WHERE HAVE ALL THE CULTISTS GONE?

One of the most enjoyable academic conferences on religious studies is CESNUR, the Center for the Study of New Religions, and this past month we hosted the group’s annual meeting at Baylor. I spoke on a topic that I have addressed before, namely the sharp decline in public concern (or panic) about dangerous religious cults in the United States. As I will suggest, I believe this might mark a significant social trend, and perhaps even a bellwether for secularization.

Throughout American history, a recurrent narrative has warned of the danger of small, tight-knit groups, following a charismatic leader, and allegedly prone to sexual abuse and misconduct, the maltreatment and exploitation of members, violence and financial fraud, brainwashing and mind control. Although the word “cult” has no strict social scientific definition, a useful checklist for such groups would include such categories as authoritarian, puritanical, totalistic, charismatically led, and intolerant.

Wherever we look in US history, we find public fears about such groups, whether we are considering the 1820s or 1880s, the 1920s or (especially) the 1970s – the years of massive reaction against unpopular or stigmatized groups like the “Moonies” (Unification Church) and Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Children of God, The Way International and Synanon. Cults continued to be national news between 1984 and 1994, with the absurd Satanic Panic, and were in the news with the Waco Siege of 1993, and the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple movements.

But look at the past fifteen years or so, basically the present century. When have we had a cult scare on anything like traditional lines? Yes, there have been plenty of local concerns and investigations, by strictly local and regional media. Offhand, I can think of a couple in Texas, and several have surfaced around the country. In 2008, we saw the massive official action against the polygamist sect headed by Warren Jeffs in Texas, the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Anti-cult groups like Cultwatch still operate. Recently, the Atlantic catalogued “The Seven Signs You are in a Cult.”

But compared to the 1970s, the cult issue has vanished almost entirely. When did you last see the once-familiar media story about Group X with exposés of its sinister guru, with tragic images of weeping parents wondering how their child could have become associated with this dreadful organization? Why would they renounce their worldly hopes to devote their lives to this evil sect?

Moreover, if such groups really were out there, we are massively more likely to hear about them than we would twenty or thirty years ago. I am thinking of course about the Internet, which allows strictly local concerns and debates to be blown up to a national or global scale. If there was a cult panic in City X, it would, surely, go national within a very short time.

For many years, I taught a course at Penn State University on Sects, Cults and New Religious Movements, and I included what I thought was a useful term paper assignment: “You are to imagine that someone close to you – a friend or sibling – has become involved with a new or fringe religious group, is spending a lot of time with it, and seems likely to become a full member. Your friends and family are worried that it might be a dangerous cult, and have asked you to find out about it urgently. Your paper will represent an investigation of the group, and the kind of information that you would want to pass on to your friends.” Students thus delved into the primary materials stating the case for and against the particular group, and tried to offer and objective assessment. In particular, they would learn to be very critical in sifting partisan resources on the Internet.

Good, eh? Or so I thought until around 2000, when students found it ever harder to find controversial groups that anyone they knew might conceivably have run up against. Confirming this impression, I looked around Penn State, a very large university with some 45,000 students at its main campus, offering exactly the kind of young population that should in theory offer rich pickings for predatory fringe sects. But those sects just aren’t there, and I looked hard. (I don’t extend the cult label to the university’s friendly and harmless neo-pagan groups – which are, in any case, tiny).

Recently, the Jewish Daily Forward offered an article entitled Jewish Parents Once Panicked About Teens Joining Cults — But No Longer. How Did Communal Freak-Out Fade Away So Completely?  It’s a good question, and not just for Jewish families.

Now, you might think that the removal of such a social danger as predatory cults is entirely good news, but I wonder what exactly is happening? A couple of years ago, I wrote a column that asked where the cults had gone, suggesting that “Cults no longer fill the role they once did in the religious marketplace.” I went on to ask,

Just possibly, that marketplace really has changed in an unprecedented way, to reduce the public taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever. Last month, a widely reported Pew survey made the striking point that 20 percent of American adults now claim no religious affiliation, and the figure for those under thirty approaches one third. … Assume for the sake of argument that such surveys genuinely do reflect a secular shift, and the United States really is moving to become more similar to Canada, or the nations of Western Europe. If that were the case, then one of the first symptoms we would expect would be a general reduction of interest in spiritual or religious matters across large sections of society. We would no longer find the broad but ill-focused concern that manifested itself in the supernatural boom of the 1970s. Without a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry, moreover, there would be no foundation for the extremism that produced so many prospective members for the cults.

In other words, the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades. … Perhaps secularization really is looming

So I return to my basic theme. In my view, declining concern about cults is not just a function of shifting media attitudes, but it rather reflects a genuine and epochal decline in the number and scale of controversial fringe sects. There really are far fewer fringe groups to be worried about. And that may be a mixed blessing.

 

 

 

 

  • disqus_9xDKwRFcht

    Would it be possible to label groups like Westboro Baptist a cult? They seem outside of the mainline Christian movement and other than name, I am not sure what affiliation they share with Baptists. Perhaps even snake handlers could be labeled cultish.

    • philipjenkins

      I have no problem with that designation, but that’s very different from notorious groups in the 1970s, which proselytized globally. Nobody warns their kids going off to college “Get good grades, and don’t be seduced into joining Westboro Baptist Church!” As far as I can see, that church is pretty much just one extended family with a few hangers on.

  • polistra24

    It’s an interesting question. Back in the ’70s, half of my hippie friends ended up in cults of various types. EST, Moonies, Jesus People, Jonestown, and Ecumenical Institute. EI seemed to be a CIA front, pulling in leftist Niebuhr-style Christians and turning them into agents.

    All of those groups were big, well-funded and well-organized. None of them are active today, and I don’t see any replacements.

    • Mark Byron

      The Moonies’ Unification Church is still around and owns the Washington Times. Some of the Jesus Movement folks went mainstream; Calvary Chapel is one denomination that flowed out of it. The others largely died off, Jonestown literally.

  • http://www.history.com/topics/alexis-de-tocqueville AlexD.Torque

    The cults today have morphed from small reclusive sects into large global movements. The cult of Al Gore Global warming believers, the cult of Obama followers, and the cult of Greenie Earth Worshipers, all fit the classic definition of cults. Except that their dogmas, faith based beliefs, and idols are mainstream. CK Chesterton was correct; They will believe anything when they abandon G*D.

    • Papa Mincho

      So, scientists, some liberals, and pagans are cults, because you have no idea what the word ‘cult’ actually means. Thanks for that insight! So you’re about to say the cult of Ken Hamm Young Earthers, Ronald Reagan revolutionaries, and people who follow Alexis de Tocqueville also fit the classic definition of cults, right?

      Cults thrive on secrecy and power. Secularism is spreading and religious belief is declining because the internet is a thing now, and people can actually share information instead of relying on some dude’s reading of a Bronze Age book. Relevant has a great article up on this: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/tech/features/26539-will-the-internet-kill-christianity

  • David Tiffany

    “But compared to the 1970s, the cult issue has vanished almost entirely.”
    I don’t agree. To me, a cult is a religious organization that leads people away from or prevents people from hearing the truth of the Gospel, thus causing them to forfeit the grace that could be theirs. This is tragic and causes great violence to those who are affected when you think of the eternal consequences of being rejected by God.
    There are many of those today.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/2013/12/lift-up-your-heads-o-you-gates-be_7.html

    • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

      David, do you really want to be claiming that people “forfeit the grace that could be theirs” because someone else has “led them away”, etc.? What is your concept of the grace of God and how it can be thwarted? And based on what?

      • David Tiffany

        To use a cheap analogy, if your team doesn’t show up for a baseball game, you forfeit the game and the other team wins by default.
        There are many religious organizations that preach a different gospel than the one that Paul the Apostle preached. The gospel they preach will not save anyone from judgement.
        The grace of God shown in the true Gospel is that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification, that we would be declared righteous.
        If a person doesn’t hear the true Gospel, and therefore does not respond to the true Gospel, then that person will have forfeited the grace that could be theirs.
        “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.”

        • JohnH2

          If a person doesn’t hear the true Gospel, and therefore does not respond to the true Gospel, then that person will have forfeited the grace that could be theirs.

          Really? What of Romans 2:6-16 where Paul says that those that do not know the gospel but show the law written in their hearts will be saved? And further in the rest of that chapter that those that boast of their relation to God but don’t do what they are supposed to will be punished by God, as a Christian is not one who is one outwardly but one that is one inwardly, such that many will say ‘Lord, Lord’ and be thrust out when those that never knew Christ but did unto the least of these will be seated with Christ.

          Seems you might be preaching a different gospel than that of Paul and Christ.

          • David Tiffany

            You need to re-read that passage. Paul doesn’t mention the Gospel in that passage. He’s speaking of the Law.

          • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

            I’m not joining your conversation with JohnH2 re. Rom. 2, btw. But wanted to correct my last ref. to I Cor., from 2 days ago, just above. I decided to ck. the “super-apostles” comment by Paul… it is in II (not I) Cor., and ch. 12. It is also of note in the argument he makes there that he says the things that “mark” an apostle are “signs, wonders and miracles” (NIV). No mention of authority derived from having been with the earthly Jesus nor commissioned by him pre-crucifixion.

            I’m not at all one to work from one or 2 “proof texts” to any major conclusion…. And it is not just these 2 passages (Gal. 2-3 and II Cor. 12 – tho both are extended and not mere obscure or hard-to-decipher statements) that build a clear case within the NT of this: more than just peripheral disagreements eventually ironed out between Paul and the Jerusalem Apostles. No, there is a significantly different understanding and teaching of “the gospel” involved!

            This is also seen in the epis. of James (whether or not the early leader, brother of Jesus, was the author, which is doubtful)… “James” is a set of teachings like both those of Jesus and those of Second Temple Judaism, and bear little resemblance to the theology of Paul. Rather, it strongly seeks to be a corrective to things appearing in Paul’s epistles. (And I’m well versed in various ways Evangelicals seek to harmonize the two, having grown up and studied long and deeply as an Evangelical, born-again type Christian, including study of much of the NT in Greek, not just English.)

            Note: it took me a LOT of study and time to see and accept this, but it is pretty clear from a close, probing reading of the NT, with focus on comparison of Paul’s epistles with Acts, that there was NOT a clear and agreed-upon understanding of just what the gospel was in the period when the NT was still being written. Also, that Luke, in Acts, goes to great lengths to spin the early history so that it appears there was a kind of unity and level of cooperation that is belied by Paul’s writings, among other evidences, some within Acts itself…. Very challenging stuff for many Christians, but we have to face it!

        • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

          What I’m getting at, hopefully to your benefit and others who may have specific concepts of “the Gospel” (supposedly biblical, but perhaps not really), is that it isn’t clearly defined IN the Bible! In relation to your above remarks, whose “Gospel” is Paul referring to, and which “Apostles” (or “superapostles”) in Gal. 2, I Cor. (ch.15, I think) when he so soundly denounces “other” Gospels? I know it’s resisted by many but the clearest interp. is that he is referring to “The Twelve” themselves, and THEIR version of the Gospel!

  • David Naas

    With the rise of secularism, the “cults” are now political. In that, I agree with AlexD.Torque. I differ from him in that my perspective sees them as being just as much on the Right as on the Left of the political-faith spectrum.
    Humans seem to be rather susceptible to organized craziness, and as noted, after a time, the craziness becomes institutionalized and tamed, sort of. Then a new form breaks out in a place not yet burned over.
    Not to worry. After the political cultism fades, we will be back to religious, or perhaps artistic, or … who knows?

  • EscondidoSurfer

    No mention of scientology…. a cult like no other and booming.

    • JohnH2

      “booming.”?

      • philipjenkins

        I agree with the query. Numerically, it certainly is not booming, and in fact declining. It has some high profile members, but it remains strictly marginal.

  • James Stagg

    Dear Mr. Jenkins,
    You may wish to restrict your discussion to “religious” cults. But cults need not be religious; The Nazi’s were a cult that had some religious overtones; Communism is a cult that groups fanatics together…some in the same sort of passion as any recognized religious cult. Boko Haram is a cult, Al Qaida is a cult, the Taliban are a cult, and I must agree with Alex D. Torque and David Nass that there are cults all around us……if we look, and many have a messianic goal of converting others to their highly irregular ideas. The largest cult right now may be the global warming/cooling/man-made climate change cult, which seemingly has suckered thousands of otherwise intelligent people…..something like scientism.

    Look around you, closely. There is the sports-(TV-)watching cult that supplants weekly religious services….the opening prayers at NASCAR events are frequently the only prayer heard by many adults and children for many months of the year. More folks know various horrendous versions of the Star Spangled Banner than know Amazing Grace, from college and pro football games which eliminate a chance to attend any religious services (or they might be late for the game). There is also the Summer must-play sports-cult for young children and adults where scheduled games make no allowance for weekend worship services…..unless it be the worship of sports gods…..statistics and self-promotion.

    Also, you will find the truly religious “TV cult”, when people remain at home on Sunday mornings to listen to the golden words of Joel O, or Charles S., and truly believe (with a passion) that they are “religious”. They are just not obnoxious, or, really, even noticeable.

    And many of the old cults continue…..perhaps in a more subdued way, and out of the view of people (unchurched) who might otherwise notice and wonder: There is an active Medjugjore cult in Alabama that extends tentacles into other states; and my Masonic relatives decline to attend occasional “religious” services, since they visit the Lodge regularly and feel no need for further “religious training or experience”. Masons must be considered an existing cult….though not always in a pejorative sense.

    You must get “out” more often, Mr. Jenkins. There still MANY cults. We just do not have the numbers of regular church-goers anymore who show their disapproval (you know, they have joined the cult of “political correctness”)…….
    or really care.

    • Andrew Dowling

      So anyone who does or believes something you disagree with is in a “cult” but your own church . . .no sir . . .nothing cultish about that.

      • James Stagg

        No, Mr. Dowling, I did not say that. Yes, I have “cults” in my own church, some of which I participate in.

        My point is that the word “cult” swings a wide loop (referencing a lasso to you non-Westerners), and applies to more than single-minded religious fanatics organized around an irregular idea. It may, just “may”, apply to a single-minded group of Auburn (Michigan, Notre Dame, USC) football fans whose very lives revolve around Auburn’s (or others) football statistics to the exclusion of a normal lifestyle, who are so engrossed in this particular fantasy that they try to “live” the fantasy, who are so faithful to “their cause” that they suffer from clinical depression when the team loses, or a favored coach leaves.

        Does this come closer to explaining why cults still exist, though no longer just in the “negative religious” definition?

        • Lithobolos

          Academics have specific definitions that avoid negative connotations. One of the reason’s why he used “new religious movements”. The simple fact you referred to “communism” as a cult shows that you just refer to things you don’t understand as ‘cults’.

  • cken

    The religious cults which were successful are now called religions. Some ancient prominent cults are now referred to as Chirstianity and Muslim.

    • Preston Garrison

      As Paul Johnson (a Catholic) said, Christianity and Islam are the two most successful heresies of ancient Judaism, although the Jews haven’t really been that big on heresy-hunting. :)

  • Preston Garrison

    This reminded me of a tongue-in-cheek blog post by a scientist about NIH (National Institutes of Health) as a cult. I sent the link to my former boss (our research was supported by NIH,) and she was as amused as I was.
    http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1217

    This was a joke, but it reveals that if you define “cult” only on the content of belief, it has to be done in comparison to some orthodoxy/truth. I would suggest that the marks of a cult are not in the fact that some particular beliefs are held (which would make all of us cultists of one sort or another,) but in the patterns of abusive behavior.

    • philipjenkins

      That’s a good link!

      • James Stagg

        “….but in the patterns of abusive behavior.” Precisely, Mr. Garrison. That is a stunning remark to make about the “global warming” cult, which seeks to browbeat unbelievers into submission.

  • Kelly Knight

    Could it be a general decline in religiosity? People are less inclined to be spiritually motivated and involved today, and so the drive to find some organization or another that fills the need is, well, largely missing. Where there is no perceived need, there is no market.

    • philipjenkins

      That’s certainly close to what I am arguing. Cults, I suggest, are America’s laboratories of religion.

  • Zaoldyeck

    The word ‘spirituality’ is often used as a catchall to mean ‘that which is epistemological possible’… which happens to include a rather wide range of possibilities, and I fail to see as entirely useful. Which, perhaps, is why the sense of ‘spirituality’ is in decline, and especially why cults with their appeals to the supernatural are especially in decline.

    After all, the argument “this is conceivable, thus possible, hence likely” continues to hold less weight, the entire basis for a cult begins to wither. “It’s conceivable that the leader is a prophet of god, thus possible, hence likely” is easier and easier to erode away with basic information these days.

    Religion requires the same structure of arguments and often provides very similar answers, if it can’t adapt to provide something more robust than an appeal to the vague, why should anyone care about it any more than cults which are fading away?

  • bdlaacmm

    Oh, I’d say that there are as many, if not more, cults today as there ever were. One of the largest is the so-called “New Atheist” movement with its cult leaders Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et.al.

    • philipjenkins

      I’m not sure if this post is asking to be taken too seriously, but the comments here do make my point. Overwhelmingly, people are saying that modern movement X or Y is really a cult, although it fits none of the recognized characteristics (believers in global warming, atheist activists, Obama true believers…). If genuine, classically defined cults really were around and active, surely people would be referring to them, with a triumphant “Hah!” And they aren’t.

      • bdlaacmm

        You are correct – I was posting tongue in cheek. But I hope my point got across, which is that ultimately “cultism” has nothing to do with religion. It is a form of dysfunctional power of a charismatic leader over followers. The phenomenon could be just as well political or cultural.

        • philipjenkins

          Fair enough, although in its origins, the word “cult” does imply religion. I can certainly point to some truly bizarre Leftist political sects in modern Europe that fit the bill precisely (and undoubtedly, on the Right as well). EXAMPLE:
          http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/10474157/Slavery-case-the-high-flying-student-who-vanished-into-a-Maoist-sect.html

          • Joe Szimhart

            I’d suggest that the word cult implies devotional activity and elevating something, someone, or some idea as very special and only ‘religion’ in the broadest, fragmented sense. Eg, the cult of a saint in Catholicism or that of the Ka’aba in Islam. Some of my peers have adopted “self-sealing system” or “bounded choice” to indicate what I call managed constriction. The latter includes abusive relationships, authoritarian gangs as well as terrorist cells with charismatic leaders.

        • Lithobolos

          ” It is a form of dysfunctional power of a charismatic leader over followers.”

          Richard Dawkin’s sells books and makes speeches. He doesn’t ask me to give up all my material possessions and move to his atheist compound. What kind the hell wouldn’t fit under your definition? I think Michael Jordan must be a cult leader because so many people what to be ‘like mike’ and wear his shoes.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I think it’s more a product of globalization and the world getting smaller, as it’s just harder to fashion yourself as some exotic secret source to the truth when someone can just disintegrate all of your claims over the Internet in 15 seconds. I think it also points to the decline of the religious right . .which LOVED a boogeyman and throughout the 80s they continually trumped up real and (mostly) imagined cults to juxtapose their own self-righteousness and ‘normalcy’.

    • James Stagg

      It seems that is being done as we write: “global warming” cult, to be exact. Perhaps because of globalization, this cult has spread faster than the usually-considered “local” cult.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Sorry, increasing acceptance of a scientific claim on the basic of recorded observations and peer-reviewed papers does not a “cult” make. You might as well claim that those who accept the theories of evolution or that the earth revolves around the sun are in “cults.”

        • James Stagg

          Ha! Ha! You may not be intelligent, Andrew, but you sure are funny!

          • Andrew Dowling

            Funny how all of the intelligent people agree with me then. I must be ‘that’ good looking . . .

      • http://www.naturalspirituality.wordpress.com/ Howard Pepper

        James, I’m sure curious on what basis you have found (apparently) that global warming is not real? (Or if actual, demonstrable, then only based on natural fluctuations, not significantly influenced by human actions?… which may be your position.) Have you actually looked at a good sampling of the key data and been able to find disqualifying problems with its collection, or with the judgment of literally thousands of scientists in their own disciplines (and sub-disciplines) as to the implications of the data?

        And the climate change modeling has more than just data. It has already been shown to do what valid models do, scientifically: accurately predict related trends or events. If there is anything to be labeled cult-like in all this, it is the uninformed “debunking” of those, often loosely linked or mutually influencing each other, and who claim some kind of massive conspiracy or “cultish” behavior on the part of scientists. (And I’m NOT one to deny all “conspiracies”, by any means.)

  • Forget Usnot

    I could not disagree more with this article. If you are looking strictly at “large cults” as given in one example….Scientology…and are using that as the litmus to define “cults’ and hence argue there is a decline..so be it. However, there are more than enough parents crying themselves to sleep at night because their child has been lured and indoctrinated into some form of group. The term “cult” perhaps is not appropriate because it conjures of images of Charles Manson and Jonestown, but the indoctrination of individuals is alive and well. If we look at Dr. Robert Lifton or turn to the knowledge we have today about these exclusive and dangerous “relationships” that procure the minds of individuals and turn their lives inside out…perhaps we can agree that thought control, mind control, predatory alienation, groups that adhere to philosophies that warrant strict isolation and separation from families and friends…still occur today. There are facebook groups and non-profits like Families Against Cult Teachings born out of the grief and loss of their own “story” their own tragic loss of a life that was stolen from them. An article like this gives credence to all of those “groups” who have discovered ways of being more stealthy to acquire the wealth, power and sexual gratification they seek. They lurk behind the shadows thinly disguised as a “New Age self help group but if they are truly above board…they would not have all of the characteristics of a destructive group or “cult.” They just have sterilized their outward appearances in order to “gain” followers…..ask the parents who are weeping yet another night because they have absolutely no communication or knowledge of their child’s whereabouts.

    • philipjenkins

      So name some. Give me some real, named examples, which actually exist and exercise some influence. That’s a serious query. I’m looking.

  • Forget Usnot

    Additionally, your comment regarding the couple in “Texas,” if you are referring to The Church of Wells…you need to do your homework. They most certainly are a cult and this couples daughter is not their singular follower. This group demands isolation of family and friends by their followers and hide behind their own “twisted religious doctrine” proselytizing in order to gain followers. If they were “honest” and truly were transparent with the individuals they had preached to…they would not have gained momentum. Their preaching’s are built on lies, manipulation, extortion and more. They isolate in order to keep a strong mental hold on their captives.

    • philipjenkins

      Um, the “Texas” link does actually lead to a live link on the Church of Wells. Funnily enough, not only do I know about the case, but the article cites me.

  • THeim

    Wouldn’t the “prophetic movements” or some of these “revivalist” or “kingdom and dominion” movements fit the “cult” description? They tend to be small groups that are widespread, but promote a loose affiliation with other like-minded groups. I’m thinking of specific groups like “Fresh Fire USA” formed following the “Lakeland, Florida Revival” which was preceded by the “Toronto Blessing.” I’ve also heard these movements referred to as “The New Apostolic Reformation” which includes organizations like “MorningStar” ministries, “The Vineyard” and so on. There is a lot of information on the internet written by people who have come out of these ministries who feel they have been harmed by them. The ministry characteristics seem to be “charismatic leaders,” authoritarian tactics, demands of “loyalty,” resisting transparency, censoring and/or ostracizing members who question anything, and labeling critics as having “demons” or “religious spirits.” These groups appear to have sidelined the gospel, the authority of Scripture, replacing these with “supernatural manifestations.” Leaders gain power and influence by the number and intensity of supernatural gifts in operation. The tremendous power of “group think” is in action, with wild claims of visions, dreams, prophecies, physical visitations by angels and demons, being transported into heaven, visitation by deceased believers and/or Bible characters, physical symptoms like shaking, laughing, sensations of heat, appearing intoxicated, falling down, claims of miraculous healings (without objective evidence), etc. All of this appears to far exceed the more “traditional” doctrines of the Pentecostal denomination. Perhaps, the answer to “where have all the cults gone” is – they’ve gone into a segment of the church!

    • Forget Usnot

      I really enjoyed your contribution. I didn’t know about some of those groups. but you have described exactly what the characteristics are of these authoritarian leaders and the tactics they use. Yes…some “groups” are part of churches…and some are not part of any congregation at all. Regardless, they are hell bent on promoting “their cause” for their own reasons and usually with a price to pay for their followers.

  • Forget Usnot

    Mr. Jenkins… had to give some thought to your response. I would think that if it is the truth you are seeking…you would be embracing of a comment that corrects your misguided notion of a 70′s ‘cult’ classic…”Where Have All The Flowers (Cults) Gone”, instead of being a bit defensive and asking for a “list.” But, since it is a list you are seeking…thought I would send you a link from one expert who has a list (in alphabetical order) of all the “groups” that he has had contact with. Of course, there are so many other groups that are not on the list so you can just add a couple of hundred more predators to the ones provided.
    https://freedomofmind.com/Info/list.php

    • philipjenkins

      I went to that site. To put this list you cite in context, the first page features such notorious “cults” as Alcoholics Anonymous, Amway (!), al-Qaeda and Christian Science, as well as the LDS. Also a bunch of old 1970s-1980s movements that effectively vanished decades ago, eg Heaven’s Gate. Also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army! Is this meant seriously? So I repeat: give me a list that is vaguely plausible and, even better, relates to the present century.

  • JohnH2

    How about Less Wrong/MIRI and various Singularity groups?

  • Galorgan

    This is excellent food for thought. Conditionally, I think I agree that the decline of cults is a symptom of the decline of supernatural inclination. I also think that people are a little more skeptical today. This includes skepticism to the supernatural, generally, but also probably skepticism to people claiming to be in special positions of authority.

    • philipjenkins

      I’m leaning to that explanation.

  • Maine_Skeptic

    I know firsthand that concerns about cults were occasionally overblown, but it’s obscene that you would compare concerns about Scientology and the Moonies to the blind stampede behind the Satanic Panic. Scientology, the Moonies, and the human dynamic behind the Satanic Panic are far more related to each other than any of them are with those who spoke out about cults in the 1970s and 1980s. The cult awareness movement tended toward secularity, but CESNUR routinely accused them of being religiously prejudiced.

    You said: “Just possibly, that marketplace really has changed in an unprecedented way, to reduce the public taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever.”

    To suggest that cults are about the supernatural is a lopsided view. Yes, many cults prosper in the magical thinking that is permitted by people who believe all the physical laws of the universe can be suspended at any time. But cults are about unhealthy authoritative control: the breakdown of the individual’s defenses and the destruction of his or her life for the sake of a group delusion.

    We don’t need supernatural superstitions when half of our culture is inclined toward magical thinking without them. We have broadcast networks dedicated to furthering any dark suspicion about nonChristians and nonconservatives. In that fifteen-year window you cite for the decline of cults, America was the victim of the worst single religiously-inspired crime in history. In response, the country adopted the view that anyone who isn’t a conservative Christian is suspect as “un-American” or part of the “liberal elite.” Scientific inquiry is treated like the enemy, and scientists themselves are demonized when they present data that doesn’t fit the conservative false narrative. A major political party recently shut down our government in order to stand up for the principle that America should default on its debts, and that if the biggest economy in the world defaulted, that would be a good thing.
    Who needs cults when half of our country is behaving like a stampeding herd, moving from one irrational fear to the next?

    CESNUR owes heartfelt apologies to every group who tried to get the word out about Scientology, the Moonies, and dozens of other destructive cults where people’s lives and health were routinely destroyed. To hear you pretending that the United States is behaving in a more secular way, given the history of the past fifteen years, is infuriating.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    Here’s another thought:

    A cult once provided the exciting sense of belonging to a tiny ostracized community of persons who shared internal love, devotion and intensity but who were misunderstood by outsiders.

    But in the 21st century, one no longer needs to belong to a cult to experience that sense.

    Instead, one can merely be a sexually-orthodox Christian who believes in supernatural good and supernatural evil.

    Show me a group of ten people gathering together for Bible study: If they all believe that fornication, masturbation, and homosexual acts are gravely sinful, that demonic possession sometimes occurs and requires exorcism, that angels sometimes intervene miraculously to protect the faithful from danger, and that Christ is coming again, then they are every bit as isolated from their larger culture as the Moonies were in the 1970′s…or the Branch Davidians in the 1990′s.

    (Extra points for holding that contraceptive sex between married persons for the purpose of spacing out children is gravely sinful, or that the Eucharist really is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.)

  • Thomas R

    I think the secularization theory doesn’t really work. The “Order of the Solar Temple” lead to concern in France in 1995. France was highly secular even then. The Japanese are fairly irreligious according to studies and had cult-concerns off/on.

    I think an issue might be more that there isn’t as much of “an establishment” to be rebelling against and studies seem to indicate young people are increasingly individualists who don’t join stuff. They marry less and I think they even protest less. (“The Tea Party” is mostly people over 35, I think, and I’m not sure all that many young people committed to “Occupy Wall Street” either) Joining a cult might not be unappealing because it’s “religious” or “spiritual”, I think Pew Research indicated young people’s belief in the supernatural is about average (although willingness to state absolute belief is lower), but because a cult is too much of a commitment. Or because it denies or reduces individuality.

    In France or Japan of the 1990s they were highly secular, pretty sure more than the US of today, but I don’t know if they were as individualistic and unwilling to join things as American youth may well be.

  • Joe Szimhart

    I was a deprogrammer back in the days of remaining intense activity regarding cults (1985-1990). Discussion in media about cults has diminished since the 1970s-1980s. The drop-off coincided with the practical end of coercive deprogrammings around 1991. Iow, if you do not have to risk prosecution to get someone out of a cult, then they are irrelevant and ‘not so bad’ any more—that feeds the popular perception.


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