“Cult” is a dangerous word. It is volatile and subjective and does not admit easy distinctions. Given its connotative breadth, it may be the most ambivalent monosyllable in the language, compassing the followers of such eschatological icons as Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Jim Jones—but also Beliebers, devotees of the Tower of Power, and most people who do CrossFit.
“But”—you're asking—“do I belong to a cult?” To which American media says, probably, yes.
Man's capacity for credence is exceeded only by his disdain for the creeds of others.
Did you enjoy Elizabeth Moss' character in Mad Men? Then you were involved, however briefly, in the Cult of Peggy. In March, Slate critiqued the “cult of Steve Jobs.” In April, the Washington Post investigated the “cult of the Ph.D.” In June, Richard Brody urged readers of the New Yorker to “free yoursel[ves] from the cult of Marlon Brando,” while Business Insider was busy rending its garments over the demise of the “cult of Lululemon.” In July, Pacific Standard contributor Alana Massey wrote in Hazlitt against the “cult of work”—a lament not unlike Dina Kaplan's “The Cult of Busy” in Medium. Recently, the Columbia Journalism Review published a report by Chris Ip on the “cult” of Vice magazine, while Politico has identified the “Cult of Neil deGrasse Tyson” and the “Cult of Calhoun.” Most terrifying, National Review has written in quaking tones about the dark and sordid “Cult of Beyoncé,” where (we are told) white adherents come to be blessed and exculpated by their prancing, pantsless priestess.
For a country grounded in the principles of the Enlightenment, America seems to have an awful lot of cults.
We could play this game forever, of course. Worried about the aesthetic hegemony of the Cult of Audrey Hepburn? The Guardian commiserates! And what of the contemporary American “cult of healthy eating”? (Quartz says it has “more to do with religion than [with] science.”) The word's fungibility has come to say a lot about how Americans maintain or establish their social identities. Some of us, like our Puritan founders, identify first within a family of God. The rest of us are characterized most easily by our taste in entertainment. In each case, “cult” indicates the labeling process, a way to simplify a collective experience of zeal, bunching all adherents together for ease of caricature. In religious cults, personal identity is often considered a hazard for group welfare; in cultural criticism, the language of “cults” can become a way of disclaiming the personal identity and experience of someone else.
Everyone partakes in some manner of formalized enthusiasm and is equally zealous in deriding whatever collective enthusiasms he does not share. Or: Man's capacity for credence is exceeded only by his disdain for the creeds of others. Hugh Rawson captures this irony in his 1995 Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk: Being a Compilation of Linguistic Fig Leaves and Verbal Flourishes for Artful Users of the English Language: “Cult. An organized group of people, religious or not, with whom you disagree.”
“Cult” does not appear in Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, but French lexicographers a century before had established culte within something approaching its modern connotations of blind enthusiasm and collective pseudo-mystical delusion. In the Roman republic and empire, cults (cultūs) had several overlapping connotations: Cults could be decadent, culturally corrosive imports, like the cult of Cybele, a mother-goddess from Asia Minor—though the nobility could achieve a certain trendy cachet by occasionally participating. (Angst over growing class divisions at Burning Man represents a farcical new entry in this pattern of aristocratic appropriation of the counterculture.) Cultūs, moreover, did not necessarily connote fanaticism or xenophilia, though the ecstatic and the exotic were indeed central to most Roman cults (and some of Cybele's male disciples were asked to geld themselves with a sharp rock); cultūs carried broader connotations of heightened religious experience, an initiation into mystery-rites, and subscription within a secret and selective group of worshipers. Horace, the Augustan period's iconic lyric poet, spends some of his Odes playing priest (sacerdos), warning the uninitiated to steer clear. In the ancient world, a cult could be a den of foreign sedition, but it could also be a particularly select social club.
By the 1800s, “cult” had attained its pejorative connotations, especially in American English, as the second Great Awakening spawned sexually inventive religious movements, the majority of which fizzled but one of which continues to thrive in Utah and beyond. Twentieth-century terminology about “cult” or “sleeper” hits return us to those ancient Italian notions of being initiated—in the know. (“Oh, you haven't seen Troll 2? Who even are you?”) Meanwhile, those ancient cults still have their votaries. A friend of mine grew up in Ohio with a curious shrine in her backyard, centered on the sculpture of an apparent demigod slaughtering a bull. When she grew older and studied Classics, she realized the demigod was none other than the Persian god Mithra (Mithras, in Greek), a figure who had given rise to one of Rome's longest-standing cults. “Turns out my dad is utterly obsessed with the Mithraic thing,” she told me. “No big deal, just a Mithraic shrine in the 21st-century Rust Belt.”
For those who don't care for arcane Persian rites, there remain important reasons why “cult” is such a pervasive metaphor for experience. Just take our essays this week: What other analogy so neatly encompasses novelist Steph Cha's slow and floppy indoctrination into the world of basset hound worship? Or the intoxicating and deadly solidarity that prevented a fraternity from saving one of its own? Or fishy doings in the lucrative yogic saunas of Bikram Choudhury? In the most serious sense of the word, cults can beget rape, slavery, and mass murder. In the most frivolous sense, cults are everywhere, and we all belong to one. This series of essays investigates cultish notions, from the terrifying to the trivial—the possibilities of collaborative worship, and the perils of blind enthusiasm.
Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.