In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

The Cargo of Cults

Among religious studies scholars “cult,” in the popular sense, is a swear word. Professionals in the field don’t use it because it implies that a belief system—usually modern—is somehow less important than an established religious tradition. Instead, we’ve been taught to call these “New Religious Movements,” or NRM for short. Looking around it seems that political correctness is now gone and open advocacy of white power is the new norm. After all, the minority of the American electorate voted for it so we can change the rules on that basis. Even before the election, however, Rebecca Nelson wrote an important article on GQ about the cult of Trump. As a person, what’s there not to dislike? A long history of shady business deals, lawsuits, and sexual harassment (we just couldn’t get beyond Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky just a couple of decades ago, but all that’s water over the dam) such a man couldn’t have been elected even in the W era. Well, cult thinking explains that.

Nelson cites the work of Rick Alan Ross, an expert (back from in the days when we still had those) on cults. The rise of Trump followed exactly the pattern of how cults work. A single man (nobody voted for Pence) who is able to fix this great broken machine called America. He can do it by referring to a black box that nobody may open to examine, but yes, believe me, the solution’s in there. Stir the muck and tell people things are awful when life expectancy is better than it’s ever been, everybody has health care, and the economy’s finally starting to stabilize, and you’ve got yourself a cult leader. As Nelson insinuates, the Kool-Aid is in the future.

We learned a sum of zero from Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite. We wrote them off as weirdos getting off on a power trip. Swept away by the mere fact of being followed. Mentally unstable with delusions of grandeur. Narcissistic to a fault. Wait, what? We ignored them so well that we’ve elected a candidate who took not just a page from their playbook, but an entire chapter. Back in the days of political correctness, when there was still such a thing as experts, I sensed that things were pretty good. As horror movies should’ve taught me, too good. Caligula insisted that his statue be set up in the Jerusalem temple next to where Yahweh resided. The temple may be gone, but the desire to be worshiped will always be with us.

Wait, that's not the Washington Monument is it?

Wait, that’s not the Washington Monument is it?

The Wicked Man

I confess, it was a moment of weakness. Or I could say that it was dedication to research. In either case, I subjected myself to watching the remake of the 1973 classic, The Wicker Man. The reviews that I’ve read over the past decade since its release had warned me not to subject myself to it. Not only did I, but I had my wife gamely watch it with me. If you plan to watch the flick but haven’t, I’ll first of all beg you to save your time and secondly warn you of spoiler alerts. So here goes.

By Source, Fair use, Link

By Source, Fair use, Link

In a movie that may be either pro-feminist or misogynistic, depending on which way you look at it, this version of The Wicker Man takes place in the United States. We’ve got all kinds of New Religious Movements in this country, so that much is believable. The film has a group of women who mute, deafen, and enslave their males moving from Salem, Massachusetts, across the country to Puget Sound where they can find an island to be left alone with their rituals. Superfluously adding an “s” to the original’s Summerisle, they come up with the sloppy-sounding Summersisle where they can raise bees. They worship the great mother-goddess, which is cool enough, but their religion appears to be cobbled together in a way that suggests those responsible for the movie didn’t do their homework. Although Sister Summersisle (five “s”es—count ‘em!) claims this to be a Celtic religion there are merely the weakest echoes of such.

To make matters worse, Edward Malus goes around beating up women when they get in his way. Yes, he is the unwitting victim—we’ve seen the original and know how this plays out—but it makes the viewer uncomfortable watching this unsympathetic protagonist punching, kicking, and even bicycle-jacking with a gun, the women of the island. A man comes ashore and the first thing he does is try to take over. Were there evidence of a deeper plot here it might suggest that this was intentionally written into it. As it turns out, however, as we enter a fearful era of the rich white man’s revenge, such scenes only suggest that Mr. Malus had it coming. Perhaps the movie is prophetic after all.

I really don’t recommend spending your time on the remake of what has become a horror classic. If you’ve seen the excellent original, you already know how it ends. And despite his brusque manner Neil Howie didn’t shout invectives at women or punch them in the face. In short, he took his fate in what might be a way that is also prophetic.

Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.

My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.


Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.

Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.


The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!