Cult classics

Hello again everyone!

My goal with this newspaper from now on will be to get my free members one update every couple of weeks, and a weekly one for those who have paid to subscribe. So this edition is for everyone, and I’ll be coming out with another one for paying subscribers in the next couple of days.

I have written two pieces in the last week, kind of on the theme of religion and public life. I wrote about two books called American Awakening for The Critic, considering the “justice” in Social Justice. I reviewed Jon Butler's God in Gotham for the Wall Street Journal (my first time writing for them!), which is very good book about the nature of religion in the city. And indeed, running up against the contradictions of people who think that urban spaces are more secular. The idea of the city as a godless zone is hardly new or unique to New York. What is interesting, as Butler points out, is the level to which the city itself is somewhere that great developments in various faiths are taking place, in the formation of religious groups or the development of theological study at various colleges.

And we all know of cities as places that, far from shunning religion often provide a happy hunting ground for would-be recruiters for religion, both good and bad. You don't see them so much now, but when I was a teenager, bus stations and train stations in cities seem to always be full of people who were out promoting what seemed to be cults. Their market was young teenagers who just got off the bus from wherever: and who might be bewildered or naive enough to be drawn into some weird organization.

This was at a time when you seemed to hear a lot more about cults, when TV shows and documentaries (and various movies-of-the-week) focused on parents wanting to rescue their kids, deprogramming experts, etc. And through the nineties there were major cult events, from Waco in 93, the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 95, the Heaven’s Gate suicide in 97, to the Order of the Solar Temple people who seemed to keep killing each other and themselves. Plenty of these cults seemed to be lingering on from various 70s counterculture fringe organisations.

So I thought this kind of thing had drifted into the past, and the NXIVM case seemed like a throwback to the 1990s period of cult crises. The leader of this group, Keith Raniere, was this week sentenced to 120 years in prison. The group was simultaneously a sex cult and a pyramid scheme, like some weird amalgam of Herbalife and the Oneida community. But a cult that wants members to pony up large amounts is going after the EST crowd, of disappointed white collar suburbanites, not stray teens.

But perhaps the stray teens are being lured into groups online, rather than handed a leaflet near the luggage line at the Greyhound station. The human impulses that attract young people to cults, gangs (or ISIS) are the desire to belong, and sometimes to feel special: that they were selected by a charismatic leader. Many online communities feature in this way - not that they are necessarily malevolent forces, of course. Young people are finding themselves and finding a likeminded community can be a lifesaver. But at the same time, much of the discourse of the extremely-online does mirror cult practice. Cults like to cut people off from their family and friends - and I see echoes of this in the constant drumbeat in various online fora to “cut toxic family members out of your life” (when “toxic” is VERY broadly defined…). It does begin to raise questions about who is drawing the line, and crosses over into those articles about how to not talk to your elderly relatives who don't share your politics at Christmas. Perhaps the cult mindset has just gone virtual - you no longer need to be sleeping on a mattress on the floor of some commune, and getting molested by a bearded guru, but can simply get told what to do on Tumblr.

[The pic at the top I took in Saigon last year, I still don’t know what the Cat Cult is…]