Most religious people are not dangerous or ignorant, nor are most of the priests, rabbis, mullahs, and monks who lead them. I want to make that clear early on. I know I’ve been very critical of religion in the past and I stand by much of those criticism. However, I do not want to give the impression that it makes sincere adherents unworthy of respect.
I have religious people in my family. They are good, decent people and their religious beliefs means a lot to them. I do not want to denigrate that in any way.
That said, extreme religious cults are dangerous. They are worthy of criticism and, in some cases, outright scorn. People have died because of these cults, including innocent children. If we’re going to be a better people now and in the future, we need to be vigilant of these dangerous cults. Otherwise, more people will suffer.
How we go about that is beyond my expertise. There are organizations with people far more qualified to pursue that effort, such as Cult Escape and Dare To Doubt. I urge others to support those efforts, regardless of your religious affiliation. There are a lot of people out there trapped in these cults who need help.
However, there has been another troubling trend in recent years that may complicate that effort. It involves cults that aren’t necessarily religious, in nature. Some have religious elements, but also mix in politics and conspiracy theories. The goals and methods aren’t always the same, but the outcome is similar.
People get sucked into an ideology.
They get caught up in a trend that evokes strong emotions within them.
They connect with like-minded people who reinforce and reaffirm their beliefs.
They start attacking or shunning outsiders or anyone they don’t agree with.
They stop doubting their beliefs and are openly scorned if they dare raise questions, making it next to impossible to leave.
It’s a common story that many endure, but now it’s happening without the religious angle. Now, people are falling into cults that offer little in terms of theology, but still descend into a toxic mix of groupthink, hero worship, and self-delusion.
Then, there’s Q-Anon.
Believe me, I do not want to go into details about that. I’m afraid to even post any links. I do not want someone to get sucked into that ultra-toxic rabbit hole, which has led to real-world violence and torn families apart.
These are serious issues that affect real people, as well as their families. Thanks to the world-wide reach of the internet and clunky nature of social media, it’s a lot easier to fall in with the wrong digital crowd. You don’t have to be religious. You just have to be willing to buy into a certain ideology or narrative. No miracles are necessary.
That is dangerous and I suspect it’s going to get worse in the coming years, especially as mainstream religion continues to decline. Will it be as dangerous as the religious cults of old? Well, that depends on a number of factors. At the moment, even the worst non-religious cults have major shortcomings.
Religious cults can, by definition, hide behind the guise of religion. That comes with plenty of benefits, including the kind that allows them to avoid paying taxes. Religion also has legal protections, as evidenced by the constant push for “religious freedom.”
Non-religious cults don’t have the same advantages. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to say that these types of cults couldn’t even exist without the internet or the widespread connectivity of modern media. They also don’t have the overall structure that many religious organizations have. That means they’ll only be able to do so much.
On top of that, the nature of the internet makes it a lot harder for cults to keep their members in line. At any point, an adherent could get curious and start looking up opposing views that could cast doubt on their beliefs. There’s only so much a cult can do to control a person from behind a computer screen.
Even with those limitations, they’ve still done plenty of damage. They’re likely to do plenty more and we should be very concerned about that. The world is already a chaotic place. Extreme religious cults have already done plenty to add to that chaos. The last thing we need is for non-religious cults to do the same.