Cults are Us

I emphathize with cults but do not sympathize with them. I would like to dig into this issue. I define a cult as a (mostly) religious group that meets the following conditions:

  • Its core belief is not widely known but nevertheless considered dangerous.
  • Its primary purpose is to sustain itself, not to reach a practical goal. If the latter is the case, it’s a project.
  • Joining it is very easy but leaving it is very difficult. For me, this is the most important hallmark of a cult.

A cult might be labeled as “different” by both its members and the society, but it is still a group—a collection of people. A member of a cult is expected to follow certain rules such as belief, attire, and language, like in any other communities. Therefore, a cult’s identity is not being different; it’s about being the same. Otherwise, why form a group in the first place?

In other words, a cult is an attempt to create a miniature members club by people who couldn’t join one in the real society. It is like growing a bonsai tree because you can’t afford the money or space to buy a real one.

This similarity between cults and the rest of the society is one reason why cults are oppressed. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo and its members have been thoroughly persecuted after they spread sarin gas inside the Tokyo subway in 1995. Today, people talk about Aum in the same context as they discuss a lethal virus. But in terms of the amount of inflicted damage, the often-glorified yakuza far exceeds Aum. Why has Aum been treated so differently? Its structure holds the secret.

Aum’s members were mostly highly-educated young people—their main source of income was designing and marketing laptop computers—who organized self-sustaining community under a spiritual leader. Sound familiar? It looks identical to the Japanese society at large, even including the blindness to external points of views. Aum wasn’t an alien force trying to infiltrate the harmonious Japanese society. Aum was Japan itself. That’s why it is hated with a vengeance.

What we see in cults is often the ugly side of ourselves. Thus we persecute cults, and that’s how cults justify themselves; the harder the persecution goes, the stronger the badge of recognition becomes. The whole affair turns into a vicious circle.

There is a way to avoid this tragedy, which is to get back to the source: being different. Why do we need to crave for sameness? We can embrace ourselves as who we are. It’s not about being different; it’s about being unique. And everybody is the same for being unique. All we need is a little more courage and strength.

Being accepted or not shouldn’t be the way to vindicate our identities; we are not that weak. We should stop playing the belonging game, and instead start bonding with each other in a healthy manner. We might become alike in the end. But it should be the side effect, not the objective.

I do not sympathize with cults because I believe we have gone on to separate paths beyond the initial identity struggle. Let’s embrace our uniqueness. It is not only healthy, but—this is the real bonus—it’s also FUN. Sameness is so boring.