When I write about cults, it is with desperate passion. I need you to understand but doubt my ability to explain. Cults are not just religions: they aren’t even all religious. They target people with human needs for love and belonging, not “stupid” people. They are more like abusive marriages than they are like healthy churches. Your atheism or intelligence won’t protect you.
I can see cults, cultic behavior, front groups, cruel purity, and other signs of high demand organizations in every facet of life, yet most people cannot recognize a cult unless everyone agrees it is one. It’s not hard given the public discussion to recognize Scientology is a cult, but their business management training seminars offered through front group Effective Management Centers are not so easy to spot.
I feel like most of the world is ignoring this real and present threat to human happiness. As I tried to show in my series on cult leader Frank Buchman, the consequences of a cult leader’s power can extend far beyond its membership. Despite having only a fraction of Britons as members, Buchman was able to influence England toward a policy of Nazi appeasement.
The best, most complete way to prevent cult leaders from rising to power is not critical thinking classes (though those can be useful). It is by making the world a more fair place. Cult members are often fleeing the injustices they rightly recognize in the world. They are often searching for love. If the world was more just and more loving, cult leaders would have to compete with healthy, empowering options, and they would lose.
We can decide how scarce and finite a resource love has to be, whether everyone feels welcome or whether cults seem like safe havens from a cruel world. I wish my cult leader had lied about everything, but some of what she told me was wrong with this world really is. Her solutions were bogus, but she was correctly identifying faults with the world.
I want to address those faults. I want to replace profit driven healthcare with single payer national health, because that’s one of the best real arguments faith healers, herbalists, and quacks have for abandoning modern medicine, the cost. I want a more compassionate and factually supported approach to substance abuse, because the “spiritual disease” model was dreamed up by a cult.
The people who join cults are trying to get their present inescapable human needs met. That is not foolishness; it is desperation. If we decided to collectively care for one another, to systemically meet human needs, cults could not recruit so many desperate people. My social justice philosophy comes out of this recognition, that cults exploit those we have failed, and that we can choose better.