“You guys are like a cult,” an acquaintance told me about my Cross Country team, long ago.
I am told that a lot of the groups I’m in are almost like cults. Whether it is inside jokes, mantras or sayings we have unknown to the rest of the world, or the fact that we spend so much time together that we barely have other friends, I would say that I am in several unofficial cults.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers two compelling definitions of the “cult”. The first of which is “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” and “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (such as a film or book).” However, cults have a very negative connotation as having socially deviant behavior in a sociological context. Types of cults on Wikipedia range from terrorist cults, polygamist cults, racist cults, Doomsday cults, so it’s clear that the general understanding of cults and their influence on the world is pejorative.
But it’s also true that the definition of cults can be stretched to a lot of groups with strange and unusual beliefs or traditions, like my team or churches. The reason why people join cults in the first place is that they are so appealing to the human condition. Humans need companionship. Humans need community. Humans need to survive.
Fleur Brown, a contributor to Insider, tells us a story of how her mom landed in a cult. Brown’s mother had just lost her father in the early 20s, and at the end of the Vietnam War, her mother found sanctuary in the Worldwide Church of God, “an American fundamentalist religion that offered concrete answers for seekers; a road-map for the meaning of life.” At its peak, the church had millions of followers.
The church taught Brown that she would never have time to finish high school, marry, or have kids of her own, and that she was just a year or two away from World War III. Later, she was taught to believe that she would be sent to a “place of safety” just three and a half years before the return of Jesus. To be safe, Brown and her mother had to follow the Church, but for her, having a heart gentler than the god she prayed to made her feel like a rebel, who she “didn’t allow [her]self to nurture in case it attracted punishment.”
But for Brown and her mother, the pros outweighed the cons. Everyone in the Church was just so nice, something strangers always noticed after encounters with people affiliated with the Church. They would offer new people home-cooked meals, support around the home, and social events to fill their schedules. The niceness of the Church let people’s barriers down, and according to Brown, the environment of niceness “felt like heaven on earth for new recruits; who were often battered and bruised by life’s tribulations.”
It took Brown herself a very long time to realize she was in a cult, and she didn’t actually know until she read Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan. One page of the book listed 12 traits you experienced when you were in a cult, and the page pulled her in. The traits that most spoke to her was that group activity left her with no free time, and members of the group actively discouraged other members from spending time with family and friends outside the cult.
“That’s the thing about cults,” Brown said. “They are life-stealing.”
If someone like Brown could join one, anyone can, because no one joins a cult consciously. People don’t know they might eventually devote their whole lives to the cult until they eventually do. It was the prioritization of the cult above all individuals, the cult always coming first, that makes it a cult in the first place. All members of The Church, in Brown’s situation, needed to have the interests of The Church above the interests of themselves. That meant questioning was not allowed or encouraged. The members needed to use their curiosity and doubt toward a “greater cause” of “saving the world”.
Brown herself would eventually gravitate toward her first job with a cult-like experience of worshipping an obsessive, narcissistic, and delusional leader. But these experiences led her to develop her own individual discretion of values she’s learned to live by. These include the following:
1. Question everything. Nothing is sacred. Live by and subscribe to things that make sense and feel right.
2. Assert your right to your own identity, and never leave it aside for any community.
3. You’re entitled to your feelings and no one can tell you how to feel.
Brown’s experience is her own and has taught me a lot. My experience, however, is mine, and the truth is that my life gained a lot more meaning and grew a lot more fulfilled through the bubbles and borderline cults I fell into. Looking from the outside-in, the troubles we dealt with were trivial, but the feelings behind those experiences never were. So what if we rarely had any other friends? So what if we spent almost all of our time hanging out with each other? The fact is that being in any of those cults never disturbed anyone else’s life, and they always gave me a sense of community and belonging, united around a common purpose, that I would never have found within myself.
I struggle with the idea of whether following Jesus, believing in God, and being a devoted member of my church, now, is considered being in a cult. Perhaps it is, but I believe that’s God putting a bunch of unlike people together for the common purpose of loving God and loving others. Are we so different from The Church that Brown followed in her youth? I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s okay if I’m wrong, just as Brown’s parents were wrong to her. But I’m wrong for the right reasons. And I myself have never struggled with reaching out and branching out of my comfort zone because that’s what I’m supposed to do as a Christian.
And in that line of thinking, isn’t Donald Trump leading a cult of supporters in his base? Aren’t hardline, progressive liberals leading cults for their ideologies? I would not say so as much because their whole lives aren’t devoted to Donald Trump or their politics, but the unquestioning nature of any side of the political spectrum is much more cult-ish than my church, welcomes debate and doubt as means of strengthening faith.
Kirstin Allio of The Paris Review writes that perhaps we’re so fascinated and drawn to cults because of “a not-so-buried desire to cede control, give up responsibility, and submit to a seemingly greater power.” And I agree. As a cross country team, we were united around the greater purpose of brotherhood and running fast. When I worked on my college newspaper, we were united around the greater purpose of putting out a good paper. My circle of teachers is united around the greater purpose of culturally responsively teaching inner-city kids.
Whether something is a cult or not a cult can always be up for debate, but what isn’t up for debate is the fundamental human need for ceding control, giving up responsibility, and submitting to a greater power. I will always appreciate the times when I’ve been weak and not good enough, and someone else covered for me in whatever way necessary. I always have appreciated those times and I press forward in all my communities to be the reliable one for when my companions need it, and my faith tells me not to ask for anything in return.
Cults appeal to us because we recognize that life is too nasty, brutish, and short to traverse alone. And even if the purpose of a cult robs of our individuality, once you’re in a cult and deeply entrenched, the pros usually outweigh the cons.