Updated: Mar 3
“Just a Spoonful of Kool-Aid Helps the Cyanide Go Down”
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 3.1, Chapter 1)
The word 'cult' is a pretty common word, it gets used to describe a bunch of things: the cult of the Virgin Mary, a popular person ('cult figure'), a popular movie ('cult classic'), a fan club ('cult following'), a couple of rock bands who used the word “cult” in their name, and the popular veneration of charismatic politicians like Joseph Stalin and John Kennedy (better known as the 'cult of personality', which, by the way, is also the title of a kickass Eighties rock song!).
Many people use the word 'cult', sometimes a little too loosely, to describe a wide array of groups with strange beliefs and unusual practices. Even the Trump White House and its “woke-culture” opponents have been called cults by media pundits. Ronald DeWolf, better known as L. Ron Hubbard Jr.—the first-born son of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Sr.—once said that “cults are as dangerous as drugs. They commit the highest crime: the rape of the soul.” Needless to say, he and his father were not best of friends.
The word 'cult' evokes images of isolated communes with blood-curdling rituals; of mad prophets claiming exclusive access to God; of gullible idealists getting “brainwashed” by their leaders; and of shocking mass suicides. It may remind you of famous mystics like David Koresh, Sun Myung Moon, L. Ron Hubbard, Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, Charles Manson, or Jim Jones. And there is no denying that cults and conspiracy theories share some kind of kinship. There are conspiracy theories about cults and conspiracy theories promoted by cults. There are also proven conspiracies perpetrated by cults both against their own members and against those on the outside who threaten their power, not to mention the secret operations of government agencies and law enforcement to infiltrate, monitor, control, and prosecute cults that are considered subversive. Indeed, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between those groups we call 'cults' and those we call 'conspiracy theorists'. To many of their opponents, the difference is negligible.
So, what exactly is a cult? There are many well-known religious cults. These include doomsday cults, purity cults, and polygamist cults. But there are also terrorist cults, sex cults and death cults, UFO cults, New Age cults, self-improvement cults, and self-abasing cults. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines cult as “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious,” “a system of religious beliefs and ritual,” and “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.” So it’s a pretty large bag that can be used to include a wide array of religious, and even non-religious ideas and practices. In essence, any group might be described as a cult if (A) it does too much or too little of something, (B) it expresses strange and unpopular beliefs, or (C) it makes us feel uncomfortable. For these reasons, many scholars of religion have argued that the word 'cult' is a pejorative term used to dismiss or attack any belief system one disagrees with. Such authors opt instead for more neutral terms like “New Religious Movement”.
But that can create more confusion. The problem with the term New Religious Movement, for instance, is threefold. The first is that many groups that are called cults are not new. Indeed, many so-called New Religious Movements borrow much of their ideas from Medieval and Ancient traditions. Secondly, some of them don’t necessarily offer much in the way of religious teachings. It can be hotly debated, for instance, whether groups like Scientology or NXIVM [pronounced "nexium"] offer any religious content (whichever way you define the word “religion”, which is itself another semantic hornet’s nest). Finally, the word 'cult'—as problematic as it is—has made its way into our everyday language, and although some might think it is too vague or too often misused, it’s hard to come up with a better word to describe a type of group behaviour that is widely perceived as antisocial, controlling, dogmatic, deceptive, and even dangerous. In popular conversations, the word 'cult' is used far too broadly, but it has, at least intuitively, a meaning that most people more-or-less agree on. Perhaps it needs to be fine-tuned, but it is by no means meaningless.
It’s a bit like the word 'pornography'. One person’s pornography may be another person’s Beaux Arts. But most of us would probably agree that there are forms of erotica that are antisocial, demeaning, and harmful. The dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable artforms is wide and hazy. But does that mean we should do away with the concept of pornography? Many public debates and court cases have attempted to better define that grey area with various levels of success. But as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography in a 1964 case concerning the censorship of obscene artwork, “I know it when I see it”. This may be a subjective standard, but it is consistent with a wide popular consensus that some erotic artworks ought to be censored when the good they produce is outweighed by the bad.
The word 'cult' is also a bit like the words 'game' and 'religion', two concepts that are also hard to define. In the case of a game, we might use that term to refer to something that’s fun or that we do in a group, such as hockey or poker or backgammon. But it can also be a friendless pastime, like playing solitaire or doing the New York Times crossword. The term 'game' can also be used to describe a military exercise, a cut-throat competition, or a form of psychological manipulation. There is no single necessary and sufficient condition that makes every game a game. And yet, we use the word every day, usually without confusion.
The philosopher of religion William Alston borrowed the game example from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to argue that the same holds for the word 'religion'. No single element of any religion appears to be universal—whether it’s prayer, a set liturgy, birth and death rituals, collective worship, or even belief in a god. But most of the belief-systems we call religions have a sort of “family resemblance” insofar as they share various traits that Alston called “Religion-Making Characteristics”.
This, I think, is how the word 'cult' should probably be understood. Instead of deciding that this group is a cult while the other is not, it may be more useful to speak of 'cultish' groups and 'cultish' beliefs as lying on a spectrum, with some groups sharing a majority of the characteristics that make a cult a cult, and others sharing only a few. In that sense, we should not speak of cults as clearly defined organizations, but as forms of group expression and thinking that can change over time. In this way, a mainstream organization like the Catholic Church or the Republican Party could be considered cultish in certain circumstances, while minority groups like the Mormons or Hasidic Jews need not be. Which is why it is important for us here at Paranoid Planet, as we set off, over the next few episodes, to talk about cultish behaviours and thoughts, to seek an objective and appropriate definition of the word 'cult', one that is neither too vague nor too subjective.
Also, given certain similarities between the way cultish groups operate and the way conspiracy theory networks function—for example in their suspicion of mainstream culture, their self-isolation from the rest of society, their conviction of holding the keys to the truth, or the way they sometimes cause violence and harm—it is appropriate and imperative for a program like ours to investigate whether communities of conspiracy theory believers should or should not be described as cultish.
Now, if only we could come up with a list of Cult-Making Characteristics that might help us answer these questions clearly…
Lucky for us, that’s why we have this podcast. And what we hope to achieve over this set of episodes is to figure out what makes a cult a cult, to identify the reasons that lead people to join cults, to consider how cults get formed, how they endure, and how they sometimes end up destroying themselves. We’ll talk about groups like the Unification Church (or “Moonies”), Scientology, and the Peoples Temple, and consider whether all of this can help us better understand conspiracy movements like 9/11 Truthers, Anti-Vaxxers, QAnon supporters, and JFK Buffs.
So stay with us. Because if you don’t, you might just be wasting the next billion years…
Michel J. Gagné, 2020.
Readings and videos related to Episode 3.1:
1. Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry: Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. W.W. Norton & Co., 1974.
2. Cults & Extreme Beliefs. A&E, 2018 (Amazon Prime)
3. Wild Wild Country. Duplass Brothers Productions, 2018. (Netflix)
4. “Escaping NXIVM,” Uncover (Season 1), 2018. (CBC Radio podcast).
5. Jeffrey Ian Ross, ed.: Religion & Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present. M.E. Sharpe, 2011.
6. Mike Lofgren: “The GOP Has Become a Death Cult,” Common Dreams, April 17, 2020.
7. Kyle Smith: “The White-Guilt Cult,” National Review, 18 June 2020.
8. Mathew Schmalz: “Why the label ‘cult’ gets in the way of understanding new religions,” The Conversation, Ap 10, 2018.
9. Rebecca Moore: “Cult, New Religious Movement, or Minority Religion,” Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple , 29 August 2018.
10. William Alston: “Religion,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., 1967.
11.Victoria S. Harrison: “The Pragmatics of Defining Religion in a Multicultural World,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 59(3), 2006, :pp. 133-152.
12. Peter Lattman: “The Origins of Justice Stewart's ‘I Know It When I See It’,” The Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2007.
13. Rick Ross: “Watch Out for Tell-Tale Signs,” The Guardian, 27 May 2009.
14. “Podcast 119: Cult expert and deprogrammer Rick Ross on NXIVM founder Keith Raniere and the many tactics cults use to exploit the unwary,” An Interview with Jonathan Kay, Quillette, 26 October 2020.
15. The Master (Weinstein, 2012), Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams.
16. “Paul Thomas Anderson, The Man Behind 'The Master'” (Interview), NPR: Fresh Air, 2 October 2012.
17. “Inside the Church of Scientology: An Exclusive Interview With L. Ron Hubbard, Jr.,” Penthouse Magazine, June 1983.
18. Let There Be Light (Army Pictorial Service, U.S. Army, 1946), Directed by John Huston.
19. Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy (transl. W. A. Haussmann), 1910. Project Guttenberg.