Ross Douthat’s column today at the New York Times, ‘The Cult Deficit,’ could be the worst-timed ever.
Destructive cults have metastasized and proliferated and grown in strength around the world to such a degree, the United States literally launched a war against one just this week.
And Douthat chooses this moment to ask, where did all the cults go?
That ISIS doesn’t register as a cult in Douthat’s mind is a clue that he really doesn’t understand what a destructive cult is, or the potential harm it can cause.
Clearly, he’s got a cartoonish notion of cults — he dismissively recounts that we were all supposed to be afraid of them in the 1980s and 1990s, which is Douthat’s way of saying they were never dangerous to begin with.
(As for Douthat’s main point, that religion — and by extension, culture as a whole — is settling into a boring sameness, you can’t help wondering if they don’t have this thing called the Internet over at the New York Times. Kooky, fringe beliefs, of course, are practically baked into the Web.)
Douthat makes the error of thinking that a “cult” is merely the nutty fringe of a larger church.
In fact, cult experts will tell you that controlling groups are only tangentially about religion, and many have no connection to churches at all.
Cults are about undue influence and behavior control. They are about wielding power over individuals in a way that can be brutal or even deadly, and odd religious beliefs are just one tool in a cult leader’s arsenal.
Destructive cults can be associated with religion, but many of them are not. There are business cults, political cults (remember the SLA and MOVE?), even yoga cults (Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and Falun Gong in China).
A cult expert like Rick Ross, who helps family members desperate to convince a loved one to leave a controlling group, will tell you that he’s never been busier in his 30 years in the field.
And Rick has told me that what concerns him most is the way that cultic methods are showing up in rising political extremism around the world and here in the United States.
A guy like Douthat, who throws in some David Koresh apologetics in today’s column, isn’t going to acknowledge that. To him, a “cult” looks like the Hare Krishnas or Moonies of the 70s, and the worst they could do is hit him up for a donation as Douthat is dashing to catch a plane.
But that’s not surprising. The media and the government are equally ignorant about destructive groups and how they work.
A great example of this was President Barack Obama struggling to explain that ISIS, which beheads people in the name of Allah, is not “Islamic.”
Obama’s inability to explain that ISIS is a destructive cult that uses undue influence to motivate its fighters to commit atrocities was equaled by the media’s kneejerk reaction to his speech. How could ISIS not be Islamic? They weren’t marching into Mosul singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
As long as the media remains in the dark about destructive cults and the way they work, we’ll continue to get bewildering statements about ISIS, and ignorant columns from the New York Times.