In popular media, cults are often the object of morbid curiosity, in the same category as serial killers, celebrity breakdowns, and the scandalous exploits of polygamous big cat enthusiasts. In 2018, Netflix’s Wild Wild Country shocked viewers with the story of the Rajneeshpuram commune, who took over a small town in Oregon in order to pursue their twin passions of meditation and bioterrorism. Many of Louis Theroux’s most watched documentaries deal with insular and extremist cult-like organisations, including the Westboro Baptist Church, the Church of Scientology, and white supremacist communities in the deep South. Our fascination with cults is partly due to the fact that they are, by definition, closed to outsiders. An advertising campaign launched by the Church of Scientology in 2018 ran the tantalising tagline uninitiated, ‘The only thing more interesting than what you’ve heard is what you haven’t’. In denying access to their inner workings, cults appeal to our desire to see behind closed doors.

These organisations also stand in stark contrast to the values of individualism and liberty that pervade Western capitalist society. In a cult, the individual is subsumed by the collective, voluntarily submitting to the will of a self-appointed authority figure (though coercive and manipulative tactics are often used). They give up personal freedoms, donating their property and wealth to the organisation, and cutting themselves off from family and friends. Perhaps what interests us is the question of what cults might offer in return – what is it that makes the loss of one’s individuality seem like a worthwhile trade off? It certainly suggests an all-consuming, unshakeable conviction in one’s cause, far exceeding the average person’s most sincerely held political or religious beliefs. Many of the most notorious cults of the last century have secured their place in history through extreme, and often violent, displays of devotion; the airstrip shootings and mass suicide committed by the People’s Temple Agricultural Project in 1978 constituted the greatest loss of American life until the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. On the tape recording taken at the final meeting of the commune, Jim Jones can be heard calling his followers to commit revolutionary suicide, framing voluntary, dignified death as the ultimate rejection of capitalism. The ubiquity of the phrase ‘to drink the Kool-Aide’ is a testament to the cultural impact of the Jonestown massacre; it refers to the grape flavoured drink, laced with poison, that the residents were coerced into ingesting. But the People’s Temple were not unique in their act of self-annihilation. In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate Cult died in an act of mass suicide, believing it would allow them to board an alien spaceship, and the Solar Templar Cult reached a death toll of 74 in a series of suicides between 1994 and 1997. To an outsider, it is difficult to understand how ordinary people could be convinced to behave in such apparently irrational, self-destructive ways in the name of their beliefs.

Religious cults give rise to questions about when a religious movement becomes something more sinister. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 84% of the 2010 world population were religiously affiliated. What is it that sets groups such as the Solar Templar and the Rajneeshpuram commune from the billions of faithful worldwide? Part of the difficulty in drawing a clear distinction is that ‘cult’ is generally used as pejorative term. It implies that the organisation in question is harmful, either to its members, the outside world, or both, and that it is guilty of coercion and brainwashing. To call a movement a cult is to delegitimise it, suggesting that it is not a respectable religion. Just as those accused of heresy during the Middle Ages did not identify themselves as ‘heretics’, cults rarely seem to regard themselves as such. For instance, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints has often been called a cult by critics, whilst members of the faith consider themselves the true inheritors of the Apostolic tradition. It is for this reason that the term ‘New Religious Movement’ is used in academic discourse when referring to faith groups founded during the past few centuries. However, this categorisation doesn’t fully account for the distinction that many will intuitively make between a legitimate religion and what they perceive as a cult. The term includes Heaven’s Gate and Satanism alongside mainstream religious movements such as Conservative Judaism, and various Buddhist groups. So-called cults do have a lot in common with mainstream religion. Most religions call on members to make sacrifices in the name of their faith, be it Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays, or Muslims fasting during the sunlight hours of Ramadan. People of faith might undergo initiation rituals such as baptism and wear distinguishing clothes to identify themselves as a member of a particular community who all share a single belief system. Monasteries are rarely considered cults, despite the fact that their members give up private property, live in ascetic communes, and devote their entire lives to God. Is it, then, just a matter of degree? The Church of Scientology is criticised for its practice of gathering collateral on its members, requiring them to give up deeply personal information, but Catholics regularly confide in Priests through the sacrament of confession. Perhaps a movement is classed as a cult when it imposes too many rules, becomes too rigidly hierarchical, or requires too much devotion to its leaders. Giving up chocolate for Lent is an act of self-denying sacrifice, as is committing suicide in order to placate an extra-terrestrial overlord, but one is rather more extreme than the other. The average parishioner might put some money in the collection pot at the Priest’s behest but would probably raise an eyebrow if asked to assassinate a member of Congress. The boundaries become even blurrier when considering the origins of mainstream religions; almost every major religion began as a small community following the teachings of a charismatic leader. Their beliefs were often extreme and self-destructive: early Christianity actively encouraged martyrdom, calling the faithful to rejoice in their gruesome executions rather than renounce Christ. A group that looked anything like Jesus’ disciples in the 21st century would surely be called a cult by outsiders; certainly, the gospels claim that Jesus was considered dangerous by his contemporaries and denounced as a blasphemer by Jewish authorities.

The criteria most commonly used to distinguish religions from cults is the organisation’s methods of recruiting and retaining members. Cults tend to have charismatic leaders, offer a transformative path to self-improvement, and manipulate recruits using tactics such as love-bombing (overwhelming potential members with a friendly and communal atmosphere). The content of a cult’s belief system might be very similar to that of a mainstream religion, but it is the way in which it communicates those beliefs and persuades members to adhere to them that renders cults harmful. These are certainly useful criteria which allow those targeted by dangerous new religious movements to identify them as such. However, it is also worth asking if there is anything in the structure of a movement’s belief system that contributes to the perception that it is a cult, separate from either its specific contents, or the ways in which it imparts its teachings. This is a matter of epistemology. The testimonies of former cult members suggest that many leave, not because they are disturbed by the manipulative recruitment methods, or the restrictive rules and regulations, but because they realise that they cannot justify their belief systems.

Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, sheds light on this phenomenon. Westboro is best known for its controversial practice of picketing soldier’s funerals, holding inflammatory placards with slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, and ‘America is doomed’. They believe that we should thank God for all of his judgements, including the deaths of soldiers, and atrocities such as 9/11. They fulfil most of the criteria used to identify cults: they were founded by Fred Phelps, who acted as a charismatic leader until his death in 2014, they live communally, and they condemn the outside world. Born into Westboro as the granddaughter of its founder, Megan Phelps-Roper spent most of her life attending the pickets and played an active role in the running of the Church. She personally wrote the lyrics to some of their bizarre pop parodies, adapting Lady Gaga songs to convey homophobic and apocalyptic teachings. She went on to run the Church’s social media, becoming particularly active on Twitter. In her memoir, Unfollow (2019), she explains that it was her activity on Twitter that eventually convinced her to leave Westboro in 2012; In the process of defending the Church’s teachings online, she found herself engaged in debate with users who sincerely wanted to understand where she was coming from and explain to her why they disagreed. She was used to hostility from the outside world – the pickets attracted angry counter-protests and even violent attacks – but the people she met on Twitter made her realise that not everybody who opposed her faith did so out of blind hatred. In a conversation with one user, she learnt that there were different translations of the Bible, she went on to study Hebrew in order to read the text more objectively. She attributes her rejection of the Church to those who compassionately exposed her to the inconsistencies in her beliefs. While acknowledging that the rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church is harmful to many, Phelps-Roper is a vehement advocate of free speech. She argues that censoring discourse on social media and in public will prevent people like her from escaping indoctrination. Any attempts to censor the views of the Westboro Baptist Church would only serve to confirm their belief that the outside world is against them. In turn, this would further convince them of their status as the chosen ones: ‘And everyone will hate you because you are my followers’ (Matt 13:13).

Megan Phelps-Roper’s account reveals that it is not only the way in which religious movements recruit and retain members that make them cults, but also the structure of their belief systems. In most mainstream religions, knowledge is derived from a variety of sources: scripture, along with scholarly interpretation of it, philosophy, and the decisions of appointed religious leaders, amongst others. For example, the Jewish Talmud records Rabbinical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, locating authority in the scholarly writings of the learned. Mainstream Christian denominations derive their beliefs from the Bible, but also from the works of the theologians who have interpreted it throughout Church history. Whilst faith plays a significant role in all religious movements, those that could be called ‘moderate’ tend to hold their teachings to a standard of reason and consistency, at the same time acknowledging that not every mystery can be understood.

By contrast, the teachings of cult-like movements appear to be legitimised almost entirely through charismatic authority, a term coined by the sociologist Max Weber. A leader, or group of leaders, who claim to be imbued with superior spirituality, purporting to be the sole source of truth. Megan Phelps-Roper describes the increasingly contradictory practices that became more and more difficult to justify biblically. During a potentially ruinous lawsuit, Fred Phelps ordered church members to prostrate themselves and pray for the deaths of those prosecuting them. Whilst this is clearly incompatible with Jesus’ instruction to love your enemies, it became part of the group’s practice because their leader had declared it righteous. In a cult, knowledge is not acquired from scripture, scholarship, or critical reason, but from a charismatic figure who claims to have privileged access to the divine. This is consistent with the tendency of cults to discourage members from questioning their beliefs and their condemnation of the outside world.

In her bestselling memoire, Educated (2018), Tara Westover gives a similar account. She tells the story of her upbringing in a cult-like family in rural Idaho, in which her father acted as the charismatic authority. They were fundamentalist Mormon survivalists, dedicating their lives to apocalypse preparation, converting their money into gold, and stockpiling supplies. They were actively opposed to scientific research as a source of knowledge, refusing to take their children to hospital even when they sustained horrendous injuries at the family junkyard. Westover’s mother acted as an unlicensed midwife in the fundamentalist community, taking up new age healing practices as an alternative to scientific medicine. The children were home schooled, receiving little to no formal education, instead helping their father with manual labour. Despite these circumstances, Westover was accepted to Brigham Young University. Her memoir is a love letter to education and academia, recounting the effect her studies had on the way she viewed her family’s beliefs. In a psychology class, she realised that her father’s paranoia and erratic behaviour were symptoms of bipolar disorder, shedding light on his obsession with the imminent apocalypse and his fear of the outside world. She was awarded a Gates Scholarship, allowing her to study at Cambridge, where she went on to earn a master’s degree and doctorate in intellectual history. Much as Phelps-Roper came to doubt her extremist beliefs by realising that her family’s understanding of the Bible was one amongst many, Westover writes that her interest in historiography was a catalyst for her changing perspective. She began to question the distorted version of history she had learned from her parents and understand the way in which her family had manipulated her own memories of abuse through continuous gaslighting; the idea that there could be opposing interpretations of the past gave her the tools she needed to deconstruct the rigid beliefs she had grown up with.

Accounts such as these offer an interesting insight into the structure of cult belief systems. A mainstream Christian might share the belief that Jesus died to save humanity with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. However, their reason for believing it is likely to be different. In a cult, doctrine takes its authority from those who claim to be spiritually enlightened in some way. Such a leader can make contradictory statements and dismiss any appeals to reason without losing credibility. Megan Phelps-Roper emphasises this in her account of the Church, describing their beliefs as ‘infallible’. But there is still a grey area when it comes to distinguishing cult from religion. All religious belief could be described as infallible to a degree. Religions tend to consider faith a virtue that should be able to withstand doubt, and criticisms of religion often target its tendencies to explain away the inexplicable by positing the unknowable will of a deity. Most religions did rely on charismatic authority in their early days and Scripture is usually considered as revelation, so religious teachings are hardly scientific. However, it is the movements that have engaged with new scholarship and philosophy that have endured over time, and not those that have rejected it.

Artwork by Justin Lim