I know the only people who begin an article with a dictionary definition are freshmen dweebs at Andover and David Brooks (basically the same person, with the added hilarious interlude of cheating on your wife with the research assistant for the sanctimonious book about virtue you’re writing), but in this case it’s apt. Miriam Webster defines a cult as: “a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also: its body of adherents,” but also as: “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work.” The broadness of this definition feels appropriate. What is religion, but a system of rules to live by and a faith that living by such rules will be rewarded? In other words, even if you don’t have Religion you have religion.
I was raised in a very small town in rural Iowa called Fairfield, in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) community. In the 1950s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the West to start a movement based on mantra-based meditation, and by the early ‘70s the “Movement” bought a draft-dodger college for rich fuck-ups in Fairfield called Parsons that had recently gone bankrupt when the Vietnam War wound down. The Movement formed a community out of this college, including a K-12 school, and two golden domes for women and men to meditate in.
The Maharishi died in 2009, and the Movement has subsequently become resurgently popular, especially with celebrities, under the American leadership of… David Lynch. In a hilarious bit of irony, the artist whose works my parents and teachers told me not to watch when I was a teenager because they were too negative now sort of runs the Movement. For casual consumers of TM, the meditation technique is simply an effective addition to their well being. Meditation has become thoroughly mainstream now; it is widely regarded as a lifehack.
Growing up in the TM movement was highly India/Hindu-centric. I learned Sanskrit as a foreign language, took Tabla and Sitar for music, yoga for PE, and on at least one occasion acted in a children’s play version of the Ramayana. I am far more familiar with the canonical Hindu texts — the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which is such a twisted epic that you’re supposed to keep it in your office instead of your home because the vibes are so heavy) — than I am with the Bible. It was honestly a lovely way to grow up. The famous Canadian magician Doug Henning was a devoted member of the Movement, and he would come to our classes, perform magic, and tell us about the planned Movement theme park called Vedaland. (“The rides will be extremely gentle and relaxing,” I remember him saying.)
But sure, on occasion, some of the Movement pageantry would get a little out there. I remember being around ten, sitting in the dome, and watching a live video feed of a Lebanese physicist high up in the Movement being elevated to a “Raam” (king status) by the Maharishi. The physicist sat on an enormous set of scales, like the scales of justice, and subsequently received his weight in gold. A tense German man put a kilo of gold on the scale, and then muttered tersely into the microphone: “Not enough gold; more gold is needed.” He did this about 70 times, and it somehow took well over an hour. I remember thinking for perhaps the first time in my life: “This is weird.”
But overall, it was fairly idyllic. My parents, though committed members of the Movement, were not fanatics (I tear up a little thinking of how my mom drove me through three small Iowan towns in the summer of 1989 so we could find a theater showing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that wasn’t sold out), and my teachers were mainly nice new-age nerds (i.e. some of the best people in the world). I was not taught cultish bullshit, like “gay people are the cursed tribe of Moloch” or whatever, but instead that the material world is not that important and that there is an unbounded ocean of consciousness below the surface, which is… sort of true?
When I went to college and told people about my upbringing, the response was invariably: “So you grew up in a cult?” That always took me aback. Yes, the Movement had its share of dogma and slang: if someone was in a bad mood, they were said to be “unstressing,” and people who were spiritually polygamous (into other gurus, reiki, etc.) were described somewhat bafflingly as “moodmakey.” And the Movement had a full bevy of programs and services that members could spend money on: Sthapatya Veda — a Feng Shui-like architectural system to build your house by; Ayurvedic supplements and treatments; Jyotish consultations — a sort of Vedic astrology reading; and so on. But to conflate the Movement with the true nightmare cults of sexual abuse, corporeal punishment, and mass suicide feels inaccurate.
Thus, over the last 15 years of my life, I have been constructing a “cult scale” — a ranking system, along with each level’s telltale signs, to define the fanaticisms of the world and situate a given community of beliefs in relation to others. I present it below for your enjoyment and handy use.
Cult One: General dogma; myriad schemes and systems designed to extract money from adherents.
Cult One is the lowest score and most common form of cult. This is what growing up in the Movement felt like. At least for the Western members, the Movement was not particularly nefarious or intimidating. Several wealthy members in the Movement poured tons of money into various self-improvement programs like yagyas (basically, Indian pandits who chant for you if you’re going through a bad astrological period) and expensive meditation courses and subsequently left the Movement in a fury when they didn’t get instant enlightenment or gain the ability to levitate. They moved onto microdosing and Burning Man and were not hounded or harassed by the administration of the Movement. My response to their “loss” is the same as when a rich lawyer spends $200K on a vintage Les Paul and then is enraged that it doesn’t sound better when he plays Layla. On some level, the world is endless overlapping waves of Cult Ones, and most of us are either trying to get rich people to give us money, or are rich people ourselves deciding which Cult One to give our money to.
Platonic Ideal of Cult One: Basically any guru-based new age spiritual movement that incorporates a broad range of self-improvement services at increasing expense.
Other Examples: Personal trainers/life coaches; any sort of charitable “Board”; the casual non-orthodox practice of all religions; alumni organizations; the briefest sidewalk encounter with the Church of Scientology.
Cult Two: Intimidation; harassment; surveillance of members who try to leave.
My godfather, a very cool and cosmic Movement dude, once told me that when he was around 19 he, as a hippie seeker, went into a Scientology Center, did the initial e-meter thing, thought “This is dumb,” and left. Since then, he has probably moved 20 times over 50 years, but he still receives Scientology pamphlets at least quarterly. When he told me that, I thought: “My god, what must it be like for people who were actually in Scientology and left?” If you find yourself living in a Cult Two, be it a spiritual organization, a job, or a relationship, my advice is to listen to Big Youth’s album Screaming Target and begin the process of changing your life. Much of the world’s banal misery comes from people in Cult Twos, paralyzed by fear and dependency, living like a balloon blown around by malevolent vents. It is incredibly easy to slowly glide into a Cult Two, the same way your flight can be delayed, then delayed again and again, then canceled, and you ultimately enter a travel purgatory where your individual agency is removed and you rise above yourself like a ghost and weep.
Platonic Ideal of Cult Two: Casual participation in Scientology in the hopes it will help you get your pilot about National Parks helicopter rescue workers picked up, and when it doesn’t, and you have to move back to Moline, Illinois to manage your father-in-law’s pizza and sub shop, you keep getting calls in the middle of the night.
Other Examples: Martial arts; homeowner associations; anything you ever signed up for on the Internet on auto-pay and then canceled; time-shares; a lot of government.
Cult Three: Corporeal punishment; forced labor; imprisonment.
From the massive costs required to ascend the Thetan rankings, to the frenzied stalking of ex-members, to the horrific shenanigans of Sea Org, Scientology basically runs the corners of Cults One through Three. Sea Org, Scientology’s pseudo-“Navy” that seems to simply sail around the world to subject its crew members to degradations, requires its members to sign billion-year “contracts” and clean the decks with their tongues. My favorite example of Scientology’s Cult Three monstrousness comes from Lawrence Wright’s brilliant book Going Clear. One time when Tom Cruise and his best friend in the world, leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige, were hanging out probably doing something totally normal like taking pictures of each other posing on their motorcycles, Cruise told ‘Vige (as I like to call him) that he had always fantasized about running through a field of daisies barefoot. So ‘Vige had a chain-gang of lowly Scientology members work for a week straight without sleep to construct a perfect field of daisies, so that when ‘Vige revealed his present, Cruise released an epic bro-yawp and ran through the perfect daisy field in delirious happiness.
Before labor unions, almost all menial jobs were Cult Threes, and in 2017, many low-wage jobs still effectively amount to a Cult Three life. Think back to the shittiest job you’ve ever had; imagine your weaselly manager and all the times he made you clock out but keep working on something trivial, probably just so he could make a big show of letting the woman he was trying to sleep with go early. Cult Three is the bright line of struggle and dignity for a human being, and one should always try to extricate oneself if trapped there.
Platonic Ideal of Cult Three: Sea Org
Other Examples: Crossfit; the military; Burning Man; the vast majority of jobs in the world; being stuck in an artist Q&A session where people say, “I have a question and a comment.”
Cult Four: Rape and Sexual Abuse
This is where the cult scale gets really dark, but sadly not rare. Think of all the cults that seem particularly perverse and horrifying — such as the Branch Davidians, or the polygamous pedophilic communities so devastatingly chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. Their unifying thread is sexual abuse. Now think of all the scandals marking most religions in the world. A cynic could almost say that organized religion was created to legitimize the exploitation of women, children, and the disenfranchised. If this sounds histrionic, consider the Catholic Church’s practice of dumping pedophile priests onto tribal reservations and other small parishes where the larger world wouldn’t know or care what they had done before. Of all the wounds that mark the globe, the pain caused by relentless Cult Fours rends and bleeds as much as any.
Platonic Ideal of Cult Four: Polygamous Mormon Cults
Other Examples: Almost all global religions practiced in an orthodox fashion where men sanctify lechery; the fashion industry; communes where there are two dudes who look like Peter Fonda and 30 late-teenage (maybe) women dressed in white; Hollywood, if you’re a child or a woman (google “Monarch Mind Control”); the Greek system at U.S. universities.
Cult Five: Mass Suicide/Murder
Annihilation is the natural end-state of the most rapacious cults, when all of their promises ring hollow and they must continue doubling down towards the greatest bet of all. I am somewhat obsessed with Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in the same way I would be obsessed with a nightmare that had derailed my life. That a cult — made up mainly of African-Americans led by a white southerner — gunned down an investigating U.S. congressman in Guyana before a mass and largely forced suicide (including of many children) is so dark and strange, it’s genuinely hard to believe it actually happened. That said, I am sure people will look back on today’s grotesque times with the same gasping recoil. Cult Five is emblematic of the event horizon of human mania, when the pain of being the only animal with cognizance of elegiac mortality results in actions not even insects would dare.
Platonic Ideal of Cult Five: Jonestown
Other Examples: ISIS; the Khmer Rouge; the Third Reich; global apartheid programs of racial supremacy; EDM festivals.
Unfortunately, there is no Cult Zero — the dream of true freedom lies beyond the physical world. Often, the promise of such an Eden can lead a person up the cult scale until they are consumed like an Ouroboros. If you don’t believe this, I would suggest engaging with a survivalist, or, if you feel like playing a masochistic jape on yourself, “debating” a strident atheist, and then asking yourself which one of you seemed like the fanatic. Life is like swimming through a long underwater cave alone, and the countless cults of the world are moray eels hiding in the crevices. To be lucky is to only be bitten by Cults One and Two, and to have the luxury of moments of true relief and euphoria. So, swim in the parts of the ocean that are cold and clean and colored like a wealthy Santa Fe woman’s jewelry, listen to the 1970s albums of Jorge Ben, see 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, laugh until your sides hurt while camping with your friends on a mountain. And if some creep tries to take you up the cult ladder, inform them of the rung on the cult scale on which they perch — louche like a gargoyle — and kindly tell them to go fuck themselves.