What Makes a Cult a cult?

Fascinating article from the New Yorker seeking to explain irrational behiaviour.

In “What Makes a Cult a Cult”, Zoe Heller’s piece published in the July 12th and 19th print issues of the New Yorker, she examines the phenomena of cults and irrational beliefs in her review of “Don’t Call it a Cult” by Sarah Berman. Berman examines the NXIVM cult let by Keith Ranier, who was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison. Ranier told his female members that they had Nazi leader ancestors and to shift the bad energy, they had to have yogic sex with him. Worked for a while.

One explanation for why people hold beliefs that contradict logic is that we’re hard wired to understand the world through narratives, including those that defy logic. Each cult/religion/movement has its own story that gives believers meaning and purpose, and lets them believe that they are playing a role in making the world a better place.

The main insight I took from this article is a proposed explanation for why these groups exist and prosper. Heller writes “some scholars theorize that levels of religiosity and cultic affiliation tend to rise in proportion to the perceived uncertainty of an environment. The less control we feel we have over our circumstances, the more likely we are to entrust our fates to a higher power….(A classic example of this relationship was provided by the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who found that fishermen in the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, engaged in more magic rituals the farther out to sea they went.) This propensity has been offered as an explanation for why cults proliferated during the social and political tumult of the nineteen-sixties, and why levels of religiosity have remained higher in America than in other industrialized countries. Americans, it is argued, experience significantly more economic precarity than people in nations with stronger social safety nets and consequently are more inclined to seek alternative sources of comfort”

This is relevant to today with Qanon, whose members believe the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles. It has already made many prophesies that have not come true. What happens then? According to psychologist Leon Festinger who proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1956 in a classic study, when predictions fail, many get disillusioned and discard their beliefs, bud a portion double down and finds new ways to justify their beliefs (the “real” event is yet to come and this is all part of the plan). This makes me think that Qanon is not going away even if it’s diminished.

Heller’s article is filled with fascinating anecdotes and is worth a read.q

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