Friday, February 27, 2004


Here is the second guest column by Burgess Laughlin:

What is a cult?

I sometimes hear attacks on the Objectivist movement for being a "cult." Is the charge valid? Here are notes for my tentative answer to that question.

The English word "cult" comes from the ancient Latin word *cultus*. Its literal meaning is "tilling" (as in "agriculture"); the extended meanings are "tending," "care," and "reverence." For the Romans, the connection was simple: The hierarchy of the gods micromanaged every piece of land, making it worthy of reverent treatment.[1]

My dictionary suggests the following usages for "cult."[2] I have omitted usages that are redundant or too specialized.

"1. A particular system of religious worship, esp. with ... rites and ceremonies. 2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: *the physical fitness cult*. 3. the object of such devotion. 4. a group or sect bound together by such veneration of the same thing, ideal, person, etc. 5. *Sociol.* a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols. 6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader. ... 10. of, for, or attracting a small group of devotees: *a cult movie*."

I have heard another usage, from the haters of Ayn Rand and others: A cult is a group of people who admire someone or something so much they abandon their independent judgment.

Do any of these usages of "cult" apply to the Objectivist movement? Usages 1, 5, and 6 do not apply. Objectivism is a philosophy, not a religion. Anyone who says otherwise must prove his case.

Usages 2, 3, and 4 (except for "sect") *do* apply. I and others do admire Ayn Rand for her achievements and Objectivism for its enhancement of our lives -- once we have understood and integrated it.

Usage 10 does not apply. The "followers" of a cult movie, for example, are individuals who are attracted to a movie because of some supposedly amusing aspect of it, not because of any high value. Of course, members of the Objectivist movement *are* "devotees" -- a label I would wear proudly in relation to my highest personal and philosophical values.[3] Also, for sure, Objectivists *are* a small group. But to accept size as a defining characteristic of "cult" is to define by nonessentials, a process which is a cognitive train wreck.

The eleventh usage -- a cult is a group of individuals revering a value so much that they abandon their independence of judgment -- is a package-deal. This "definition" is like a pill prescribed by an misanthropic witch-doctor: aspirin on the outside and arsenic at the core. The helpful, objective part of this use of the term is saying that a cult is a group of people who revere a value in common. The destructive, arbitrarily postulated part is saying (or implying) that what differentiates members of this kind of group from other groups of individuals who admire a common value is abandonment of independence.

All social movements contain some individuals who want to replace their own judgment with something else. The question is, does the philosophy underlying the movement encourage or discourage abandonment of judgment? Nazism, for example, demands dependence. Objectivism encourages independence, and thus the movement, over time, tends to exclude conformists ("Randroids") as well as those who claim to be Objectivists but actually disagree with the philosophy. (This double-edged exclusion is one reason why the drop-out rate from Objectivism is so high.)

The "cult" charge fails doubly. First, the Objectivist movement does not encourage intellectual dependence. Second, the idea as used by the attackers is an invalid concept because it is a package-deal of an essential and a non-essential characteristic.

This charge does raise another question: Are there negative cults? For example, are there cults of individuals who hate something or someone (such as Ayn Rand) as their common target? The question would be worth considering further -- if I didn't have better things to do in my life.

Burgess Laughlin

[1] *Cassell's Latin Dictionary*, 1968. For paganism 100-300 CE: R. MacMullen, *Paganism in the Roman Empire*, 1981.
[2] *Random House Dictionary of the English Language*, 2nd ed., 1987.
[3] Ayn Rand notes terms -- such as "sacred" -- that religionists have hijacked are suitable when objectively defined. See: "Religion," *The Ayn Rand Lexicon*, pp. 414-415.