Why Do Cults Thrive in Modernity?
ICSA Today Vol. 11 No. 3, 2020, pg. 2-5
Why Do Cults Thrive in Modernity?
This article is based on the presentation I gave at the 2019 ICSA Annual Conference held in Manchester, United Kingdom. The talk, Cults in Modernity, stimulated an interesting exchange of views in the audience about the sociological context of cults. With this piece, I intend to enrich this discussion further.
Sociology focuses on human societies and systems. A sociological school arose in the 19th century as a result of the new type of human society emerging out of the processes of industrialization and capitalism (Bilton et al., 2002). This new period is commonly referred to as modernity. A society emerged that distinguished itself from premodernity by constant and rapid change, with new technologies and market economics as key drivers. Previous historical processes that took hundreds or even thousands of years to unfold now take effect within a matter of years or even months (Giddens, 1990).
Despite the undoubted progress made during modernity—particularly in the areas of science, health, economic prosperity, and the spread of democracy—it also ushered in a series of crises that have been studied in philosophy and sociology (Bilton et al., 2002). These crises revolve around the dilemma of coping with a radically transformed human environment in which the certainties and beliefs of premodernity have basically dissolved. The predicament individuals face in modernity has been described in terms such as disenchantment (Weber), anomie (Durkheim) or alienation (Marx) (Bilton et al., 2002).
Cults have also transformed in modernity. They diversified in terms of types of cults on offer and became a much more widespread phenomenon in modern society. Cults seem to thrive in modernity. This was a key premise in my talk—that cults have adapted to modernity, and that they all share a central message for recruits of an alternative or solution to the disenchantment of human beings resulting from the processes of modern industrial society.
I now analyze three forces that have significantly shaped modernity—religion, science, and the economy. In each case, I connect these forces to the cult phenomenon in modernity.
We can understand religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (Jary & Jary, 2005, p. 518), and it is almost certainly one of the oldest forms of cultural practice amongst human beings. Until modernity, generations were born into a religious world where belief in a God, gods, or a creator mostly uncontested, and these beliefs formed an integral part of our social world. Controversies related to religion often led to schisms or religious wars, but there was seldom controversy about the actual existence of a God or gods. This general perspective changed in modernity. Modernity ushered in a secularization process (Bilton et al., 2002), in which religion began to decline in importance and influence in human societies. This process has accelerated into the present-day, with some countries in Europe now having a majority of nonbelievers amongst their population (Pigott, R., 2010).
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche grappled with this issue and infamously announced “God is dead” in the late nineteenth century (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 41). Although this phrase has subsequently been taken out of context, Nietzsche’s provocative message was clear—the rise of science (especially Darwin’s theory of evolution) leaves no place for belief systems reliant on ancient texts and supposed events. Much more importantly for Nietzsche, however, was his deeply held view that humanity needs religion and that human beings without a God are lost. Neitzsche’s “death” of God was much more the sounding of an alarm than an obituary. What can possibly replace the ocean of certainty that previous human generations possessed through their irrational but sacred belief systems (Prideaux, 2018)?
Nietzsche and other thinkers have noted that this decline in religion leads to a gap in meaning for individuals in modernity (Bilton et al., 2002). Cultic groups filled this vacuum by offering individuals new religions, with new answers and new gods. In a sense, we could suggest that religion did not decline as much as fragment into many different types and flavors, catering for a modern public no longer believing in the old “revealed” truths. Ossified traditional religions have been supplanted by a myriad of Bible cults, new-age gurus, and other types of groups offering new truths in an apparently profane and meaningless world. Cults in modernity take advantage of the fact that, despite the decline in religious beliefs, many people retain a need for religion that secularism is unable to satisfy.
Parallel to the decline of traditional belief systems in modernity is a notable ascendency in the role of science and technology, with attendant social consequences (Giddens, 1990). Ernest Gellner, a twentieth-century philosopher, stated that human society had crossed a “great divide” as a direct result of the application of scientific knowledge during industrialization (Gellner, 1992, p. 1). The reliability of scientific knowledge, based on a rational process of uncovering facts and identifying “natural laws,” basically usurped all previous systems of thought and belief as the driving force for human “progress” (Gellner, 1992, p. 2).
Gellner argued that science and technology in modernity has delivered a unique phase in human history in which most of us benefit from basic and sophisticated technologies that would be “inconceivable” for us to now do without. Whether it is communication, health, transport, personal entertainment, weaponry, art and culture, sexual relations, or education, every aspect of human activity has been impacted by the discoveries in, and application of, scientific knowledge. As a result, people in modernity cannot even imagine the premodern world, never mind survive living in it!
However, science has no answers to the “…All Too Human” (Nietzsche, 2004) predicament of how to derive meaning in a world seemingly bereft of meaning. Note that science is not a belief system; it is a system of knowledge that is more reliable in delivering results than anything comparable (Gellner, 1992). Cultic formations in modernity exploit this fact by offering to “re-enchant” this world of facts devoid of meaning. Cults offer a “way out” from the “heart of the world of hard science” (Giddens, 1990, p. 39) through magical thinking, whereby people are sold a meaningful connection to the cosmos—if you believe the Guru, of course.
The economic system of capitalism that emerged in the seventeenth century in Northern Europe spread and became the global economic system it is today. Capitalism puts the market system of supply and demand at the center of any given economy. Nineteenth-century thinkers were extremely concerned with the social consequences of the runaway success of this new economic system (Bilton et al., 2002). Max Weber referred to capitalism as “the fate of our time” (Turner, 2000, p. 99), and Marx expended most of his creative energy making an exhaustive analysis of capitalism.
The assertions of these thinkers are that the economy in modernity plays a central role in human affairs—much more than economies in previous eras. Weber noted that the underlying process that prioritizes economic concerns in modernity is rationalization (Turner, 2000). This process is not about rational thought, but what Weber described as “instrumental rationality” (Turner, 2000, p. 24). Here, the dominance of the economic concerns results in society prioritizing efficiency, or “domination by impersonal market forces” above more human concerns such as family relationships, altruism, self-sacrifice, or cooperation (Bilton et al., 2002, p. 606).
An economy that prioritizes the market above more human concerns results in what economists call externalities (Jary & Jary, 2005, p. 175). This term refers to the common practice of corporations prioritizing profits for their shareholders as the main purpose of their existence. Doing this comes at the expense of other concerns such as employee working conditions, environmental pollution, fossil-fuel emissions, job losses, and so on. These other, or wider, concerns are externalities. They are deemed external factors for which corporations are not responsible. As a result, rather than pay for or deal with the externalities, the corporations who are responsible for them in the first place outsource them to governments and communities.
In a society in which instrumental rationalization and externalities are embedded in the social and economic fabric, people therefore become susceptible to cults, who entice them with their offer of more humane ways of living and working. Weber correctly predicted in the early twentieth century that there would be a proliferation of cult-like groups emerging as a response to the rationalized “iron cage” of modernity in which individuals are trapped (Bilton et al., 2002, p. 606). Numerous so-called new-age and other cults that have emerged in recent decades are indicative of this process. Their premise is invariably to create a more humane or natural world, and they often evoke ancient ritual practices and put them in a modern setting to reflect this premise. In a market-driven economic system, the attraction of these alleged humane systems increases.
I joined a high-control group in 1981 and left 9 years later. This cult was variously billed as a “free-sexuality commune,” an “alternative society,” or an “art commune.” It was a nonreligious group. The two main tenets of its ideology were first to bring art into daily life through group therapy, theatrical self-expression, painting, dancing, and so on. Second, the group aimed to dissolve nuclear family relationships through free sexuality and the implementation of collective child rearing.
In respect to the sociological context I am concerned with here, I was certainly an alienated young man looking for an alternative utopia to what I considered to be the soulless and materialistic generation of my parents. I thought that my idealistic dreams had been answered in the cult I joined! This utopia turned out to be a totalitarian nightmare, following the familiar script of a crazed leader bent on manipulating his followers and the gratification of his own perverse sexual whims. My rootlessness, ambiguity, and alienation—all typical traits of a disillusioned individual in modernity—primed me as a suitable cult recruit when I joined in 1981.
I have argued in this article that the proliferation of cults in modernity can be usefully understood within a systemic context. I set out three forces (religion, science, and the economy) that have significantly affected human society in modernity and created an environment in which the supply of and demand for cults have subsequently flourished. The main causal factor here is that modernity has delivered a world of less certainty and meaning for individuals, both of which we previously derived from religion, customs, community, and rituals. The changes brought in modernity have been deep and rapid; but in evolutionary terms, we are still the same meaning-seeking creatures as those who were drawing on cave walls 50,000 years ago. Modernity has enabled more of us to live longer, prosper, and educate ourselves. It has also bequeathed to us a vulnerability and susceptibility to utopian fantasies and magical solutions peddled by charlatans and gurus. An awareness of this systemic context enriches our understanding of the cult phenomenon.
Bilton, T., Bonnett, K., Jones, P., Skinner, D., Stanworth, M., & Webster, A. (2002). Introductory sociology 4th edition. London, UK: Palgrave McMillan.
Clark , M., & Leiter, B. (Eds.). (1997). Nietzsche: Daybreak: Thoughts on the prejudices of morality. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Gellner, E. (1992). Postmodernism, reason and religion. London, UK: Routledge.
Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. London, UK: Polity Press.
Jary, D., & Jary, J. (2005). Collins dictionary of sociology. Glasgow, Scotland: HarperCollins.
Malesevic, S., & Haugaard, M. (Eds.). (2007). Ernest Gellner and contemporary social thought. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F (2003). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. London, Penguin.
Nietzsche, F (2004). Human, all too human. London, Penguin.
Pigot, R. (2010). Faith diary: Faith falls down under (BBC News). Available online from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8555953.stm
Prideaux, S. (2018). I am dynamite: A life of Friedrich Nietzsche. London, UK: Faber & Faber.
Turner, S. (Ed.). (2000). The Cambridge companion to Max Weber. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
About the Author
Anthony Murphy, (MPhil), is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Eindhoven University of Applied Sciences in The Netherlands. He had a commercial background in investment banking before becoming a scholar in 1997. His main academic interests concern issues around the contemporary political economy in China, globalization, modernity studies, and philosophy. He is also a dedicated teacher. Since getting to know ICSA in 2016, he has given a few talks at ICSA conferences about his own cultic experiences and has benefitted from ICSA on both a personal and scholarly level. firstname.lastname@example.org