Do Cults Still Exist?

If you listen to my podcast, you know I am fascinated with cults. Scholars tend to avoid the word “cult” altogether because it has been used carelessly by the media for so long that it is now seen as pejorative. Instead we usually use the phrase “New Religious Movements” (NRMs), fringe religion, or alternative religion. For shorthand, though, I’ll use cult, but no matter what you call them, they’re really interesting!

I was excited to see that CNN would be showing Holy Hell, a documentary about a Hawaiian spiritual group dubbed Buddhafield.  Will Allen directed the film, and was a member of the group for many years. While he has since left, Allen has access to hundreds of hours of footage thanks to his role as official videographer for the group. Like the PBS documentary, Jonestown, what makes this film so compelling is the intimate access provided by the video footage. Many documentaries, especially ones about cults, usually have to rely heavily on interviews with former members as the foundation for the narrative. Holy Hell and its compelling visual access, allows viewers an inside look. Perhaps the most important component this documentary explores is the ways sex can be used as a tool of power, coercion, and manipulation, and how difficult it can be for members to escape the relationships and group more generally.

Even though cults are largely seen as a byproduct of the hippie movement, and something that really isn’t an important phenomenon any more, New Religious Movements are still very much alive. The nature of these spiritual groups makes it difficult to determine a) what can be classified as a cult, 2) how many of them exist. One of the leading scholars of religion, Philip Jenkins, who wrote Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, sees cults as being less common today simply due to the fact that people in general are less religious than they used to be. Secularism, he argues, causes less religious devotion in general and fewer cults as a result.

Some scholars believe cults have been replaced in part with religious terrorist groups. Much of what academics have to do with regard to cults is to put puzzle pieces together. We get bits of information, and try to make sense of a very complicated world. Because there were so many high-profile cults in the seventies (with Jonestown being the biggest and most tragic in terms of lives lost), people often picture cults as utopian, hippie communes. Holy Hell members look a lot like this stereotype as nature-loving, yogis with far-off stares.

When I think of cults today, though, I picture Warren Jeff’s FLDS (Mormon Fundamentalists) group, the Westboro Baptist Church, and Heaven’s Gate–all of whom use(d) technology at least in some way to maintain control of the group and/or promote their message. I recommend you check out Holy Hell if you didn’t catch it last night (it’s available on iTunes and soon to be on Netflix). If you’re interested in learning more about these groups, here are some books you might want to add to your reading list:

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain

The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice by Rebecca Musser

Or if you’re feeling especially nerdy: The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements 

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