are we a cult?

woman with car, a consumerist pose“to me, most of the current world civilization is a cult.” this is what my blogging friend alex said recently in a comment on one of my posts on cults.

is our civilization a cult? it’s an interesting question so let’s see what answers we can find. perhaps one way to start is to look for definitions of the term “cult”. the counselling department at caltech university offers this:

below are indicators that are found, to varied degrees and numbers, in all groups that are considered cults. to the basic question of ‘what is a cult?’, maybe the best answer is simply, a group in which there are many of these indicators:

extreme promises – e.g. unconditional, eternal love; financial security; complete certainty about life; answers to all questions

restricted freedoms – because these groups want control, they need to limit their members’ basic freedoms. this includes restricting physical mobility; forbidding doubts or questions; removing the right to choose whom to spend time with, and when; prohibiting the exploration of other ways of thinking and living.

assumptions of power – often restrictions of freedom can also become active abuses of power. the group leader, or others designated to have power, may require members to perform tasks, acquire money, perform rituals, and to provide sexual services. and rather than use outright authority, cult leaders will present these demands or requirements as “opportunities” offered to those in special favor.

a central leader – virtually all cults are headed by a single person (sometimes a couple or triad) who either claims special knowledge and status or who claims special access to it (contact with superhuman intelligence). a particular indicator of a cult is being told that this person knows what is best for you, regardless of your opinion or that of others you trust.

deception and totalitarian views are other components of cults. we may notice that what is told to “recruits” and “outsiders” is different than what is professed within the group. this sort of lie can be as basic as soliciting money for the group under false pretenses. also, “black or white” or “we and they” thinking is common.

alex referred to “most of the current world civilization”; i’d like to draw the circle just a tad smaller; how about the consumerist world as it is presented by mass media to the english-speaking western world. i’m talking about the images and narratives found in mainstream TV and magazines and their relatives on the internet. the world that a fashionably dressed, well worked-out, perfumed, sexy woman lives in, sitting in a car, ipod in her ears, on the way to stop by burger king for a quick big mac after a week’s work at IBM, later to meet with her buddies at a bar well-stocked with heineken and tequila. not an unfamiliar image, right?

extreme promises? you bet. we are all promised that we can either be or have that woman (let’s call her barb), complete with accessories.

restricted freedoms? that’s a tricky one. no-one forces me to wear the types of clothes barb wears, or forces alex to buy her a beer at the bar. in fact, freedom is one of the products that’s being sold here (in the image above, barb’s hair is probably blowing in the wind: clear evidence of freedom!) it’s just that – weeelll, if you want to hang out with that crowd and you don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car, maybe you won’t get that many invitations to the next party. restriction by exclusion.

assumptions of power? our politicians and CEO’s certainly do require us to perform tasks (go to war), acquire money and perform rituals (e.g. spend the recently acquired money on ridiculously expensive weddings).

a central leader? that’s something that is absent from our culture. however, what we do have is an almost impenetrable web of power mongers and bureaucracies. they do NOT tell us what’s best for us – but they often act like it.

deception and totalitarian views? again, these words are harsh, and i would be crazy to say that we westerners live in totalitarian regimes. at the same time, deception is so much part of our system that we are as used to it as we are to violence on TV and video games. politicians, we say, “of course they lie to us!” TV and news? “of course it’s all made up!”

is our culture a cult? what do you think?

(image by fernando meyer)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *