This one might be a little out there, but today I want to talk to y’all about cults, culture and community.
Bear with me! I promise it has a point to it and by the end I hope to have you all wanting to make your own cults! And that’s only mildly sarcastic and 15% clickbait-y!
Let’s buckle up.
My concerns about the modern use of the word “cult” first arose around the age of 12 or 13. This is admittedly a ridiculous way to start an article, as it implies that since I was a preteen I have been consumed with this niche, bristling at the unjust and murky waters of the word. What is more accurate to say is that my confusion about the use of the word began in those years and has since aged into something of a soapbox. Whether this keg which I seek to roll out with this article is one of rich vinous fermentation or rather a rotten dairy of a particularly fuzzy variety is yet to be seen.
Before “true crime” podcasts were all the rage was the era of “Top 10” YouTube videos. Some were innocent enough but many sought out the extreme, insane, boundary pushing events of human society. I remember in those days watching the many videos of Matthew Santoro who would give his personal list of terrifying subjects from what he deemed the “craziest religions” to the “weirdest superstitions.” Whether it was his video or another in that genre that set me on this path I cannot say. Nevertheless, I distinctly remember questioning for the first time what it was that truly separated a cult from a religion. One word or the other was always more contextually correct, and culturally we all seemed to know how to use it, but I could not satisfactorily figure out why. Everyone seems to know what a cult is, but no one seems to be able to define it in a sentence or two.
This fascination re-emerged in high school as I pieced my way through the words of H.P. Lovecraft, who had a penchant in his stories for strange peoples and their cults dedicated to far stranger gods. It was around this time that I concluded that all religions were in fact cults. I figured some sociological sense of seniority took the more mainstream religions off the list of acceptable things to call cults. Not entirely unlike how your great-grandfather certainly wasn’t a sexist, though by all intents and purposes society at large would ascribe the adjective to a young man less than half his age acting the same way, and with much decorum.
Cult Vs. Religion
If I had to attempt a definition, cults are groups based on a particular set of beliefs that heavily impact the lifestyle and decisions made by the members, even to the point of being the dominant force informing their worldview through which they see everything else. It usually has negative connotations from those who believe that formation to be coercive or easily manipulated, either by the abuse of the authority in the structure, or simply intrinsic to the idea of that authority. It is impossible to have a conversation about this typical definition of cults without talking about social conditioning, brainwashing, propaganda, and other such buzzwords that tend to crop up.
But who gets to make that call? Who gets to decide if social conditioning is really just socialization? When Marc Antony says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” is he a master of rhetoric, or is he a propagandist? We all agree that brainwashing is bad, but what then of psychological deprogramming, the controversial method of removing brainwashing by “fighting fire with fire” as it were? Who gets to decide? What is the difference between indoctrination and catechesis?
The difference, dear readers, is not the approach. It is not the skill you use, nor the structure of the organization. The difference is simply that one pursues the true and beautiful while the other rejects it. It is ultimately a moral claim that is evaluated differently by every person, based on their personal morality. There simply is no empirical measure of the word, which makes it useless to use in a secular or pluralistic society except as a club to level at anyone you disagree with.
The idea of this really comes to a head in the existence of Catholic religious orders. Orders whose practices and rules of life are more deserving of the word, per my definition above (sans connotations) than many real, destructive cults. So established and all-encompassing are their rules of life that no one else is more qualified for the position. Not only is the Catholic Church herself a cult, but she creates new mini-cults regularly through new dioceses, parishes, missions, lay associations, confraternities, secular institutes, and orders. You could also apply this in degrees to the Amish, the Mennonites, Puritans, etc.
I have great respect for the skeptical religious commentators who acknowledge this truth, if only for their consistency and honesty. But the world that wishes to keep “cults” as derisive language would do well to avoid leveling such a charge. I imagine that far from the anti-Christian kill-shot many desire, it would have rather the opposite effect of rational people seeing the ridiculousness of the situation and concluding instead that cults in themselves are good, or at least neutral entities.
This notion of good cults has weight to it. In the Catholic tradition, the following that emerges around saints before they are canonized is called a cult of devotion. Various saints had “cults” and in this context the word is positive and not derisive. Likewise, scholars of comparative religion have moved away from the word entirely, favoring the language of “new religious movements.”
Cult Vs. Culture
In my recent and seemingly unrelated investigation of what makes communities and how cultures develop, I have recently rebranded my high school stance such that cults are not all religions, but rather cultures. Going back to my previous working definition of the cult, there are many more beliefs to build around than just religious beliefs. There are economic beliefs, political beliefs, ethical beliefs, beliefs about what makes a successful person or about how particular people ought to engage with each other. The list is exhaustive. And when these beliefs manifest in shared communities, it manifests as culture. Each culture is a cult: Sports cults, death cults, life cults, pleasure cults, media cults, etc. In these secular cults we find political parties, activist groups, youth scouting associations, academic societies, and many more besides.
If you do not think you belong to a cult you are sorely mistaken, but fear not as this is a good thing to realize. You see, if you don’t think you are in a cult, you simply don’t know who your cult leader is. Nor might you know what god you worship. This can admittedly make it hard to see if you are in one of the good ones or not.
It can be hard to come to terms with the reality that we all have our own cults. Especially in a world that pushes the agenda that true religious freedom is exemplified in the total removal of religion from public spaces. It is the lack of religion in the classroom, so the social engineers tell us, that makes it a safe place for all religions. We see this approach in religion, ethics, traditions, community identity, etc. It is a world ruled by the lowest common denominator; an anti-culture concerned more with what it is not than with what it is. But even anti-cultures are in their own way a culture.
Anti-cults do not merely beat down on cults, they create one supreme, secular and artificial cult which is portrayed as having some level of enlightenment making it superior to all others. After all, a desolate landscape is never the lack of a landscape. It is a salt plain, a desert, miles of sand dunes, or simply a wasteland. And these are each vibrant and distinct landscapes in their own rights. Likewise, the anti-cult which only knows what it is not, rather than being a utopia free of cult influences as many would desire, is simply a particularly surreptitious kind of reactionary cult.
We must reject this particular anti-cult. It is not hard to see how, in a fallen humanity, there are only two candidates for lowest common denominator. They are: the image and likeness of God, and our shared concupiscence, though they may be discussed in secular culture under different names. Nothing else could be more base or simple to our existence as a human race. The same foolishness that dismissed the first option has also dismissed the moral imperative of rejecting the second. They have declared viciousness the deserved winner before the contest ever began, and thus the anti-cult chose an idol in the image of man rather than a God incarnate as one.
Is There a Better Way?
So what can we do in a world where the secular religion is an anti-cult whose dogmatic adherence to the lowest common denominator between us deifies vice? We must make better cults. And at this point I must say the quiet part out loud. If you think I am crazy for embracing the word “cult”, you had better get comfortable with it. It will be leveled at you if you seek to live any sort of life that could be called “real.”
If you create any form of community with actual identity it will be called a commune, or a cult, or a bubble, or echo chamber, or really any other propagandized pejorative meant to convince the world that you ought not associate with people who share your values in any way that actually promotes action in society. I, for one, am a happy member of several. I’d even pay my dues to become a card carrying member if they actually made cards.
So what does this have to do with community? Heck, what even is community? My personal definition of community is when you have people to do life with. I like this definition for several reasons.
You can’t have community without action. People simply existing around each other aren’t a community. It requires a goal, a mission, an interaction. If your community is stagnant its dying.
Communities aren’t just for hyper-isolated categories of your life. It should welcome the whole person. If you have your work friends and your church friends and your neighbor friends and your adult friends and your family friends and your homestead friends and your internet friends, all you have are friends. That isn’t community. But when your neighbors are the people that you invite over for dinner that might be. When your co-workers are the people you raise your kids with, or when the people you see at church help you fix your deck. When these things come together you start to do life and not just things like work or church or dinner.
If you want community you have to do life with people. You can’t just do things for people. If you do your part all by your lonesome and then they do their part all by their lonesome, sure you have done something together, but you didn’t do it with them. From this it should be pretty easy to see that gift giving is not going to build community. I don’t care how many hours you slaved over making the perfect coffee mug to give your pastor. If you want to do community with him, you would have been better off inviting him to something.
So the interconnectedness between community and cult should be pretty clear. If cults are groups that share beliefs, community is the living out of those beliefs together. If cult is the structure, then community is what grows on that structure. When you destroy the cult, you destroy the community. When you promote an anti-cult you get an anti-community. Look around and you’ll understand what I mean. Community requires some culture to build around, and the culture informs the qualities of the community. If we want to build strong communities that last, we must build strong cults.
In a world that rejects everything, creating anything is a radical act. Make a flag. Write a pledge. Develop a handshake. Start a community. Hold you and those who do life with you to the standards you agree upon and don’t let them off the hook easy. Don’t let them let you off either. Write a rule of life, promote a shared spirituality or method of prayer. Reject materialism, embrace dietary restrictions (GMOs anyone?). Fast together, feast together. This all builds the structure of the culture. Then you must LIVE. Live it out with others until community grows. The only necessary disclaimer is not to be manipulative or megalomaniacal. This is such a basic tenant of life that it hardly bears stating! (Well, except to those who run the anti-cult… They could stand to hear it.)
If nothing else, it beats the rampant manipulation and megalomania of the anti-culture we see around us. The current American culture has been described to me as a “gnostic death cult” and I happen to agree. The values championed in society, the traditions which are forming, the frameworks which characterize our generation are all doctrines of the anti-cult. It is so inherent to the system that it is hard to tell when it began. You cannot make a proper cult out of an anti-cult. We must not even focus on tearing down the anti-cult as that would only create one more reactionary anti-cult. We must concern ourselves only with what can build up.
In the words of Venerable Fulton Sheen,
“Our nation is too full of those that are crying ‘Down’. Down with the universities. Down with schools. Down with the churches. Down with teachers. Down with government. Down with the police. Can you build anything down? You cannot! Certainly time in our nation to change our words! Let’s begin now to use the word UP. Up from all of this filth! Up from this violence! Up from this indifference of courts. Up, up to the battlements of eternity. Up, Up, to God!”Venerable Fulton Sheen
Join a Cult today!
You cannot build up in a system that was designed to tear down, you might as well walk up a descending escalator or use a treadmill as a mode of transportation. I would sincerely suggest that anyone who finds themselves in these sorts of situations find a better cult to join.