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!”



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

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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