Where Are the Cults?

By Philip Jenkins

The absence of cult activity and gross superstition in American life is really starting to worry me, and that's not a joke.

Let me explain. Look back at America in the 1970s, a golden age of cults and outrageous superstition of all kinds. Occult and esoteric beliefs variously focused on UFOs and lost continents, telepathy and psychokinesis, reincarnation and the Bermuda Triangle, the Amityville Horror and the Chariots of the Gods. To catch the spirit of the time, watch the astonishing video of the Carpenters' 1976 hit "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," and ask yourself: is there anything this generation would not believe?

From the mid-1970s, these interests received the generic label of "New Age." This was a golden age both of cult activities and anti-cult movements, as countless fringe religious groups made headlines on a regular basis -- Hare Krishnas, Moonies, Synanon, Scientology, Children of God, People's Temple, and the rest. There was ample ammunition for the cult scare of the 1980s, which made outrageous charges about the Satanic sects allegedly threatening the nation's children.

We can find plenty of dreadful things to say about that earlier era, but from a mainline religious point of view, it also had a highly positive aspect in raising interest in spiritual matters to an acute degree. In turn, that fascination and concern drove the mighty religious awakening that characterized national life in the late twentieth century, which some characterize as a new Great Awakening.

Whatever its flaws, I see the widespread spiritual unrest of the 1970s as the penumbra of a serious movement that ultimately transformed mainstream religious life -- evangelical and charismatic, but also Catholic and Jewish. The ultimate beneficiaries were quite orthodox religious institutions that generally merged with the traditional Judaeo-Christian mainstream.

Social scientists tend not to pay attention to non-events, but one such absence really does demand attention. Whatever happened to the cults? Most of the classic movements were scattered or destroyed in the 1980s, and the Waco massacre of 1993 seems in retrospect to have marked the end of our prolonged Cult Wars. A few local movements arouse concern today, but I cannot recall when I last read or saw an exposé of the sort that was such a media staple through the 1970s or 1980s, in which distraught parents bemoaned the loss of their child to one or other guru and his fanatical minions.

This shift reflects more than a change in media attitudes. Although I don't have any hard data to back this up, I just don't believe that there are anything like as many authentic cults still operating -- defining cult in the sense of a small group that is authoritarian, charismatically-led, totalistic, puritanical, and intolerant of outsiders. (Wiccan and neo-Pagan groups abound, but they have none of these grim characteristics, and in fact have become distressingly respectable). If menacing cults still abounded today, surely they would be publicized widely on the Internet?

Not coincidentally, modern media offer nothing like the same range of allegedly authentic revelations of supernatural wonders that they did in years gone by, and any television shows that do exist are far removed from prime time. Very few of those viewers fascinated by vampires and the living dead actually believe that those beings constitute a real threat. The supernatural no longer sells as it did thirty or forty years back.

Clearly, a society unblemished by cult exploitation or pervasive superstition can count itself multiply blessed, but the change demands explanation, all the more since it represents such a radical departure from American historical patterns. We might suggest that 9/11 played a role, in that people found highly material enemies to fear, instead of imagined supernatural forces -- although America's cult underworld had flourished quite happily through the much more lethal crisis of World War II. Also, Islam has for some years attracted many of the media stereotypes that had once adhered to sinister cult overlords.

Perhaps we should also point to the vastly greater role that women now play in mainline religious organizations, so that they no longer need look to fringe movements to express their spirituality. Cults no longer fill the role they once did in the religious marketplace.

Or just possibly, that marketplace really has changed in an unprecedented way, to reduce the public taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever. Last month, a widely reported Pew survey made the striking point that 20 percent of American adults now claim no religious affiliation, and the figure for those under thirty approaches one third. Now, this data can be interpreted in many ways short of implying massive secularization. "Not affiliated" is not synonymous with atheist or even agnostic, rather it just means that: not affiliated to any religious institution presently, and things may change over time. The churches should not plan their closing-down sales just yet - particularly given the influx of immigrants from deeply religious Global South societies.

But assume for the sake of argument that such surveys genuinely do reflect a secular shift, and the United States really is moving to become more similar to Canada, or the nations of Western Europe. If that were the case, then one of the first symptoms we would expect would be a general reduction of interest in spiritual or religious matters across large sections of society. We would no longer find the broad but ill-focused concern that manifested itself in the supernatural boom of the 1970s. Without a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry, moreover, there would be no foundation for the extremism that produced so many prospective members for the cults.

In other words, the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades. If that linkage is genuine, then the odds of a national religious recovery or revival like that of the 1970s would be vastly diminished. Perhaps secularization really is looming.

For many years, conservative religious leaders have bemoaned the popularity of cults, which reputedly deceive so many innocent people. The time may come, though, when those same pastors and priests look back nostalgically to the days when they still had cults to fight.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

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