A Few More Thoughts About Online Cults

I’m still in the early phase if thinking about this subject (my earliest thoughts are in Online Cults), but as I read about offline cults, a thought occurred to me about how to sift out what’s necessarily in person from what isn’t.

Many cults use techniques to pull people in quickly which rely on being in-person, especially cults that use very long classes which cause sleep deprivation and hunger to dull the thinking of their victims. But while this may be a common tactic, it may simply be more effective than the tactics which can be used online. Hence if it’s available, it will be preferentially be used but where it is not available its lack of use will simply lead to less (or slower) efficacy.

Of course, it’s always important to be careful with this line of thinking, because if applied incorrectly it can be used to wave away crucial distinctions in a plausible-sounding way. But I don’t think that’s the case here; and I think this can be seen by looking at something of an analog. Nigerian Oil Scammers (the scams where someone claims to be nigerian prince with lots of money he needs to hide in a foreigner’s bank account) tell a very implausible story, and I’ve heard the theory that this is to weed out anyone who isn’t extremely gullible. Every person who responds costs them time, so their time will be better spent with as few false positives as possible. Accordingly, they make their story sound ridiculous so that the only people who respond are people who will believe and go along with anything.  This of course means that they get false negatives—i.e. people who, with a defter hand, could have been swindled. It seems very plausible that something analogous is working, or could work, with online cults.

They can’t be with a person every minute, they can’t make a person not eat or sleep, but they can sucker in those who simply don’t think well enough to require those sorts of impairments to be convinced to join. Especially since they won’t be asking nearly as much of the applicant. If you remove the requirement for all attractive female cult members to sleep with the leader and all male cult members to travel far and wide to attract new cult members, they don’t need to be nearly as brainwashed to join. Essentially, cults may exist on a spectrum.

Again, this is all very speculative, and further any time one defines things as being on a spectrum one has to answer the question, “how far along the spectrum do you have to go before there’s actually a problem?” Spectra can easily be used to tar the low end with the reputation of the high end.

But there is the curious thing that many atheists one meets online do have an odd sort of aggressiveness, a hyper-pronounced us-vs-them mentality, an inauthenticity to their conversations which makes it feel like one is dealing with a robot or a telemarketer, and an odd obsession with scoring points as if that somehow accomplishes anything. It’s suggestive, but as of yet I’m not sure precisely what it suggests.

The Allure of Novel Ideas

I’m currently reading the book Snapping, which was recommended to me by Max Kolbe of the Escaping Atheism Project when I had put our a request for recommendations on books about cults. It’s interesting, so far, though I’ve yet to get to the really good part (I’ve only just gotten to chapter 5), but I encountered an interesting point I’d like to discuss in more detail than it appears here:

The first steps in that direction were taken by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation, who set off to mine the rich spiritual lodes of the East.

Those rich spiritual lodes weren’t really all that rich, as people eventually discovered. Protestantism is often pretty dry, though even it isn’t monolithic, but Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition which would not have been overly hard to tap into for the writers of the Beat Generation. And I submit that one of the major reasons why they didn’t is that they knew where Catholic mysticism ended up. It ended up in Catholicism.

The whole reason why Buddhism and Hinduism and various other eastern practices seemed to be so rich with potential is that no one in the west knew where those practices end up. But of course they end up in Buddhism or Hinduism; if the Indians are not all in constant bliss, which they obviously aren’t, there’s no particular reason to believe that borrowing their practices would lead to constant bliss.

This is a surprisingly common mistake—it didn’t work for him, maybe it will work for me! Usually, I think, the result of a salesman’s winning smile coupled with a hefty does of desperation.

Online Cults

This is just some preliminary thoughts about online cults—by which I mean purely online versions of cults like those of Jim Jones, Manson, or Moonie cults. (This is related to my post In What Ways is Atheism a Cult?) What actually defines a cult is a very thorny topic; in many cases the easiest way to define a dangerous cult (as opposed to a good religion) is simply by being wrong. Which isn’t very helpful; so I was sketching out a list of possible attributes common to most dangerous cults:

1. The meaning of life is found by being a cult member, exclusively
2. Thinking is discouraged
3. Dry runs with suicide pills
4. Traditional morals, especially sexual ones, are relaxed, not in service of a stricter law, but in service of the cult itself
4.a. Traditional morals are relaxed just for fun
5. Cult members have a powerful self-assurance vastly in excess of anything they can support
6. Heavy [drug use / sleep deprivation / fasting / etc] to reduce a member’s sense of reality
7. The leader is more than just a man (often divine in the sense of having special knowledge of divine things such that he’s more important than other men)

To some degree this list (which I emphasize is still just a sketch) is avoiding those aspects of cults which require physical proximity, such as:

A. Everything living together on a communal property / the leader’s property
B. The leader gets to have sex with most/all of the female cult members
C. Rigorous enforcement through physical abuse
D. Everyone gets a suicide pill

I’m actually having trouble thinking of many items to go on the second list, though that could just be exhaustion from little children waking me up in the middle of the night several nights running. But it does suggest that the most recognizable events related to cults may not be that integral.

And in fact there is a curious relationship possible to the virality of viruses (i.e. how destructive they are): it could be that the more of the proximity-requiring traits that a cult has, the shorter-lived it is since it tends to burn through members. Many of the proximity-requiring rates above are self-destructive rather than self-reinforcing.

Anyway, this is just some very preliminary thinking-out-loud on the subject, all of it subject to change without notice. 🙂