One for the Books: Our fascination with cults

I think it’s human nature to be fascinated with cults — maybe because we think we’re too smart to be pulled into the net of a cult leader. But in the captivating book “Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism,” author Amanda Montell shows how we are all susceptible to the power of cults. “Our behavior is driven by a desire for belonging and purpose,” she tells us. “We’re ‘cultish’ by nature.”

Montell explains that the most basic traits of cults are a “distinctive vernacular” and a charismatic leader (usually male, often called guru, master or father). Cults are not necessarily destructive, but where there’s power, there’s often abuse.

Cults we’re familiar with may have featured “a dangerous undercurrent … psychological and sexual abuse … forced fasting and sleep deprivation, threats of violence toward anyone attempting to leave the group, suicides, even an unsolved murder.” The author tells us when she compared such groups, “the methods used to assert such power — to create community and solidarity, to establish an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ to align collective values, to justify questionable behavior, to instill ideology and inspire fear — were uncannily, cultishly similar.”

Montell asks how charismatic leaders exploit people’s fundamental needs: “How do they cultivate that kind of power?” She tells us, “The real answer all comes down to words. Delivery. From the crafty redefinition of existing words (and the invention of new ones) to powerful euphemisms, secret codes, renamings, buzzwords, chants and mantras, ‘speaking in tongues,’ forced silence, even hashtags, language is the key means by which all degrees of cult-like influence occur. Exploitative spiritual gurus know this, but so do pyramid schemers, politicians, CEOs of startups, online conspiracy theorists, workout instructors, even social media influencers.” She calls this special language “Cultish,” like “English” or “Spanish.” She writes, “Once followers fully adopted the group’s jargon, higher-ups were able to weaponize it.”

She looks at the formations of cult language and how it works in cases of religions and pseudo-religions and then goes into specifics in groups such as Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, Jonestown, multilevel marketing companies, fitness/weight loss programs, pyramid schemes, social media influencers and political groups.

“Language is a leader’s charisma. It’s what empowers them to create a mini universe — a system of values and truths — and then compel their followers to heed its rules,” she writes. “With a glimmer of willingness, language can do so much to squash independent thinking, obscure truths, encourage confirmation bias and emotionally charge experiences such that no other way of life seems possible.” The language is “what insulates you. It makes you feel special, like you’re in the know.”

She tells us that groups that become destructive use three kinds of deception: “omission of what you need to know, distortion to make whatever they’re saying more acceptable and outright lies. … An ethical group will be up-front about what they believe in, what they want from you and what they expect from your membership. And leaving comes with few, if any, serious consequences.”

“Letting people tell us only what we want to hear is something we all do. It’s classic confirmation bias: an ingrained human reasoning flaw defined by the propensity to look for, interpret, accept and remember information in a way that validates (and strengthens) our existing beliefs, while ignoring or dismissing anything that controverts them,” she writes. “Cultish leaders all rely on the power of confirmation bias by presenting a one-sided version of information that supports their ideology and that their followers actively want to hear.”

This book may allow you to listen differently and empower yourself. I found it absolutely riveting nonfiction.


You can put what you learn from “Cultish” into practice when you read “The Night Burns Bright,” a novel by Ross Barkan.

Mama and her son, Lucien, joined the communal group House of Earth when he was 6 years old. There “Mama had a very important job, which she described as record keeping.”

The group wants “to live in harmony with everyone” and with the Earth itself. Their charismatic and often-hidden leader has taught them to believe that men are destroying the planet, and group members are doing their best to cause no destruction. He is taught not to eat meat, that “We cannot live in harmony with nature and guarantee the survival of humans if we are killing and eating the very creatures who want to live alongside us in peace.”

Both adults and children have odd games and rituals. The adults don’t like Lucien’s many questions. Is this why the boy seems to be singled out for punishment more often than the other children — discipline that gets more callous?

The students’ lessons become dangerous, the group becomes more isolated, there are more and more rules to follow. As Lucien tries to figure out what’s going on, the book becomes an unputdownable thriller.

Fear, control, punishment, forced commitment: You’ll see the traits described in the book “Cultish” when you read this one.

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.

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