Cultish | Amanda Montell

Summary of: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism
By: Amanda Montell


Welcome to the fascinating world of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. In this book summary, you’ll discover that cultish behaviors aren’t just limited to religious extremists; they can also be found in a wide range of organizations, including fitness companies, MLM organizations, and even in megacorporations like Amazon. We will examine the complex language and psychological manipulation employed by cult leaders, observe how believers’ needs for identity, purpose, and belonging are met in cultish groups, and explore the consequences faced by members who try to break free.

The Common Themes of Cults

Cults are created by people’s need for identity, purpose, and belonging. Cults can be malevolent, like the Branch Davidian sect, or benign, like CrossFit. One crucial difference between them is whether members will face danger when leaving. For instance, Jim Jones’ followers threatened defectors, while members of 3HO believe that leaving will result in reincarnation as cockroaches. Cults share common themes such as ritualistic activities, specialized language, and an us-versus-them attitude. The Grateful Dead and Phish have cult followings, but stopping following them has no major consequences. Even large organizations like Amazon can exhibit cultish tendencies due to having a strong leader, distinct jargon, and harsh work conditions.

The Rise of Fitness “Cult”

A significant number of American millennials are not affiliated with any religion. For some, gym membership provides a sense of belonging and ritual akin to worship services. Society has a tendency to use the word “cult” humorously, but distinctions between legitimate religious organizations and abusive cults can have fatal consequences, as seen in the Branch Davidian sect’s standoff with the FBI, resulting in numerous deaths. As human beings are not built for loneliness, this shift towards fitness as a substitute for religion could significantly alter the way society defines and engages with faith.

The Tragic End of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple

Charismatic leader Jim Jones founded the multiracial Peoples Temple in Indianapolis during the 1950s, attracting disillusioned African Americans with promises of a better life. By 1974, Jones moved his followers to Jonestown, Guyana, determined to build a socialist paradise away from the United States. However, the experiment failed catastrophically in 1978 when a US congressman visited Jonestown to investigate conditions. Jones ordered his followers to kill the congressman and visiting journalists, then directed 900 of them to drink poison-laced Flavor Aid. This tragic event gave rise to the saying, “drinking the Kool-Aid,” describing blind loyalty to a leader. Shadowy groups can benefit from rebranding and secrecy, attracting followers and inciting confusion.

The Dark Side of Thought Control

Cults, MLMs, and CrossFit all employ thought-terminating cliches to override independent thought and justify their ideologies. Language is a leader’s charisma that enables them to create a mini universe and compel their followers to heed its rules. Scientology faulters individuals for anything that goes wrong, while MLMs blame their salespeople for their failures. Even CrossFit utilizes thought-terminating cliches to urge students to ignore muscle fatigue and push on. These cliches allow for the suppression of questions and lead to blind obedience, making it essential to be aware of their use.

Scientology’s Hidden Pitch

Scientology starts with self-improvement courses and gradually reveals its teachings, requiring thousands of dollars to climb a level and achieve spiritual enlightenment.

Scientology, widely known for its fantastical theories about “Xenu the galactic overlord” and evil alien spirits that attach to humans, has a less conspiratorial version for its potential followers. Recruiters start with a less threatening pitch, offering $35 self-improvement courses to teach tools for coping with life’s challenges. Once students join, Scientology gradually acclimatizes them to its teachings.

Scientology’s jargon is extensive and includes terms like “suppressive person” for those skeptical about Scientology’s teachings, and “potential trouble source” for members with faith doubts. Those who persevere in Scientology aim to “go clear,” a term for reaching Hubbard’s level of clarity and spiritual enlightenment. However, becoming clear requires long-time followers to spend thousands of dollars to climb one level, and thousands more to achieve the next.

Despite its promises of spiritual growth, leaving Scientology is not easy. It has been reported that some followers face difficulties when they try to depart. Therefore, you can’t spot a Scientologist by their actions or clothing; you can only realize if they have a Scientologist’s pitch.

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