The Cult Files

What is a cult, anyway? I’m told by many of my atheist friends that all religions are cults, but that’s just ignorant. Even so, there are few agreed-upon definitions of what makes a particular “religion” a cult—definitions not generally based on the wackiness of the beliefs, but on the behaviors of the members. Some commonalities include personality-based leadership, isolation of members from regular society, refusal to accept members leaving, and a bunker mentality (the world’s out to get them). I think it would be safe to add small membership to that list.

But the idea of cults is fascinating, even to people who don’t subscribe to religious beliefs. I’d love to visit a cult for this column, but their isolation makes them unlikely to invite me for services. If you belong to a cult that doesn’t torture and kill strangers, feel free to invite me along, and I’ll write about you.

Yet, there have been cults that did torture and kill strangers, and friends, for that matter, and those cults are the topic of the book The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief. While the subject matter is fascinating and the book engagingly written, I’ve got a quibble with the subtitle: Defining “religion” is almost as difficult as defining “cult,” and I think that just because a charismatic leader uses a religious facade as part of his system of lies does not make the group religious. Or maybe that’s the difference between religious and spiritual.

But other than that, the book was great fun. It told the stories, in pretty simple, straightforward language, of some 17 cults. Many of them will be familiar to regular consumers of media. For example, who could forget the Branch Davidians, whom the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms so infamously took out back in 1994, or the Heaven’s Gate group who took themselves out in 1997? While they’re not all here, I’d say the most recognizable cults are pretty well represented: Peoples Temple, Rajneeshism, the Manson Family. There are also a fair number I’d heard of, but knew little about: Aum Shinrikyo, Thuggee, Nation of Yahweh. Even better are the cults I’d never heard of, like Mankind United and the Ant Hill Kids.

So, I guess this column has to serve a dual purpose this week: book review and discussion of cults as an aspect of “soul.”

I’d recommend the book for light reading. It doesn’t impart any great lessons. Although the stories are fun to read, they don’t explicate some insightful truth about mankind unless it’s something like “a sucker is born every minute” or “there is no measuring the lengths to which one person will go to have power over another.”

I was especially struck by the story of the Ant Hill Kids. The cult was headed by Roch Theriault and based in Canada. The guy seemed like a nice enough guy, sincere, into helping people live cleaner, healthier lives, but he was also a mean drunk, sexually messed up, and a sadist. Author Chris Mikul tells this story, like all of them, in a sort of ironic, documentarian style, but sometimes the lurid details are just too juicy for a dry telling, and Mikul does things like name a chapter “The Amateur Surgeon” to describe Theriault’s tendency to inflict physical torture on his followers in the name of curing them.

It’s a little bit weird, actually. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one religion founded with the intent of hatred—World Church of the Creator—and yet, many religious groups have participated in warmongering and discrimination among races and genders. These cults often started with good intentions—and then there was Charlie Manson’s group—but the imperfection of their leaders and followers inevitably led the groups toward inhumane degradation and death. Maybe that’s a definition of a cult that everyone can agree upon.