What happened to all of the cults?

Not long ago, people were worried about cults. Their teenagers and young adults would run off and join the Moonies, the Hare Krishnas, or the Children of God and not be seen of again. Often, parents hired “deprogrammers” to abduct the son or daughter who was caught up in the cult and to conduct a process of reverse brainwashing. Why aren’t we hearing about that sort of thing anymore? Many of these groups are still around, but the general fear of them seems to have gone. Religion scholar Philip Jenkins has some theories, after the jump, and I propose some of my own.


Throughout American history, a recurrent narrative has warned of the danger of small, tight-knit groups, following a charismatic leader, and allegedly prone to sexual abuse and misconduct, the maltreatment and exploitation of members, violence and financial fraud, brainwashing and mind control. Although the word “cult” has no strict social scientific definition, a useful checklist for such groups would include such categories as authoritarian, puritanical, totalistic, charismatically led, and intolerant.

Wherever we look in US history, we find public fears about such groups, whether we are considering the 1820s or 1880s, the 1920s or (especially) the 1970s – the years of massive reaction against unpopular or stigmatized groups like the “Moonies” (Unification Church) and Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Children of God, The Way International and Synanon. Cults continued to be national news between 1984 and 1994, with the absurd Satanic Panic, and were in the news with the Waco Siege of 1993, and the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple movements.

But look at the past fifteen years or so, basically the present century. When have we had a cult scare on anything like traditional lines? Yes, there have been plenty of local concerns and investigations, by strictly local and regional media. Offhand, I can think of a couple in Texas, and several have surfaced around the country. In 2008, we saw the massive official action against the polygamist sect headed by Warren Jeffs in Texas, the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Anti-cult groups like Cultwatch still operate. Recently, the Atlantic catalogued “The Seven Signs You are in a Cult.”

But compared to the 1970s, the cult issue has vanished almost entirely. When did you last see the once-familiar media story about Group X with exposés of its sinister guru, with tragic images of weeping parents wondering how their child could have become associated with this dreadful organization? Why would they renounce their worldly hopes to devote their lives to this evil sect?

Moreover, if such groups really were out there, we are massively more likely to hear about them than we would twenty or thirty years ago. I am thinking of course about the Internet, which allows strictly local concerns and debates to be blown up to a national or global scale. If there was a cult panic in City X, it would, surely, go national within a very short time.

Prof. Jenkins goes on to suggest that this may be a sign of genuine secularization. “Just possibly, that [religious] marketplace really has changed in an unprecedented way, to reduce the public taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever.” Fewer people have a taste for the extreme spiritual commitment that it takes to join a cult, and society as a whole is just not that interested in them or concerned about them.

Or is it that cult-like beliefs have just become part of the generally accepted spiritual smorgasbord? Even cults have lost their social dimension and become hyper-individualized.

And in many cases, groups like Scientology and the Unification Church have become institutionalized and socially acceptable, with many people getting their taste for charismatic leadership, promises of supernatural power, and spiritual highs from regular churches that teach things like the prosperity gospel.

What do you think? Do any of you have any direct or indirect experience with cults? Have they changed, or has society changed to the point that now every religious expression, no matter how extreme or bizarre, is considered just as valid as any other, and so nothing to worry about?