Strange Rites, Harry Potter, and the New World of Cults

Strange Rites, Harry Potter, and the New World of Cults December 4, 2020

One of the most interesting books on religion published this past year was Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. I think it might turn out to be among the most significant, and not for the reasons that struck most of its (generally very favorable) reviewers. (See John Turner’s comments on the book at this blog). For some thirty years, I have worked on aspects of new and emerging religions, of sects and cults, and I think that Strange Rites fundamentally rewrites how we should tell that story. To oversimplify grossly, most of the impulses and desires that were once fulfilled by religious cults have now migrated on to the Internet, to create less focused “tribes.” What follows is not an attempt to review Burton’s book in a full form, but rather focuses on that one specific theme.

Burton’s argument is easily summarized:

While rejecting traditional worship in unprecedented numbers, today’s Americans are embracing a kaleidoscopic panoply of spiritual traditions, rituals, and subcultures –from astrology and witchcraft to SoulCycle and the alt-right. As the Internet makes it ever-easier to find new “tribes,” and consumer capitalism forever threatens to turn spirituality into a lifestyle brand, remarkably modern American religious culture is undergoing a revival comparable with the Great Awakenings of centuries past. Faith is experiencing not a decline but a Renaissance. Disillusioned with organized religion and political establishments alike, more and more Americans are seeking out spiritual paths driven by intuition, not institutions.

In conversations with scholars whose opinions I respect, I have heard mixed opinions about Burton’s work, with a couple suggesting wearily that this is the latest expression of an opinion that is so commonplace as to be a cliché. Every couple of years, they protest, someone else discovers this “new” shift in American religion, and purports to be duly startled. Do we need yet another book about mix and match cafeteria religion? Or “spiritual but not religious?” Been there, worshiped that.

I don’t agree. For me, the book goes far towards answering one of the great questions in American faith, which is, roughly, where did all the cultists go? In answering that question, she also makes some really important, nay essential, observations, about the future directions of all American religion.

What Happened to the Cults?

As I have written at this blog in the past, we face an apparent mystery. Throughout American history, there have always been small (or not so small) marginal religious movements that attract a great deal of concern and outright fear, and which represent the frontiers of American faith. (See my recent post on the Moorish Science Temple). On occasion, such groups are the laboratories of American religion, developing ideas and themes that would ultimately migrate to the mainstream. A hundred years ago, many of the orthodoxies we now hold about race and especially gender were common enough on the cultish margins of American religion, but were rare in the mainstream. That was especially true for issues such as women’s leadership and feminine approaches to spirituality more generally. In matters of diet and health, many once-weird sectarian ideas came to be very powerful indeed in the social mainstream, quite apart from the religious. Vegetarianism is a classic example, but so is eating cereal for breakfast.

There was and is a broad spectrum of types, from new and emerging religions, as well as sects and – a controversial term – cults. These last were marked by authoritarianism and the exploitation of members, sexual and financial. I like Thomas Robbins’s definition of cults as, in effect, charismatically-led, authoritarian, puritanical, totalistic, and intolerant. “Cults,” however defined, became the focus of a general social panic in the 1970s and 1980s. Tara Burton herself did a good article about all this, in which – wise person – she quoted at length my vastly well-informed Baylor colleague Gordon Melton.

So my question for some years has been: where have the cults gone? Why do we not today hear about the notorious cults of bygone years, such allegedly deadly threats as Moonies and Hare Krishnas? Why have we really not had a cult panic in this country since, probably, the mid-1990s? (I do stress here that I am referring strictly to the US, and to a lesser extent Europe). When mass media use cult themes, as films have done so regularly over the past decade, the subjects are usually drawn from that earlier efflorescence, from Manson, or the Peoples Temple, or the Branch Davidians. In 2018, the popular Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country harked back to the Rajneeshi sect of the early 1980s. There are a couple of odd modern day exceptions, such as NXIVM, but these were highly local and specific. If such groups really did abound, then the Internet would make them known to a national and global audience. Local stories just don’t stay local any more.

I do stress how rare this is in terms of a long historical perspective. The early 21st century is the first period in American history to lack those cult nightmares, and apparently – apparently – the cults that fuel them.

So what’s happening? The argument I have made is that maybe we are looking at a general trend to secularization. If religious passion is lacking, then it is not going to spill over into these super-enthusiastic offshoots. There might also be a demographic component. Assume for the sake of argument that people in their late teens and early twenties are extremely prone to spiritual excitement and experimentation. Such individuals abounded mightily in the mid-1970s, when the Baby Boomers were hitting that age, and the country was experiencing a notable youth bulge. They are much scarcer today.

Into the Potterverse

Was I correct in these suggestions? Maybe, partially. But reading Strange Rites, you get an excellent answer to where many of the impulses that previously might have driven cults have gone. Basically, the impulses have remained, but they have taken new directions. Much of the story involves not just the Internet but what we might very generally call fandom. Because of that change, the means by which people observe and record those activities has changed utterly. It is as much a change of perception as of conduct.

Burton offers a superb account of online fandom, illustrated by her portrait of the Harry Potter universe. After the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, appeared in 1997, internet fans over the following decade created a whole online universe of astonishing scale. (The last of the canonical series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, dates from 2007). The Potterverse developed a life of its own to the point that J. K. Rowling herself became an unwelcome interloper. Who was she to tell us where the characters were headed?

What I had not known, and what Burton tells me so clearly, is how that world of Potterdom not only shaped all subsequent online fan cultures but (as she argues) did much to create the consciousness of a whole generation. If we want to understand the generation’s response to politics, to society, to consumerism, then to a greater or lesser extent it tracks back to that fandom and its offshoots. If that all sounds far-fetched, read the very convincing book. As she says, “The roots of contemporary millennial culture—its tendency toward Internet-driven communities, its obsession with individuation, its propensity toward rewriting scripts and recreating worldviews—all came out of 2000s fan culture.” She stresses that idea of Remix, of choosing and rewriting texts as they seem useful or relevant:

Seventy years ago—at the height of institutional, mainline Protestant America, our social options were relatively narrow. We could participate in the culture of our hometown and our family. Or, more rarely, we could participate in one of a few subcultures available to us. If these cultures, these communities, these foundational truths didn’t satisfy us, we had little recourse: we’d either adapt or consign ourselves to a life on the margins. But now, we have access to people across the country and the world who think and feel and want the exact same things that we do. And we participate in a culture that incentivizes this individualism, which necessarily extends into our religious and spiritual lives. Why force our beliefs into a narrow category of organized religion, with its doctrines and creeds, when we can cobble together a metaphysical system that demands of us no moral, ethical, spiritual, or aesthetic compromises? Why not combine meditation with sage cleansing with the odd Christmas service and its aesthetically pleasing carols? Why not use the language of Hogwarts houses to talk about good and evil, alongside the rhetoric of social justice and metaphors garnered from Star Wars?

I know there are other fan universes, from Star Trek on, and the Buffyverse is a mighty entity. But the case she makes for Potterdom is very strong.

Fandom, Sects and Cults

What does this have to do with religion, or with cults? Everything. Just apply those fannish insights to new religions generally. Assume someone is interested in experimental and cutting edge ideas and ideals. But beyond that, that person seeks the kind of alternative community where new visions are discussed and explored, where they are shared and communicated with the like-minded – where believers know a reality superior to that of the common herd. The themes and ideas might or might not be explicitly religious or spiritual, but in practice it is indistinguishable from those standard labels. I did not invent the description of her Harry Potter universe as “religious-but-not-really-but-actually-kind-of-yes.”

As Burton says,

Fandom … does not require its adherents to subscribe to any formal beliefs about either the metaphysical realm or the world we live in now. But it is absolutely a mechanism for collective identity-making and reinforcement, the very definition of a Durkheimian religion. It may not by itself offer a sense of meaning and purpose, but it definitely provides plenty of scope for community and ritual.

Not just does the online community she is describing echo and reproduce religious forms in so many ways, but it offers members – faithful believers – so much of what earlier generations would have found in fringe or cultish religions. But the new world absolutely differed in two ways. One was the lack of physical interaction, with the familiar kinds of community that implied. You did not live together, and did not have the opportunity (as she says) to kiss another participant, or to punch him/her on the nose.

Also, the new “religion,” if we call it that, is totally separated from geographical space. You know the most important things that such movements do not have? Location, location, location:

If you loved something—whether you were living on a ranch in Texas, in a bungalow in the Cleveland suburbs, or in a penthouse in New York City—you could, with very little effort, find a whole group of people just like you. You were no longer limited by the culture or the ideology of the people you lived next to. You could find your people and, more importantly, you had the freedom to figure out who your people were. Whether you were posting stories or reviews on or exchanging off-site messages with a fellow member of a LiveJournal or JournalFen community, your online experience was an opportunity to engage in a form of sui generis self-creation.

That self-creation idea is critical to the whole model. The new world of exploration is grass roots up, decentralized, and absolutely non-hierarchical. By definition, it can not look to leaders. Can you be charismatic online? I honestly don’t know the answer to that. On the Internet, nobody know you’re a messiah.

Performing Identities

Also think of these communities in terms of how they allow individuals to create and define identities, in a performative way that earlier generations might have found in religious communities. What is your identity? What are you? Why, I am a child of God; a humble follower of the Reverend Moon; a member of the multi-racial End Times community that Rev Jim Jones is leading to liberation … Far more than observers thought at the time, many adherents had not become instant and  lifelong converts. Rather, they used the new movements as a means of experimentation, a “try it and see if you like it” experience, which might or might not work. If it didn’t after a couple of years, then you moved on to another sect, or rejoined the straight world. (Unless you had followed the Rev Jones, in which case your options were constrained). People circulated between sects and cults, in what became a luxuriant undergrowth of experimental subcultures.

Now compare the online world of fanfiction or gaming, and specifically MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) where “the Internet provided the mechanism for both finding tribes and defining what your tribe was.” She quotes Sherry Turkle, writing of  MMORPGs in particular, “Although the games most often took the form of quests, medieval and otherwise, the virtual environments were most compelling because they offered opportunities for a social life, for performing as the self you wanted to be.” Again, these settings are creative, experimental, and performative, and they offer abundant mutual support.

That generation does not have cults or sects, it has tribes, which, well, look very much indeed like traditional sects. And just like traditional sects, the great majority are harmless, and often beneficial to their members or to the larger society. But some evolve in pernicious directions, to become something very much like really dangerous cults. The cults did not vanish. They changed shape into something we no longer recognize as cults.

More on this topic next time, with some specific case-studies of “cults” we might not even have noticed under that name.

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