they fill a vacuum, for individuals, and for society at large. If the boundaries between cult and religion are already slippery, those between religion and culture are more porous still. Take, for example, the cultural pervasiveness of ideals of female thinness. It is precisely the aspirational desire to be Kate-Moss skinny that allows a Christian diet programme such as Remnant to attract members in the first place ( don’t eat too much; it’s a sin! ). So too does it allow cults of ‘wellness’ to take hold: a woman who is already obsessed with cleansing toxins, making her body ‘perfect’ and ‘clean’, and ‘purifying’ herself is more likely to get involved with a cult-like yoga practice and/or be susceptible to sexual abuse by her guru (a not uncommon occurrence).
Just look at the practitioners of the Eleusinian mysteries in Ancient Greece, or contemporary mystics in a variety of spiritual traditions, from the Jewish Kabbalah to the Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition. A financial obligation? Christianity, Judaism and Islam all promote regular tithing back into the religious community. A toxic relationship of abuse between spiritual leaders and their flock? The instances are too numerous and obvious to list.
Today’s cults might be secular, or they might be theistic. But they arise from the same place of need, and from the failure of other, more ‘mainstream’ cultural institutions to fill it. If God did not exist, as Voltaire said, we would have to invent him. The same is true for cults.