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Review: Cultish

This book is an excellent overview of the languages of cults, and what attracts people to them.

One of the most significant aspects of cults is the excessive amounts of in-group jargon they create and instil into their followers. The author gives several examples of the intensity and impenetrability of cultish language (Scientology-speak, Heaven’s Gate, and Jim Jones) and they’re quite alarming.

I’d like to have seen more exploration of the distinction between a subculture and a cult-type phenomenon.

The features of a full-blown cult seem pretty well delineated here, but what about groups that are heading in a cultish direction — I’d’ve liked to see a list of warning signs. I’ve written lists of signs of unhealthy groups myself and include them in my books, but I’d’ve liked to see such a list in this book.

I was blown away by the insight that ethical religions create a boundary between sacred time & ordinary time. Rituals have a starting and finishing action (e.g. light candle, blow out candle), then we go back to normal life.

For example, Unitarians start with a chalice lighting and finish with closing words, then tea, coffee, and biscuits. Quakers start by sitting in a circle or square, create their gathered silence; then at the end, people get up and move about. They also have tea, coffee, and biscuits.

Wiccans & Druids start by casting a circle, calling the quarters; then at the end, there’s a feast (which helps participants to ground) and we say farewell to the quarters, and un-cast the circle. A clearly delineated start and end to sacred time.

Unethical religions never let you leave “sacred time” — you always have to be thinking the way they think, dressing the way they dress, etc etc. These are what’s known as “high control” religions. I’ve written about these in Changing Paths, which will be published by 1000 Volt Press in 2023.

The book also examines the phenomena of cult fitness studios, wellness culture, Instagram influencers, multi-level marketing, conspirituality, and QAnon. And points out that social media and its algorithms are responsible for the intensification of subcultures.

I also appreciated that the book debunked some of the myths about “brainwashing” and pointed out that the Waco massacre was completely avoidable.

A necessary corrective to the various ways of getting immersed in cultish subcultures.

More reviews

Book review: Cultish by Amanda Montell — Caron Bookbinder

BlackOxford on Goodreads — review and discussion

KJ’s review on Goodreads

David’s review on Goodreads

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