What Is A Cult, Anyway?

Photo: Juan Cabral

We’ve already discussed how brainwashing is a frequently invoked, and oft misused term. Another word that is almost always found in its bed is cult. Is it possible that the latter is just as misused and abused as the  former? The short answer is that this does not appear to be the case;  because while both terms can and are used rather broadly at times, the  broad use of cult is more justified. Furthermore, though the  precise definition may be nebulous, cults are, unlike brainwashing, an  indisputably real phenomenon.

In the strictest sense, we speak of a cult as a small group of devotees to some outlandish religious cause.  Interpreted thus, a cult  is not only harmful but dangerous. We’ve all heard plenty about the  “Kool-Aid” at Jonestown. And Heaven’s Gate, which was a Christian/ UFO cult that practiced a regimented lifestyle, dressing alike, castration  and — most notoriously, mass suicide. While not all cults have made the  headlines the way these two did, there are many others that certainly  have the potential to do so.

Based on the behavior of groups like these, some experts have formulated lists of criteria that identify cults, at least of this variety. These lists may vary a bit, but generally they are along the  lines of this rather inclusive roster at Study.com:

  • A charismatic leader: Cults always follow a  charismatic leader, living or dead, whose teachings are considered of  the highest importance. This leader may be considered a genius, or may  be considered a religious figure like a messiah or prophet.
  • Ideological purity: Members are strongly discouraged from questioning the cult’s doctrine and any doubts are met with shame or punishment.
  • Conformity and control:  Cult leaders often exercise an extreme degree of control over members’  lives, including dictating what they can wear and eat and what kinds of  relationships they can have. Conformity is also enforced by group  members who police one another.
  • Mind-altering practices:  Sleep deprivation, chanting, meditation, and drugs are often used to  break down individuals’ defenses and make them more susceptible to cult  ideology.
  • Isolation and love-bombing: It is  common for people in cults to be encouraged to cut contact with  outsiders, including close family members. Within the cult, new members  are often subjected to love-bombing, a practice where new initiates are  showered with love and praise to bring them deeper into the cult and  foster a sense of belonging.
  • Us-vs-them mentality:  Cult members are often encouraged to see the cult as superior to life on the outside and to feel that those outside the cult lack  understanding or insight.
  • Apocalyptic thinking: Preparation for a supposed apocalypse or cataclysmic event is a major characteristic of many cults, especially cult religions.
  • Time and energy:  Followers are expected to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy (and  often money) to the cult to the exclusion of their own lives,  interests, jobs, and families.

So these traits, or similar, characterize what we think of as a cult  in its most extreme manifestation. But there are at least two other types of group that also get labeled as cults. And unlike the first one,  they do not require any direct contact between members; membership is considerably less formal; and members do not live in a controlled,  coercive environment.

One of these is a group of people who share an extreme commitment to anything (not a leader, or necessarily even a personality). We often hear that certain TV shows, films, books and musical groups have a “cult  following”. Some common examples include Star Trek (‘trekkies”), The  Rocky Horror Picture Show,  and The Grateful Dead (“deadheads”).

There’s generally nothing condemnatory about referring to such groups as cults. And doing so is often hyperbolic and figurative;  it’s a way of saying that these contingents of fans exhibit a type of  devotion to the object of their admiration similar to what cultists tender to the leader of their “religion” — though certainly less extreme  and less malevolent.

We might use the word cult to describe any loosely knit cluster of people who are enthusiastic about a particular interest. This might include stamp collecting, bicycling, or following a macrobiotic  diet. These activities are chosen with total autonomy, though the  “addiction” to them may get out of hand. When used in this sense, a cult is hard to distinguish from a culture (both are derived from the same root) — it’s just a matter of degree.

The gun culture loves amassing and shooting guns; the gun cult considers firearms of paramount importance, the quick solution to just  about any problem — and has a profound reverence for (its own spin on)  The Second Amendment. Note, however, that this species of cult can also be a positive thing. CrossFit, for example, is an exercise regimen that has been described as a cult, which it very well may be. But its effects  appear to be mostly positive, despite some members reporting bad  experiences.

Then there’s the third variety of cult, which is the one we’re generally most concerned about. This is a segment of the population that  is passionately and fanatically devoted to some ideology, belief or set  of beliefs — whether religious, political, or whatever.  While this flavor of cult might be pictured on a graph as lying somewhere between  the other two, it’s distinctly closer to the first type; it has none of  the second type’s charm and benevolence, and pretty much all of the first type’s malice and potential to turn catastrophic and deadly.

As you probably realize, the MAGA cult is one of, if not the largest;  and poses the most dire threat the United States, and indeed the entire  world — because it encompasses or exacerbates just about every other threat or potential threat (including pandemics, climate change and  terrorism).

And how do the MAGAnauts stack up against the criteria listed above?  They definitely exhibit four of the eight traits: charismatic leader (if  “charismatic” means highly successful con man); ideological purity; us vs. them mentality; and apocalyptic thinking. The only one that does not seem to apply at all is “isolation and love-bombing”. The other three  apply partially or in some manner. There is a great deal of conformity,  but they do not try to exercise control over each other so much as the rest of the world. There are no routine mind-altering practices such as those mentioned, but there is the mind-altering drone of Fox “News”. And while the cultists are not explicitly “expected” to contribute large amounts of time and energy, they often do so, under implicit urging. And  money? Hell yes, they are very, very frequently hit up for donations.  Which they eagerly deliver.

There is one other characteristic of cults (of type one and three)  that should be mentioned — in fact it may be the most crucial of all.  And that’s utter suggestibility and gullibility, even in the face of extreme absurdity and contradiction. In one week, Fox “News” declared that a  newly discovered variant of COVID was a hoax (which would, by some  unexplained process, benefit Democrats by killing a lot of people on  their watch); that if Former Guy was still in office, he would have  developed a vaccine immediately for this virus that does not exist; and  that vaccines don’t work. All in the same week. And you can count on  less than one finger the number of Fox’s fans who have seen anything  contradictory in such utterances. They all just swallow the bait, and  then pass it on to everyone else. As one MAGA lady gushed about her Dear  Leader, “anything that spews out of his mouth, I just love.”

By any reasonable standard, the MAGA cult is just that. It may not fit exactly the stringent criteria we normally assign a dangerous cult. They don’t wear Nikes or shave their heads or have a secret handshake. But they do wear red hats, sport Confederate flags and swastikas, and parrot mindless slogans.  They don’t live in a commune or practice self-mutilation or self-mortification, or engage in regular rituals. But they are just as malicious as the worst of them, as the Jan. 6 insurrection has revealed.  And it’s only a matter of time before they erupt into destructive acts on an even larger scale.

Cults of this kind are even more dangerous than those that are more narrowly defined. For one thing, they are comprised of far more people —  all quite deranged and chomping at the bit to prove it. Additionally,  they have no built-in terminators. They do not have a limited number of members who will die out. They are not waiting for some singular event — if their guy is restored to office, they’ll just move on to the next demand. They do not live in an isolated compound that eventually will be closed or burned down. Their potential is virtually unlimited; they theoretically could go on forever, and seize control of the nation and the entire world. (Remember that every  religion, no matter how mainstream now, once started out as a cult, however benign.) And even if by some miracle the MAGA cult dies out, it has paved the way for similar groups.

For this reason, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the United States. From all the evidence, cults are the future. And things are only going to get worse before they get even worse still.

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