The word cult is a dirty word. It conjures images of hooded people in circles around fires. It conjures images of mass suicide and self-harm. It conjures images of tragic figures, brainwashed to abandon their families. And it conjures images of the infamous 'narcissistic leader'.
And if not as dramatic as all that, it's certainly simply used to describe any group with a set of values we don't like.
This image of cults is absolute nonsense. The kind of nonsense that makes us more likely to fall victim to the destructive groups that gifted the word cult these connotations.
Cults are better seen as, if not a basic, then at least a pervasive building block of modern day life. There's every chance you're in one now. And there's every chance you're better off for it.
The (short) history of the cult
The word 'cult' started as a sociological classification. A slow growing attempt of theologians to distinguish between different kinds of religious behaviour. In particular, the word cult was used to carve out the kind of groups that emphasised the personal and private nature of religious beliefs, particularly those which embraced the more mystical or ecstatic aspects of a connection to the divine.
As time went on, this classification began to emphasise a feature that was often common among these more personally oriented and mystically inspired groups---their deviancy from the mainstream. The pursuit of the personal in the context of the religious often results in a break from the predominant religious culture. Institutions have little room for individuals. This, indeed, was a core thread of the Protestant Reformation.
One final transformation completes the history of the term cult for us---the rise of the non-religious or 'new religious' movement. In an attempt to characterise the increasingly secular nature of the cults academics were seeing, the emphasis began to zoom out from the religious nature of the groups. Rather than consider how cults were defined by their adherance to or deviancy from some established religion, instead academics began to concentrate on the beliefs of the individuals.
In this new foray, we see something of a return to our first use of the term. The personal nature of cultic beliefs became central again. Cults were seen to be ephemeral groups, arising in response to the needs of some transient collection of individuals, with loose boundaries and no clear centres of authority. Sociologist Roy Wallis called this 'epistemic individualism' the characteristic trait of cults.
And that's, more or less, it. Cults are, and always have been groups that centre on the needs of a loose collective of individuals, that engage in religious behaviour, and that by the nature of their personalisation often deviate from the mainstream.
All the average person has come away with is the sense of deviancy. But put this way, we can see that what should probably be the interesting feature is the religious behaviour.
The ubiquity of religious behaviour
It's important that we don't confuse religious behaviour with religion. Indeed, this was the very aim of the cultic classification in the first place---to mark out those which had replaced the religion with new beliefs.1
Religious behaviour is, at its core ritualistic behaviour around some kind of article of faith. You have religious behaviours around doing. Things like prayer, or the kinds of sacrifices that have you perform a service---a pilgrimage for example, or the sacrifice of an animal. And you have religous behaviours around not doing. These are often sacrifices too, but ones in which you give up something---a fast perhaps, or a set of purity rules. And also, in these not doings, there is the rich domain of taboos---actions that are forbidden for whatever reason the faith would have it so.
Importantly, religious or not, everyone engages in religious behaviour. Humans take many more things on faith than we might care to admit.
Perhaps the best example is our faith in the consciousness of others. There is, under our current model of scientific enterprise, no possible way of assessing whether something is conscious or not. We each have some experience of consciousness, but we will never know if others share that experience with us. Nonetheless, we each go about each day engaging in the kinds of ritualistic behaviours that go along with the faith that others are conscious.
And where religious behaviours collect, cults are likely to emerge. If you haven't heard people describe veganism as cult-like, you haven't been in a western city. This is because it is cult-like. Veganism, when done for humane reasons, are religious behaviours around the consciousness of animals at their most prominent. An almost punitive collection of not doings. And in support of these faithful efforts, a transient, leaderless collective sprung up to meet the needs of vegans---to help insulate them as they deviated from the mainstream views on animal consciousness in the process.2
There's another example, worth mentioning, to drive the point home. Something that many of us will have entertained, or at least know someone who has. The world of health and nutrition is extraordinarily fertile soil for the development of cults. Absolutely no one seems to have a good idea about how nutrition works, outside of the basic average macronutrient profile. And health is almost as much of a crap shoot. I've talked before about how much of a failure modern therapy is. And our weirdly quixotic relationship with the world of medicine is almost entirely faith-based. So it's no surprise that the realm of health and wellbeing is a treasure trove of cultic movements. Everything from neo-pagan religions, to loose-knit groups of crystal healers, to the communities that populate websites like Goop or any number of topical substacks, to franchises like F45 and Crossfit. All of these loose collectives of people are creating their personal relationship with health and supporting each other through religious behaviour oriented around a health-related faith that deviates from the mainstream.
I've talked before about how our attraction to destructive and spectacular cults distract us from the real and important dynamics of these things. In particular, there is this notion that a charismatic leader is required to make a cult whole. No serious cultic academic seems to be quite as enthusiastic about the idea.
There is a role of charisma in a cult. Obviously, the charisma of some new article of faith---the core of the religious behaviours that engender the cult. And charismatic leaders will arise to embody that charisma---leaders in the Weberian sense. Leaders who through their religious behaviour appear exceptional, or through their aggression become prominent, or through their being in the right place at the right time attract a following. These kinds of leaders are a feature of any kind of novel environments. This is where charisma shines as a guiding force, before structure begins to emerge. But these charismatic leaders rarely rise to the top of these loose collectives. Rather they serve as eddies and currents in the transient cultic milieu. And, as Weber noted, charismatic leadership will eventually give way to traditional or rational leadership as the cult begins to require structure, and as its growth creates its own mainstream presence.
With that last note out of the way, we are left with some of the most obvious examples of community left in a modern world designed with the collapse of traditional community in mind. Cults describe many loose collectives where people come together, in person or online, to share their values and their beliefs. To share their faith in things that an increasingly specialised world makes difficult to understand. To share their rituals around their faith. And in doing so, to find their people. And this is why, in the academic world, cults which are not destructive or totalistic are seen as a place of value. A place where one can find affiliation and spiritual fulfillment. A place where we find community and purpose in a world that sidelines those things in favour of individual productivity.
So stop using cult as a dirty word. If you're not in one, or two, or even a handful, then you're probably doing something wrong. The question is, are the cults you're in cults you're choosing to be in? Because if you're not asking that question, you're exactly the kind of person who's likely to end up in a circle of hooded figures.