Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Hidden Cults

Skepchick Sam (I just love saying that!) and I both attended the Singularity Summit held in San Francisco a few weeks ago. This is an Artificial Intelligence conference with a difference; some proponents of “The Singularity” believe that computer intelligence will surpass human intelligence with a decade – plus a whole lot more…

Sam wrote about the topic for Skepchick in One Singular Sensation: The Geek Rapture, and I wrote about it for my Naked Skeptic column piece: Skepticism and the Singularity.

Some skeptics think that the Singularity has the hallmarks of a cult.

There are many ‘hidden’ cults, such as Amway, and dodgy organizations that offer dodgy certifications.

What are some groups or organizations you find to be hidden cults?

Have you ever participated in any of these hidden cults?

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  1. Apple Computer has started a cult: it requires large regular tithes, it teaches its higher priests strange multi-gestures, and it forces members to cut ties with all other computer companies and sometimes their families too.

    I am a vegetarian. I fear we are sometimes guilty of cult behavior. Wooey, and cliquish, and hard to reason with.

  2. My mom started going to yoga classes at place that she later discovered was a cult. I’m not sure if it was the name of the place, or just what they practiced but if you search for Dahn Yoga you’ll find a lot of stuff about it. She said they had normal yoga classes, but on weekends they’d have their “special meetings”. A friend of hers went to one of the special meetings and came back saying it was a cult.

    Pretty recently both CNN and Rolling Stone have done articles about Dahn Yoga the shadiness around it.

  3. I’ve seen a couple of Pagan groups that were edging into that direction, but AFAIK they were just “personality cults”, rather than full-fledged cults. I have had dinner with the Hare Krishnas and with CARP in Boston though. I found back then that I seemed pretty resistant to such groups; in retrospect, I think being on the autistic spectrum insulates me from some of their techniques.

  4. Cults? Nothing more than wild fantasies spun by people who are bored. The idea of people working together as a tight-knit group for some sinister/ deviant purpose is as ridiculous as the thought of a bunch of people convening electronically and using all things cephelapodic as some sort of a code. Now if you don’t mind, I’ll go back to my French Canadian Bean Soup and enjoy a wonderful Golden Apple for dessert…

  5. It’s certainly not that hidden, but I attended Overeaters Anonymous for a while and never really could get into it. I kept hearing it was OK for atheists and you could define “the group as your higher power,” but I never could get over that cognitive dissonance.

    A write-up of AA as a cult is here, and a very interesting read:

  6. I’m surprised at the lack of seriousness when dealing with the subject of cults. I’m also surprised at the lack of understanding for what cults are. If I remember correctly the rogues covered this recently, as to the general idea of what a cult is, and why it is therefore perhaps so dangerous. Exclusivity and separating members from their family is one thing that stuck in my mind. Extremist yet charismatic leaders also seems a requirement. Or maybe not necessarily extremist?

    Though I think best equipped to define a cult are its victims. Did not Randi have a very interesting and humbling encounter with an anti-cult organization? Perhaps someone better remembers than I.

    P.S. I think the libertarian comment was, ironically, rather glib in itself.

  7. @Tyler Durden I don’t see in any way that this casual post detracts from the “seriousness” of dealing with cults. This is an extended look at cults, and cult-like behaviour in its many forms.

    Given the nature of the AI, I welcome both serious and light-hearted replies…

  8. It was my impression that ‘cult’ is primarily a vernacular term with a largely subjective definition. As a sociological term it refers to a small religious group outside the mainstream religious culture. Am I out of date?

  9. Honor societies. They usually cost something and have a ceremony, but they typically don’t really offer any services. Don’t fall for it.

  10. I joined a Yoga society at the University of Cape Town that advertised free vegetarian lunches at their meetings every Wednesday at noon. The first session was stretching, then we all realized that it was some kind of Rama cult and stopped going.

    Currently, I work at a giant corporation and am wondering how far I should venture into the cult-ure to get ahead.

  11. Ok … first I’ll start with the trite and cliched – the definition.

    According to Webster ONLINE there are seven of them. They are:

    1. Followers of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices.[Wordnet]
    2. An interest followed with exaggerated zeal.[Wordnet]
    3. Followers of an unorthodox, extremist, or false religion or sect who often live outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.[Wordnet]
    4. A religion or sect that is generally considered to be unorthodox, extremist, or false; “it was a satanic cult”.[Wordnet]
    5. A system of religious beliefs and rituals; “devoted to the cultus of the Blessed Virgin”.[Wordnet]
    6. Attentive care; homage; worship.[Websters]
    7. A system of religious belief and worship

    Ok … since five of them deal with religion directly, that’s too easy, and not too “hidden.”

    So , first, that leaves “an interest followed with exaggerated zeal.” Then perhaps all of us by that definition, who post here, are involved in cultlike behavior. Perhaps skepticism is a cult … by THAT definition – because many of us do follow our world view zealously.

    Not, to get controversial … ok … why not? I was at TAM in July. The keynote speaker was Richard Dawkins. I listened. I stayed. Until he answered one of DJ’s questions, that went something like this ( I cannot recall the exact words ), ” what is THE most important topic that skepticism must address?” His answer was “religion.” As an agnostic, I’m no fan of organized religion, but his attitude was so pompous, so righteous, I walked out. Really? Religion is THE most important topic critical thinking and the scientific method must address? It wasn’t simply his answer that bugged me ( because fundamentalist religion has caused and will probably continue to cause much damage in this world ), but it was how he answered it. Almost with contempt. I know he speaks for many, but not all within skepticism, and not for me.

    So with that said, I think that the most aggressive form of atheism is cultlike because of the intense attention to the message, often at the expensive of being dismissive to those who aren’t as extreme in their belief ( or in this case, disbelief ) ; the true homage ( respectful deference )to authorative like thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens, and the worship (profound love and admiration ) of these authorative leaders by similar , but less authoratative men and women.

    Let the fun begin.

  12. I was in an anti-drug group when I was a kid, and I left because it got too weird. I’m too independent to be a target for cults, they seem to sense I’m not their type. My great-aunt joined a cult though, my grandmother lost touch with her and then moved to Canada. They never spoke again, which makes me very sad.

  13. @halincoh
    His answer probably has to do in part that for him, that is the most important thing. And because he is passionate at that subject, yeah, he doesn’t like religion very much.

    In my case, I really hate astrology when it is taken seriously, even if it is not the most important thing in the world, and in part because my favorite subject is astronomy. So if you hear me speak about astrology, yeah, my tone will come with contempt.

    And it is not like he goes to the believers out randomly and bash them that religion is evil. This was his talk, and he answered his question honestly. Unlike cults, I don’t think he tries to force his beliefs unto other people. And blunt answers does not mean he is forcing people to see things his way.

  14. @Buzz Parsec: You are correct of course. It’s just the radically socialist (self-described, not “OMG soshulist!!1!”) ones are the ones that have been most noticeably cult-like to me.

  15. Libertarianism isn’t in my eyes a cult so much as it’s the equivalent of quackery in economic theory.

    NLP is slightly cultish but not a full-fledged cult. As is most of what gets called “coaching” IMHO.

  16. @IBY: the question was cult LIKE, not cults. Of course, we are, and atheism is, not a cult. But fundamental IN YOUR FACE, I’m so right, you’re so wrong, atheism SEEMS cult-like to me.

  17. I’ve started running in Vibram Five Fingers and am quite happy with the results, but the barefoot/minimal running crowd has started to get a little evangalistic and overly-enthusiastic for my taste. My knees and hips feel better, even after a marathon, but I don’t think they’re going to change anything else in my life.

  18. Unless he happens to be one of them, Sam can back me on this:


    Y’all may’ve been insulated from this, but Aggies (aka “The students of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and their Association of Former Students”) have some definitely creepy, cult-like behavior. Like rings, which they treat with fetishistic respect, and serve to identify members of their cult to each other.

    Various “yells” (they redefine the word “cheer” inside the cult, instead referring to “yells”; they do not have “cheerleaders”, they have “yell leaders”) and chants (with associated hand signs) that can only be performed by members of certain years.

    Physical indoctrination ceremonies, including, amongst some members, compulsory physical punishments for misbehavior.

  19. Most of the definitions provided seem a bit broad in some respect as I see a cult as a group that demands inordinate fidelity from its members and seeks to control the daily behavior and decision making of its members. This control can be a group process or come down from one charismatic or controlling leader and more often than not takes place in a religious context; but any authoritarian group that seeks control of its member’s personal and public lives gets to be called a cult by me. Also cults rarely leave ethical or big life decisions up top their members such as dating relationships, sex and employment decisions. Cult like behaviors could apply to many different types of organizations whose members are intolerant of divergent opinions or are not even willing to entertain that they may not have all the answers. And any group that ‘shouts down’ its detractors gets the almost a cult label in my book.

  20. @Sam Ogden: Oh, aye. I just like to give Aggies a bit of shit now and again, especially since you’ve got some folks who go hard-core (hard-Corps?) nuts about Aggie Traditions and such. My younger brother is class of ’02, and we have a yearly father/sons outing to an Aggie football game… thus my mocking of both tu and A&M.

  21. @Mark Hall:
    @Sam Ogden:
    Fellow Texans! Hooray!

    Aggies are the worst. I used to fence for the University of Chicago, and we would encounter them yearly at club nationals. They had to be asked to keep it down repeatedly by directors and other officials. (Full disclosure: my sister is a sophomore at UT, and I have a dear friend who was in the Corps and then became a priest. A&M is surprisingly full of Papist philosophers.)

  22. I’ve been attending the cult of the Linux User Group in my area about once every month. The ceremony typically includes a bunch of guys dressed in whatever seems clean to them, but without any sense of what looks good, and a few days of poor hygiene, and someone bringing pizza (the ones I’ve been to usually get it from this place called Little Caesar’s). And then someone starts talking about stuff with images projected onto a wall.

    Surprisingly, I haven’t gotten any flak for dressing nicely, and having proper hygiene. In fact, I’ve even done a few of those talks like that.

  23. @Cygore Hey! Leave my Cubbies out of this! Just because I’ve been a fan since I was five doesn’t mean it’s a cult. It’s really more like a yearly exercise in group masochism.

    But seriously, my oldest half sister was involved with an extremely cultish branch of the christian church in North Carolina. She was told that she was their prophet and because of that, she needed to cut all ties with everyone that was not of the church.
    So she cut herself off completely from the family for about five years. She is very much a biblical literalist. The last time I saw her she told me that I was doing the work of the Devil by doing hypnosis(this was back before I walked away from my life as a Woo Goddess). She also tried to tell me that because our father did not fulfill the destiny god gave him to be a preacher that the duty now fell to me.
    We don’t talk anymore.
    Cults hurt. They rip families apart and can do permanent damage. It’s great to poke fun unless you’ve actually had a family member involved in something like this.

  24. First time I’ve logged-in for a long time….

    My wife and I joined a “Cohousing” group once. It was NOT like a hippy-dippy “koom-bye-yah” club or commune, but pretty much a raging cult controlled by a leader and her sycophants. Like an earlier poster, I believe my “Autism Spectrum” Asperger’s protected me. They finally kicked me out, but my wife was by that time completely dedicated to the Leader, so they kept her and the kids. It’s apparent that they planned this very carefully, because they pulled a lot of tricks I never could have expected, like the divorce papers being filed on my fifteenth anniversary, the “kick-out” being on the day my company announced bankruptcy, and all those credit accounts in my name….

  25. @DrBunsen: My initial reaction was to what I perceived as drive-by red-baiting, which I shouldn’t have done without evidence. It sounds like you have actual experience with cultish behavior from a socialist group, which certainly exist. The most cultish I encountered was the NCLC, which I just read about on Wikipedia. They were much scarier than I realized at the time, if half the stuff reported there is true. (I knew at the time they were a personality cult for Lyndon LaRouche, but I didn’t know how crazy and violent they were. They mostly just sat in the back of anti-war and other progressive meetings and didn’t say much. I think they were looking for potential recruits.)

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