Cults & Sects
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Cults & Sects

from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the first season of which is mostly great about everything except religion and the rest of which is pretty dumb, unfortunately. I have an article about the show, if you’re interested.

what’s a cult?

a cult is religion you don’t like

“What is a cult?” is the central question of this course, which means we’re going to spend the rest of the semester answering it. But first, let’s lay down some basics.

What we’re reading/listening to


There’s a short summary of how we’re thinking about cults in this class linked in the header for this site.

I did a whole thread last semester about why this word is a problem.

I also did a short piece about some common misconceptions about brainwashing.

I also have a slideshow from my Global Religions class about new religious movements and invented religions; I’ll upload that one to Canvas for y’all.


  • cult (obvs)
  • agency
  • brainwashing
  • new religious movements (NRMs)

Keeping It 101, “Cults”

This episode (and this class) encourages you to think about where we draw the line between what’s a religion and what’s a cult. What counts as religion or doesn’t is totally political and has a lot to do with things like white supremacy and christian imperialism, who gets to decide which practices and beliefs are just “too different,” and if “too much” religious freedom can be dangerous.

People tend to use the word “cult” to mean “people who are not me are doing a weird thing that I think is stupid and possibly dangerous.” We’ll explore this more thoroughly when we look at Eileen Barker’s work, but nobody joins a “cult.” You join a group of likeminded people who see the world in a way that you find convincing and meaningful who offer you companionship and community that you can’t find in other places. You don’t sign up to join a cult. You join a group that makes you feel welcome and sees the world in a way that makes sense to you.

People also use “cult” to suggest people are being forced or tricked into acting in ways they wouldn’t otherwise — that they’ve been brainwashed. We’ll go over this repeatedly, but I’m going to use the big letters so hopefully this will stick in your brains:

Brainwashing is not a thing.

At least not the way that most people use the word brainwashing. You know what is a thing? Peer pressure, especially when you’re not eating properly and working too hard and not sleeping enough and not spending time with anybody, but folks who think and act the way that you do. (We’ll see these kinds of practices in groups like Peoples Temple, especially in Jonestown. But even Jonestown is a more complicated scenario than you think it is, I promise.)

Yes, some groups that got called cults changed the way that people think and act. So do some groups that get called sororities or fraternities sports teams. If you’ve ever done a sports clinic or pledged a Greek organization, you know that that kind of intense community building can dramatically shift how you think and act in a very short amount of time.

This kind of deliberate, sustained socialization can absolutely change the way you are in the world, but it doesn’t rob you of agency — a word which here means the ability to act — or of responsibility for your actions. Members of intensely socialized groups might think or act in ways most other people wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been brainwashed.

Scholars usually prefer the term “new religious movements” to describe these groups, but I don’t love that phrasing for a few reasons. First and foremost, it obscures the most important (and to my mind, most interesting) thing about these groups, which is that they do religion in radically innovative ways and therefore face a lot of suspicion, hostility, and often violence from mainstream cultures. Second, the timeline for new religious movements — or NRMs as it’s abbreviated — is wonky. NRM studies doesn’t usually concern itself with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (founded in the early to mid-nineteenth century), but Shakers (founded in the 18th century) still get classified as an NRM. Shenanigans.

NRMs can also be spaces of radical religious innovation and creativity, as we’ll see all semester long. They let members see the world in new ways, imagine different histories and futures for themselves, claim authority and insight that they’ve been denied elsewhere. The interesting thing about new religious movements is that often these are spaces where women, Black people, other minoritized groups actually get the space to say like, “wait, what if my experiences are valid? What if my way of being in the world is actually sacred and connects me to God and really important ways. What if the way that we’ve been doing it all along, isn’t actually the right way. And there are different ways to be in the world. There are different ways to access the divine. There are better ways for us to do this religion thing.”

The word cult gets used to shut down those groups. These groups get seen by folks who are really invested in maintaining current structures of hierarchy and oppression as TOO free. These new religious movements get told that they’re using religion to do things that are dangerous and are going to upset society. So, when we call a new religious movement that wants to reimagine history, wants to give historically oppressed people a voice and religious authority…when we call that a cult, it’s trying to shut all that down — again, often violently, as we’ll see when we talk about MOVE.

Moore, “The Brainwashing Myth”

“the term brainwashing seems to only be applied to groups we disapprove of.”

You read this piece, so you already know that Dr. Moore is both a religious studies scholar and someone who lost family members at Jonestown. Despite that loss, she objects to the concept of brainwashing for three reasons, which she clearly lays out for us in this piece.

  1. “Brainwashing” is pseudoscientific
  2. “Brainwashing” ignores research-based explanations for human behavior
  3. “Brainwashing” dehumanizes people by denying their free will

How does Moore support these assertions? What evidence is she using? And why does this argument matter?

All of what she’s saying is important, of course, but I hope you’ll pay particular attention to this part:

“They made decisions and choices more or less freely. They knew what they were doing.”

Why does it matter that members of new religious movements have agency? How does that guide us in our study of religion?

Please note that neither Moore nor I are claiming that abuse doesn’t happen in some groups that get called cults. Abuse absolutely happens in those groups, because abuse happens everywhere. CW for sexual violence, but if you’re interested in this topic, I’ve written quite a bit on the matter.

Barker, from Making of a Moonie

Eileen Barker did some of the earliest and smartest thinking about who joins NRMs and why. I don’t need you to focus on the particulars about the Unification Church here, but you should have a clear sense of what Barker is arguing about why people join NRMs and why that argument is important.

People do NOT join the Unification Church, she says, because they’re forced to, or because the so-called Moonies are putting something in members’ food. The group does give potential members the hard sell and also downplays more challenging or less flattering aspects of membership. Most people who encounter the Unification Church worldview don’t join the group, so their approach clearly isn’t irresistible. Given their strict lifestyle requirements and unconventional theology, then, why would anyone become a Moonie, according to Barker?

Things to look for:

  • Barker is a sociologist, so she’s looking for social patterns. What patterns is she observing among folks who join the Unification Church?
  • What do folks who join the Unification Church find appealing about the movement? What do they gain and what do they leave behind when they join?
  • What assumptions about who joins movements like the Unification Church is she rejecting, based on her observations?
  • Why might family members or friends of those who join the Unification Church prefer to think members had been brainwashed? Do Barker’s findings correspond with Moore’s argument about brainwashing?

Remember, you want to support your responses to these questions with evidence from the text. Refer directly to Barker and include page numbers. Try to avoid direct quotes; paraphrase what she’s saying so you can demonstrate that you’ve understood it.

For example, you can refer to p244 in answering the second question above:

(Barker 1984, 244)

But don’t just quote the passage — tell me what she’s saying in your own words. What does Family mean in this context? What work goes into “restoring God’s Kingdom of Heaven on earth?”

Be sure to spend some time thinking about how Barker talks about brainwashing in this chapter, and especially why she says some people would prefer to assume “cult” members must be brainwashed.



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Megan Goodwin

Megan Goodwin


author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults