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Episode 3.6: The Cultic Culture Club (part 6)

Updated: Jan 24

featuring conversations about cults and cultishness with science writer Paul Jensen, trauma counsellor and ICSA executive director Jackie Johnson, and actors, podcastors, and NXIVM survivors Sarah Edmondson and Anthony "Nippy" Ames



The High Cabal and the Lynch Mob:

Exploring Conspiracism Through René Girard’s Scapegoating Theory


This is an abdridge version of a paper presented at 2023 Inernational Cultic Studies Aassociation conference (June 30, 2023, Distil Hotel, Louisville, KY).


Pro-Trump protestors errect a scaffold on the Washington Mall, January 6, 2023.


Conspiracy theories and the communities who espouse them share several similarities with high-control groups frequently labelled as “cults”.  Like many cultish groups, communities of “conspiracy researchers” frequently indulge in various forms of disinformation to assert their moral outrage and vindicate their feelings of victimhood, namely through distorting and mythologizing the past and scapegoating their perceived enemies. 


Belief in conspiracy theories has been described by many scholars as a type of alternative or post-modern religious expression.[1]  Examples include the ways many conspiracists perceive themselves as the victims of “official” dogmas, their missionary zeal to save others from ignorance, their social identity as a stigmatized minority, their proclivity to mythologize the past and to scapegoat their enemies.   

 

Conspiracism is a cultish phenomenon that appeals especially to the powerless and those afraid of losing power.  It is not the product of mental illness or of political radicalism per se.  Rather, conspiracism is a biproduct of a larger existential problem produced by our deep human need for self-affirmation, social belonging, and an uplifting historical narrative.  As I wrote elsewhere:

 

To Scapegoat is to arbitrarily ascribe blame to a person or group irrespective of any known proof of their guilt […] based on how much of a threat they are perceived to be, not what they actually did.  […] It allows the ones-passing-blame the satisfaction of putting a face on the source of some ill-defined ‘evil’ while it lets them abdicate responsibility. […]  Acts of group violence or ostracism [that are then justified] as necessary abuses of justice in the pursuit of a greater good.[2] 

 

The French-born literary anthropologist René Girard believed that all archaic myths contain an implicit moral code steeped in victim-blaming, retribution, and mob violence, that continues to influence modern art and literature from revolutionary political manifestos to Hollywood films.  He called this mindset “Mimetic Violence” (better known now as the “Scapegoating Mechanism”): the human tendency to visit verbal, physical, or psychological violence on individuals whose guilt is assumed rather than proven, and whose implicit purpose is to unite a divided community against a common but fictitious (or largely exaggerated) threat. 

 

French-American cultural athropologist René Girard


Let us summarize this theory through five key concepts, which Girard described using the Greek terms Mimesis (imitation), Skandalon (taking offense), Pharmakos (scapegoat), and Catharsis (purification).[3]

 

A.    Mimetic Desire:

 

Humans need to live in communities to achieve fulfillment, safety, and well-being.  They also derive their personal identities from the groups they belong to, and imitation (mimesis) helps them survive and thrive as a society.  But imitation comes at a cost.  There is eternal scarcity in the objects of our desire.         

 


B.    Scandal/Offence (skandalon)

 

We take offense at the individuals and groups whose ideas contradict our own, whose fortunes expose our misfortunes, who control what we covet, and whose words or very existence threatens our values and self-identity.  When the ego is threatened by a crisis of meaning, faith, or security, it seeks out someone to blame who triggers our mistrust, fears, or jealousies. 

  

Senator Bernie Sanders wags a big finger


C.    Scapegoating (pharmakos)

 

It was not unusual in archaic societies to persecute a usable victim, one that could be readily blamed—often wrongly—as the cause of a public crisis.  The pharmakoi, as these public disruptors were often called in ancient Greece (using this term that generally meant “poison” or “drug”), were an idealized villain, one that could serve as a plausible threat to public order and established norms.[4]  As Girard biographer Cynthia Haven succinctly paraphrased: “Scapegoats are not always innocent flowers, […] but the blame they carry is disproportionate to whatever they, as individuals, may have done, Nevertheless, the perpetrators home in on them with a single-minded fury and incoherent motives.”[5]


The Trial of Socrates (As described in Plato's Apology


The scapegoat mechanism is a visceral instinct that overrides our intellectual faculties and moral conscience with emotional knee-jerks that are fed by our need to preserve ties to the group whose approval we desire at all costs.  In our desire for acceptance and emotional closure, we remain blind to the possibility that the enemy is innocent and a victim of our outrage, not the cause of it.  Cultish beliefs and conspiracy theories are prime examples of the scapegoating instinct, which compels their followers to adopt a simplistic “us versus them” attitude towards non-believers, dismissing them as dupes or devils. 


D.    Mimetic Violence

 

Through its demonization of rivals, mimetic desire produces an unending chain of moral scandals and scapegoats.  To deal with these recurring crises groups visit various forms of violence on their perceived enemies.  Initially, the fear of being singled out invites restraint, until a first avenger takes it upon themselves to “cast the first stone”.  The imitative process then weakens restraint as it becomes increasingly easier and more rewarding for individuals within the group to “cast their own stones” until the act becomes the norm and those who fail to follow suit are themselves perceived as heretics, traitors, spies, or malevolent freeloaders.  Those fearing to be targeted by the mob succumb to peer-pressure and accept the new consensus as binding.  Those who oppose it suffer the wrath of the crowd.  Acts of collective violence are perpetual themes in the history of cults and of conspiracy movements, namely in the form of witch hunts, inquisitions, show trials, and expulsions.  The harshest treatment is often reserved to members who voluntarily choose to leave the group.    

 

The "Autri-Chienne": Queen Marie Antoinette and the infamous guillotine


E.    Purification (Catharsis)


The expulsion or destruction of a scapegoat produces a unifying experience and newfound peace among the cultish or conspiracist community.  But this is illusory and temporary.  The quintessential characteristic shared by cultists and conspiracists is their collective assurance that they are both blameless and justified to visit retribution on their perceived enemies, and that these enemies are necessarily guilty and deserving of punishment.  

 


A powerful allegory of the Scapegoat mechanism displayed in cultish and conspiracist groups can be found in that famous scene called the “Two Minutes Hate” in George Orwell’s insightful dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four:         

 

A hideous, grinding screech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. […] The face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed onto the screen. […] Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the party […] and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities. […] He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity.  All subsequent crimes […], all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly from his teaching. […His was] an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to fill one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level-headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. […] He was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought […].

 

A scene from the film 1984 (1956)


The sight or even the thought of Goldstein produced fear and anger automatically. […] His theories were refuted, smashed, ridiculed, held up to the general gaze for the pitiful rubbish that they were. […] He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. […] 

 

The Hate rose to a frenzy.  People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices, […]  ‘Swine!  Swine!  Swine!’  […] The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.  Within thirty seconds, any pretence was always unnecessary.  A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill and torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. […]


A scene from the film 1984 (1984)


The hostile figure melted into the face of Big Brother.  […A] little sandy haired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her.   With a tremulous murmur that sounded like ‘My Saviour!’ she extended her arms towards the screen.[6]   

 

Orwell’s futuristic nightmare merges racist and class-based hatreds seamlessly to suggest that all humans have the propensity to truck their intellectual faculties for a more empowering sense of social inclusion and vindicated outrage.  Emmanuel Goldstein is the ultimate existential threat to this miserable society—an ignorant, slavish, superstitious, uncharitable, and self-dehumanizing hive of imitative worker bees.  Does the evil Goldstein even exist?  The protagonist Winston Smith temporarily doubts it, and also understands that Big Brother is a liar and a tyrant.  But consciously acknowledging this fact, even quietly to himself, is dangerous.  It could lead Winston to subtly betray his sustained efforts to fit in and avoid being tagged as a traitor and heretic by the hysterical mob and watchful state apparatus.  Admitting that Goldstein is possibly innocent of the charges laid against him would further rob Winston’s own life of meaning and purpose.  It is precisely because the imagined enemy is so despicably fearsome that Winston and his fellow minions are able to abdicate all responsibility for their own hateful behaviour.  

 

Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate is a cathartic event that purges their basic desires.  It gives them a common target—a scapegoat—on which to unload their resentment, offering them through this ecstatic experience a sense of group unity and of moral certainty, no matter how false the story they are performing might be, a story “so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it”.

 

Like the participants of the Two Minutes Hate, conspiracists and cultists alike are not as interested as they claim in the pursuit of objective truth.  Whether or not their scapegoats are genuinely guilty is not the primary concern.  Scapegoating is most effective in a highly cohesive and self-isolating community, bound together by mutual feelings of alienation, victimhood, and resentment, and mobilized by a powerful ideology based on a set of unfalsifiable beliefs—an alternative and toxic form of spirituality.  

 

Historians of religion David Robertson and Asbjørn Dyrendal identify several similarities between networks of conspiracy theory believers and religious communities that obsess over paranormal phenomena spiritual enlightenment, or impending doomsday scenarios.[7]  These similarities include, firstly, a life-changing commitment.

 

The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David


A total commitment to the ideology is first required precisely so that the believer may be able to perceive the evidence as evidence.  Failure to fully accept the ideology as necessarily true is taught to be a moral failure on the part of the follower, not the fault of an imperfect theory or of an imperfect teacher who promotes it.  A belief in a conspiracy theory then, like membership in an exclusivist religious sect, requires making a leap of faith, imbuing that theory with a “sacred status” that shapes every part of that person’s identity, social behaviour, relationships, and life choices.[8]  

 


A second similarity between cults and conspiracy theorists is a belief in grand simplifying narratives that frame the whole of human history as a war of attrition between a select and morally pure human remnant and the worldwide dominion of the powers of evil.  In both cases, the community defines itself as the enlightened guardians of an ambitious explanation for the existence of suffering and evil) and their doctrines as a utopian roadmap for the creation of a new moral order.[9]  


 

A third similarity discussed by Robertson and Dyrendal is "rolling prophecy". Such groups multiply prophetic utterances about the world that is to come, congratulating themselves for predicting events that come to pass (often accidentally or only in part), and explaining away (or ignoring) the predictions they got completely wrong.  Such prophecies are more often than not an assemblage of beliefs drawn from an ideological “buffet”, drawn selectively from orthodox and alternative faiths. These dogmas are then reinforced with cherry-picked evidence and repackaged to suit the needs and convictions of the community.  This helps explain why conspiracy theories, and cults both evolve quickly to remain pertinent to their followers, attractive to prospective new members, and to maintain the credibility of their leaders.[10]  The appearance of infallibility is crucial to ensure that the researcher or prophet keeps the group from seeking out “mainstream” or “orthodox” explanations.

  


Finally, a fourth similarity between cultists and conspiracists is their dualistic worldview that divides the whole world into rigid categories of good and evil, with large menageries of heroes and villains.  They have their slain messiahs, their saintly prophets, their lurking devils, and their scheming apostates (e.g., people like me!).  They also have rituals and meetings where the faithful are reassured that they will emerge victorious in the war against evil, as well as rites of passage, such as pilgrimages to “sacred spaces”.


Conspiracy entrepreneur Alex Jones draws a crowd at Dallas' Dealey Plaza (11/22/2013)


As I explained in an earlier episode of the podcast, I believe that both of these terms—“conspiracist” and “cultish”—can be defined and used objectively if they are used to describe a type of belief system or behaviour, I now further contend that they are not merely similar phenomena, but interlocking mechanisms that deceptively manipulate information, as well as the trust, fears, hate, and desires of vulnerable lackeys, to further the self-interests of a few.      

 

There are, of course, many differences between cultists and conspiracy theorists.  While cultists are often trained to behave like obsequious children, conspiracists are more likely to explode in cantankerous adolescent outrage.  While cults usually have a rigid Catholic-like hierarchy of power, conspiracists are more likely to exist in a decentralized Protestant-like patchwork of overlapping faith groups that listen to the same set of teachers but interpret their teachings separately and selectively.  While cultists frequently live together in a closed physical environment where their leaders control information tightly and impose their teachings on the members wholesale, the decentralized nature of conspiracist communities, in which each member is encouraged to independently “do their own research”, affords the conspiracist greater freedom to construct their own personalized conspiracy doctrine.  But on the whole, there are more than enough similarities and overlaps between conspiracist groups and cultish religions to call them interlocking phenomena, and more than enough historical cases where the two phenomena are so intertwined as to be one and the same such as Jonestown, Scientology, The followers of David Koresh, Heaven’s Gate, the Order of the Solar Temple, QAnon, etc.  

 

Jim Jones and the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown, 1979.


I would further argue that conspiracism is a politicized form of cultishness, one that presents itself as the legitimate watchdog of “corrupt” epistemic authorities like governments, think tanks, academia, and mainstream news media, much in the same way that high-control faith communities paint themselves as the guardians of a purified revelation reclaimed from corrupt religious orthodoxies.

 

And because they are both contrarian in nature, they can adapt to changing realities, tolerate multiple contradictory claims, and reinvent themselves to appeal to groups who previously found them repugnant or irrational Conspiracism and cults both simplify the problem of evil and suffering by projecting blame onto a useful enemy, giving them the ability to justify acts of ostracism and aggression against those whose different beliefs cannot be tolerated, while providing believers with a false sense that the evil in question has been identified and addressed.  Unable to see themselves for what they truly are—vindictive cabals and lynch mobs—without exposing their very own values and egos to criticism, conspiracists and cults justify their acts of mimetic violence as legitimate and necessary abuses of power in the pursuit of a greater communal good.

 

Humans naturally prefer simple, empowering myths over complex, inconvenient truths. When our search for truth clashes with our desire to find purpose and acceptance, we must remain on our guard not to fall prey to simplistic and self-serving conclusions.  Being “political animals”, humans are drawn towards groups who share their interests and culture as well as their basic assumptions about good and evil.  When their trust in institutions wanes and their need for reassurance waxes, stigmatized communities will turn increasingly inwards, taking refuge inside echo chambers that hinder their ability to relate healthily with non-believers.  One way to guard against this is to actively avoid joining groups that present themselves as allies united against a common enemy, and to engage in meaningful friendships with neighbours and colleagues—especially those who hold different worldviews.

 

Allies have an expiry date, their relationship is based on convenience and self-interes. Friends, on the other hand, look out for each other’s well-being, irrespective of the personal cost.  The best way to bring positive change to any society is not by making allies in the trenches, but by making friends across the divide.

 


M.J. Gagné, 2023.


[1] E.g., Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (University of California Press, Second Edition, 2013); David G. Robertson and Asbjørn Dyrendal, “Conspiracy Theories and Religion,” in Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them, ed. Joseph P. Uscinski (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] Michel Jacques Gagné, Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination: Debunking the Myths and Conspiracy Theories (Routledge, 2022), 433-440.

[3] For a discussion of scapegoating as a “mimetic psychosocial mechanism” in mythical, pagan, and Biblical contexts, see René Girard, “The First Stone,” Renascence Vol. 52, Issue 1 (Fall 1999).  See also Christopher Hrynkow, “Girard, René, Theories of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating,” in Violence and Religion: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross, Vol.2 (Routledge, 2011), and Gabriel Andrade, “René Girard,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2023.  https://iep.utm.edu/girard/ 

[4] Todd Merlin Compton, Victim of The Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History, Hellenic Studies Series 11 (Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, 2006); Girard, “The First Stone,” (op.cit.); Girard, The Scapegoat (1982); Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001).

[5] Cynthia L. Haven, The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard (Michigan State University Press, 2018), 235.

[6] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Books, 1990),  Chapter I.  Emphasis added.

[7] Robertson and Dyrendal, “Conspiracy Theories and Religion,” op. cit., 411.

[8] Robertson and Dyrendal, 412.

[9] Robertson and Dyrendal, 416-17.

[10] Robertson and Dyrendal, 418.



Documents related to this episode: *


 

2. Paul Jensen: “The Assemblies of God; Secrets of a High-Demand Church,” (interview), The Influence Continuum with Dr. Steven Hassan, October 23, 2023. Freedom of Mind Resource Center.


3. Etalia (science communication strategies). Paul Jensen, founder and director. (homepage)

 

4. David G. Robertson and Asbjørn Dyrendal, “Conspiracy Theories and Religion,” in Joseph P. Uscinski, ed.: Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them. Oxford University Press, 2017.

 

5. Christopher Hrynkow, “Girard, René, Theories of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating,” in Violence and Religion: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross, Vol.2.  Routledge, 2011.

 

6. René Girard, “The First Stone,” Renascence Vol. 52, Issue 1, Fall 1999.

 

7. Gabriel Andrade, “René Girard,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2023. 

 

8. Dr. Jacqueline Johnson, DSW, LCSW-R (homepage), Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Trauma, Abuse, and Cult Recovery Specialist.

 

 

11. Margaret Thaler Singer: Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace.  Jossey-Bass (revised edition), 2003.

 

 


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14. Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe (Amazon Prime, 2006).  Directed by Marina Zenovich.  Written by Ro Haber.

 

 

16. Escaping Twin Flames (Netflix, 2023). Directed by Cecilia Peck. 

 

17. Barry Meier: “Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2017.

 

18. Frank Parlato: NXIVM Archive, The Frank Report. https://frankreport.com

 

19. Josh Bloch: CBC Uncover, Season 1: Escaping NXIVM (Podcast, 2018).     

 

20. Josh Bloch, Kathleen Goldhar, Anita Elash and Dave Pizer: “Escaping NXIVM: How a Vancouver actor joined a self-help group and ended up in an alleged sex cult,” CBC, September 5, 2018. 

 

21. Sarah Edmondson, with Christine Gasbarre: Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, the Cult That Bound My Life.  Chronicle Prism, 2019.

 

22. The Vow (TV Series, HBO, 2020-22).  Directed by Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer, and Omar Mullick.

 

21. The Devil’s Advocate (Warner Bros., 1997) Dir. by Taylor Hackford.  Feat. Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.

 

22. The Witches of Eastwick (Warner Bros., 1987).  Dir. by. George Miller.  Feat. Jack Nicholson and Cher.

 

23. Scent of A Woman (Universal Pictures, 1992). Dir. by Martin Brest.  Feat. Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell.   


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24. Nigel Chapman, ed.: Who To Trust? Christian Belief in Conspiracy Theories. ISCAST, 2022. (click here to order a paperback version (Australia).



26. ISCAST (Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology) homepage.


27. Michel Jacques Gagné: "Who Would Jesus Fear?”  A review of Who To Trust? Christian Belief in Conspiracy Theories by Nigel Chapman et al. (ISCAST, 2022). Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 75, Number 2, September 2023, p.128-130.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.56315/PSCF9-23Chapman.


28. Karen M. Douglas, Joseph E. Uscinski, Robbie M. Sutton, Aleksandra Cichocka, Turkay Nefes, Chee Siang Ang, and Farzin Deravi: "Understanding Conspiracy Theories," Wiley Online Library (Open Access), 20 March 2019.


29. Asbjørn Dyrendal, David G. Robertson, and Egil Asprem: Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion, Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume: 17, Brill, 2018.


30. Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay: How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2019.



* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.

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