025 | Cults

This episode, we take the scholarly approach and analyze what a "cult" is. This show is a long one, so you need to make room for this one!

The Chaos Monkeys: Is the solution to the chaos of our society to introduce chaos to harden complex systems? Some people seem to think so![1] 

The Long History of “Noah”: Most people unfamiliar with Ancient History assume the Bible is original. It is in fact, a bigger ripoff than Gobots. [2] 

The “Free Love” Community: The origin of the word is   surprisingly not from the 60’s, but in fact from the 40’s. The 1840’s that is! Yep, it turns out that some Christians were actually down with the idea of experimenting with hippie communes. Of course, like the hippies, they eventually grew up and started to make living. [3] 

Cult of Mac, Mac Hell: Not everyone loves Mac, especially their so-called “certified engineers”. If you’re into fixing your own shit, this dude rules. [4]

The Castration Gueu, Gurmeet Ram Rahim: How do you convince a bunch of your fellow guys to chop off their members so you can bang their wives? Start your own cult, baby! [5]

Cults: One of the problems in trying to identify cults is that there is still no adequate description for it. While the word itself derives from the latin “cultus”, meaning worship, there is an explicit understanding in modern societies that religions and cults are fundamentally different. This author disagrees.

The problem, it seems, is that cults are generally regarded as small offshoots, and are generally associated with extreme behavior, like doomsday cults. However, the current model differentiating cults from religions are too arbitrary to be accurate. It is therefore more useful to talk about cults as a matter of degree rather than employ a static definition. So, rather than judge a cult by the size of its following, we should instead examine 

Since the term cult has a negative connotation, it’s necessary to distinguish harmful cults from harmless ones. For instance, there are few individuals that would describe Trekkies as a cult, but there are nevertheless similar elements that cannot be ignored. Instead of shying away from the term, we should establish a framework to better judge and measure a phenomenon that seems to occur often without any real direction (the obvious exceptions would be cults started by charismatics who rely on their own personality to fuel worship).

Examples of harmful elements of cults:

-Isolationism. Depending on the size of the group, or the power they exert in controlling the very experiences and interactions of members, the further a group isolates itself, the more likely its own belief system can become increasingly twisted, punishing of transgression or interaction with the outside world, often seen as other or even wicked. The most extreme examples of this including using separate words for outsiders, refusing to comply with civil authorities, etc...  

The more the cult is isolated, the more the rest of society will despise them. This will act as a galvanizing element; an Us vs Them mentality sets in, and creates a level of comfort. 

-Dogmatism. All cults have some form of dogma. This may be relatively innocent (like the idea that Kaashiik is a planet in the Star Wars Universe), but in many cases, the Dogmas are rigid, unchanging interpretations of reality that often conflict with our own understanding of the natural world. This forces the follower to disregard the natural world and focus instead on the supernatural world of fantasy and mythology. The more a person is told that this reality is more tangible than the real world, the greater the harm.

-Reverence to “Leader”. Human beings tend to look up to individuals they feel embody principles which they idolize. Often, these leaders will have a great deal of personal charisma (though not always physical beauty). Their followers usually comment that they felt 

-Mutilation. Though not a feature of all cults, it’s not uncommon for many cults to demand that members mutilate their bodies in order to show their allegiance to the group. Often these mutilations have sexual components, usually meant to prohibit sexual pleasure or congress.

-Secrecy. typically, cults will have a number of secrets that only become available to certain initiates, or perhaps known only to the “leaders” themselves. This secret information is often a source of power and mysticism.

-Specified Vocabulary. Cult will develop special vocabularies to confuse others, or as part of a way of trying to redefine, in the image of the group, words and concepts that were previously familiar. 

-Use of Manual Labor. Often seen as a way of breaking down a person’s individuality, excesive, tedious manual labor can have a powerful psychological impact on adherents. This also serves to soften them up, making them more susceptible to control, and less liekly to object, lest they be forced to return to work.    
Disparity of Wealth

-Internal Inquisition. Since many faiths are based on strong suspicions of the outside world, it’s not uncommon for this paranoia to also filter into their own organizations, resulting in people who have made no transgressions into being punished or ostracized. Because their own status within the community is threatened, these victims often blame themselves and come to believe that they have indeed committed wrongs against the organization, or powerful members within it. 

-Sin and Redemption. One way to make psychologically compliant individuals is to first convince them that they are guilty of some form of transgression, or sin. Depending on the cult, these tend to have strong sexual components, or involve the criminalization of “impure” thoughts, either about one’s self, others within the organization, or the existing power structure (priestly class). Typically, these sinners will be put in some form of repentance, which is meant to redeem them in the eyes of others. Because of the intense pressure to conform, and the worry of losing status within the community makes them willing to be their own jailors, torturers, or inquisitors. There is nothing so terrifying as having one’s mind turned against them.   

-Low caloric diets/ fasting. Though this may be much more rare in cults, it’s not uncommon for diet to be severely controlled. Either by forced fasts, or the introduction of low calorie diets, a person is often far more compliant when not properly fed, making them more vulnerable for control.  

Controlling people’s communication. Either through the use of proxy, or not allowing members to communicate with outsiders. 

-Salvation Trap. Since many cults pertain to having the answers to life (or often some form of afterlife), for many adherents who think about leaving the organization for any reason, the thought of no longer being able to be salvaged, and face the consequence of this often feel pressured to stay. This gambit, not dissimilar to the gambler’s fallacy, means that the longer a member is part of the cult, the more they fear losing. 

One common element of cults is their desire to spread their message no matter the human cost. If given a choice between offering medical supplies or food, the would chose to distribute religious materials instead, convinced that the “immortal souls” of the afflicted were far more important that their physical bodies. 

-Internal Legal Code. It’s not uncommon for cults to develop their very own code of ethics that often superseds, in the eyes of members, civil laws. These laws can range from prohibitions on behavior or clothing, to specific activities that must be met (special dietary rules, cooking procedures, etc). The more every aspect of the member is dictated by rules, the more restrictive it becomes. 

-Excommunication/Segregation. Many organizations will practice one form of segregation or another after members defect, or break the rules of the group. The more members are forced to cut ties with apostates, the more dangerous the cult. 

-Disconnection from Reality. The feeling that existence is a continuum of different lives (Hinduism, Scientology), a pit-stop on the way to an eternal life (Christianity, Islam), or is to be rejected in favor of disconnecting from both material and emotional needs (Buddhism). Each reflects a kind of distrust of reality, a rejection of the horrors of life in favor of a more beautiful and pleasant ideal. This is obviously highly appealing to human beings, who live finite, and sometimes brutish lives.  

[1] https://www.amazon.ca/Chaos-Monkeys-Obscene-Fortune-Failure-ebook/dp/B019MMUAAQ
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziusudra
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocF_hrr83Oc
[5] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2902208/Guru-ordered-400-followers-castrated-closer-God-investigated-grievous-bodily-harm-India.html