Throughout American history, a recurrent narrative has warned of the danger of small, tight-knit groups, following a charismatic leader, and allegedly prone to sexual abuse and misconduct, the maltreatment and exploitation of members, violence and financial fraud, brainwashing and mind control. Although the word “cult” has no strict social scientific definition, a useful checklist for such groups would include such categories as authoritarian, puritanical, totalistic, charismatically led, and intolerant.It is striking that we don't seem to be hearing much about such groups these days. But does it mean anything? Philip Jenkins thinks it is a sign of the increasing secularization of our society; a decline in confused young people joining cults is in his mind a sort of canary in the coalmine for a broader decline in religious enthusiasm.
Wherever we look in US history, we find public fears about such groups, whether we are considering the 1820s or 1880s, the 1920s or (especially) the 1970s – the years of massive reaction against unpopular or stigmatized groups like the “Moonies” (Unification Church) and Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Children of God, The Way International and Synanon. Cults continued to be national news between 1984 and 1994, with the absurd Satanic Panic, and were in the news with the Waco Siege of 1993, and the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple movements. . . . compared to the 1970s, the cult issue has vanished almost entirely. When did you last see the once-familiar media story about Group X with exposés of its sinister guru, with tragic images of weeping parents wondering how their child could have become associated with this dreadful organization? Why would they renounce their worldly hopes to devote their lives to this evil sect?
Ross Douthat has a column today that connects this religious trend to bigger issues, through the writings of libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel.
Thiel’s argument is broader: Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.I have to say that this leaves me scratching my head. It seems to me that our society is still full of enthusiasts who take unorthodox ideas seriously, from off-the-grid organic farmers to right-wing militias. Thiel grew up with the internet cultists of the 90s, so I suspect what he really misses is the belief among techno-anarchists that the net would lead to a fundamental restructuring of civilization. Maybe that belief did inspire some of them to great feats of programming, but it was always stupid and it has now been refuted by events.
This means that every transformative business enterprise, every radical political movement, every truly innovative project contains some cultish elements and impulses — and the decline of those impulses may be a sign that the innovative spirit itself is on the wane. When “people were more open to the idea that not all knowledge was widely known,” Thiel writes, there was more interest in groups that claimed access to some secret knowledge, or offered some revolutionary vision. But today, many fewer Americans “take unorthodox ideas seriously,” and while this has clear upsides — “fewer crazy cults” — it may also be a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”
Thiel's screed strikes me as just another version of the fear that industrialization and mass culture are stamping out individuality, a fear that has been with us for as long as industrialization and mass culture. And perhaps our society is less creative, person for person, than certain past societies like classical Athens or Renaissance Florence. So? It is the modern era that has wrought the greatest changes on earth, and on human society, for both good and ill. Maybe this is a boring decade in North America, but zoom out a little and you still see that coping with the effects of change is a much bigger challenge for us than stasis.
The crazies are still with us, in many forms. So I suspect cults are declining because of some combination of secularization and Prozac, and that Thiel's worries make no more sense than I would expect from a prominent libertarian.