Should we be worried about the decline of cults in American life? In The New York Times, Ross Douthat notes that both the media and the public have moved on, and now "the cult phenomenon feels increasingly antique, like lava lamps and bell bottoms." But the loss of cult fervor has come at a cost, he suggests: "The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large."
It's a provocative case, drawing from essays by Philip Jenkins and Peter Thiel. Jenkins is focused on cults as a religious indicator: "A wild fringe, he suggests, is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack 'a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry' as well." Thiel, not surprisingly, is more focused on productivity and invention: "Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace."
There's something to this, I think, but it also understates the ways in which semi-cult-like behavior has come to infuse daily life and mainstream culture: Yes, there are probably fewer cults in the aliens-and-messiahs sense, but there are more subcultures, in a wider variety, than ever before, more regimented lifestyle trends and minority beliefs about how to improve personal productivity or fitness, about how to become a better person and live a purer, more interesting, more connected and compelling life.
Some of these subcultures remain distinctly fringe (dumpster-diving freegans, gently quirky bronies, furry fans, Juggalos), while others are embraced, to varying degrees, by the mainstream: At its height, Occupy Wall Street was as much an alternative lifestyle and belief community as a political movement. What is Crossfit if not a ritualized system that offers its highly dedicated, tightly-knit cells of followers a better and more meaningful existence? None of these are cults in the specific sense that Douthat describes, with gated compounds and secret songs, but they are all experiments in behavior, taste, and belief intended to help adherents find meaning and connection in their lives.
So while we don't, and generally shouldn't, think of these sorts of affinity groups and social movements and lifestyle choices as cults, they can and do play a similar role in culture, allowing for small-scale experiments in quasi-radicalism.
The profusion of subcultures, and the way they have emerged as everyday parts of so many lives, makes it easy to forget that they have taken on this role. Part of the reason we don't think of subcultures like cults is because even though some of them still have what might be described as mythologies, they lack the same sort of mystical allure and apocalyptic tendencies.
But another part of the reason is that over the past two decades, participation in niche culture has become ordinary and even mainstream.
Almost everyone—from Burning Man attendees to steampunk hackers to scrapbooking-convention obsessives to homebrewing aficionados and toe-shoe-wearing obstacle-race junkies, many of whom also maintain lives as lawyers and engineers and elementary school administrators—is part of some subculture now, and it's not questioned or noticed because it's not unusual.
Indeed, whether they know it or not, most people take part in multiple subcultures, or portions of them, mixing and matching and discarding parts and pieces as they please. The Internet, which, with its fragmented and unlimited information flows, has hastened the transformation of all of culture into subculture, has helped make this possible, by making niche interests and identities both accessible and malleable to the masses.
Which is probably another reason we take less notice of subcultures than of cults: Many have communal aspects, but they are individualized and custom-tailored, and while many have founders who design and sometimes help maintain the systems, they lack the sort of domineering cult-leader figures of decades past. Subcultures now are atomized and personalized, crossbred and constantly evolving.
Worries about the decline of cults are in some sense a form of nostalgia for an older order, with more clearly delineated lines between the mainstream and the fringe, with radicalism easy to recognize and define and, if necessary, shun. That those days are largely over (at least in the U.S.) isn't a sign that our culture has lost its capacity for lifestyle creativity, its desire for secret knowledge and methods. It's a sign that the creativity is happening elsewhere now, in the blur between the boundaries, in the scrambling of the systems, in the subculture collage.