Where Have All The Cults Gone?

By Neuroskeptic | August 16, 2012 3:44 pm

Why have there been no new religious movements founded in the West for the past 20 years?

That’s how it seems, anyway. I’ve been trying to think of any notable cults, sects or religions that have sprung up in the past 20 years, and I can’t think of any.

Contrast this to the period from say 1945 to 1990. New groups were springing up all over the place. Scientology; the Hare Krishnas; Transcendental Meditation; the Moonies; Jesus Freaks; the Manson Family; Heaven’s Gate; Jonestown; the Kaballah Centre; the Nation of Islam; the New Age; Neopaganism, Wicca…

These are all household names. But they were all founded, at latest, by 1990. Why haven’t there been any more since? The Waco siege was in 1993, but the Branch Davidian group was much older. Was Waco the end of an era? It does seem that way…

If so, what happened? I find this really interesting.

First off though, am I right? Maybe there’s a boring explanation. Is it just that religious groups take time to become well known, so today’s cults are out there, just below the radar? Seems unlikely. Many of the groups I mentioned above were famous within a decade of being founded. Even if this were true, you’d expect us to have a steady stream of newly famous groups, but where are they?

Of course, I may just be ignorant. If you think I’m overlooking some newer groups, do let me know. Also, I’m thinking of Western Europe and the USA here – I don’t know about the rest of the world.

But if I’m right, what does it mean? What happened in the early 1990s? Here’s a few suggestions; I’m not sure I believe any of them, but they seem plausible –

  • The rise of the Internet created new substitutes for religion – such as? Otherkin? World of Warcraft? Blogger.com?
  • Secularization means less religion in general, and that includes less new religion
  • What we have now is normal, it was the previous few decades that were abnormally rich in new religions and that’s what needs to be explained. The 1960s gave us rock and roll, drugs, hippies, feminism, Civil Rights, etc. Have things generally been quieting down since then?
  • The Internet / the 24 hour news cycle / Rupert Murdoch etc. has led to increasing homogenization of opinion – towards one pole in Europe, two poles red/blue states in USA… so there’s less room for outliers.
  • Cults have always been a social club for lonely people. But now we have OKCupid.
  • The rise of psychiatry, psychiatric medication, and the increasing readiness to diagnose of mental illness means potential cult leaders and followers end up on Prozac, not
  • Religious groups have declined, because all social groups, clubs, parties have declined – the Bowling Alone theory
  • It’s the decline of Western culture – we have lost the capacity to dream, to invent, to believe.
  • It’s the golden age of western culture – we have so much entertainment, culture, freedoms etc. compared to the past, so less motivation to drop out and create your own culture.

I don’t know what to think, so please do leave a comment. However, please avoid comedy contributions along the lines of “We do have cults now – like global warming!”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15429960793468561888 Cat Vincent

    The word “cult” in this context is something of a pejorative… but I see your point.

    As for the answer: sociologist Adam Possamai has some persuasive points regarding what he calls “hyper-real” religions – beliefs based on mythos which make no claim to any objective truth, often derived from mass media. So there have been “cults” – they're things like Jediism (which managed to pull in more adherents according to the last UK census than many mainstream faiths), Matrixism and, yes, Otherkin.
    You might also have heard of The Cult Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster?

    Hail Eris!
    Cat Vincent

  • http://petrossa.wordpress.com/ petrossa

    I nominate AGW as a cult. Has has all the hallmarks. It is based on a End Of Times doomscenario typical of cults (and religions).
    The cultists look for signs to confirm their EoT Doom and find it in the weirdest illogical places.

    Only those who appease the gods of climate will be saved.

    I'd say it is a cult, just the deity is replaced by a form of animism. Mother Earth, the great lifegiver whom we displease and must make sacrifices to.

    The believers are beyond reason or logic. Nothing can shake their beliefs even when prophesied completely fail to materialize.

    When confronted with this discrepancy they turn the lack of prophesied events into proof that it's actually true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Cat: Well, I admit, I put “cult” in the title because it makes a snappier headline. But like I said, “cults, sects and new religions” – call them what you will. I'm not trying to judge, new religions are at least as good as old ones in my view.

    Interesting point about Possamai, I will have to read up on that…

  • Anonymous

    There are cults still popping up in non-Western nations (e.g., Dahn Yoga).

  • Anonymous

    “increasing homogenization of opinion – towards one pole in Europe”

    This will sound snarky but it's not meant that way… what's the one pole in Europe in your opinion? Hasn't the recession increased support for both left- and right-wing “outliers”? Also, do you know of any good studies on whether increasing homogenization of opinion is really a thing? Just curious.

  • Stanley Holmes

    I don't think there has been a decline in delusional or non-scientific thinking or creativity, but I would agree that the emergence of new cults have declined. I like most of your hypotheses, I would add two (that partly overlap with your proposals):

    – market saturation (it's not like all the previous cults have disappeared, or stopped evolving).
    – some kind of natural oscillatory mechanism: the excesses of past gurus/cults has led to a guru-wary period/generation (the deficit of new cults could decrease that wariness and led to a new explosion in the future).

  • PhilR

    End of the cold war perhaps? Assuming for arguments sake, that 1945 to 1990 was a particularly fecund period for new religions, maybe the dread of total annihilation at any moment, is what drove people to them.

  • Mary

    I wonder if there's a non-religious shift to some of the same thought processes. Troofers, doomers/preppers, and sundry other conspiracy types might qualify with some of the same characteristics.

    Some of the conspiracy theory I see looks quite like religious fantasies to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04103502029181168438 E

    The only “Cults” post 1990 I can come up with are all based in the East. Falun Gong (China) 1992 and Arum Shinko (Japan) (1980) but which gained notoriety in 1995 with the Sarin Gas attacks on the Tokyo underground.

    The Cult information centre defines a cult in the following terms:

    1) It uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain its members
    2). It forms an elitist totalitarian society.
    3).Its founder leader is self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, not accountable and has charisma.
    4). It believes 'the end justifies the means' in order to solicit funds and recruit people.
    5).Its wealth does not benefit its members or society.

    I would add another defining characteristic cults are all anti-establishment to some degree. I know you wanted to avoid comedy comments like we have global warming now but environmentalism, anti global capitalism, animal rights, Occupy Wall St and other protest movements of the 1990's and 2000+ such as the Greenham Common camp (still going despite the removal of Cruse missiles from the air base there) may have taken the place of more conventional “cults”.

    (Conventional Cult is that a contradiction in terms?)

  • Anonymous

    What about Harold Camping and the Family Radio group that prepared for the end of the world in May 2011? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Camping They were about as real and committed as the cult Festinger et al famously studied in Chicago in the 1960s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_Prophecy_Fails

  • Anonymous


    Vice magazine has an awesome short documentary on this one.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Stanley Holmes: I like the market saturation idea… I mean by 1990, there was a pretty huge selection. More than at any time in history. There's probably a limit, because they're in competition with each other. And there's only a limited target audience.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: Mmm… yeah Harold Camping maybe… but he's been on Family Radio since the 70s. He only started predicting the end of the world recently, but he's been in business for much longer.

    Although you could argue he was an orthodox Christian until recently, which would make his recent stuff a new group.

    Actually that reminds me of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. They may be an exception. Not sure when they were founded.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12033918835169823548 M.J.

    Maybe there are less cults because rigid ideological thinking based on ideas that are taken as gospel has moved from from the fringes of society into the mainstream? There are countless groups (at least in the US) that have taken some core idea as the “truth” and have built an entire belief structure based on those ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00306891186881391942 Rachel F

    Is it possible that, in the age of the internet/constant connectivity, the isolation and indoctrination necessary in a cult just isn't as easy to manage? I feel like groups can't really exist in secret anymore, because as soon as one person sees through the facade and gets out you have the potential for a worldwide spread of information on the group and its practices. Scientology is a good example; As “secret” as its practices are meant to be, we still have reams of information on them from former practitioners.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13229766312665720020 Peter Prevos

    I think something substantial has changed in Western culture since 9/11. People seem to have been thrown back to more conservative values and, as indicated in the post, have list the ability to dream. The so called New Age Movement is becoming a group of old age people.

    Western culture is in decline and the age of Asia is being introduced.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15144177608742240027 Neuronman

    In Asia especially South East Asia,new “cults” have sprung out from off shhots of main religions or from a mixture of two or more religions.
    I think as a country becomes more developed,the number of “cults” decrease,as secularization kicks in,lack of time to pray,think about God because one is content about life.
    You should look at Asia especially South East Asia as the next “cult”land.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12389602137217799305 Anthony

    Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church aren't a cult, they're a litigation machine. They do outrageous things to provoke government (or other deep-pocketed) actors to violate their civil rights, then they sue the actor into oblivion. It's sleazy and creepy, but I don't think it's really a cult.

    I think Mary has a point that conspiracy theories are absorbing at least some of the energy which would otherwise go into cults. It might be interesting to compare, both over time and across cultures, prevalence of conspiracy theories versus cults. Are conspiracy theories more prevalent in societies which ostracize or legally suppress offshoot religious groups?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06834641501438709866 Jan Moren

    Happy Science. Started in Japan, but now have chapters throughout Europe and the USA. And if they don't count as a full-on wear-your-underwear-on-you-head cult, then nothing does.

    And if Manson Family counts as a cult, then you can probably find dozens of new cults in various religious end-of-times themed christian and islamic extremist offshoots.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06834641501438709866 Jan Moren

    As a side comment, I suspect that perhaps the Internet and secularization promotes cults, rather than prevent them. Japan is heavily connected online and about as secular as they come, and yet it has more than its fair share of seriously off-the-wall cults.

    “Cult” is, after all, a religion that has failed to become mainstream. The internet helps like-minded people find each other, thus promoting the seeds of new cults; and widespread secularization makes an almost insurmountable barrier against the widespread adoption needed to escape insular cult status and break out into a accepted part of society at large.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08172964121659914379 andrew

    Another factor is the demise of denominational branding. Lots of individual congregations with charismatic leaders that in earlier years would have identified themselves as part of a denomination or sect or movement now prefer to simply self-identify as “Christian”, a label that isn't very informative about what is actually going on in that denomination in terms of ritual, practice and doctrine (Mormons, for example, have been engaged in a vigorous campaign of trying to debrand themselves into part of the generalized “Christian” brand). Some of these Congregations have practices sometimes associated in the past with cults or sects. For example, while Evangelicals and charismatics used to see exorcism as a Catholic thing, quite a few have warmed to the practice without the institutional safeguards of the Roman Catholic church.

    Extremist movements within the broad umbrella of Islam have also attacted a fair share of individuals who might otherwise have joined a scary religious cult in the 1960s, again, using a debranded generalized religious label that no one controls for their particular little corner of the religious world, rather than a distinctive new brand of their own. The recent experience of the Alawites via backlash related to the Syrian uprising and against Sikhs (mostly by people who think they are Muslims) are recent examples of the downside of having a distinctive religious brand that makes it easy to single you out.

    This said, new religious movements do tend too come in waves and we probably are at the bottom of one rather than the top of one, with the ages of people in demographic bulges, the level of religious involvement in politics, and factors like the Bowling Alone social capital hypothesis all playing their parts.

    I also think that nominally secular conservative movements (the Tea Party and white supremacist movements in the U.S., and far right to neofascist groups in Europe) have sucked a lot of the crazy out of self-styled religious movements. On the left, the crazy has been sucked up by the Occupy movement.

    Religious innovation right now is probably most vibrant in Africa and in immigrant churches in the West.

  • http://www.byrdnick.com Nick

    The “Ancient Alien” crowd should count as a cult (though they have not done anything tragic or fanatical yet). http://www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Jan Moren: I hadn't heard of Happy Science but yes, they could be an exception. I didn't have Japan in mind with this post but still, if a Japanese group is spreading in the West then that would count against my theory.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    andrew: “the demise of denominational branding”

    That's a REALLY good point actually. And it fits with what other people have said about cult-type thinking entering the mainstream, and what I said about homogenization of opinion…

    Maybe there is still innovation in religion, but the fashion has become to present it as being old.

    New wine in old bottles…

    And when you think about it, many of the “new cults” and “new religions” of the previous era, were largely just just old wine in new bottles, repackaging old ideas as “new!”

    In other words, maybe what's changed is that the West has started fearing “novelty”, become more backward-looking?

    It doesn't seem that way, on the surface I mean, we have more new stuff (technology) than ever before in history and we seem enthusiastic about it…

    But maybe below the surface, we're scared of it?

  • Phebe Baltazzi

    Unfortunately I haven't read all of the comments, but I really do think we are in the end of “an era”…; would that be the freedom of thinking and analysing as well as our educative background…, the realisation that we might not have well understood the previous while our understanding is just another pebble to the prexisting puzzle of our intuitive mind ?! From one side, hopefully, our rational mind has become a good servant, for others as Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

  • ivana Fulli MD

    Phebe B17 August 2012 08:31

    I was afraid your comment was on behalf of a new cult but after an internet search of your Einstein quote, your comment looks more like a spam for a lucrative Virginian “new age ” practice:

    ///Honoring the Intuitive Mind

    “I want to know the thoughts of God, the rest are just details. The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Quote by Albert Einstein.

    Each of us has our own unique experiences with intuition. For example, remember the time when you were busy at work and had a sudden impulse to check on your child? When you did, you learned she was sick and need to come home from school. Where did that feeling come from? Intuition comes from the part of us that is detached form the rational mind. Webster’s definition is “the power of knowing…without inference or reasoning.” Intuition often brings light to ideas that don’t make rational sense but can be a great solution or inspiration.///

    How does one tap into innate wisdom? Intuition generally shows up in one of four ways. It can be a sensation in your gut, a little voice in your head, a dream or vision in your sleep, or a “knowing” that just feels right. You can improve the effectiveness of working with your intuition by paying closer attention to these signs and by acting on them. The more you do this the cleared and more frequent your messages will become.

    So start listening to your gut, your knowing and your heart. Solutions to previously unresolved problems may present themselves in unique ways and you may feel grace in the process. The sky is truly the limit.

    Polly Williams is a spiritual coach and reiki practictioner in Nellysford. She was a banker for 18 years while simultaneously pursuing a number of spiritual teachings. She was raised in the Episcopal church, she trained for a Reiki mastership, a study of Native American Earth based religion, Buddhist meditation and teachings, and the study of intuitive pathways. Her unique backround in both left and right brain experiences allows her to understand her clients wherever they are in their process, and help them access their own truth without judgement and honor for their path.
    About Nelson Physical Therapy and Wellness

    Hours: M- F 7:30 – 4:30 | Sat 8:30 – 11:00
    Phone: 434. 361. 2650
    Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for our Email Newsletter

    Physical Therapy
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  • Anonymous

    I'd toss another option into the list – corporate cults aka the cult of objects.

    Corporate culture is learning from religion and cult-behaviour to enable workers to “believe” in the corporate dogma. Startups and tech companies do it well – Square, Apple, Nike, Subway, Starbucks.

    The other angle worth thinking about is shifting ideology of generations. Kids in the 50s (adults in the 70s) – end of the boomer generation, you have freedom now so live it.
    Look at 80s/90s kids 00s/10s adults: You're special, you're important, you can do anything you want, here's the internet so now be an individual on the internet.
    Very individualistic and narcissistic focus.

    Would definitely look to the East for rising “cults”, but wouldn't categorise them as religious but more about belief on a core objective.

  • Phebe Baltazzi

    Answer to ivana Fulli MD
    Your comment is greatly interesting but the second unique point I wanted to make by quoting Einstein's thought is that many people consider “rationality” the unique solid ground upon which to solve a problem or a dilemma! Intuitive mind is our very personal core resource of inspiration (not unique…), it is who we really are and there are some specific ways to approach it…! Still many people are afraid to use it by fear to be considered “stupid/alien” as they need to conform (externally) to the general opinion, to belong to a group etc.; no matter if they could have come to a new and wise point of view!

  • http://petrossa.wordpress.com/ petrossa

    “Maybe there is still innovation in religion, but the fashion has become to present it as being old.”

    Let's not forget the social imprint of existing religions. Nowadays it's hard to grow up somewhere without being exposed to some pre-existing religion, so logically a totally 'new' cult would be hard put to not be influenced.

    Imo the non-emergence of radically different cults is more likely due to this effect then some ephemeral 'end of times' feeling.

    As such, the EndOfTheWorld foundations common in all religions and cults actually make them all variations on a theme.

  • https://twitter.com/mwstory MWStory

    A lot of new cults are hiding in plain sight- what about some of the people who appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to plug their events, which use familiar culty methods but brand themselves as 'personal development' seminars? From what I have seen they soak up a lot of the emotionally needy people who previously would have been traditional cult fodder.
    Consider James Arthur Ray, who ordered a group of his followers to shave their heads, go into a heated 'sweat lodge' and remain there without drinking water until three of them died and many became permanently disabled.
    He recruited this group after appearing on Oprah and asking people to sign up to his 'financial management' seminar.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01673982305695621195 brontti

    Sahaja Yoga is a cult (or close enough) that's been founded in the 1970s, but it has really only taken off in the late nineties and early oughts.

  • Anonymous

    It seems to me that there are more 'cults' than ever. Perhaps too many now for any one now to be able to take a hold.Secular cults abound such as NLP, business management 'gurus', and 'self improvement' groups. As well as a plethora of psychologically or health based ideas – . And of course Chopra et al. But then again I see the history of psychiatry from Kraeplin to Freud and Tom Insel as an attempt to claim and misappropriate scientific thought. How about Anonymous? Even the Skeptic movement (bloggers!) has developed tactics of a cult. 'Denialism' or 'heresy' anyone?

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    ///Even the Skeptic movement (bloggers!) has developed tactics of a cult. 'Denialism' or 'heresy' anyone?///

    17 August 2012 12:54

    I have to strongly disagree concerning Neuroskeptic at least. He might be so enclined at seeing red on some commentator or comments from time to time- but not with the scope of protecting the launching of a personality cult about himself in my opinion.

    It looks more -to my mind but I do not know who he is – like a begnign form of OCD 's love for control and at other time from real affection and chivalry protecting personal or online friends.

    But how right could be those who noticed that the cults have transfer from religion to health care with homeopaths guru (and I am a doctor prescribing homeopathy writing that)and yogi guru etc…

  • omg

    Ivana, lovely to see you around :) I've been so caught up with stuff I haven't checked NS blog for awhile.

    I love this post.

    Information and technology may have something to do with it. People are more aware these days. Although the 'cult of relics' is prevalent in gadgets perhaps.

    In places like sub-sahran africa and parts of Europe, witchcraft, shamanism and new religious movements are purportedly on the rise, and traditional forms of religious worship on the decline.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08172964121659914379 andrew

    Here's another theory that could explain a substantive difference:

    Superstition and religiousity are quite closely aligned with uncertainty in one's personal life.

    Farmers who depend on the year's rain and a lack of natural disasters and many other factors for their well being in a year are more religious on average than people who make steady paychecks in offices. Entrapreneurs in Latin America with uncertain incomes are more religious than wage and salary earners there. Actors whose success in getting new roles depends to a great extent on chance are far more superstituous than bank tellers. One reason for lower religiousity in more affluent individuals may be their increased economic and marital security.

    Religions thrive in places where a culture is threatened leaving the cultural future uncertain (e.g. English ruled Ireland provided a boost to Catholicism as the protector of the Irish national culture, churches in the American South that espouse a Southern culture contrary to the dominant American national cultulre are more vibrant, and immigrant churches that preserve homeland culture are often more vibrant than the same churches at home where that culture is not threatened).

    There is evidence too that family size is closely linked to the probability of a child surviving to adulthood (more certainty, less children needed to hedge one's bets) and that the religiousity associated with large family size is an effect rather than a cause of large family size. But, maybe the religiousity associated with large family size is more directly an effect of the same uncertainty of child survival that leads to large family size.

    In this analysis, cult activity should surge in times of great national uncertainty over the cultural future, like the 1960s and also like the Second Great Awakening of the 1840s in the American South when the uncertainty over the political future of these states (and core institutions in the South like slavery) that ultimate led to secession and the U.S. Civil War arose. The emergence of Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity and a whole lot of other sects that failed coincided with the imminent demise of the Jewish state and the uncertainty of its future following the destruction of the Temple. The Shiite branch within Islam arose from the uncertainty associated with a succession struggle and civil war within the early Islamic empire. The Reformation coincided with uncertainty regarding the demise of feudalism and the changes brought about by the Rennaisance. Arum Shinko came into its own during Japan's first major period of economic crisis. Falun Gong arose in a period of great upheaval and transition in China (as did Confucianism).

    We've seen far less cultural transformation and uncertainty about the future in the last couple of decades (at least before the Great Recession took hold and even then in terms of the cultural fundamentals of the nation) than in the 1960s, so there has been less of a need for religious innovation and less religiousity in general for religious innovation to feed off.

  • omg

    People seem pretty certain about faith based convictions. New religious movements are purportedly on the rise, not sure about cults but it would make sense if they were on the decline or transferred elsewheres.

  • Anonymous

    It was all a bit pre-millenial, wasn't it? Social Media has turned up and burst its bubble. Fun while it lasted, though.

    And another thing. In the run up to 2K you couldn't move without hearing about black triangular UFOs clogging up Belgian airspace. X-Files and Dark Skies caught that particular zeitgeist admirably. So where have they all gone? Nowadays we all have HD camera phones and movie cameras. So where are all the HD photos and films of flying saucers? Eh? EH?

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Neuroskeptic's “snappier headline ” (Neuroskeptic 16 08 12 at 17:07) came with a price but if you would think about sects it seems rather premature to look into the causes of a decline in the light of my experience.

    Plus but you seem a very young person for you wrote:
    ///We've seen far less cultural transformation and uncertainty about the future in the last couple of decades (…) than in the 1960s, so there has been less of a need for religious innovation and less religiousity in general for religious innovation to feed off.///

    Let me tell you that the internet combined with easy acces to the internet through phones and tablets and computers for so many is a cultural transformation.

    I knew of a time when we had computers in the labs but not at home and no mobile phones.

    Internet makes a hudge difference since the sects (and sectborderline therapists) recruit from the internet but with caution since the cops and family of their preys are also online and some countries like France try to be very vigilant on sects'abuses of vulnerable people.

  • Anonymous

    I think Cults have had their business stolen by more economically minded human hackers. Just like in computer security, you rarely see viruses not made with a profit gain in mind any more, you rarely see Cults without a profit motive. MLM marketing and various pyramid schemes and self-help clubs have stolen the customers from the Cults, as they use all the same methods, but they do it better.

  • omg

    Cults are around, it's different from conspiracy groups as cults tend to shun all forms of technology and make their followers sell everything. Maybe it's more practical for the typical modern day cult to be holed up in some poor country spreading their agenda face to face handing out pamphlets. I encountered a couple while doing some projects in poor countries. I even went to one cult's house and was disturbed to find they sat on cardboard boxes and used candles, it was clear they needed psychological help. They didn't regard themselves as a cult but demanded I needed to sell everything and live with them to purify my soul.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11724467382608715989 Daniel Silliman

    There's been a good bit of scholarship on this question, which you might find interesting.

    An important one: http://www.prem-rawat-bio.org/academic/stark1996.html

  • Anonymous

    And Ruby Ridge was 1992 but the Weavers' religious choice was earlier

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07389258008505629339 Gene Ha

    1990 onward is the same period where people noticed that new design style seemed to end. Cars design only changes incrementally and often retro (VW Beetle, Dodge Charger, etc). Fashion is moving in circles, it's hard to distinguish the slacker of today with one from 1992, the droopy pants style is still treated as fresh.

    I think what's happened in both style and cults is that the existing ones are better marketed. Before the Internet it was hard to research and buy clothes from decades before. Now it's easy. Before you had to choose from the churches and cults in your local area. Now you can find saints and weirdos who share most of your beliefs beyond your town.

    This makes it easier for existing styles and religions to survive. That makes it harder for new ones to compete because they can't establish a local monopoly on an idea vs temporal or geographic competition.

  • Anonymous

    I would chalk it up to the rise of the Internet and technology. Social media and other aspects of technology make us all more interconnected, which lessens the need for cults while simultaneously making them more difficult to maintain since any movements will be difficult to maintain secrecy and avoid scrutiny in the age of Google and Facebook etc.

    You should also consider the rise of alternative social movements such as comic fanboy culture and Burning Man (again, all of which have increased due to our interconnectivity on the Internet). These new groups channel our need for a sense of belonging in a more productive (or at least less harmful) manner.

  • http://thatfuzzybastard.blogspot.com That Fuzzy Bastard

    Would Al-Quayeda count as a cult of more recent vintage? An end times theology, distinctive dress, a tendency to isolate its followers from their family and former social connections, and ultimately, martyrdom—all seem like cult characteristics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11635015326954309804 Jerry

    Diamond Mountain (their 1000 acre retreat borders my ranch) is pretty crazy.The leader was caught having sex with a student.He then said it wasn't sex just Yoga and wait…she by luck was a goddess reincarnate (Vavindiyogini or somethin like that She is brainwashed into believing it.The followers eat her toenails and vaginal secretions.She then either kills or causes he husbands death from lack of water.It is getting worse and more retreaters may die..some of them friends of mine

  • Anonymous

    Ummm… Terrorism happened.

  • Anonymous

    This story is wrong in many ways. Firstly, there Hare Krishna's or the ISKCON movement is not a cult. For a cult, to be deemed such, it has to have secret places, rituals and texts that are not available to everyone. The ISKCON movement has no such cabalistic aspects. This is more true of Catholicism or Mormonism, than any other major religion.
    While the ISKCON has a “cult-like” feel to it; it is a very simple, and open, way of practicing divine love for God (a la Krishna). Srila Prabhupada's rhetoric certainly adds to this, even though he was an educated and enlightment man, who knew the scriptures in great detail. There have been several bad apples in this movement, like any other. More so, any where there are Caucasian or Westerners involved, any religion is either elevated (rather degraded!) to a cult. Somehow closed rituals and secret rooms have always enchanted them.
    There are a few cults that have emerged in India, and they are mega-million dollar corporations. They are the Amma-bhagawan Oneness Movement, Nithyananda Paramhamsa's Dhyanapeetam among others. The Indian vernacular 24-7 news channels spare no expense to pursue this gentleman; while a California Superior Court Judge recently ruled that Nithyananda was running fradulent organization.
    A gentleman who calls himself Sri Sri Siddhar Selvam, or Dr. Commander Selvam, Annamalai Annamalai, has been trying hard to set one up here in the US, and thwarted by the internet. So your answers is:

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07235860630966767104 Yogi 's Music World

    I agree and I think it's a combination most of the factors Neuroskeptic listed.

    I would like to think I see the bigger hand of evolution in this as well, all though that's purely speculative on my part. I'd like to think that western culture is finally starting to move beyond having simplistic narratives to cling to (virgin birth, a god who physically sits on a cloud (or star) in the sky somewhere, etc) and becoming more OK to live in a universe without easy childlike solutions to everything. But again, that just may be wishful thinking on my part.

    Asia is a different story of course. Others have noted that we now brand as 'terrorist organizations' those splinter groups that commit acts of violence in the name of God. Formerly they might well have been seen as religious cults, but now they are more likely to be identified as political factions.

    What is entirely missing is the mass suicide cults a la Heavens Gate and Jonestown. Perhaps the fact that both the year 2000 and 2012 have arrived and the world hasn't ended have kind of quieted the hype down, at least until year 2100 starts approaching. And if your an 80/90s kid you have had the pleasure of watching a number of people predict the end of the world and be totally wrong, so maybe that age group isn't as gullible as the 50's/60's kids.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: “Ummm… Terrorism happened.”

    Well, terrorism happened in 2001, 10 years after the last big cults emerged… it's too late to be an explanation I think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    That Fuzzy Bastard: “Would Al-Quayeda count as a cult of more recent vintage?”

    It is a cult and a fairly recent one (founded about 1990) but I'm thinking of Western cults here. Although they did have some Western-naturalized Muslim members, they were fundamentally a middle eastern group.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Gene Ha: “1990 onward is the same period where people noticed that new design style seemed to end…”

    That's REALLY interesting. Surely that's related to the lack of cults.

    For music, same thing: there has been little radical innovation since about 1990.

    By 1990 all of the fundamental genres we have today were there – jazz, blues, folk, country, rock, pop, hip hop, house/dance/etc.

    Since then we've had plenty of variations on those themes, endless new sub-categories, but no new genres.

  • RedRabbit

    This was a fascinating post, and a great discussion. I have two things to say, which I will break in to separate comments in case I ramble on too much here…

    I think most of your reasons are spot on, with some of the most significant being the general rise of secularism and decline of religion, the general decline of social groups, and the fact that lonely, isolated people have more options open to them than they once did.

    Someone mentioned generational differences, and I would like to discuss that in more depth, and from a slightly different angle. This will actually overlap with your third point about the previous era being the exception.

    Now, this will involve some generalizations, but I think they have some basis in reality.

    Think of all the 'modern' generations, the postwar era generations. There was the Greatest Generation, the Silents, the Boomers, the Jonesers (aka late Boomers, or early X-er's), Gen X, and now the Millennials.

    The Boomers, out of all of these generations, may deserve the reputation of being the most 'spiritual'/religious, at least in one sense. The generations before them were conventional when it came to these matters. They attended mainline protestant churches that were largely apolitical, and, by modern standards, pretty boring. The generations after them (with the possible exception of the Jonesers) tend to be very secular, especially Millennials.

    The period of innovation, and the religions/cults you cite, were primarily driven by the Boomers. They may not have founded them all, nor accounted for all of their membership, but their influence here is probably much greater than any other generation.

    After all, the Boomers have always had a reputation as being the generation that is most serious about spiritual seeking, and trying to find a more 'authentic' religious experience, whatever that may be.

    So, it's possible that a major reason for the current state of affairs is simply the decline of the Baby Boom generation, and the fact that their successors don't seem to prioritize spiritual matters as much as they did.

  • RedRabbit

    Now, my second thing, which is actually a question…

    I'm wondering where you would classify some of the developments in American christianity that have sprung up since the mid 1990's or so.

    For instance, what about stuff like Joel Osteen,Rick Warren, and the 'self help' megachurch style suburban/exurban middle class christianity? That sort of thing is often seen as just “evangelical”, but I do think it could be seen as its own distinct branch/trend/whatever you want to call it.

    My impression is that the 'self-help', prosperity gospel sort of thing is a fairly recent development. The theological underpinnings are not new, but the subculture that has grown up around it seems to be something that happened in the past 15 years or so. It's not a cult, per se, but does it fall under the category of a new religious movement? Or is it not quite distinct enough from conventional religion to qualify?

    Also, what about the recent growth of “charismatic” christianity and some of the more…well…peculiar Pentecostal sects out there, some of which do seem to have vaguely cultish characteristics? Again, the actual theological history is older than the wane of new religious movements, but it seems that a more distinct subculture has grown out of it in the past twenty years or so.

    Do any of these developments qualify? I freely admit that I may be entirely wrong, and all these movements predate the 90's, and they just grew in popularity in recent decades.

  • Anonymous

    Blame feminism. Kind of a joke, but not really.

    Increased awareness of rape, child abuse and domestic violence have made not only feminist women, but mainstream society far more aware of what constitutes abusive behavior. This not only shrinks the pool of potential victims, but increases the possibility that friends and family will notice what is happening and intervene. As somewhat of a corollary, in the US, rape has declined by 60% since 1993 (acknowledging that counting rape is difficult and that there are still too many damn rapes!). I would argue that these are signs that American's expectations for personal dignity are higher than they were.

    As mentioned above, evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity became substantially weirder and the political power of the Christian right allowed cult leaders who labeled themselves as Christian to pass unremarked in their communities. The internet and self-help movements have probably created a sort of “culting in place.” Credit cards, electronic databases, and the internet have made it harder not only to hide, but to create a new identity for yourself.

    One wild card – homeschooling. It's been a massive experiment. I'm curious to see what will come out in the memoirs of kids who've grown up homeschooled in abusive and cultish situations.


  • Jeff_S

    Very interesting discussion. A couple of further thoughts from this cultural historian:

    > Pinning down cultural phenomena and their causes is very hard. In this case, we can't even be sure there's a phenomenon to be explained — like a dropoff in cultish activity — without having a very clear definition of what we're counting as “cults.” As several people have noted above, it can be difficult to distinguish religious from political movements (since their aims may overlap), or “new” religions from sub-movements within (or offshoots of) established religions. Cults are usually “syncretistic,” i.e. they borrow and remix existing ideas and images. Sometimes the new mix takes on a life of its own, sometimes it is reabsorbed into the mainstream — in which case it would be called a new “tendency” or “sect” or “faction” or “school of thought” (or even “heresy”) rather than a cult.

    > Twenty years may be too small a window in which to register a real change. If it seems there have been fewer cults appearing recently, that may be just normal variation (aka “statistical noise”) that would not look remarkable if we broadened the view to a 50- or 100-year or longer period. It might therefore not call for any explanation. In general, cultural phenomena unfold over multiple decades (at least), and we're only just at that point now with respect to the period since 1990.

    > It's also difficult to disentangle real cultural developments from changes in our ways and means of observing them. We know about cults, for instance, because they get reported on in the media. There have been changes in the media in the last generation that could have affected what's getting reported and how much public attention is getting focused on which topics. It could be that cultish activity is no longer same way it was in the '50s – '80s. (This, in turn, could also mean that there's objectively less of it, because people who might join a given proto-cult don't find out about it the way they once might have.)

    In short, I don't know, but there are lots of reasons to be cautious about drawing conclusions, or even assuming that there are conclusions to be drawn. It does seem clear, however, that there have been places and periods in history when religious innovation and entrepreneurship were exceptionally high, and anyone who wants to know what factors might drive this — or put it into reverse — would do well to read up on concepts like the “Axial Age” and the “Burned-Over District” (you can start with Wikipedia on those).

  • Jeff_S

    “It could be that cultish activity is no longer same way it was in the '50s – '80s.”

    Correction: is no longer reported on in the same way.

  • Anonymous

    On the subject of “hyperreal” religions, see the Church of Gadget Hackwrench, a Russian group that venerates a character from Disney's TaleSpin cartoon (which debuted in 1990).


  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09549989805294177159 Jeff

    Dawkins and Atheist Fundamentalism.
    Jobs and Apple
    Andrew Wakefield and the anti MMR cult.

  • Anonymous

    Some of the comments regarding the Internet and increased available knowledge fit in well with Alvin Toffler's theme in Power Shift.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    RedRabbit: “For instance, what about stuff like Joel Osteen,Rick Warren, and the 'self help' megachurch style suburban/exurban middle class christianity? That sort of thing is often seen as just “evangelical”, but I do think it could be seen as its own distinct branch/trend/whatever you want to call it.”

    Well my impression, although I have no direct experience, is that these megachurches are a good example of the 'cult-ification of the mainstream' phenomenon that's been discussed in this thread.

    i.e. you have ideas that, 30 years ago, would have been regarded as well outside the mainstream – that are now accepted (albeit reluctantly) as a more or less everyday form of “Christianity”.

    But the megachurches are not true cults because they're part of mainstream society. You don't have to turn your back on the world in order to join them. Indeed one of their main selling points is that they'll make you a success in the everyday world (i.e. rich & famous!)

  • omg

    Terrorism came into prominence in the 1980s during the Gulf Wars under Bush Senior. Religious fundamentalists or political fundamentalists in the case of suicide bombers are not classified as “cults”.

  • ChristineRose

    I do think the Internet has a lot to do with it. There are plenty of illogical ideas out there like The Secret, plus some others mentioned (Men's rights, anti-global warming, FSM). The difference is that in the bad old days if you wanted to isolate yourself from people who would tell you how silly you were being you had to move into a ranch with like thinkers. Now you can chat from the comfort of your own home. It makes being delusional easier yet tempers the experience by reducing the isolation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09376945981386467046 Iain

    One part of the explanation that has, I think, been missed: the rise of the “cult” of individualism and post-modern relativism. There has been a strong rise in the idea that truth is something that each individual gets to make up for themselves. As a result, we see a lot mix-and-match ideologies, where people just pick bits and pieces of a worldview from wherever they find it, without worrying about consistency or belonging to a group.
    This relativism allows an easy outlet for anti-establishment sentiments, without sending people into the arms of a cult. You see this in alternative medicine, where an incoherent mish-mash of different modalities are combined, with each individual picking just those elements that take their fancy. The only common element is the rejection of mainstream medicine and the ogre of “Big Pharma”.
    With this kind of hyper-subjectivism, there isn't much need to gather together in cults. A large part of the strength of a cult is its ability to reinforce and confirm common beliefs. This allows people to withstand doubts about the clash between their beliefs and those of the mainstream. But if the underlying ideology is that truth is purely subjective, then there is no room for doubt.

  • Anonymous

    I think the advent of the internet is one variable. You can now participate in some of the more emotionally attractive elements of a cult from the safety of your living room. This lack of geographical proximity and control of communication also weakens the leadership features of a traditional cult.

  • http://survivingantidepressants.org Altostrata

    I nominate biopsychiatry itself as a religious cult:

    – Adherents believe strongly despite evidence to the contrary.
    – Frequent gatherings to encourage and support each other in their beliefs.
    – Huge body of tautological commentary.
    – Corrupt leadership.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08172964121659914379 andrew

    “in the US, rape has declined by 60% since 1993”

    There was an across the board decline in violent and property crimes of almost every type in roughly the same time period of similar magnitudes. The decline in these offenses is not exceptionally great relative to other offenses as one might otherwise expect if feminism was driving the decline.

    Femininism may very well be relevant, but the path by which this is the case suggests is a poor fit to the data.

  • Anonymous

    “Where have all the cults gone?”

    They are fielding presidential candidates now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11920109042402850214 Steve Sailer

    The cult of Santa Muerta (St. Death) is booming among drug cartelists in Mexico at present:


    It's not a new cult, but then many of the cults that peaked in the 1970s weren't terribly new — New Age, for example, has been around in California for a long time.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    What you do raising awareness and helping people to get rid of antidepressant prescriptions when people are suffering more harm than good from those medications.

    Still, sects are neither joking matter nor easy to define.

    Biological psychiatry is not and never was a sect but an academic theory. Big pharma marketing strategies made the most of it unfortunatly.

    Biological psychiatry was a theory challenging the dominant -and unscientific and damaging to people and families- psychoanalysis theory of mental illnesses. A theory that made academic psychiatrists pretend that the refrigerator mothers were giving autism to their child or the ambivalent ones giving schizophrenia to their offspring.

    The biological psychiatry academic theory won hands down over psychoanalytic theories in most countries -except France (and Argentina I was told).

    As a psychiatrist who found buddhism inspired therapies and homeopathy remedies very useful tools to prevent people starting prematurely an antidepressant or even a neuroleptic regimen they will not obviously benefit from and often spectacular tools preventing withdrawal symptoms when tapering the doses of SSRIs, I am very sad to write sincerely that I encountered sectlike behaviors in meditating schools and homeopathic schools and associations -along with obvious crooks but then you get crooks in the psychiatry and psychology academic worlds as well.

    Beware Alto! You do a good deed but both on the antipsychiatry fringe and center you get crooks and sects preying on vulnerable people.

    You do not seem one of them to my mind but they do prey on your lambs.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    ///omg said…

    Terrorism came into prominence in the 1980s during the Gulf Wars under Bush Senior. Religious fundamentalists or political fundamentalists in the case of suicide bombers are not classified as “cults”.

    20 August 2012 12:28///

    Thanks a lot dearest omg!

    It is difficult, for example, indeed to think that there is a sect to blame when Palestinian leaders send their children to top Western Universities when encouraging the sons and daughters of poor fellow countrymen to become suicide bombers…

    we are lucky thet you follow and comment Neuroskeptic blog since some political good sense and experience is not the forte of his commentators as a whole.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with much of the discussion – “cults” or various outlier sects probably are around; to a lesser extent and they just may blend in/become the mainstream. It's also possible that little may shock us now. But there's not the same density of population involved now — especially not of youth, as there was when cults were at their peak in the US, in the 1970s. Based on admittedly limited research (n=1) my anecdotal experience – it does seem that cultural changes account for some of the difference today. In the 1970s, I worked in a health food store where I was the only one out of about 8 employees who was not engaged in some cult or cult-like group. All staff were under age 30. The cultural emphasis at that time was more about rebelling against the status quo, as well as on “finding yourself.” In the 2000's, I've learned of some people in my area who have bought into (perhaps literally) a personal improvement/psychological philosophy that works a little like a pyramid scheme. Patients have a chance of progressing into taking on leadership roles and becoming practitioners themselves. No degrees are conferred, of course; only the pure undiluted methods of the founder truly bring people to their senses, it appears. Nearly all of the adherents are at least over age 50. Hmm – maybe it's just my generation?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07079100744662487169 Cyrus

    There are plenty of nutty beliefs out there, as this thread demonstrates, but that isn't what the post is talking about. Without bothering to look up the formal definition, isn't being an insular, secretive group that preys on the desperate part of the very meaning of the word “cult”?

    If so, then that rules out many ideas mentioned here. Say what you will about the anti-vaxxers crowd, but I think there's little or no actual money changing hands, and it's not secretive. Same for atheism, truthers, birthers, etc. There's no movement, just a belief that's not the conventional wisdom. That doesn't make it a cult.

    If I'm correct, and if genuine cults have declined, then I'd be inclined to credit the Bowling Alone hypothesis more than anything else, of a particularly Internet variety. People in general are spending less time with groups of all kinds. If people want a group that gives them co-dependency and creepy affirmation, they can find six varieties online before breakfast, but none of those can love-bomb them or cut their hair nearly as easily as in-person groups can.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Unlike you, the French worry about sectarian activities -and the USA American actor Tom Cruise was sent on a mission tyo met former president Sarkosy on the behalf of the scientologists after some criminal trials of some French scientologists.

    In 2002 the French government created an inter- ministerial work force placed under the prime minister authority with the scope of analyzing , repressing , preventing and informing the public on “sectarian unlawful actions” (dérives sectaires).

    Its barbarian sounding name is “La Miviludes “ for mission Interministérielle de Vigilance et de Lutte contre les dérives sectaires” : http://www.miviludes.gouv.fr/missions

    The Milivudes' definition of « sectarian unlawful actions » so far is:


    ///Il s'agit d'un dévoiement de la liberté de pensée, d’opinion ou de religion qui porte atteinte à l'ordre public, aux lois ou aux règlements, aux droits fondamentaux, à la sécurité ou à l’intégrité des personnes. Elle se caractérise par la mise en œuvre, par un groupe organisé ou par un individu isolé, quelle que soit sa nature ou son activité, de pressions ou de techniques ayant pour but de créer, de maintenir ou d’exploiter chez une personne un état de sujétion psychologique ou physique, la privant d’une partie de son libre arbitre, avec des conséquences dommageables pour cette personne, son entourage ou pour la société.///

    My amateur’s translation attempt gives:
    ///Sectarian unlawful action consists in the corruption of the freedom of thinking , freedom of opinion or freedom of religion that disrespect public order, laws or state regulations, fundamental rights, security or integrity of the people. it is characterized by the implementation, by an organized group or an isolated individual,-whatever his nature or its activity- of pressures or techniques which aim is to create , maintain or exploit in a person a state of psychological or physical subjection depriving that person of part of her free will, with detrimental consequences for that person, the persons around her or society.///

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    As a pro bono and no paternalistic adult psychiatrist I earned no money and pension rights but a large body of knowledge that escaped me when I worked in hospitals.

    I discovered how “broad-mindedly” many “rational looking French people” were searching answers against suffering and illnesses -not only metal illnesses- paying good money to a very wide range of therapists.

    I have to admit that I heard of an alcohol dependent man getting sober with the help of a “local stones healing cult” but it was from the woman who divorced him because she had suffered his alcohol dependance but was not able to stand the “witless adorer of stones'healing power” of a husband bringing stones in their bed and in their child's bed and spending his week-end with the cult.

    When divorcing people invent things and this personal story is to be taken with a pinch of salt of course but we had criminal trials in France of sectarian activities leading to the premature death of people due to lack of medical standard cure of adults and even children.

  • omg

    Hi Ivana :)

    Tom Cruise met Sarkozy ? Must be the nose. I commonly associate sectarian violence with cults gone rogue. Not uncommon in south east asia and north west africa. Independent rag tag militia groups with cult-like manifestos. I think they're the easiest to deal with. The UN policy for them in Congo is to shoot and kill. Whereas a cult cult are still allowed to thrive much like MLM, corporate shenanigans etc. They can't be stopped until a crime is committed.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    What you just wrote adds weight to what Steve Sailer said…21 08 12 at6:25:

    The cult of Santa Muerta (St. Death) is booming among drug cartelists in Mexico at present:


    Frightening “political stuff” we do not know enough about.

    But we do not know enough about sectarian deviances like the homeopath DR Luc Jouret who in 1978opened a private practice in the city of Annemasse (Savoie).

    1983: Jouret fail in an attempt to take controm of a templar order in another French district( Haute-Garonne).

    1984: fondation of the ” l'Ordre du temple solaire”(OTS) for which sect the good Dr Jouret recruted up to 400 members, (mostly in Martinique, the West of France dans l'ouest de la France, Canada and Switzerland).

    1994: 4 OTS' faithfulls and a baby are found assassinated in Quebec. The following day, 47 others included Dr Jouret found a violent death in Switzerland.


    PS: Actor Tom Cruise met Nicolas Sarkosy when the later was the French finance minister at the ministerial building.



  • Jacinda

    In my opinion, the new and emerging religious movements have become decentralized and almost organized in cells. I would personally classify Jack Hyles' group of IFB as a NRM/cult, and a lot of the patriarchy/stay-at-home-daughters groups. The one that fits the best, from what I can see, is The Family.

    My informal research does tend to focus more on Christianity, though.

  • Anonymous

    We do have a new religious movement–it's called Apple, with Steve Jobs as the Messiah.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03460547533841797642 Sheila O'Shea

    The Internet happened. Simple as that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Sheila: I think you're right, but I'm interested in working out what, specifically, the internet did…

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    ///Blogger Sheila O'Shea said…

    The Internet happened. Simple as that.

    23 August 2012 02:47///

    I strongly disagree with your opinion and think you greatly underestimate succesful sect leaders.

    The successful leaders of problematic for society and the “basic sect believers” sects are clever enough to be careful about what they let write on the Internet and what they let appear of their activities through the media.

    Does the USA American actor Tom Cruise looks like a guy promoting a sect who will separate ordinary people in emotional distress from their life savings and from their friends and families as criminal suit in France have shown it to be at least the French reality of the scientology church- a church who might have more careful and honest leaders in the USA?

    Some of those successful damaging sects leaders are crooks, others are delusional and the later create a share paranoid disorder of the paranoiac kind.

    Successful crooks are careful enough using the internet and modern technology in general .

    Their scheme might be deceptively simple –once they are discovered – but the successful crooks are bright and the simplicity of the scheme is often the best way to ensure the need for secrecy. Bernard Madoff for example used very old computers to calculate and send news of his “magic investment scheme” by letters to his victims.

    (BM is not the leader of a sect to the best of my knowledge but other crooks are and I use him as an example of crook behavior because of his fame)

    For the successful delusional leaders, their paranoia is restricted to specific domains of life and their cognitive functions are not impaired- except for the inabilities to self-critic and to take any distance from their delusion.

    (As a rule their personality is secretive for a start and in their delusion there is persecution elements)

    In consequence, what both crooks and delusional dangerous sects leaders want -and succed at- is appearing on the internet and in the media in a very good light if at all.

    To give you personal examples, I heard in 2009 an homeopath (but a MD) telling me that the Dr Jouret (Secte du soleil) was a very good doctor when the guy used to tell people that to feed milk powder to babies kills their soul but I have never read such ludicrous nonsenses on the internet on the web page of a MD school of homeopathy so far.

    Also, I saw and listen to a Belgian doctor in rapture after listening in a meeting held at Spa (Belgium) that a British (and Israeli)non MD homeopath had dared to say in plain English that if he received enough money donations starting -with that 2009 audience in SPA (Belgium) – he would discover The “epidemiological”homeopathic remedy” for AIDS in West (or it might have been East) Africa in 4 years time times!

    Beware that in an homeopathic “serious review “ with a German publisher, “LINKS”, the same “non MD director of an homeopathic school in GB” was presented as researching homeopathic remedies to treat only on the side-effect of AIDS treatment…

    (“epidemiological” meaning for homeopaths being a remedy giving results in every client whatever his “homeopathic constitution”-)

  • omg

    Ivana, urban cults fuelled by drug cartels are common in building election war chests, has been since the poppy trade in Afghanistan. For instance, in Kenya they have the “Mungiki” the godfathers being the Kikuyu elite. President Kibaki and the Mount Kenya Mafia aka MKM. Mount Kenya because Mungiki adherents face Mount Kenya to salute and undergo ritual beheadings months leading up to the elections. You can predict the trajectory of election outcomes by studying these patterns, like which constituencies were these brandings, how many etc. Sort of similar to secret societies if you may in the West. Cults have this reoccuring theme of attaining power, mindwashing a few to millions, it needs to involve blood like a ritualized killing. Pretty heavy stuff urban cults. Whether it's necessary who knows, but it happens.

  • omg

    At the behest of the most powerful cults in the world is supposedly a demon, a beast, like some hybrid animal. I mean I've heard stories about it from those in power, sane individuals. Whether it's myth, conspiracy, fear tactic who knows. What I do know is that we humans and the scientific field can't ignore like you say, homeopathic stuff, stuff beyond our sense perception, stuff beyond our cognition like the way cameras purportedly capture ghost like images or souls in some cultures. Different plains of consciousness, certain drugs elicit that. Drugs, power, the unknown, spilling blood, land, could be all connected somehow. .

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    You bring to the discussion interesting material and it is too rich for me to discuss it without exceeding my welcome by Neuroskeptic and have my comment removed as out of topics…

    Let me just insist on the fact that some very bright and innovative people get much out of their superstitions or unconventional beliefs and human beings are very often superstitious even in the western world and among the educated persons.

    Crooks and delusional leaders of dangerous sects are a different matter –with obvious difficulties in drawing the line between political opportunism in war time and bloodthirsty sects in the examples you gave us.

    (The personality cult of political leaders is not new nor is their use of superstition. Just think about the Roman emperors who “became” gods after their death or the kings of France who were to reign to obey God's will and had the magic power to cure illnesses by their touch.)

    To come back to my first point, Isaac Newton was also an alchemist , Niels Bohr was known as superstitious etc…
    Jung believed in medium and his interest in the occult (also in the mythologies admittedly ) might have been the main protective factor against Freud's intellectual and cultural limitations.

    On my second point, you do not need to research the internet as thoroughly as neuroskeptic to find a wide range of superstitions real people act upon in the Western world like:

    ” Numbers align for couples wanting to get married – Los Angeles Times”

    I cite the article:///(…) Everybody wants 11/11/11. It's a very spiritual number,” said wedding officiant Fernando Howard. “The last couple of weeks we've had people begging: 'Can you let us in? It's a magic day. We've got to get married on that day”.///


    No wonder that some warriors are prone to horrendous superstition when they face death in battle for an African warlord if some Californian use a “ magic number” to protect them against marital suffering!

    But my main point is that dangerous sects’ leaders – some of them crooks and some other delusional psychiatric clients
    recruit nowadays in the mental health sector and in the health, well-being, businesses efficiency, education sectors- alternatice therapies and antipsychiatry being rich in potential preys.

    Some know how to use the internet to get new recruits without being caught, other are very local and low tech.

  • Anonymous

    I nominate:
    – Environmentalism (including AGW)
    – NWO conspiracy theories (including 9/11 truthers)

    Those appear to me to be genuine new cults born in the internet-age.

  • zmmc

    Several European countries have government agencies (service, safety agency etc) actively monitoring cults and potential cults. They typically report dozens of potential cults in each country.

    And even then they manage to miss two major categories of modern cults. THe first category they typically overlook are the cults that mostly operate online and are pretty much undetectable by non-members. If you look around forums/websites of conspiracy theorists, NWO-fools, alien believers, “star people”, alternate truths etc. you will find them; message boards of such websites are full of cult-members scouting mentally vulnerable people that believe anything to join them…

    The other major category of modern cults that is typically overlooked, are the cults that disguise themselves as “training agencies” offering motivational courses. One of the biggest of them is Avatar (http://www.avatarepc.com/). They actually manage to infiltrate larger companies and send their employees to their courses, thereby finding new members. They're one of the scariest cults as far as I'm concerned.

    And then the classics are still around, the most obvious and succesful one being Scientology.

    In the past few years I've had 2 of my friends being sucked up by Avatar (and paying them SHITLOADS of money) and one has somehow become involved in one of those “undetectable” cults. This person has unfortunately disappeared completely several years ago but is reported to live with other cult members somewhere in the middle of nowhere in New Zealand (he's from the Netherlands). Furthermore, I've managed to prevent a friend from being sucked up by Scientology. She was not at all aware of what Scientology was prior to that..

    All of them are highly intetelligent persons that happened to come into contact with a cult while they were at their weakest, for example due to loss of a job etc.

    If anything, I'd say there are more cults than there used to be. It's just that they're more fragmented and often very difficult to detect. But they're out there, trying to steal your friends' soul. Be aware.

  • zmmc

    A quick addition to my previous comment: Here's another modern cult, the Ascension Explorers.


    They used to be one of those “undetectable Internet cults” but they now appear to have found the much more profitable path of the “business training cult”…

    However, no mention of them being a cult on the Internet. Apparently the rest of the world has their eyes wide shut or something. Cults are all around.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    zmmc: Very interesting, thanks for those comments.

  • omg

    Zmmc, they're called scammers and conspiracy theorists. Cults need some kind of ritual. Paying homage to Star Wars or Zac Efron is not a cult. Being recruited and scammed online or offline like gambling addiction is not a cult. Contrary to what Wiki says about cults, new religious movements like Scientology are not considered cults.

    Ivana, yes. Cults concerning the greatest thinkers of our time would definitely shock. How do you draw inspiration and discovery without mysticism ?

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    The USA are officially in denial of any sectarian dangers for vulnerable people from some the Church of scientology 's French leaders.

    If their scientologists ‘s leaders are better and more honest than some French ones or if the USA people do not care about sectarian abuses it is fine with me.

    But Madeleine Albright almost created a severe diplomatic USA/French crisis in 1990 for the defense of that sect or church -as you wish-

    According to a very courageous French MP and former judge, Georges Fenech, who just stepped back from being the “La Milivudes” chair ( French government committee fighting sectarian abuses):

    « La France, pays laïque, et les États-Unis, qui placent sur un pied d'égalité religion et sectes, se sont heurtés au sujet de l'action de la Miviludes. Fin 1990, on avait même frôlé la crise diplomatique. Madeleine Albright, alors secrétaire d'État américaine, s'était plainte auprès de son homologue Hubert Védrine des atteintes aux libertés religieuses commises, selon elle, en France. »


    Amateurish translation of mine:

    “ France, a laic country , and the USA , which put on an equal footing religions and sects, clashed about La Miviludes. At the end of 1990, we came very close to a diplomatic crisis. Madeleine Albright, then USA secretary of State, complained to Hubert Védrine (our then Foreign minister) about striking of blows to religious liberty, according to her in France. “

    PS: The poor woman had made herself quite unpopular with many a French and had been the object of bad taste jokes like “Do you know why there was a war in The Balkans?” “ Because Bill Clinton was to busy having oral sex at the office when his wife was not looking, and he let Madeleine Albright ask the Balkan people if they wanted to make love or peace with her.”

    After that , the scientologists made Tom Cruise their advocate in France and his visit to former president Nicolas Sarkosy then finance minister in his ministerial building stirred some public outrage.

    NS was elected president a few years later. “Nobody’s perfect” all the time even on one single topic…Not even Neuroskeptic…

  • omg

    I don't know much about scientology, I regard it no different to pilates. But I do know Hollywood finances the Democrats. Sarkozy's success probably had little to do with scientology. He was Chirac's right-wing project until he was dumped for being too snug with Obama. Let's not even go there with Madeleine. I love that show.. you know I'm Madeline, I'm Madeline, the show with the little french chic.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    I am not crusading against the dangerous sectarian criminals –I am not courageous enough for that and I am not even competent in the field of that kind of mental abuses, plus I am not of a paternalistic frame of mind and I admit that religion and sects might help greatly some people – and that will be my last comment.

    Please bear with that addentum then!

    I had two frightening direct personal occasions to perceive “on my skin” the reality of the sectarian importance in France-apart from the journal articles about criminal law suits of sectarian abuses:

    1) First in 1997 when I looked for support in any decent homeschooling parental association in France, for personal logistic and legal support, after deciding I would have to homeschooled to very bright children – for pedagogic not religious reasons- as long as needed for their well-being and academic success.

    Here the “La miviludes” published a public rapport in 2009 estimating that 50 000 children were the victims of dangerous sects in France alone:


    (A shorter read: http://www.lefigaro.fr/actualite-france/2010/10/13/01016-20101013ARTFIG00624-50000-enfants-sont-victimes-d-une-emprise-sectaire.php)

    2) When I attended a French speaking “unicist homeopaths” ‘ s association meetings in SPA in 2009, I realized that although a useful tool for any reasonable doctor , homeopathy remedies were although used by crooks of the worst sort (those making money on the fear of death and illnesses of their victims) and by very sectarian minded MDs refusing to see the reality or the seriousness of some of the shortcomings of some their leaders and heads of schools.

    Here again “la milivudes” worked diligently with a 2010 annual report on the sectarian abuses in the training sector in general and in particular in the unconventional medicine training sector:


  • omg

    I had to translate those documents on Google. My French is terrible, my tongue lacks finesse. I recognise the site though. Personally I've embraced shamanic traditions like totems and animal spirits. Like respecting native rights.

    I'm not familiar with sectarian violence in France but you know these days when it comes to medicines and remedies you can only really trust yourself. You know your body best. Perhaps they need more public awareness campaigns to safe guard against alternative lifestyle abuses. Like the impact of raising kids in that environment.

    I'm not sure what you mean by sectarian abuse in unconventional medical training. If you mean using home made stuff, it would be a fine line to distinguish that from culture.

    But I can see how the problem arises from a policy point of view. Like if they regulated with a seal of approval based on evidence at a standard below medical research.. take a scenario where a certain drug with more 'homeopathic' stuff is not kosher at the medical standard but fits the standard of homeopathic standard, big pharma would certainly take advantage of that and market a seal of approval with homeo standard. If it sells it sells.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    1)26 August 2012 09:59 you should read
    “Do you know why there was a war in The Balkans?”

    “ Because Bill Clinton was to busy having oral sex at the office when his wife was not looking, and he let Madeleine Albright ask the Balkan people if they wanted to make love or war with her.”

    2) 26 August 2012 12:15 You should read: ” Please bear with that addendum then!”

    3) last but not least, if omg (and may be others)understood I was accusing the scientologists to have put president Sarkosy at the head of France, my writing must have been very faultly indeed.

    I intended to tell that the then French Finance minister had accepted to talk about scientology with an American actor ambassador of a church (or sect as you wish) which in France had seen criminal trials of some of his leaders for separating people in distress from their money.

  • Anonymous

    You want an example of a modern, western cult?

    Check out 'Dr.' Doreen Virtue 'PhD'

    Her Angel Therapy and it's 'qualified' practioners (esp the prices to learn it, and their exclusionary/elitist tactics), her 'education,' and the rabid nature of her followers are very interesting in this regard i.e. as an example of a cult.

    But, whatever you do, DON'T write a negative article about her or her teachings unless you want to be spammed by spiteful, passive-agressive loonies in the name of love and light!
    She is also litigation mad, managing to get her Wikipedia page removed with threats to sue (because it informed people that her 'education' was bought from a degree-mill and her working life as a psychologist was in a hospital that either never existed or had closed down before she worked there [depending on whether she made an 'honest' mistake in its location]).

  • Anonymous

    Re: Doreen Virtue on Wikipedia.

    My mistake, there is an all new, sycophantic and apparently self-written page about her on Wiki.
    Just google the words “Doreen Virtue Fraud,” that'll see you right.

    And I forgot to mention in my last post; its not her main-stream stuff (books, CDs, tarot-style cards etc) that are cultish, they're just plain woo, its the group retreats, 'schools,' and other private and exclusionary/heavily policed/secret meetings which cost thousands of dollars to attend.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18001492312162861823 Richard Gipps
  • omg

    She runs a Peter Pan club who cares ? I'm not even going to click on that 'destiny' link mispelt.

    Ivana I had a response but it must've been filtered. I'll be back when I can remember what it was. Been uber busy of late.

  • Anonymous

    i think the Korean cult is later than the 90's, they are in Sedona now

    I do believe there are some new trends out there now, i see the singularity drawing lots of thinkers, and look at animae and the sex doll crazes. The interweb spreads the geographic interest out, and the old religions have become about justifying wealth and bigotry.

    the most fascinating one is the AI, and the birth of computer music and poetry.

    i find myself spending lots more time learning basic science, since it is so much easier to research stuff than at a library that is now full of mystery and romance books.

  • Anonymous

    i would say that there have been a fair few. 'desteni' for example, or the cult around A J Miller. In order to get really famous you need allegations of serious offences such as child abuse, a mass suicide or something along those lines, and those are things that tend to turn off modern potential recruits.

  • http://allthingsareyours.wordpress.com/ Heather Goodman

    Recent “cults” are not as religious as before, but most MLM pyramid schemes function as cults. And there are all the alternative health things. Along those lines, the applied kinesiology thing, the anti-vaccine movement, Reiki, essential oil crazes, and even the gluten free movement (for people without celiac) could all be considered cult-like movements.

  • http://allthingsareyours.wordpress.com/ Heather Goodman

    Also there have been new, large, religious movements not necessarily “cults.” The international house of prayer for instance sprang up less than 20 years ago, and has spawned a global movement. The “emergent church”, the “missional church” movement, New Monasticism — all have come into being in the last 20 years and have been highly influential in their worlds, although I wouldn’t call any of them a “cult.”

  • https://themoneyrevolution.wordpress.com/ mjk1093

    I think NXIUM would qualify as a New Cult on the Block



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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