Campbell, Colin. The Cult, The Cultic Milieu and Secularization. A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain, SCM Press London, 1972.

by stronged

Colin Campbell begins his article by laying out Ernst Troeltsch’s division of religious phenomena – sect, church and mysticism (119-120) – as a grounding for his investigation of cult’s in contemporary society. Like all social collectives they require the correct elements to grow into fruition and flourish, and this environment Campbell explains is the cultic milieu. A fertile ground inhabited by a ‘society of seekers’ (127) who share a ‘basic principle of tolerance and eclecticism’ (Ibid), opposing the dominant societal culture and embracing a variety of deviant and heterodoxical approaches to life.

‘Fragmentary tendencies present in the milieu because of the enormous diversity’ (123) of the seeker-ship and therefore cults thrive in abundance.  The non-‘exclusivist’ (121) nature of cults subsequently leads them to their demise. The ‘seekers do not…necessarily stop looking in other directions when one path is indicated as the path to the truth,’ (127) instead, a ‘displacement of goals’ occurs and variety of belief causes the collapse of cults.

This unquenchable desire for the truth intrigues me, as there always appears to be a vast cohort of citizens who never seem satisfied with either mainstream orthodoxy or alternative belief structures. A restlessness in human nature that even science cannot dispel. Reminds me of a great Todd Haynes film titled Safe (1995) whereby the protagonist, heroine Carol White (Julianne Moore) finds herself amongst fringe dwellers in the hope of escaping the seemingly unprovoked allergic responses she began experiencing in Californian suburbia.

Orthodox or unorthodox ‘may be preferred [to the medical world] because it is more easily understood.’ (134) Science is ‘only demonstrable to other scientists.’ (Ibid) Science cannot answer all the questions (yet), so therefore becomes superfluous when seeking the greater understanding to the human condition and the purpose for random occurrences – as Carol experiences in Safe.

With the ‘religious worldview, orthodox and unorthodox…being steadily displaced by a rational scientific weltanschauung, (131-132) cults are learning to adapt to offer ‘quasi-scientific beliefs’ (134) similar to Scientology and the Aetherius Society (127). ‘Cultic belief of all kinds are now closer in cultural distance to the prevailing orthodoxies of society than they were at the turn of the century.’ (129)

In order to hold onto their members, the most successful cults ‘convince the seeker that all he will ever need to know will eventually be made clear to him and [therefore,] he can be induced to develop an even greater commitment to the organization in terms of personal identity and (not least) money.’ (128)

Campbell identifies three main types of seekers who fuel the formation and survival of cults:

  1. The seeker ‘adherent to a particular brand of cultic culture’ (128)
  2. The ‘seeker actively committed to a quest’ (Ibid), and
  3. the ‘passive consumer of the ‘products’ of the culture’ (Ibid), i.e. magazines, journals, paraphernalia about the particular cult.

I often wonder whether there may be a fourth category:

4. The scholar/cult enthusiast who also may fall under the third category of passive consumer, yet may       also act as advocate and promoter for such cultic milieu’s to exist.

Campbell’s hypotheses that the ‘cultic milieu flourishes in relation to (a) the amount of ‘alien’ culture contact and (b) the disintegration of dominant indigenous culture[s]’ (130) prompts further discussion about whether the hybridization of indigenous cultures is the only way to keep them in existence. Many indigenous cultures across the planet are under threat of losing their cultural identity due to globalisation and community apathy. Is the only way to keep age-old traditions alive through the fusion with other belief systems and mythologies?