In modern usage, the word “cult” is entirely negative. It conjures the image of a strange religious group or maybe a charismatic madman claiming to be Jesus. In the former case, the group will have unusual beliefs, isolate themselves from the rest of society and maybe prepare for some prophesied event. Jim Jones or David Koresh are what comes to mind for most people in the latter case. Of course, there’s always the example of the suicide cult, which gave us the expression “pass the Kool-Aid.”
The word “cult” comes from the Latin word cultus, which meant the care owed to a deity, shrine or temple. In the ancient world, cults were common. They could be built around maintaining a particular shrine, which had been built for a deity, a great hero or even a legendary event. The people in the cult maintained the shrine and served the needs of pilgrims. The same was true of temples and even churches. In the ancient world, cults were just a normal part of everyday life.
This was true outside the Roman world, as well. For example, the Vikings did not have a word for what we would call religion. Instead, they had words to describe the public cult, to which everyone belonged, and words for the private cults that people maintained in their homes and villages. The public cult was what bound the people together with common rituals and celebrations, while the private cult was what held the family together. The concept of the household god, for example, was common.
This old idea of the cult is worth thinking about in the current age, as multiculturalism shatters traditional communities and the traditional customs of the people. Without something to organize people on the large scale, even a regional scale, something will inevitably organize them on the small scale. This was the traditional role of cults in the ancient world. They evolved locally to be local. Put another way, they were a local solution to a universal problem. They gave people purpose and meaning.
In modern America, as the shared national identity recedes, something will fill the void and most likely it will be something like the ancient concept of the cult. Of course, with the internet, local becomes a relative term. People of the same cult or subculture, can feel like they are close to one another, by participating is private on-line groups. These subcultures will become that which people primarily identify with in public. Another aspect of identity politics will be the many subcultures and cults that spring up.
Take for example the antisemitic community. It used to be that people who hated Jews were called anti-Semites. One could be an Episcopalian and be an anti-Semite. Not liking Jews was just one of many attributes to describe someone. Later, the term shifted to mean people who were hated by Jews. If Jews thought someone was a problem for the Jews, then they were described as an anti-Semite. The anti-Zionists, even the Jewish ones, are always called antisemitic, for example.
Today, some of that still holds, but antisemitism is much more complex now than just a dislike for Jews or Israel. Antisemitism is quickly becoming a unique and complex subculture with its own language, symbols and literature. Kevin McDonald was amusingly called the Karl Marx of antisemitism, but it is a good description. His three books on the Jews are now the foundation of a complex and sophisticated understanding of Jews and the people who have organized themselves around opposition to the Jews.
Of course, modern Judaism is evolving into cults as well. The Chabad movement, for example, has gone beyond being a weird orthodox subculture. It is now an international secret society with observation posts in every Western capital. They even have one of their guys in the White House. Zionism, as practiced by people like Ben Shapiro and Yoram Hazony, ticks all the boxes of a cult. Everything they touch is manipulated to fit into their worldview and the purpose of Zionism.
The subcultures evolving in regards to the Jews are just one type of cult that will probably be a feature of the coming age. Secular gurus like Jordan Peterson or Stephan Molyneux are going to become more common. It’s fair to say that both would have fit in well on the revival circuit back in the old days. Instead of healing people in tent revivals, they heal people on-line with therapeutic language. The multicultural future will be a new age of prophets and holy men, building communities around their teachings.
Now, America has never had a unifying culture. Regionalism and subcultures have been the defining feature of America since the founding. Civic nationalism, however, provided a universal framework within which all of these subcultures and regional identities could operate without generating social conflict. Much like the Vikings, America was a land with a public cult, civic nationalism and patriotism, and many private cults. You could be a southern redneck and a proud American at the same time.
That’s unlikely to be the future. For starters, the old system relied upon a primary loyalty to the national creed, even among the rich. That’s falling away, especially with the rich, who no longer have any loyalty to the people over whom they rule. Then there is the transparency of modern life. Mass communications means everyone can see how different everyone else is living, relative to their subculture. The Zionists and anti-Semites can follow one another in ways that were unimaginable decades ago.
The old line about familiarity breeding contempt will surely be true of the future. Because these evolving subcultures will know a lot about their competitors, they will evolve in opposition to them as well. You see this with what’s going on between the Zionists and the anti-Semites. They are growing in complexity, but also their animosity toward one another is becoming more complex. In the future, maintaining boundaries will be what matters, not finding ways to break down boundaries and cooperate.
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