“Fringe cults”

April 21, 2007

Shortly after writing my first two posts here on this new blog of mine a few days ago, I looked at WordPress’s listing for the Satanism tag, to see if my post on Satanic panic in Russia? had appeared there yet. It hadn’t, but my eye was caught by a blog entry titled “The Devil Is In The Details” on a blog called “Sailing to Byzantium.” The post was about Anton LaVey. I agreed with most of the what the author had to say. I was glad to see his open-mindedness about LaVeyan Satanism, but I also agree with most of his stated reservations about it, as well as with most of what he said he liked about it.

Then I looked down at the comments and came across the following:

unitedcats wrote::
March 4th, 2007 at 12:59 am

I would have to agree, all fringe cults are pretty much the same. Satanism, UFO cultists, whatever…just lost souls who want to be special somehow and don’t have much identity of their own. Mostly harmless, I mean things like the Solar Temple, Jim Jones, Aun Shimrikyo make the news…but there must be million’s of people in fringe cults around the world so the dangerous ones are the exception, not the rule. And mostly dangerous to their own members even when they do go nuts. Often confused too, like the dyslexic Satanist who sold his soul to Santa. ;) JMO —Doug

Startled by this person’s claim that “all fringe cults” (apparently including all the many different kinds of Satanism???) are “all … pretty much the same,” and that their adnerents are all “just lost souls who want to be special somehow and don’t have much identity of their own,” I quickly dashed off the following reply:

dianevera wrote::
April 18th, 2007 at 12:39 pm

unitedcats, you sure do generalize about people in “all fringe cults,” claiming that they are all “just lost souls who want to be special somehow and don’t have much identity of their own.” People in nonmainstream religions have a variety of different motives, just as people in mainstream religions do. You have fallen into the common human tendency to oversimplify and to be socially dualistic, to see everyone outside one’s own little box as being fundamentally all alike. But that’s an error — they aren’t all alike. Nonmainstream folks are even more varied than mainstream folks.

As we will see later, I may have misunderstood what “unitedcats” meant by “fringe cults.” I got the impression that, by “all fringe cults,” he was referring to all nonmainstream religions. He may have meant to refer just to the more authoritarian, “brainwashing,” and controlling ones, rather than to nonmainstream religions in general. Or does he perhaps believe that all nonmainstream religions are “cults” in the authoritarian/”brainwashing”/controlling sense? If so, that belief is wrong. Or does he perhaps believe that all forms of Satanism are “cults” in the authoritarian/”brainwashing”/controlling sense? If so, that belief is wrong too. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask these questions in my reply.

A few days after I posted my reply, I came back and saw a bunch of replies to me from a few different people, including the following from “unitedcats”:

unitedcats wrote::
April 18th, 2007 at 10:50 pm

I could have stated my point better, I wasn’t saying they are all the same, I was saying they do all share some common traits.

To which I replied:

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:01 am

unitedcats wrote:

“I wasn’t saying they are all the same, I was saying they do all share some common traits.”

Well, I totally disagree with you about the alleged common traits too. You say they are all “lost souls who want to be special somehow and don’t have much identity of their own.” Some folks are nonmainstream for precisely the opposite reason — they have too strong a sense of their own identity to be able to stomach certain conventional expectations.

Really it’s not a good idea go generalize about the motives of people in a wide variety of nonmainstream religions.

Diane Vera wrote::
April 20th, 2007 at 11:03 am

Oops! I meant to say, “Really it’s not a good idea TO generalize ….”

“Unitedcats” owns a blog called “Doug’s Darkworld,” which contains mostly pretty sensible commentary on a variety of topics, mostly political. He seems to be on the whole well-informed, but he seems unaware of some of the most significant religious trends. For example, in a post titled Conservapedia to liberal bias to why the USA will get national health care soon, he wrote: “Now as a codicil, when talking about conservatives and Conservapedia, I am talking about a very small group of people (Dear God, I hope it’s a small group of people) who take the Bible literally and pretty much reject everything that came after Newton.” Alas, folks who take the Bible literally are not a very small group of people. They are a very big group of people, and growing like wildfire worldwide. Someplace else on his blog, if I recall correctly, Doug mentioned that he is living in Berkeley. Most likely, Biblical literalists are indeed a very small portion of the population of Berkeley. But, alas, Berkeley is not the world, nor is Berkeley even typical of the bulk of the U.S.A. See the following:

Anyhow, back on “Sailing to Byzantium,” Doug responded to me as follows:

unitedcats wrote:
April 20th, 2007 at 1:01 pm

People with a strong sense of their identity…don’t join cults. Being in a cult is about as antithetical to having one’s own identity as it gets. Cults in fact go to great lengths to discourage their members from having their own identity through a vast array of brain washing and control techniques. And studying people and making observations is not the same as making generalizations.

To Doug:

First off, I think we may be having a misunderstanding over the term “fringe cult.” If you’re talking about “cults” as in “authoritarian cults,” then I agree that they are incompatible with having a strong sense of one’s own identity. However:

(1) In my opinion, this is true of many relatively mainstream authoritarian religious groups too, including many fundy churches, not just “fringe cults.” If your objection is to religious groups that are authoritarian, “brainwashing,” and controlling, why single out the “fringe” ones rather than complain about “cults” in general? (Perhaps, living in Berkeley, you think of even relatively mainstream fundy churches as “fringe”?)

(2) I was under the impression (perhaps mistaken) that by “fringe cult” you were referring to all nonmainstream religions, not just the authoritarian, “brainwashing,” controlling kind. After all, you seemed to be classifying all of Satanism as a “fringe cult.” It is certainly not true that Satanism, as a whole, is a “cult” in the authoritarian/”brainwashing”/controlling sense. There are groups within the Satanist scene that can be considered cultish in that sense, but the Satanist scene as a whole is quite varied. Most forms of Satanism encourage thinking for oneself. (Of course Satanism has its share of hypocrites just like any other religious category.)

So, in my initial reply to you, I was reacting to what came across to me as an extremely insulting overgeneralization about all people in all nonmainstream religions, whether authoritarian or non-authoritarian. I’m sorry if I misunderstood you.

If by “fringe cult” you meant to refer only to cults in the authoritarian sense, I still think that your statement about the motives of all adherents of all such groups is an overgeneralization, though not as egregious an overgeneralization as it would be if you were referring to all adherents of all nonmainstream religions, as I thought you were.

It should be noted that many “fringe cults” lose a lot of members, so their “brainwashing” isn’t terribly effective in many cases. The members who leave must not be totally lacking in a sense of personal identity.

As for “studying people and making observations” vs. “making generalizations,” any declarative sentence containing the word “all” is a universal generalization, by definition, no matter what it’s based on. Many generalizations are based on observations. Generalizations aren’t necessarily bad if they are well-tested. The “laws” of physics are generalizations — which have, in many cases turned out to be limited in scope, but still very good approximations within their scope. However, we run into trouble when we generalize about people outside of our own personal experience. Scientific methodology in the social sciences is extremely tricky. Informal knowledge about people is even trickier.

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2 Responses to ““Fringe cults””


  1. […] Theistic Satanism « “Fringe cults” […]

  2. unitedcats Says:

    Um, I could split hairs, but I think it would be arguing semantics. Suffice it to say, I have no problem with your analysis above. :)


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