by Harry on January 8, 2019

A while ago I was helping a couple of students decide what to register for the following semester. One of them had discovered a class in Religious Studies called “Sex and Cults” which the other student and I thought sounded thrilling, and were very disappointed to discover we had been mishearing, and it was in fact just “Sects and Cults”. Even so, I’ve long had an interest in cults (and sects), so I’d like to recommend a couple of great podcasts about cults (partly in the rather forlorn hopes of someone being able to offer me something else equally good).

End Of Days is a BBC documentary about the Branch Davidians, told from the British perspective: 24 Brits, all recruited from the Seventh Day Adventists, and almost all of them Afro-Carribean in origin, died in the conflagration. The reporter seems particularly incomprehending that Brits could end up in a cult in Waco, as if there is something in the national DNA that immunizes us from such gullibility, which might irritate some listeners, as might the slightly superior attitude toward the Americans they meet. And he is exceptionally unsympathetic to the cultists and, for example, is remarkably uncritical of the idea the idea that the cultists were brainwashed. The phrase “Whackos of Waco” is repeated much too often! But it is well worth listening all the way through: its a compelling story, well told, you get a real sense of the ways in which it was tragic for those left behind. They trace the role of, and interview, a remarkable and rather sinister character, Livingstone Fagan, who helped Koresh recruit and whose wife and mother, whom he refuses to mourn, were killed in the fire. They deal particularly well with the siege and conflagration: as with all accounts I’ve heard its hard to escape the conclusion that the ATF and FBI were spectacularly irresponsible.

Better still is Glynn Washington’s series about Heaven’s Gate. Washington was, himself, raised in a cult which, I think, helps him understand the state of mind of the cultists much better than the makers of End Of Days. The end is, of course, the starting point for the investigation, but whereas the BBC documentary maintains consistent focus on the conflagration, for Washington the end is just the end. He traces the whole history of the cult, interviewing people who knew Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles before they became cult leaders, and many former members and friends and family of those who died. Whereas Koresh lived very differently from his followers (he, and they, believed he was the second coming of the Messiah and, oddly given what we read in the Bible, thought that entitled him to sex with any woman, or girl, that he wanted). Applewhite lived just like them — he was one of the several men who underwent voluntary castration to affirm their ascetic lifestyle. (Nettles who, it becomes clear, was the true leader, pretty followed rules that all were expected to abide by while she was alive, with one notable exemption that Washington teases out). Nettles and Applewhite were clearly in love with each other but seem to have remained celibate. Washington goes much deeper into the psychology of cult membership, and devotes an entire episode to the ethics of deprogramming and whether brainwashing is real. Much more than End of Days, Heaven’s Gate gives you a feel for what life was like for the followers.

If you can recommend other long form podcasts about sects and cults (or even sex and cults), go ahead!



Chris Bertram 01.08.19 at 4:16 pm

You recommended to me the William Shaw book about cults, which I’m still intending to get round to.


Max B. Sawicky 01.08.19 at 4:17 pm

See also Wild Wild Country on Netflix, on the Sri Rajneesh cult. It is amusing to note that the Wikipedia entry for the cult leader (“Rajneesh”) is an extended commentary on the profundity of his ideas and his illustrious career and blames all the nasty stuff on his followers. And it never mentions the Netflix documentary.


ET 01.08.19 at 4:37 pm

Over the past few months, CBC documentarian Josh Bloch has been investigating NXIVM, a self-help group led by Keith Raniere. In this season of Uncover, we take you into NXIVM, and reveal how Raniere won the endorsement of actors, politicians and even a visit from the Dalai Lama.


Greg Sanders 01.08.19 at 4:51 pm

Interesting recommendations. I do tend to think that the consequences of ATF/FBI do tend to deserve more attention. I think there was a real and important difference in the some law enforcement decisions between the Clinton and Obama administrations that helped keep violent radicalism lower under Obama even in an area of greater polarization.


Bill Benzon 01.08.19 at 7:45 pm

I second Max B. Sawicky on Wild, Wild, Country on Netflix. It’s astounding, stunning, and deeply disturbing. I watched the whole thing, but had to fight my way through. What’s particularly interesting/chilling about this series is that it juxtaposes historical footage of the events (from the previous century) with contemporary interviews with people who participated in those events. Some of these interviews are with cult members who are still pretty much in thrall to the (now deceased) Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

There’s also an excellent series of articles about those events, The Rise and Fall of the Rajneesh Cult.

The NXIVM story is strange as well, and worth looking into. Even a cursory web search should turn up lots of material.


JBL 01.08.19 at 10:23 pm


johne 01.08.19 at 10:25 pm

“Escape From the Trump Cult”
“Millions of Americans are blindly devoted to their Dear Leader. What will it take for them to snap out of it?”


engels 01.08.19 at 10:29 pm


Dr. Hilarius 01.09.19 at 1:24 am

I don’t have any podcasts to suggest but can recommend one of the first books to investigate a cult with some scholarly rigor; “When Prophecy Fails” by Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter, University of Minnesota Press 1956. They investigated a flying saucer cult not unlike Heaven’s Gate. Of particular interest is their finding that while a failed prophecy caused some members to leave, it paradoxically increased the fervor of others.


Kurt Schuler 01.09.19 at 2:42 am

The Casefile True Crime podcast has a three-part series on Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple cult, and the After Midnight podcast has a two-hour episode on it. There are at least two documentaries about it: “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” (2006) and “Truth and Lies: Jonestown” (2018).


David L. 01.09.19 at 2:45 am

Last year, the Abe government executed the last of the convicted Aum Shinrikyo cult members, and the newspapers had discussions on the cult and the death penalty. One comment that interested me was the point that while prior to it being figured out conclusively how crazy they were, the schlock news weekly magazines had been on the Aum case and had been largely right about it, whereas the academic religious studies experts argued that it was a valid religious movement. The point here was that, as experts/specialists in religion, these blokes found it hard to see anything claiming to be a religious movement as problematic prior to it going off the rails.

The failure of the “experts” is, of course, seriously problematical. How do you create an academic discipline that is capable of being adequately critical of its subject matter. (In grad school, I needed to write a history paper, and thought of doing something on Buddhism. But as soon as I’d get near something historically interesting, the religious content would raise its ugly head, and I’d run in horror. (Ended up cobbling something together on land ownership rights in feudal Japan. (Which would drive Libertarians nuts, since such rights were divided and could be transferred separately. Feudal Japanese were way more sophisticated about property rights than Libertarians.)) Lots of Buddhist sects throughout Japanese history were not much more than bands of armed thugs, so I don’t have any problem seeing Aum Shinrikyou as just another sect, where a sect is something that causes trouble.

So is there any such thing as a sect that doesn’t cause trouble? I doubt it.

(I lived just outside of Shibuya during the period when such cults were flourishing, and when I was rested and happy, they left me alone, but if I were tired or irritated, they’d be on me like flies on you know what.)


dr ngo 01.09.19 at 3:23 am

No podcasts or deep analyses, but just a reminder that Frances Fitzgerald covered the Rajneesh in Cities on a Hill many years ago.

I also liked the TV miniseries Waco, which undoubtedly sacrificed some accuracy to “drama,” but succeeded for me in making a kind of sense of David Koresh et al. The portrayal of DK (by Taylor Kitsch) was remarkable in that he came across as not just charismatic, but genuinely nice. And also batshit crazy, of course. This may or may not be true, but avoided the trap (e.g., in films on Jonestown) of showing the “leader” as so obviously crazy/exploitative/evil that the viewer winds up thinking, “What fools! I would never have fallen for that guy.” Which is unhelpful to our understanding of the phenomena. The miniseries also explored many of the shortcomings of the ATF/FBI alluded to earlier.


Alan White 01.09.19 at 5:20 am

I also am interested in this subject, having incorporated the topic in my Phil/Rel class for many years (no doubt because I left evangelical religion behind after experiencing some of its cultist powers). What is claimed to constitute a cult or sect is of course perspectival, and relatively so in many critical dimensions. Christianity e.g. was regarded by many early as a curious Messianic Jewish cult, as was the Church of Latter-Day Saints by Protestant Christians, etc. What can convert them to un-cult status is a function of gathering followers and financial and political power over time. Group isolation usually isn’t a good predictor of success for conversion into un-cult status, but then again it depends on numbers, both people and financial.

I have no podcast but a good reference used in some courses like the one in Madison; Extraordinary Groups by Schaefer and Zellner (I have the 8th ed. which doesn’t include the 9ths discussion of Wicca):


SusanC 01.09.19 at 11:43 am


SusanC 01.09.19 at 11:47 am

@12: one of the distinguishing featues of a cult, as opposed to a harmless religion, appears to be that the leadership desires wider political power. This leads me to the thought that a cult that actually attains political power isn’t any less culty – far from it- it’s just a sucessful cult…


Johann Tor 01.09.19 at 12:26 pm

Spying in Guru Land by William Shaw works as great inocculation against the usual portrayal of cults in the media. It’s a pity it’s out of print and does not appear to be available electronically. If you are even slightly interested in the subject, you’ll find a lot to chow through.


Harry 01.09.19 at 2:17 pm

Thanks for so many great suggestions. We started watching Wild Wild Country, which we loved, but TV is a coordinated activity in our house, and its hard to get everyone together for the whole season. And yes the Shaw book is really wonderful. And something only a journalist could do because an academic would never get that past an IRB!


Thomas P 01.09.19 at 4:30 pm

For a fictional description of a more harmless cult Iain Bank’s “Whit” is a nice read. The protagonist understands that most of it is just made up by the leader, but still finds the simpler back to earth lifestyle attractive, although conflict within the small society cause a lot of trouble.


SamChevre 01.09.19 at 4:31 pm

The particular Amish-Mennonite group I grew up in was not (in my opinion) a cult, but was more cult-like than typical for the Amish-Mennonite world. Two excellent books that have recognizable-to-me pictures of the world of minority religions:

The Rapture of Canaan, Sheri Reynolds. This book is about a cult. It’s an excellent piece of literature, and repays repeated careful reading. It’s not a pleasant book, but it captures why people stay in groups that look weird and restrictive from outside.

Levi’s Will, Dale Cramer. This book is about the cult borderlands–one of the very separatist Amish groups. (I know people who knew the person the book is loosely based on.) This is a much more pleasant book, and it gets the mood right. Been there, done that, and this book captures the experience very well.


roger gathmann 01.09.19 at 5:50 pm

While it has some problems with pace and focus, Operation Chaos by Michael Sweet, which came out last year, is a fascinating look at another type of cult: the LaRouche movement. Amazingly, the LaRouche people had an effect in Sweden, where a branch of them kept up a campaign of vilification against Olaf Palme that may (or may not) have influenced his assassin. One of the interesting bits in Sweet’s book is that one of the bigwigs in LaRouche’s movement, a guy named Cliff Gaddy, was not only involved in Larouche’s campaign of demonizing Palme (to the extent that he was for a time a suspect in the assassination), but that he also was, by some miracle, hired by the Brookings institution as a Russian expert and in that capacity brought his analytic skills and his LaRouchian paranoia – notably, about Putin. His wild article about how the Panama Papers was really an insidious part of Putin’s plot to bring down capitalism used tropes that have now been happily adopted by liberals who think Putin illegally placed Trump in the presidency and is pulling the strings. So you see, cults can have broader effects than you ever thought!


abd 01.09.19 at 7:07 pm

An interesting comment that echoes something I–and others, based on responses–have also felt:

My issue with this video is that “cultism” is throughout our lives; at work, in church, in our schools and clubs. Once we have escaped from a cult it is more plain that it is all around us.


abd 01.09.19 at 9:16 pm

Speaking of cults, here’s a nice video by a recovering former “associate” on the “business model” that undergirds fortune of the US Education Secretary’s crime family:

Heck, those gullible souls who were sucked into the vortex of psychopaths like Koresh and Jim Jones come across as potentially better human beings than the creeps running the legally kosher MLM scams:


abd 01.09.19 at 11:22 pm

The highly pissed-off comments–by smart technically savvy young men who seem to be *highly* emotionally invested (in a cult-like manner) to space travel–elicited by any story that asks hard questions of the “Mission to Mars” remind me of the opening of Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic work, Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.

(For a large sampling of similar outbursts of fury related to “Mars Mania” among this herd of independent minds, check, say, the reaction to Bill Nye’s comments from November or anything that’s even mildly critical: . For a sane discussion with links, check out: )


steven t johnson 01.10.19 at 12:24 am

James. R. Lewis edited a book The Order of the Solar Temple to focus on one with a high death toll.

Martin Gardner’s Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery is a fascinating case study in the origins of scripture.

As to cult-adjacent political movements? Technocracy, Ayn Rand, John Birch Society are recent. You can watch Helen Mirren in The Passion of Ayn Rand and call it course work?

If you don’t insist on recent, in addition to the Mormons having a political bent, self-isolating beliefs, separate living and health fetishism, there were the Adventists (see Ellen G. White) and the Christian Scientists. Mark Twain wrote a book on the latter.

The grandfather of the Mutiny on the Bounty Nordhoff wrote a book on the Communistic Societies of the United States.


SusanC 01.10.19 at 8:44 am

@23: I can see the quasi-mreligious aspect of enthusiasm for space travel, but it lacks the. charismatic leader, the sex abuse scandals etc. that are characteristic of cults.

(the Catholic church has the sex abuse scandals in plenty, but no longer has the charismatic leadership model of early christianity – there’s possibily something of socioligical interest here)


Jim Fett 01.10.19 at 12:32 pm

A few years ago, Ashley Feinberg wrote an interesting article about the afterlife of Heaven’s Gate website (it’s still up!).

In college, I had a professor, Bob Fogarty, who studied not quite cultish religious groups. He wrote a book about the OG House of David and the Oneida community. The current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion has an article about an Indian guru/cult leader.


SusanC 01.10.19 at 2:12 pm

As human beings, we have the misfortune to be rational but mortal creatures. We know that our struggle against death is ultimately doomed.

Possible responses:
A) we develop some delusional notion of becoming immortal
B) we lose our fear of death. But if we truly do not fear death, what is to stop us dying right now? (Cf. Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinriko, Jim Jones, etc.)

Aum Shinriko strikes me as being more influenced by science fiction (eg. Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy) than traditional Buddhism. (Possibly apocalyptic Christianity via Hegel, Marx and then Robert Anton Wilson…)


Slanted Answer 01.10.19 at 8:06 pm

It’s neither long-form, nor a podcast, but there is this piece from the CHE:

“Is Graduate School a Cult?”:


J-D 01.11.19 at 4:13 am

As human beings, we have the misfortune to be rational but mortal creatures. We know that our struggle against death is ultimately doomed.

Possible responses:
A) we develop some delusional notion of becoming immortal
B) we lose our fear of death. But if we truly do not fear death, what is to stop us dying right now?

‘If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.’


David L. 01.11.19 at 12:47 pm


ROFL! Yes, graduate school is a cult, and not just in the humanities. (It’s also a Ponzi/pyramid scam*, which makes it really ugly.) Your advisor and thesis committee have to approve you, your research, and your thesis, and even giving the slightest hint that you don’t truly and deeply believe that being a tenured professor is the only morally acceptable state of existence for a human being is grounds for being looked on badly. And your advisor and thesis committee consist of people who have dedicated their lives to that belief.

And I assure you, it’s just as bad in Computer Science as anywhere else. (There was a long article in Science a few years back about a Biology program at Yale that took in 36 or so students and cranked out 32 or so PhDs over the period studied. Only 3 or 4 of those PhDs found tenure track positions (of course), but the article thought that that was problematic. Sheesh.)

*: A given professor creates some number of PhDs every few years, but only creates one tenured position in his/her life (by croaking). Even the most unproductive of professors will create 5 or 6 PhDs in their career, and only croak once.


SusanC 01.11.19 at 3:01 pm

@28. Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking to some of our junior faculty and grad students about cults, and they wnet and did obvious thing of evaluating our own department as to its resemblance to a cult.

So. I agreed them on their identification of our equivalent of the Jim Jones/David Koresh figure, but I think I disagreed with them on their estimation of his degree of power. Hey, I’m more senior staff, I can tell the head honcho he’s an idiot with impunity, (this possibly reveals spmething about how thecukt hierarchy works….)


abd 01.11.19 at 6:14 pm

Although clearly problematic, Wittgenstein’s idea of a game might be useful when thinking of cults:

So we come to my second point. There was only one Nazism. We cannot label Franco’s hyper-Catholic Falangism as Nazism, since Nazism is fundamentally pagan, polytheistic, and anti-Christian. But the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change. The notion of fascism is not unlike Wittgenstein’s notion of a game. A game can be either competitive or not, it can require some special skill or none, it can or cannot involve money. Games are different activities that display only some “family resemblance,” as Wittgenstein put it. Consider the following sequence:

1 2 3 4

abc bcd cde def

Suppose there is a series of political groups in which group one is characterized by the features abc, group two by the features bcd, and so on. Group two is similar to group one since they have two features in common; for the same reasons three is similar to two and four is similar to three. Notice that three is also similar to one (they have in common the feature c). The most curious case is presented by four, obviously similar to three and two, but with no feature in common with one. However, owing to the uninterrupted series of decreasing similarities between one and four, there remains, by a sort of illusory transitivity, a family resemblance between four and one.

Jason Stanley’s thinking which distinguishes between the full-blooded Jack-booted variety and the *far* more common “Fascist Politics” which is all around us also seems useful:

iow, to automatically think of Jim Jones hiding behind his ever-present dark shades whenever the word “cults” comes up is less useful than thinking of several stages of cults, (analogous to Paxton’s 5 Stages of Fascism) and that Stage 1 (or even Stage 2) cults are ubiquitous in modern societies.


Kiwanda 01.12.19 at 4:43 pm

Dr Hilarius:

Of particular interest is their finding that while a failed prophecy caused some members to leave, it paradoxically increased the fervor of others.

Curiously: the Branch Davidians formed in 1959, in the aftermath of the failure of a predicted second coming, splitting from the Shepherd’s Rod sect, which split in 1934 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church; the latter arose among the followers of William Miller after the Great Disappointment of October 22, 1844, the day that Millerites had predicted Jesus would return. This was the fourth such day predicted by them.


abd 01.13.19 at 12:50 am

@33. Not so curious as all that I suspect. “Au contraire” ways of thinking are endemic to cults, esp. ones that tend to splinter. The talented wordsmith, Christopher Hitchens, a contrarian par excellence, learned his chops at the “International Socialists” or IS to the congnoscenti ( ).

The few hundred members of the ISO in this country count their success by the small numbers that manage to stick around in their groupuscule:

Then as now, the few who stayed in the group saw the high attrition rate not as a sign that the ISO itself might be doing something wrong, but as proof positive that not everybody was cut out to be part of the would-be Vanguard of the Revolution. The result was the creation of the hardened cadres the group was designed to create, and they were hardened still further by a siege mentality…

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