on the rest of society, though irrational, is no great harm.

6. The Unknown Object or Process Cult

Whenever an unknown object or process is encountered by a primitive culture, it is often worshipped, considered holy, or demonic.  This is especially true when it seems to harness the power of life and death.  Early sun cults are an excellent example of this phenomenon.  Correctly surmising that sunlight was necessary for plants and animals to survive, and without it, almost all life as we know it would cease, early humans bowed down to the sun, built temples to it, and considered it a deity, going so far as to personify it.

(On a related note, for further study, the best example of an intersection between the unknown object or process cult and the death cult are the Cargo Cults, especially of the Millennialist movement variety.)

Even today, basic scientific concepts are misunderstood by the masses.  Several years ago, Bill Nye the Science Guy was boo’d in Waco, Texas at one of his presentations when he was discussing the moon.  He pointed out that the moon isn’t actually a light – it produces no light of its own because there is no nuclear activity, heat, friction, or other source of energy, but rather, the moon reflects the sun.  That is it.  The moon is just a giant ball of dust and rock.  It just so happens that sun is so powerful, we can see its light bouncing off the moon.

The people of Waco thought he was being blasphemous and irreverent!  Everything he said was factually accurate, yet they were “visibly angry” according to the early Waco newspaper report that has since been pulled (presumably due to embarrassment over the issue).  Why?  Because Genesis 1:16 says, “God made two great lights – the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night.  He also made the stars.”  Confronted with the sudden realization that the scripture was factually inaccurate after hearing Nye’s presentation on the moon and how it influences our planet – and forced to confront the implications of what that meant given that this audience believed in a literal interpretation of scripture – rage was released on Nye.

This could never have happened if the people were aware of how the sun and moon work.  Thus, the cure for this type of cult belief is specific, functional, working knowledge of basic forces such as gravity, light, time, physics, lift, etc.

Side note: The fertility cult is really a sub-set of the unknown process cult, but given its primacy and role in societies over time, deserves to be elevated to the first, and most basic, of all cult beliefs.

7. The Personality Cult

Of all the cult beliefs, the personality cult is the easiest to understand because its development can be explained by evolutionary adaptation.  Going back to a primitive society, a weaker villager who worshipped a stronger one would have gained access to food, shelter, reproductive opportunities, and protection.  In some cases, the perception of eternal salvation would also be part of the mix of benefits.  The most famous personality cult in the world right now is North Korea.

The key weapon against personality cults is a critical thinking education.  You should never trust anyone’s word unconditionally, but rather rely upon your own understanding of the facts or, if they are beyond your range of experience or abilities, a consensus from trusted advisors whom have a good track record based upon a rational framework.

The Ethical and Moral Questions That Still Need To Be Answered

Here are the ethical and moral questions that must be considered:

  • If a parent insists upon bringing up a child in a belief system that we know to be factually inaccurate, do the human rights favor the the parent’s right to raise their child or the child’s right to an accurate education?  We would never permit a parent beating a kid, yet we will allow them to bind their mind, damaging them for life, due to their own stupidity and misunderstandings, sometimes well-intentioned.  Germany, for example, has forbidden home schooling due to religious extremists using it as a method to indoctrinate children and ignore scientific facts.  Is that an appropriate response?
  • If the rights of the child take precedence over the rights of the parent, how can we ensure, as a civilization, that the same irrationality or misinformation isn’t spread through a school system that is now controlled by a group of bureaucrats?
  • What is the appropriate social response when in a group of people and a person insists something that is factually inaccurate but based upon one of these seven cult beliefs?  I have some extended, non-direct family members who are bordering on fanatical in their insistence that the world is going to end, that President Obama is secretly in league with the anti-Christ, and that the entire world is going to unite its currency (apparently, they have missed the memo on the spectacular failure of the Euro).
  • Other than the assault to intelligence, is there any demonstrable harm by allowing people to believe irrational things if it eases their anxiety through a placebo effect?  Does having people cover themselves in lambs blood justify attempting to show them the foolishness of their primitive behavior?  Is there a moral imperative to act here?  Should we just let them be?
  • How should society deal with a group that practices one or more of these cult beliefs gaining political power, and attempting to deprive others of their rights?
  • How can one attempt to improve the thinking of others when so many of these beliefs are tied to being lower class, having less education, or possessing sub-par cognitive abilities?  If a person feels attacked, or that you are judging them, they are not likely to listen even though you are trying to help them live a better life.  No one wants to hear they are stupid, even if they know they are stupid.  It’s human nature.
  • For most people, is the underlying primary motivation simply an attempt to deal with the anxiety of life without meaning or death without purpose?

Category: Politics, Religion & Culture, PsychologyBy Joshua Kennon36 Comments

Cults, generally speaking, are a lot like pornography: you know them when you see them. It would be hard to avoid the label on encountering (as I did, carrying out field work last year) 20 people toiling unpaid on a Christian farming compound in rural Wisconsin – people who venerated their leader as the closest thing to God’s representative on Earth. Of course, they argued vehemently that they were not a cult. Ditto for the 2,000-member church I visited outside Nashville, whose parishioners had been convinced by an ostensibly Christian diet programme to sell their houses and move to the ‘one square mile’ of the New Jerusalem promised by their charismatic church leader. Here they could eat – and live – in accordance with God and their leader’s commands. It’s easy enough, as an outsider, to say, instinctively: yes, this is a cult.

Less easy, though, is identifying why. Knee-jerk reactions make for poor sociology, and delineating what, exactly, makes a cult (as opposed to a ‘proper’ religious movement) often comes down to judgment calls based on perceived legitimacy. Prod that perception of legitimacy, however, and you find value judgments based on age, tradition or ‘respectability’ (that nice middle-class couple down the street, say, as opposed to Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch). At the same time, the markers of cultism as applied more theoretically – a single charismatic leader, an insular structure, seeming religious ecstasy, a financial burden on members – can also be applied to any number of new or burgeoning religious movements that we don’t call cults.

Often (just as with pornography), what we choose to see as a cult tells us as much about ourselves as about what we’re looking at.

Historically, our obsession with cults seems to thrive in periods of wider religious uncertainty, with ‘anti-cult’ activism in the United States peaking in the 1960s and ’70s, when the US religious landscape was growing more diverse, and the sway of traditional institutions of religious power was eroding. This period, dubbed by the economic historian Robert Fogel as the ‘Fourth Great Awakening’, saw interest in personal spiritual and religious practice spike alongside a decline in mainline Protestantism, giving rise to numerous new movements. Some of these were Christian in nature, for example the ‘Jesus Movement’; others were heavily influenced by the pop-cultural ubiquity of pseudo-Eastern and New Age thought: the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka the Hare Krishna), modern Wicca, Scientology. Plenty of these movements were associated with young people – especially young counter-cultural people with suspicious politics – adding a particular political tenor to the discourse surrounding them.

Against these there sprang a network of ‘anti-cult’ movements uniting former members of sects, their families and other objectors. Institutions such as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) formed in 1978 after the poison fruit-drink (urban legend says Kool-Aid) suicides of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple. The anti-cult networks believed that cults brainwashed their members (the idea of mind control, as scholars such as Margaret Singer point out, originated in media coverage of torture techniques supposedly used by North Korea during the Korean War). To counter brainwashing, activists controversially abducted and forcibly ‘deprogrammed’ members who’d fallen under a cult’s sway. CAN itself was co-founded by a professional deprogrammer, Ted Patrick, who later faced scrutiny for accepting $27,000 from the concerned parents of a woman involved in Leftist politics to, essentially, handcuff her to a bed for two weeks.

But that wasn’t all. An equal and no less fervent network of what became known as counter-cult activists emerged among Christians who opposed cults on theological grounds, and who were as worried about the state of adherent’s souls as of their psyches. The Baptist pastor Walter Ralston Martin was sufficiently disturbed by the proliferation of religious pluralism in the US to write The Kingdom of the Cults (1965), which delineated in detail the theologies of those religious movements Martin identified as toxic, and provided Biblical avenues for the enterprising mainstream Christian minister to oppose them. With more than half a million copies sold, it was one of the top-selling spiritual books of the era.

Writing the history of cults in the US, therefore, is also writing the history of a discourse of fear: of the unknown, of the decline in mainstream institutions, of change.

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Every cultish upsurge – the Mansons, the Peoples Temple, the Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church (or Moonies) – met with an equal and opposite wave of hysteria. In 1979, the US sociologists Anson D Shupe, J C Ventimiglia and David G Bromley coined the term ‘atrocity tale’ to describe lurid media narratives about the Moonies. Particularly gruesome anecdotes (often told by emotionally compromised former members) worked to place the entire religious movement beyond the bounds of cultural legitimacy and to justify extreme measures – from deprogramming to robust conservatorship laws – to prevent vulnerable people falling victim to the cultic peril. True or not, the ‘atrocity tale’ allowed anti-cult activists and families worried about their children’s wellbeing (or their suspicious politics) to replace sociological or legal arguments with emotional ones.

This terror peaked when atrocity tales began outnumbering genuine horrors. The ‘Satanic panic’ of the 1980s brought with it a wave of mass hysteria over cult Satanists ritually abusing children in daycare centres, something that seems entirely to have been the product of false memories. In the now-discredited bestselling book Michelle Remembers (1980) by the psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith (later, Mrs Lawrence Pazder), the lead author relates how he unlocked Smith’s memories of Satanic childhood. This influential atrocity tale influenced the three-year case in the 1980s against an administrator of the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles and her son, a teacher, that racked up 65 crimes. The prosecution spun a fear-stoking narrative around outlandish claims, including bloody animal mutilations. The number of convictions? Zero. But mass-media hysteria made Satanic panic a national crisis, and a pastime.

And yet it is impossible to dismiss anti-cult work as pure hysteria. There might not be Satanists lurking round every corner, lying in wait to kidnap children or sacrifice bunny rabbits to Satan, but the dangers of spiritual, emotional and sexual abuse in small-scale, unsupervised religious communities, particularly those isolated from the mainstream or dominant culture, is real enough.

It is also keenly contemporary. The de-centred quality of the US religious landscape, the proliferation of storefront churches and ‘home churches’, not to mention the potential of the internet, makes it easier than ever for groups to splinter and fragment without the oversight of a particular religious or spiritual tradition. And some groups are, without a doubt, toxic. I’ve been to compounds, home churches and private churches where children are taught to obey community leaders so unquestioningly that they have no contact with the outside world; where the death of some children as a result of corporal punishment has gone unacknowledged by church hierarchy; or where members have died because group leaders discouraged them from seeking medical treatment. I’ve spoken to people who have left some of these movements utterly broken – having lost jobs, savings, their sense of self, and even their children (powerful religious groups frequently use child custody battles to maintain a hold over members).

In one Reddit post, James Chatham, formerly a member of the Remnant Fellowship, a controversial church founded by the Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin, listed every reason he’d been punished as a child:

Allow me to give you a short list of the super-crazy [discipline] I recieved [sic] ‘Gods loving discipline’ for.
Opening my eyes during a prayer
Joking with adults (That joked back with me) …
Saying that i don’t trust ‘Leaders’ (Their name for those that run the church)
Asking almost any question about the bible.
Trying to stop another kid from beating my skull in …
Sneezing …
Not being able to stand for 30 minutes straight with no break.
Asking if my mother loved me more than god.

Does such extreme disciplinarianism make the Remnant Fellowship a cult? Or does the question of labelling distract us from wider issues at hand?

We label cults ‘cults’ because they’re easy pickings, even if their beliefs are no more outlandish than reincarnation 

The historian J Gordon Melton of Baylor University in Texas says that the word ‘cult’ is meaningless: it merely assumes a normative framework that legitimises some exertions of religious power – those associated with mainstream organisations – while condemning others. Groups that have approved, ‘orthodox’ beliefs are considered legitimate, while groups whose interpretation of a sacred text differs from established norms are delegitimised on that basis alone. Such definitions also depend on who is doing the defining. Plenty of ‘cults’ identified by anti-cult and counter-cult groups, particularly Christian counter-cult groups such as the EMNR (Evangelical Ministries to New Religions), are recognised elsewhere as ‘legitimate’ religions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, even the Catholic Church have all come under fire, alongside the Moonies or the Peoples Temple.

To deny a so-called ‘cult’ legitimacy based on its size, or beliefs, or on atrocity tales alone is, for Melton, to play straight into normative definitions of power. We label cults ‘cults’ because they’re easy pickings, in a sense; even if their beliefs are no more outlandish, in theory, than reincarnation or the transubstantiation of the wafer in the Catholic Eucharist. 

In a paper delivered at the Center for Study of New Religions in Pennsylvania in 1999, Melton said: ‘we have reached a general consensus that New Religions are genuine and valid religions. A few may be bad religion and some may be led by evil people, but they are religions.’ To call a group – be it Scientology or the Moonies, or the Peoples Church – a cult is to obscure the fact that to study it and understand it properly, both sociologically and theologically, we must treat it like any other religion (Melton prefers the term ‘New Religious Movements’). His point underscores the fact that questions of legitimacy, authority and hierarchy, and of delineation between inner and outer circles, are as much the provenance of ‘classical’ religious studies as of any analysis of cults. 

Whatever our knee-jerk reaction to Scientology, say, and however much we know that compounds where members voluntarily hand over their savings to charismatic leaders are creepy and/or wrong, we cannot forget that the history of Christianity (and other faiths) is no less pockmarked by accusations of cultism. Each wave of so-called ‘heresy’ in the chaotic and contradictory history of the Christian churches was accompanied by a host of atrocity tales that served to legitimise one or another form of practice. This was hardly one-sided. Charges were levied against groups we might now see as ‘orthodox’ as well as at groups that history consigns to the dustbin of heresy: issues of ecclesiastical management (as in the Donatist controversy) or semantics (the heresies of Arianism, for example) could – and did – result in mutual anathema: we are the true church; you are a cult.

Of course, the uncomfortable truth here is that even true church (large, established, tradition-claiming church) and cult aren’t so far apart – at least when it comes to counting up red flags. The presence of a charismatic leader? What was John Calvin? (Heck, what was Jesus Christ?) A tradition of secrecy around specialised texts or practices divulged only to select initiates? Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. Isolated living on a compound? Consider contemporary convents or monasteries. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list.

If we refuse any neat separation between cult and religion, aren’t we therefore obligated to condemn both? Only ontological metaphysical truth can possibly justify the demands that any religion makes upon its adherents. And if we take as writ the proposition that God isn’t real (or that we can never know what God wants), it’s easy to collapse the distinction with a wave of a hand: all religions are cults, and all are probably pretty bad for you. The problem with this argument is that it, too, falls down when it comes to creating labels. If we take Melton’s argument further, the debate over what makes a cult, writ large, might just as easily be relabelled: what makes a religion?

Besides, accusations of cultism have been levelled at secular or semi-secular organisations as well as metaphysically inclined ones. Any organisation offering identity-building rituals and a coherent narrative of the world and how to live in it is a target, from Alcoholics Anonymous to the vegan restaurant chain the Loving Hut, founded by the Vietnamese entrepreneur-cum-spiritual leader Ching Hai, to the practice of yoga (itself rife with structural issues of spiritual and sexual abuse), to the modern phenomenon of the popular, paleo-associated sport-exercise programme CrossFit, which a Harvard Divinity School study used as an example of contemporary ‘religious’ identity. If the boundaries between cult and religion are already slippery, those between religion and culture are more porous still.

In his seminal book on religion, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz denies that human beings can live outside culture (what he calls the capital-M ‘Man’). Everything about how we see the world and ascribe meanings to symbols, at a linguistic as well as a spiritual level, is mediated by the semiotic network in which we operate. Religion, too, functions within culture as a series of ascriptions of meaning that define how we see ourselves, others, and the world. Geertz writes:

Without further ado, then, a religion is:
(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

Such a definition of religion isn’t limited to groups with formal doctrines about ‘God’, but encompasses any wider cultural narrative of the self in the world.

Geertz’s definition – somewhat dated now – has been updated: most notably by postcolonial thinkers such as Talal Asad, who argue that Geertz overlooks one of the most significant mechanisms for meaning-making: power. How we conceive of God, our world, our spiritual values (a hunger for ‘cleansing’ in yoga, or for proof of strength, as in CrossFit, or for salvific grace) is inextricable both from our own identities and our position within a group in which questions of power are never, can never be, absent.

Even the narratives that many religions, cults and religious-type groups promulgate – that they are in some sense separate from ‘the others’ (the Hebrew word for ‘holiness’, qadosh, derives from the word for separation) – are themselves tragically flawed: they are both apart from and firmly within the problems of a wider culture.

Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals, and for society at large

Take, for example, the cultural pervasiveness of ideals of female thinness. It is precisely the aspirational desire to be Kate-Moss skinny that allows a Christian diet programme such as Remnant to attract members in the first place (don’t eat too much; it’s a sin!). So too does it allow cults of ‘wellness’ to take hold: a woman who is already obsessed with cleansing toxins, making her body ‘perfect’ and ‘clean’, and ‘purifying’ herself is more likely to get involved with a cult-like yoga practice and/or be susceptible to sexual abuse by her guru (a not uncommon occurrence).

Likewise, the no less culturally pervasive failure of mainstream institutions – from the healthcare system to mainline Protestant churches – to address the needs of their members gives rise, with equal potency, to individuals susceptible to conspiracy theories, or cultish behaviours: to anything that might provide them with meaningfulness. 

The very collapse of wider religious narratives – an established cultural collectivism – seems inevitably to leave space for smaller, more intense, and often more toxic groups to reconfigure those Geertzian symbols as they see fit. Cults don’t come out of nowhere; they fill a vacuum, for individuals and, as we’ve seen, for society at large. Even Christianity itself proliferated most widely as a result of a similar vacuum: the relative decline of state religious observance, and political hegemony, in the Roman Empire.

After all, the converse of the argument ‘If God isn’t real then all religions are probably cults’ is this: if a given religion or cult is right, metaphysically speaking, then that rightness is the most important thing in the universe. If a deity really, truly wants you to, say, flagellate yourself with a whip (as Catholic penitents once did), or burn yourself on your husband’s funeral pyre, then no amount of commonsense reasoning can amount to a legitimate deterrent: the ultimate cosmic meaningfulness of one’s actions transcends any other potential need. And to be in a community of people who can help reinforce that truth, whose rituals and discourse and symbols help not only to strengthen a sense of meaningfulness but also to ground it in a sense of collective purpose, then that meaningfulness becomes more vital still: it sits at the core of what it is to be human.

To talk about religion as a de facto abuse-vector of hierarchical power (in other words, a cult writ large) is a meaningless oversimplification. It’s less an arrow than a circle: a cycle of power, meaning, identity, and ritual. We define ourselves by participating in something, just as we define ourselves against those who don’t participate in something. Our understanding of ourselves – whether we’re cradle Catholics, newly joined-up members of the Hare Krishna, or members of a particularly rabid internet fandom – as people whose actions have cosmic if not metaphysical significance gives us a symbolic framework in which to live our lives, even as it proscribes our options. Every time we repeat a ritual, from the Catholic Mass to a prayer circle on a farm compound to a CrossFit workout, it defines us – and we define the people around us.

Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.

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Tara Isabella Burton

writes about religion, culture and place, and her work has appeared in National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic, among others. She is a Clarendon Scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, working on a doctorate in theology, and recently completed her first novel.