It is a sign of our aggressively secular age that the term “cult” is almost exclusively used to refer to small groups of people who are fanatically devoted to irrational mystical beliefs. This kind of cult deliberately isolates itself from the larger society in which it operates. These groups typically only earn the title of cult once there is some general agreement among “normal people” that membership in the sect is detrimental to anyone who joins. Of course, the word cult is also occasionally applied to much larger movements like evangelical Christianity or secular movements like wokeism and Trumpism. But such a usage is exclusively rhetorical. The term is used to highlight the irrational elements of the group to which it refers, suggesting that it represents a threat to civil society.
Ironically, in the true sense of the word, Christianity should probably be recognized as a cult. The negative connotations of the word cult are of recent vintage. In the pre-modern world, cults were a common feature of all societies. The term cultus roughly translated; refers to care, maintenance, or tending. The cult, then, was a group responsible for a certain form of shared maintenance.
The job of the cult was to mutually fulfill their obligations to the gods, enacting the ritual forms of worship that are due to a higher power. This higher power was not always a god (or gods): nature, an emperor, or some other object may be worshipped as well. But all cults acknowledged a higher power of some form – a force or entity that transcended the human world and influenced human affairs.
Through ritual worship of a higher power, the cult established what can be called a “sacred order” – a particular understanding of the communion between the human and divine, and thus, an understanding of the world and our place in it. The insularity that is now attributed to modern “cults” is a distant echo of the ancient communal bonds that were established between those who shared in the activity of cultus. These deep bonds are what our term culture refers to – the shared characteristics that arise in a community that is devoted to the same sacred order.
Pluralism has long been recognized as a threat to the sacred order that binds a culture. Plato worried that in a society that adopted a truly democratic constitution, there would be as many cities as there were people. In other words, wherever individuals can decide for themselves what is sacred and devise their rituals for honoring it, there will be an endless proliferation of cults. There would no longer be a shared recognition of the reality of any unifying sacred order. This sectarian diversity nullifies how “culture” (as a set of shared characteristics within a community) takes form.
Today, our society valorizes this process of dissolution. Critics on the Right attack “multiculturalism” as a destructive ideology that our institutions relentlessly advertise as a virtue. In this way, conservatives’ concerns are no different from Plato’s. When a society encourages the cultivation of multiple cultures in one place, you necessarily stifle the development of the communal identity that defines what culture is: the people who make up a “multicultural” society no longer share the values, beliefs, and rituals that give meaning to life in a particular time and place.
In the closing decades of the twentieth century, it looked as though this demolition of culture was exactly what was unfolding, as a myriad of new cultures were being developed and nurtured in America. But the 21st century has slowly revealed a new, shared cultus arising from modernity’s “heap of broken images.” While it cannot be denied that multiculturalism dissolved the shared obligations that Americans had to the old gods (or God, as the case may be), it was also laying the groundwork for a new sacred order to emerge – one to which we are now expected to pay tribute.
Cultism and Anti-culture
Before characterizing the new sacred order, it is imperative to highlight that most criticisms of postmodern secularism claim that America no longer has a functional sacred order, and that this collapse drained the meaning and vitality from Western life. This belief in the total absence of a shared cultus is dangerous because it accepts the claims that secular liberalism makes about itself. Liberalism asserts neutrality regarding any sacred commitments that might persist among the people ruled. It implies humanity has “progressed” to a level of rationality and self-sufficiency, in which we are “liberated” from sacred order.
Far from liberating society from the mystic delusions of yesteryear, liberalism has facilitated the rise of a totalizing cultus for our age. The liberal cultus, rejecting the higher power, is comprised of rituals that represent the rejection of any authority imposed from the metaphysical. For this reason, some keen observers have called these forms of worship an “anti-culture.” This term must be rejected, however, as it blinds us to the cultic character of those devoted to secular liberalism. The devotees of the secular liberal cult are, in fact, in the process of paying ritual homage to some divinity, and they are quite far along in their construction of a new sacred order. This is not “anti-culture.”
What we are seeing is a culture that is defined by forms of worship that deny the existence of the old gods. This rejection of a transcendent order is how the faithful provide the care owed to the new god: the Self. Desecrating the old order affirms the new one, not only because it disavows the demands that a higher power would impose on the Self, but also because it denies the very existence of any power that might overrule the individual’s will and desires. Recognizing the new order as a cult (rather than a destroyer of culture) is critical – if only because this recognition exposes the fundamental hypocrisy and fallacy of a regime that pretends to have a total disinterest in matters of the sacred.
The Decline of Religion and the Rise of Cultic Secularism
Before the advent of modernity supposedly debunked all mysticisms, enthroned rationality, and eliminated the need for the sacred, there had been many kinds of cults, but there were certain ritual forms of cultus that were common to them. Cultic practice typically involved one or more of the following elements: secret knowledge, invocation or incantation, performative or ritualistic sex, sacrifice, derangement of the senses, and the use of arcane iconography or symbolism to signify membership. Hermetic cults of late antiquity supposedly possessed an Emerald Tablet inscribed with the secrets of the universe – secrets into which new members were initiated. Choral songs have been used in communal worship of the sacred for time immemorial. Roman bacchanalia and the Greek Cult of Dionysus incorporated ritual forms of sexual violence and drunkenness in their initiation rites. The letters of Paul the Apostle make frequent reference to orgiastic forms of worship in the pagan cults of his day. The Oracles at Delphi (a center for the Cult of Apollo) appear to have offered prophecy via intoxication from the gasses that collected in the caves where the sibyls resided. The sacrifice of one’s children by burning was a common form of worship in the Baal cults of the ancient Near East. Many of these routines live on in the practices of major world religions today, albeit often through metaphor or symbolic allusion. But the modern Cult of the Self works differently.
With the rise of modernity and the secular scientific worldview, ritual cultus came to be seen as evidence of an inferior mind and a vestige of a backward era that enshrined superstition. It was not so much that modern people were satisfied that all the witches had been burned. Rather, it was that they were newly convinced that there had never been any witches. This humanism, defined by a radical skepticism for the existence of any higher power or mystic truth, was at first a luxury of the elite, educated castes of western society. But the democratic impulse that swept America and then Europe also saw the democratization of this skepticism: as Andrew Delbanco shows in his book The Death of Satan, everyday people evinced a growing doubt in metaphysical ideas. This ultimately drove the remaining practitioners of the old forms of cultus underground, the endurance of which is attested to by both the bohemian attraction to fashionable forms of occultism and the Christian concerns about the same.
Until the last decades of the twentieth-century Christian cultus had endured in the West, if not passionately, then in the neutered form of “cultural Christianity.” Although many who professed the Christian faith were minimally devoted to its rituals and routines, the Christian ideal maintained public potency in a society that still traced its cultural heritage back to Puritans and other Christian pilgrims. Only in the aftermath of the 1960s did open disrespect and critique of Christianity become commonplace in mainstream society. Of course, this was not a rejection of Christianity as such – it was a rejection of moral obligation as dictated by the sacred order. The prevalence of the Christian view of the sacred made it an easy target for countercultural movements that understood freedom as a release from old obligations imposed from outside the self.
By 2020, even the Christians were conceding that America was now a “post-Christian” society. Recent findings from Gallup show that fewer than half of Americans report that religion (of any type) is “very important” in their lives.
The evidence that shows the displacement of the old understanding of the sacred is too voluminous to rehearse. The point here is that the ideologies of secularism and scientism have not succeeded in banishing the sacred; they have simply relocated it. The space occupied by the old gods (who restricted the range of human action from beyond the world and outside it) is now occupied by the self (just another divinity, but one that exists inside and liberates cult membership from external obligation). And so, with a new god comes a new cultus. But what does ritual worship look like in an ideological milieu that rejects the existence of a higher-order (and thus claims not to practice any ritual worship)?
Ritual in the Modern Cult of the Self
For the devotees of the modern Cult of the Self, the cultic practice amounts to the enactment of secular and scientific ideology in their everyday lives. Living in accord with the truth claims of these ideologies constitutes a form of worship because it amounts to an affirmation of the self and its autonomy. When the human agency is unlimited, humanism takes on omnipotence: the power to solve all human problems lies within ourselves. No God is needed, and certainly no savior. Sin is not so much dissolved as reimagined: willful self-limitation becomes the only transgression. The suppression of desire is a denial of individual sovereignty, which amounts to a negation of the self’s divinity. The best way to fulfill one’s obligation to the god-self, then, is to act on desire: to take what you want, to sleep with who you want, to eat what you want, to work when (and if) you want, and equally important, to never do what you do not want.
This ritualism is reflected in the pride conveyed in the new movement to “Shout Your Abortion.” It is not that the people doing the shouting think aborting a fetus is an achievement to be proud of, it is that the act of abortion is an expression of unfettered autonomy, and a negation of any external demands (whether social, familial, biological, or religious) that might check the individual will. Of course, one could have an abortion and not shout it. This would affirm one’s divinity…but no one would know it has been affirmed. A cultus entails a communal experience of ritual worship. Thus, the need for the shouting – it is the public, spectacular elements that transform routine into ritual, bringing culture into being. There are other examples of public cultic practice. Including one’s preferred pronouns in emails and on social media not only affirms the divine right to self-definition but also claims sovereignty over others by issuing demands about how they will speak and think. Athletes “taking a knee” to protest the playing of the National Anthem is another form of cultic self-worship: the act asserts a personal autonomy that does not recognize externally imposed demands.
This new Cult of the Self must also be recognized as the official culture of the state, the Imperial Cult of our era. But the state’s commitment to the Cult of the Self is not an affirmation of the vision of individualism as it was understood at the nation’s founding, nor even an affirmation of the new rituals of self-glorification. Rather, the government honors the Cult of the Self because the new forms of autonomy that the cult demands can only be secured through various expansions of state power. Thus, legislative interventions to empower the self and diminish the legitimacy of external claims on the self are a way to further empower the state, which must be newly equipped to fulfill the roles previously performed by the traditional institutions that comprised the culture that extended from older forms of cultus. Ultimately, this union (between secular/empirical ideology on the one hand, and the state apparatus on the other) is a symbiotic marriage of convenience, one that persists because it empowers both.
More and more policy interventions and political events in the United States are either efforts by the state to establish institutional recognition of the new cult or ways that the government itself participates in cultus. What is the thankless work of “following the science” if not an affirmation that human, rational-empirical expertise will ultimately provide for and sustain us? It is remarkable how during the 20 months of social disruption wrought by the pandemic, not a sparrow was publicly sacrificed to the old God. Masks, hospitals, vaccines, social distancing, scientific knowledge, and socializing on Zoom (all trappings of secular scientism) were sufficient for our salvation. The reverential ritualism remains but in new garb. Who can forget the images of Democratic congresspersons, kneeling in kente cloths for nearly nine minutes in a state of worshipful penitence, as they protested police brutality?
Other expressions of cultus abound. Indeed, last month was one of the high feasts of the modern Cult of the Self: Pride Month, which is sanctified extensively by the state, in the marketplace, and various houses of secular (and religious!) worship. When the Supreme Court-mandated national recognition of same-sex marriages in the Obergefell decision, the White House façade was illuminated with the colors of the rainbow flag. So much for the neutrality of the state. Consider also how the State Department recently approved US embassies abroad to fly that flag on the same flagpole as the stars and stripes. In his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Trueman explains the very central role that sexual identity plays in the Cult of the Self. Because love, physical gratification, and spiritual satisfaction are intertwined with sexual activity, it takes on an especially hallowed status as a ritual of self-worship. The attempts by the state to elevate sexual expression as a central political concern are a way to demonstrate their affinity and commitment to the sacred ideologies that are worshipped via cultic sex.
It is clear, then, that critics are wrong when they say that aggressive secular progressivism has eliminated any shared sacred order. The truth, as some have observed, is that the meaning humans attached to the sacred are an inherent component of human society: it cannot be eliminated because the collective rituals that pay reverence to the sacred order are the activity that brings every culture into being. So, even in an era that fetishizes the demystification of all things, the sacred order cannot be destroyed – it can only be revised. And indeed, the current iteration is a strange one, but it has no less paradoxical mystery than the old gods and their cults. This failure to fulfill its absolute commitment to rationality mirrors the ancient cults in ways that devotees of the new order would find very unpalatable.
Recognizing the Cult of the Self that extends from secular progressivism as a cult in the traditional sense is critical for several reasons, not the least of which is the exposure of its contradictions, which gives rise to new doubts among the faithful. For example, why is it that “My body, my choice” is an adequate justification for abortion, but not for a refusal to wear a mask or get a vaccine to prevent the spread of Covid-19? Why is “following the science” a cultic ritual when responding to the pandemic, but not when the science shows that life begins at conception, or that sex is chromosomally determined? It is hard to take seriously any movement that aspires to dictate a new sacred order when that movement’s cultus is enacted through ritualistic denigration of the sacred – especially when its venerations and condemnations are so incoherent. But an even more urgent reason that the cultic character of the ruling ideology needs broad acknowledgment is the way that this information could change the landscape of the debates over the American future.
As it stands, those of us with affinities for the older forms of cultus (particular the Christian ones) are at a distinct rhetorical disadvantage in these debates: it is exceedingly difficult to convince people of the need for a return to the ways of displaced ritualism when they believe that their liberty is guaranteed only because the existing order eliminated the need for cultus and freed us from the arbitrary, tyrannical demands of external authorities. We can no longer concede those presuppositions because they are not true. The new order did not liberate us from the cult – it only established a new one. If we begin from that premise, the debate can at least proceed honestly: it is not a question of whether we will have cultus and culture or not, but rather to which cult we will devote our worship. This shift promises a major reorientation of our politics, one that grants the centrality of the sacred at the outset and invites a consideration of which gods are most conducive to human flourishing.