Society as a Cult

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines a cult as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.

Whenever we hear the word, fringe groups come to mind such as Heaven’s Gate, in which members committed mass-suicide so that their souls could catch a ride on a comet back to their home planet, or Scientology, a multi-billion dollar, celebrity touting organization whose mythology tells that our bodies are comprised of the souls of aliens who were killed in a holocaust by an ancient intergalactic warlord named Xenu.

Going back to the basic definition of cult, however, a cult is simply defined as a system of devotion to a particular figure or object. That object of devotion could be an abstract figure, such as a god or deity, or something more material, say, money. Though the objects of devotion can vary widely, cults all have certain characteristics in common:

Those characteristics are:

1. Defining an ultimate, ideal goal that people desire to strive for and brings esteem or prestige to those who have achieved it.
In Scientology, the dissolution of the “Thetan body.” In Heaven’s Gate, entering The Next Level by leaving behind the flesh vessel of the soul via the comet Hale-Bopp.
2. Defining rungs of a ladder to climb in the quest for enlightenment or attaining the ideal goal.
In Scientology, the advancement through different courses gets initiates closer and closer to being clear of Thetans (or the souls of the dead aliens killed by Xenu that are responsible for all of our psychological torments). In Heaven’s Gate, the ladder is one of self-sacrifice, beginning with relinquishing worldly possessions and individuality and ending in suicide.
3. Institutionally mandated rituals & ceremonies marking rites of passage on the quest to achieving the ideal goal
In Scientology, graduation ceremonies from one level to the next. In Heaven’s Gate, castration, and later, collective suicide.
4. Structures that limit objective perspective on the cult member’s / initiate’s circumstances beyond the world of the cult.
In both cults, the cutting of family ties and all external relationships. Restrictions from viewing external media and blind obedience to authority.
5. Symbols and statuses that indicate one’s level or stage on the path to achieving the ideal goal
In Scientology, ranks indicating level of Thetan clearance. In Heaven’s Gate, lack of genitalia.
6. The subjugation of individual will for the purpose of achieving the ideal goal
In both cults: massive financial investment and requirement to provide free, slave-like labor.
Though (slightly) far from cults, if you take a moment to think about it, the societies of the modern world share a lot of these characteristics. The object of devotion isn’t as pervasive and clear as it is in a smaller cult (ie centered around a certain deity) but modern society is structured in such a way as to utilize many of the indoctrination techniques of cults in order to inspire mass conformity to its agenda of security and expansion, often signified by the accumulation of wealth and worldly power.

The point of this article, however, is not to assert that our society is a cult that worships money (though this is partially true), but that the mechanisms of cult indoctrination are very deeply embedded in our lives and our shared circumstances – that the various institutions we pass through on our ascent through life are tools of indoctrination overwhelmingly responsible for our values, our dreams and our aspirations. Naming an object of devotion for modern society that is inherent in most cults is a little difficult in the cult of society because we all have different aspirations. Some people’s ideal goal is a loving partner or their family. A growing number of people are devoted to fame (something which can be attained now without the rewards of financial prosperity thanks to outlets such as YouTube and social media). Other people may want simply  to attain a private, individual definition of success, yet we still see them on a daily basis, at work, on the subway, having to pay their taxes and be a part of the institution of society in spite of not really chasing the externally defined ideal goal. Society is an all-encompassing institution that people are born into, from which there is a rarely an escape, or even a real desire to do so.

Let’s take a look at the various characteristics of cults as they manifest in our society:

1. Defining an ultimate, ideal goal that people desire to strive for and brings esteem or prestige to those who have achieved it:
Concepts such as The American Dream, the ideal of home-ownership, marital bliss, rising to the top in one’s career, fame, wealth, un-defined but oft-referenced “success”

2. Defining rungs of a ladder to climb in the quest for enlightenment or attaining the ideal goal.
The corporate ladder of title and the military ladder of rank, the general work ladder beginning with “employee” and ending at “boss,” tax brackets, the class structure, neighborhoods, the passage from renting to owning, the passage from single to married, the education ladder from kindergarten through PhD, the passage from unknown to famous

3. Institutionally mandated rituals & ceremonies marking rites of passage on the quest to achieving the ideal goal
Graduations, weddings, job promotions, all awards ceremonies, red carpet events, parties celebrating accomplishment, presidential inaugurations

4. Structures that limit objective perspective on the cult member’s / initiate’s circumstances beyond the world of the cult structure
Deadlines, the drudgeries of responsibilities, the stress of financial investment to fund the quest, competition with others for “success”

5. Symbols and statuses that indicate one’s level or stage on the path to achieving the ideal goal
Wedding rings, luxury cars, diplomas, the Home, title, rank, economic class status

6. The subjugation of individual will and well-being for the purpose of achieving the ideal goal
Remaining in an unhappy / unfulfilling marriage, going into massive debt for home-ownership, education or the illusion of “success,” cutting ties to focus on work and goals

It’s interesting to note that just as the goals of Scientology and Heaven’s Gate are to dissolve the aloneness of inhabiting a body, many of the quests for the ideal goals listed above are motivated by a (at least unconscious) desire to dissolve aloneness, either through overt relationship or amassing such worth that others are attracted to us.

The central thesis of this website is that we live in a man-made world, and that any limits we contend with have largely been created by us.

Cults are said to attract lost people who are looking for meaning in their lives, and this vulnerability allows them to be taken advantage of by charismatic but unscrupulous individuals looking to attain power and / or wealth. The problem with society deploying many of the indoctrination techniques as a cult is that people are born into it – they are indoctrinated into a system before they even have a chance to find (and lose) themselves. The positive side of this double-edged sword, however, is that society (when functioning properly) automatically moves us up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs so that we can focus more on self-actualization. Without society, we would not be afforded the systems of basic comfort such as shelter and abundant food and water. We would not be afforded the luxury of easilly accessible companionship and camraderie.

Thus, this is not a message of gloom and doom, but a call to awareness. We live in a man-made world. As a people, we are responsible for the structures that limit us, but we have also built the one’s that make us thrive. Mankind as a species, more than any other currently existing on earth, has the power to shape its destiny and the destiny of the world. The more we are aware of that on an individual level, the more we can be a part of that destiny, and truly claim our own in the process. Good luck brothers and sisters!

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