Is there a cult that actually works?
April 27, 2012 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Is there a cult that actually works? Better description inside.

I'm watching Mission: Impossible 4, and I get to thinking.

Look, Tom Cruise is completely insane about Scientology. I get that.

But he's a pretty good actor with a sense of humor, and he works hard. He's also apparently a nice guy.

So, if Scientology is a scam (it is) that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy (I wouldn't), just from the outside looking in, Tom doesn't seem to be harmed by this cultish belief.

Then I began thinking about cults in general. Do any of them work?

* Mormons? I'm not religious, but every Mormon I know, I'm happy to befriend.
* Crossfit? Some people call it a cult. But you get exercise.

Is there a cult that actually works?

Could you cherry-pick cultish beliefs and make them work for you?

Brad Bird directed MI: 4. Does Brad Bird have a cult?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Religion & Philosophy (43 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Hard to answer this question unless you define your terms. 'Works' can be provisionally left flexible. But what does and doesn't count as a 'cult'?
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:43 AM on April 27, 2012

Scientology "works" for people who are already rich and famous. The cult has a vested interest in making sure Tom Cruise and other celebrities benefit because they're the public faces of the cult, and also provide them with funding and access. I imagine it's different for the little people.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:44 AM on April 27, 2012 [9 favorites]

I went on a yoga/meditation retreat last month to the Ananda Village in California and it kinda seemed like a cult (by which I mean there was a lot of hero-worship of the founder, more proselytizing than I was comfortable with, and a fairly totalizing experience for members) - but everyone also seemed happy and pretty well-adjusted. Where's the line between cult and "religious community"?
posted by lunasol at 9:45 AM on April 27, 2012

AA is pretty much the best example I can see of a beneficial cult.
posted by elizardbits at 9:46 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Landmark Education.

Some people think it's a cult.

Some people think it's helpful and effective.
posted by alms at 9:46 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tom Cruise may not be harmed because he makes enough money that the demands of Scientology don't affect him, but I've heard children of ardent Scientologists talk about their family struggling to pay for food and a roof over their heads because their parent/parents handed over their money to the organization.
posted by PussKillian at 9:47 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Believe me, I know all the bad things about Scientology. That's not my question.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:48 AM on April 27, 2012

Could you cherry-pick cultish beliefs and make them work for you?

I think you have your causality backwards. Cults cherry-pick functional belief systems ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...") and knit them together into a framework with codependency ("...because Great Leader knows best...") and Weird-Ass Cult Shit ("...and he's taking us all to Mars.")
posted by griphus at 9:49 AM on April 27, 2012 [20 favorites]

It's debatable whether Hillsong is or isn't a cult, but I know a member who seems to get a lot out of being part of the church. I'm agnostic so evangelical branches of religion seem a bit strange to me, but she joined at a difficult time in her life and has a strong social network now.
posted by mippy at 9:50 AM on April 27, 2012

A friend of mine from college is a...follower? Devotee?...of Amma, aka the Hugging Saint. I see my friend's updates on facebook. I have no idea how this all works, exactly, but it's clear from her fb posts that she (my friend) travels a lot with and for Amma - she helps organize events and does outreach and I don't know what all. My friend is not wealthy or famous, but her involvement in this community (which I've heard called a cult, but I don't know if it really fits the definition) seems to make her very happy. She isn't cut off from her family and friends and doesn't proselytize (on fb, at least). So, maybe this is one that works?
posted by rtha at 9:53 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The line between a cult and a religious community is in the eyes of the beholder, but I think by many definitions, a group becomes a cult when their beliefs and practices are harmful to their members. So, if a cult is benefical, it's called a movement or a religon or something else with more positive connotations. If you take the less vague markers of a cult: groupthink, tithing, blind obedience and remove the harmfulness, you get the basics of plenty of "real" religons.
On preview, my answer is supported by the number of comments that have suggested answers that are qualified by some variation of, "I'm not sure if this counts as a cult but..."
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 9:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

1) It seems unlikely that any belief system hasn't had any dissatisfied members, so in that sense none would seem to work for everyone. There are even conflicts, schisms, etc., within AA, though it's a great example of a largely beneficial organization that has some cultish aspects.

2) Of course you can cherry-pick cultish beliefs and make them work for you! If you're interested in exploring this kind of post-religious* exploration, you might enjoy the works of Robert Anton Wilson, perhaps starting with Prometheus Rising.

3) I really hope you're not asking these questions because you plan on starting your own exploitative cult.

*Sorry for the obnoxious term - best I could think of that captures your emphasis on effectiveness over truth in evaluating these religious belief systems.
posted by snoe at 10:01 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Part of the issue with cults/cultish organizations is how they treat people trying to leave or non-members, so some that may seem to work without having huge bits excised might not "work" once looked at from that perspective.
posted by batmonkey at 10:02 AM on April 27, 2012

I think the real question is more "what is the definition of a cult". Because depending on who you talk to, that definition varies wildly; I see you put forward Mormonism as an example of "a cult," and there are lots of people who would say all religions are cults. Others, as you would imagine, disagree with these opinions.

So it could be the reason you're confused isn't because "wait, maybe there are cults that actually work," it's because "wait, maybe these things that people say are cults actually aren't." This site may help you think about the differences. They recommend reserving the use of term "cult" to describe Doomsday, mind-control groups like Heaven's Gate, as they describe here. They also make a very good argument that defining a "cult" as "any group that leads its believers to do bad things" is a little too broad, because every faith group has some bad action in its past, and people who've done bad things in the name of that group. But there's a hell of a big difference between the Mormons and the Branch Davidians, so lumping them both together doesn't quite seem right.

(And Scientology just barely crosses over into "cult" turf by their standards I gotta say.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:02 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

What's a "cult"?
posted by John Cohen at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2012

"Works" in what way?

You're making the assumption that Scientology is responsible for Tom Cruise being a nice man, working hard, and having a sense of humor. But he was 28 and a well-established actor by the time he joined. Using a superstar as "proof" that a cult has a positive effect on someone's life is the worst use of anecdata ever.

If you mean "Is it possible cults do not always destroy someone's life", sure, but again, using a movie superstar as an example is not a good one. If you give someone $100,000 the effect that has on your life will be very different depending on whether you make $50,000 or $5,000,000 in a year.
posted by Anonymous at 10:14 AM on April 27, 2012

I dont believe in cult or any religion that does not change my life condition. What I mean by that is, I have seen multitudes of people bow down before "gods" hoping that the divine will help them change or end their suffering. It doesn't happen. My basic philosophy is that if I believe in any religion, it better help me end the problems I face. Plain and simple. I need proof of a religion before I will adopt it. I have to try it myself and dont believe in adopting something that will not work.

I now practice Buddhism, not any Buddhism but the one based on the Lotus Sutra (there are many other forms which have not been able to eradicate the root cause of suffering). I researched it for 3 years and also observed changes in other's lives. In my experience, the foundation of this faith has been to attain complete victory in life which is what I have experienced. It is based on a simple fact that your karmas create the life situation you are in and by changing and challenging those, you will change your life. I tried it, and it has amazingly changed me and my life. Done. But I still don't suggest that anyone adopt it without trying.
posted by pakora1 at 10:17 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how one could identify a cult that "works" if the contention is that Tom Cruise, for example, is not being be harmed by Scientology. He may not be, he may be -- it's unknowable without knowing the answers to: How much money has he given to Scientology? How much is his freedom constrained regarding what he can say in public, what movie roles he can take, how his children can be educated, who is suitable for him to date/marry, which of his friends/relatives he may be in contact with, what type of doctors he can see and what medications he is permitted to take, what websites he can visit, how much information he can have about his religion's finances and activities, what kind of childbirth his wife can have, whether he can leave Scientology without fear of reprisal, etc..

I imagine that all cults deliver something that can feel like it "works" for individuals, but there are always significant trade-offs. Perhaps it would help to identify the tools cults use to recruit and retain members, because those may be the pieces you might want to cherry-pick, e.g., opportunities for talk therapy, personal relationships that give you the emotional rush of "love-bombing", the appeal of having certain things planned for you, etc..
posted by argonauta at 10:20 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The answer depends on two things: Define "cult." Define "works."

Could you cherry-pick cultish beliefs

One potentially valid definition of "cult" (or for that matter of religion, or philosophy, or ethics, or culture, or society) is, itself, a cherry-picked set of beliefs, which makes the question pretty circular.

Sure, these days we generally treat the term as a pejorative, with the implication that the founder is taking advantage of his followers in one way or another -- but that pejorative sense isn't built into the term; you could equally well define "cult" as "any religion that hasn't yet gone mainstream." Differentiating "cult" from "religion" is a little like differentiating "erotica" from "pornography" -- there's no boundary line that even a plurality of people is necessarily going to agree on.

and make them work for you?

If we're working strictly with the colloquial pejorative sense of 'cult' as 'a harmful or misleading set of beliefs' then by definition the answer here is no, because you've designed the question to contradict itself.

If we set aside the pejorative meaning of the term, though, then the answer depends on what do you mean by "work"? Give you a sense of belonging and purpose? Demonstrably yes. Improve the quality of your life? Well, sure, possibly, depending on the particular beliefs and whether the observer happens to agree with them (this, too, gets rather circular, since self-improvement is so often defined as adherence to a particular belief set.) Perpetuate and pass along the set of beliefs? Again demonstrably yes. Acquire magical powers or the assistance of invisible superheroes? Well, I don't think so, but plenty of people do.

Brad Bird directed MI: 4. Does Brad Bird have a cult?

I have literally no idea at all what you mean by this (and am wondering if a clarification here might clarify your intent with the question as a whole).

How does "having directed a movie which stars an actor who is well-known for being a member of something that is generally perceived as somewhere between 'cult' and 'not-quite-a-real-religion'" have anything at all to do with "having a cult"?
posted by ook at 10:30 AM on April 27, 2012

So, if Scientology is a scam (it is) that I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy (I wouldn't), just from the outside looking in, Tom doesn't seem to be harmed by this cultish belief.

All cults are benefiting SOMEONE. It's great to be in a cult if you're the one controlling and scamming people like he is.
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

As others here have pointed out, you really need to define your use of the word 'cult'. I think it's a word that is generally used in a pejorative way to mean a religious 'movement' that is relatively new, based on fatuous beliefs, and centered around a charismatic leader of some sort. If that's your definition, then Christianity certainly started out as a cult ("This bread actually turns into my Lord and savior, then I eat it?"), and but for it's ubiquity it still is a cult, as it's still [arguably] based on the same rather alarming beliefs that it was at its inception.

If only ubiquity or the lack thereof separates a 'proper religion' from a 'cult', where does that separation fall, exactly? 1,000 members? 1,000,000 members?

And your use of the word 'beneficial' is a bit problematic as well. Using the example of Christianity again as a cult that 'grew up', plenty of people are helped by Christianity every day in a variety of both practical and spiritual ways, but there are [flagrantly, inarguably] also people who have been (and continue to be) severely harmed by Christianity.

I hate to put words in your mouth, but I think your question might be better phrased as, "Can one cherry-pick a pastiche of inane or irrational beliefs that work for them in their life, and still function as a rational, credible human being in the mainstream of society? Or might they even be able to thrive by doing so?"

And I'd say the answer to that question, anyway, is yes. People do it every day.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:34 AM on April 27, 2012

Oops - 'works', not 'beneficial'. Sorry.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:35 AM on April 27, 2012

Neutrally observing cult characteristics such as social organization, cohesion, imparting a sense of community, purpose, and destiny along with the illusion of stability, contesting heterodoxy, and so forth, of course cults work.
posted by blucevalo at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2012

Could you cherry-pick cultish beliefs and make them work for you?

If by "cultish beliefs" you mean any belief held by a cult, then of course there are beliefs that could work for you. Along with beliefs like the divinity of the cult leader and the corrupting influence of outsiders, there are others -- like believing that the cult community is all one beautiful soul, or that a vegetarian diet is the only moral diet. Feeling part of a larger whole could bring comfort, and a vegetarian diet could have health benefits.

If you can cherry-pick ideas that work for you then then you can cherry-pick ideas that work for you.

If you mean something other by "cultish beliefs" then you'll have to be more specific.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:45 AM on April 27, 2012

Shaolin monks? Generally, the continuum from mysticism to martial arts could apply to this question, assuming an expansive & non-pejorative application of the term "cult", yes?
posted by furiousthought at 10:55 AM on April 27, 2012

I lived in Marin County in the '90s and early naughties, have dabbled in various groups that could be termed "cults", depending on your definition of them, and other things that tried to not be cults but kinda fell in to my definition of them.

There is at least one of those organizations that I think very highly of, that was a tremendous cusp in my life, and that I will, occasionally, casually take someone aside and suggest that they investigate further. I know several people who are more deeply involved in that organization who are definitely continuing to get great things from its processes, and who are bringing the same sort of radical change for self-actualization that it brought in to my life to other people.

However, I have also seen some people around this particular organization behave in cult-ish ways, and have a relationship to the processes that it uses that makes me uncomfortable. Even though I got great things out of it, and I know people involved in it who are also getting great things out of it.

So my answer is that "cult" is a continuum. Scientology "works" (and, yes, there's probably confirmation bias in "works", but we're talking about psychology and processes that are very hard to tease apart from the individuals that they're operating on) because the processes that its based on can have amazing life impacts. They can feel fantastic, and that feeling can lead to life accomplishements. When the organization helps you to understand what those processes are, why they work, I think those things can be a force for good. When it becomes a matter of "bleed the patients dry" for the sake of a few... well...

And sometimes that "bleed the patients" isn't about money, it's about ego or other less tangibles, and sometimes the de-facto leader doesn't even know they're doing it. There's one group I was a part of for a while that had an extremely generous central figure, and part of the reason I no longer hang out with them is that I thought that she was becoming a guiding personality in a way that was causing other participants to relinquish some of their own critical thinking and decisionmaking in a way that wasn't beneficial to them.

So, as others in the thread have pointed out, you can define "cult", even if you say "religion with a living 'messiah'" in a way that includes these benefits, or is orthogonal to them. Narrowing that definition often means defining "cult" as something where the net effect is bad. But if I compare the ones that worked for me to, say, conventional therapy, I think mainstream psychology is at best voodoo.
posted by straw at 11:13 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Lubavitch Hasidim.

The Twelve Tribes, who run successful natural grocery stores and other good things, seem to be happy and productive and content in a lifestyle that works for them.
posted by Melismata at 11:19 AM on April 27, 2012

Speaking as your newest friend & member of the Mormon cult, I'd say I'm pretty happy. But I'm an insider, have access to lots of little perks like getting to rearrange chairs on weekends, etc.

It may be different for a new inductee. They have to learn how to read ancient scripture starting from scratch, and may also have to endure hour-long visits by people called "home teachers" who constantly ask if there's anything around the house they can help with.

(Sorry, tried to stop the tongue but it found its way to my cheek)

I think one background question here is: Can we know, as outsiders, whether a "cult" is a net positive or net negative? I'm not sure we can.

C.S. Lewis (I think) also mentioned something to the effect of: Let's say you meet some Christian and you think he's a terrible person. Well, there's no way to know that he wouldn't be a worse person without Christianity. So it's tricky.

I'm a Mormon of 20+ years, a high priest, and I know people who had terrible experiences in the Mormon church and left ("stopped coming" is more accurate since the compound is open to the public and has no gates, parapets, etc.). Sometimes I'll be asked to visit them or call them on the phone. I'm OK with that, but it's uncomfortable, because there's usually a deep problem I just won't be able to solve. Not a problem with the ex-Mormon, but a problem between them and someone else.

The most common problems are: "Is so-and-so still attending your church?" "Yes." "He told me X, Y, and Z, and I'm not coming back while he's there." Usually they've come in contact with the most stubborn, blunt, and offensive member our little congregation has to offer. Sigh.

Also, "My Dad is an active Mormon and he did X,Y,Z and now our family is in shambles. I hate that guy, and now he's back in your church, walking around like he runs the place!" Usually the dad had an affair or something and perhaps was even excommunicated from the church. And in the years since, the dad has tried to make things right, and is trying to put all that stuff behind him. Now, what can I do about the son? Usually: Nothing. I try to empathize, but it's not like we know each other very well. I could say, "hey well the rest of us are good people so PLEASE PLEASE come back," but that doesn't work. And that's fine. We're not out to get their tithing money or bring them back on anything but their own terms. We're trying to build relationships and bring people closer to a Christ-like life.

In my experience, the vast majority of ex-Mormon cult members are good people who are even happy to talk to church members, but they stopped caring for any number of reasons. It's extremely rare to find the one or two who view "getting out of a cult" as an escape ordeal. They do exist, and they deserve to be listened to. I just hate hearing that they were a member for about 6 months, had a high position in the church as a door greeter, and now they understand how every Mormon is completely brainwashed.

The ideal in this imperfect world really seems to be something like audiatur et altera pars.
posted by circular at 11:29 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Brad Bird directed MI: 4. Does Brad Bird have a cult?

I have literally no idea at all what you mean by this (and am wondering if a clarification here might clarify your intent with the question as a whole).

It was just a jokey, off-hand remark about using Tom Cruise as an example of a cult-member that remains highly productive on an action movie. "Oh yeah, well Brad Bird worked on the same movie, in arguably a bigger role. He's a creative, engaging, productive person, too. So why not ask what belief system does that guy ascribes to?

The answer depends on two things: Define "cult." Define "works."

For our purposes here only, "cult" is a group of people that adhere to a specific, documented belief system that lies outside the general mainstream of U.S. culture. "Works" means that adherents to this belief system are unusually productive, effective people in advanced social and career settings within that U.S. mainstream.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:46 AM on April 27, 2012

So, you're not making a distinction between a cult, a sect, and a new religious movement; all of them are "cults" for the purpose of this discussion, if I read you right?

And you're asking whether there are any examples of cults, as you define them, that actually do increase the social success and productivity of its members without overall net detriment to those same members?

I would also suggest to you that you know nothing about Tom Cruise's actual circumstances or mental health, what it costs to live his life, or what it costs to be his close associate. As has been stated, he was successful before. We can't know whether he is now better or worse on any measure except his public image, which only comes to us through publicists whose goal is to project a certain image.

It also sounds like you would exclude people like the Amish, because they by definition function outside the U.S. mainstream. They also are often stereotyped as being the "perfect" society, but there is of course no such thing; probably some groups of Amish are doing quite well in an agrarian, eighth-grade education sort of way; while other groups may be unhealthy. But the Amish are an example of a group that would be called a sect, which appears not to meet part of your definition.
posted by tel3path at 12:08 PM on April 27, 2012

Response by poster: It's clear that I just asked a bad question, as most of the responders can't or don't want to take the analogies for what they are. This was never rah-rah Tom Cruise.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:31 PM on April 27, 2012

Yeah, I'm gonna say bad question - since, even with your followups, I'm still not sure what you were asking!
posted by snoe at 12:38 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

CrossFit isn't a cult, any more than running is a cult. It's a workout program some people get great results with and are enthusiastic about. It doesn't require you to subscribe to any particular program or methodology, doesn't have a dogma, and doesn't demand adherence to a figurehead or leader. Various CrossFit organizations have recommendations (diets or schedules or whatever) that individuals are free to follow or ignore. People who want to do CrossFit are free to follow the program in whole or in part on their own, with their own equipment, or go to a facility in a class environment.

It's an exercise program. That's it. It never billed itself as anything but a functional fitness program. People who are new to or excited about a particular interest or hobby are loud and vocal, whether that interest or hobby involves a sudden gung-ho attitude about swinging kettlebells, listening to dubstep, programming in Python, or playing World of Warcraft. You didn't ask whether or not Dubstep, Python, or World of Warcraft was a cult that works.

Your analogy is inflammatory and ill-informed.
posted by phoebus at 12:42 PM on April 27, 2012

Often a cult's beliefs aren't particularly relevant. E.g. if you replace Xenu with Linux but keep the interpersonal dynamics, you could likely achieve similar effects in so far as cults "work" by giving their members shared purpose and community along with feelings of specialness, pride (a deadly sin to certain others), power, etc.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:06 PM on April 27, 2012

I think this is a perfectly fine question to ask, if one avoids the Tom Cruise derail. And i think I have a useful response for you.

As I have mentioned several times before on Metafilter, my go-to resource when thinking about cults is Robert Jay Lifton's eight methods of thought reform. To recap them I'm going to copy/past from some of my previous comments:

Milieu Control – The control of information and communication. [Read only our literature or watch only our TV show, don't talk to friends or family who disagree, etc.]
Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated. [Faith healing or other "miracles" that confirm the authority of the leader, for example]
Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
Confession – Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. [Cults often use confession as a tool for blackmail, to force continued membership or to keep ex-members silent, for example. Scientology is a good example of this]
Sacred Science – The group's doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. [Not uncommon in non-cult groups, but I believe necessary for cults]
Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. [This is really important].
Doctrine over person – The member's personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. [Eventually you can't tell what's real and what isn't, so you have to depend on the leader to tell you. Have fun working that out in therapy in 20 years]
Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. [This might mean outright killings, as in Aum's case, or more passive means, such as disapproving of health care]

When looking at a group try to determine whether or not any or all of these methods are being used. I would argue that not all methods are required in order to qualify as a cult, but most of them should be present.

This can sometimes be hard to do if you don't already have a pretty good grasp of religion as a topic. Loading the Language is probably the hardest to parse, because you might reasonably interpret what the group is saying using standard definitions, but the group has chosen different definitions for those words such that the statement in question means something completely different to those in the know (i.e. members).

I sometimes wonder if I should try applying this framework to political parties (dog whistle politics, anybody?)....

For me, the TL;DR version reduces to 1) are members consenting before, during, and after their involvement, and 2) are they harming non-consenting people. The right answer (meaning they probably aren't a cult) is yes to the first question and no to the second. By this definition, any group which benefits its members (without hurting others) can't be a cult.

I agree with Obscure Reference that cults are more about the interpersonal dynamics than the beliefs. Lets just say I have personal experience to back that up.
posted by postel's law at 1:10 PM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a historian of religion (and leaving aside for the moment the question of how you define a 'cult'), I think this is a really interesting question.

On Scientology, I found Lawrence Wright's New Yorker article very informative. Wright confirms what we all know, that Scientology is intellectually negligible as a belief system and thoroughly corrupt and sinister at its higher levels, but he also helps to explain why people are motivated to join it. Without wanting to equate Scientology with Protestant Evangelicalism (the two are obviously very different), I think there's an interesting parallel to be drawn here with T.M. Luhrmann's recent book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, about a belief system that is deeply and powerfully attractive to its members while seeming bizarre and illogical to outsiders. Joan Acocella's review (also from the New Yorker) is a good introduction to the book.
posted by verstegan at 1:19 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

...not any Buddhism but the one based on the Lotus Sutra

There is more than one Buddhist sect centered on the Lotus Sutra.
posted by Quonab at 1:28 PM on April 27, 2012

Your definition didn't match with mine, so I hit up Google. Some of the definitions agreed with my less charitable definitions of cult, mostly surrounding veneration of a living leader, but many tended more towards yours.

Running off that definition, I'd suggest you might look towards people who attend Tony Robbins or Zig Ziglar seminars. Those particular rituals and rites don't work for me, but I totally understand the desire to participate in them, and get that those for whom it does work are finding it beneficial to their lives. I haven't looked into the economics of it, and I rather suspect that if you slide too far off the narrow path of "motivational speaker" on to the "MLM advocates" it'll queer the results, but I'd even suggest that such events could have a net societal economic gain.

It's hard to measure, but I think you could probably put a whole number of additional "management gurus" on that list. And once you do that, you're trying to do things like measure whether programs like The Landmark Forum or EST or any number are net good or bad for their participants, and that's been debated in the literature for a while (note that those papers, including one that described results as "30 were judged to show some positive response and 19 were rated unchanged" are collected by someone who is critical of Landmark and EST).

With that in mind, I don't think it's a particularly bad question. I think the responses here might help you clarify what you mean by the question, and, perhaps as importantly, help advance the discussion as to where to draw the lines, when to step in, and when to stand back and say "yeah, that's doing something for them." Or me.
posted by straw at 2:10 PM on April 27, 2012

What works about cults is really what works about any small community (less than 150). If you aren't familiar with Dunbar's Number here's what wikipedia has to say: Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person.

As Dunbar observed “At this size, orders can be implemented and unruly behaviour controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts. With larger groups, this becomes impossible.” He was speaking of military groups but the logic applies to any small community.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote, communities smaller than 150 operate without "complicated hierarchies and rules and regulations and formal measures to try to command loyalty and cohesion"

For our purposes here only, "cult" is a group of people that adhere to a specific, documented belief system that lies outside the general mainstream of U.S. culture. "Works" means that adherents to this belief system are unusually productive, effective people in advanced social and career settings within that U.S. mainstream.

Is there a cult that actually works?

Given your definitions I'd say possibly, but I don't have an example. The issue is that the aspects of cults that make them cults are what sets them apart from the U.S. mainstream. My understanding of Dunbar's research is that you can only be part of one group at a time. So, if you are fully immersed in a cult, you would be an outsider to the social and career setting of the U.S. mainstream. And advancing as an outsider is no mean feat.

Could you cherry-pick cultish beliefs and make them work for you?

Absolutely. But if your goal is to be unusually productive and effective in the social and career settings of the U.S. culture, it would be difficult to have a specific and documented belief system that lies outside the U.S. culture.

You don't need (or want) an actual cult to get the benefits you're associating with cults. Here's what Dunbar had to say about Gore Associates:
Another good example of our hard wired social limits is Gore Associates, a privately held multimillion-dollar company responsible for creating Gore-Tex fabric and all sorts of other high tech computer cables, filter bags, semiconductors, pharmaceutical, and medical products. What is most unique about this company is that each company plant is no larger than 150. When constructing a plant, they put 150 spaces in the parking lot, and when people start parking on the grass, they know it’s time for another plant. Each plant works as a group. There are no bosses. No titles. Salaries are determined collectively. No organization charts, no budgets, no elaborate strategic plans. Wilbert Gore – the late founder of the company, found through trial and error that 150 employees per plant was most ideal. “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty,” he told an interviewer some years ago."
posted by zinon at 4:10 PM on April 27, 2012

Seems to me that there really isn't a hard and fast line that separates a 'cult' from a 'religion' --- it's more like a continuum, where perhaps some groups (Heaven's Gate or the Jim Jones group, to name two) are clearly cults, and others (mainstream Islam or Christianity, for instance) are equally clearly religions, but others muddle around in the middle. And one person's cult is sometimes someone else's religion (the LDS, aka the Mormons, come to mind).
posted by easily confused at 5:10 PM on April 27, 2012

AA has some cult-like properties, and it's quite successful for a lot of people.

There are Catholic nuns and brothers who live cloistered lives and pray all the time, and they may be successful at living a spiritual life.

For some atheists, a cult is just a more extreme religion and maybe a religion is just a mild cult. I think we invented religion to fulfill a need to belong to a community with rules and reasons. Sorry to be so offhand, but this isn't an essay. Scientology seems to be manipulative and often harmful. My years of Catholic education were kind of screwed up. Extremism in religion seems to really screw things up.
posted by theora55 at 7:18 PM on April 27, 2012

For our purposes here only, "cult" is a group of people that adhere to a specific, documented belief system that lies outside the general mainstream of U.S. culture. "Works" means that adherents to this belief system are unusually productive, effective people in advanced social and career settings within that U.S. mainstream.

So another way to put the question would be, "Are there non-mainstream belief systems whose adherents end up doing especially well for themselves by mainstream standards?"

If that's the question, then the Mormon church may indeed be the answer.

Your description also calls to mind the Five-percent Nation, a relatively small religious movement that's had disproportionately large cultural influence because some of its adherents became huge names in the early days of east coast hip-hop. If you're going to measure success in terms of great artists per capita, they're arguably doing pretty well. And it's plausible that their religious practices are connected to their adherents' success. It's a vaguely kabbalistic religion that treats certain kinds of wordplay as sources of spiritual insight, and that puts a lot of emphasis on memorizing verbal and numerological patterns. Regardless of its theological merits, its gotta be great mental exercise for a budding rapper.

(I should emphasize that I'd STRONGLY OBJECT to calling either the Mormons or the Five-percenters a "cult" on the standard definition of the word. But you seem to be using a non-standard definition on which it just means "modern non-mainstream religion," and that definition fits both groups.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:20 PM on April 27, 2012

Depends on how you define a cult. Hey, look, Wikipedia!

"Studies have identified a number of key steps in coercive persuasion:[17][18]
1. People are put in physical or emotionally distressing situations;
2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized;
3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader or group;
4. They get a new identity based on the group;
5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is severely controlled.[19]"

Frankly, #5 to me sounds destructive enough that you couldn't get the benefit of the new identity and "love" once that kicks in.

"In the opinion of Benjamin Zablacki, a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, groups that have been characterized as cults are at high risk of becoming abusive to members. He states that this is in part due to members' adulation of charismatic leaders contributing to the leaders becoming corrupted by power."

I think that would cover it for me. Inherently, if it's a cult, there's gonna be psychological abuse/draining of your money and resources/isolation. You may think and feel like you are getting benefits at first, but eventually you won't be.

With regards to $cientology, I suspect the celebrity version of it is a LOT different than the poor ordinary bastards in say, Sea Org. I do suspect the famous people are getting...something... out of it, but fuck if I know what, other than networking opportunities and the privilege of getting their butts kissed--which if you're famous enough, would probably happen in any situation whatsoever. I suspect they just get nicer treatment than the plebes since the plebes don't have the power and influence to (a) squeal on them and get as much attention as say, Paul Haggis, and (b) they're not being scared and intimidated to cooperate.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:26 PM on April 27, 2012

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