I’ve had Montell’s nonfiction, both this one and Wordslut, on my TBR for a bit now. If I remember correctly, she originally came across my radar with Cultish through @thestackspod. In any case, I was immediately interested, but apparently I am not the only one. The waitlist at my library for the audiobook was…long. But I finally got it! And then I listened to it in less than two days because oh my goodness I could not put this down.  

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

“Whether wicked or well-intentioned, language is a way to get members of a community on the same ideological page.”

Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism is titled to perfection, as the book talks about exactly that – the way that language is the linchpin in all cult and cult-like situations, from Jonestown to social media gurus, from Scientology to CrossFit to multi-level marketing companies. Moving from an overall examination of why we are, as the human race, so fascinated by and drawn into stories of cults to a survey of the various types/levels of cults and cultish language, with personal interviews and stories to add depth and interest, Montell really gives an insightful introduction and overview in this book.  

So yea, this book was absolutely mesmerizing. I was completely caught up in Montell’s narration and the picture she was painting of the world and words of cults. She sets the stage by talking the reader through the various definitions of cults, the different levels of extremity of a group of like minded/similar believers, and consequences for when one strays. She gives introductory examples from all over the spectrum, like doomsday groups, boutique fitness, pyramid schemes, AA, religious groups, fraternities, “stans,” militant vegans, social movements – the majority of which are essentially harmless (and at times even helpful) – but points out that they all share certain similarities of language, and promises to further detail each throughout the rest of the book. During this primer, I actually really enjoyed the discussion of common understandings, like cult members being brainwashed and cult leaders preying on the most “vulnerable” types of people, and how Montell basically disproved all those mainstream beliefs. She presented a breadth (if not an extreme depth, as she covered quite a bit and this book isn’t that long) of research and information to correct these false conceptions. 

There were so many “oh!” and “whoa” moments while reading this and I want to have them all here for posterity, but putting them into organized paragraphs seems like…a lot of work. Haha. So please enjoy this bulleted list of the most fascinating things I learned/read. And consider this like a highlights list of what Montell captures in these pages and then go pick it up for yourself to get more details about and connections among it all.

– There is a confirmation bias of cults as bad, because the bad ones get news coverage, so we know more about them, and the cycle continues.

– What is a “cult” versus what is a “religion” is based mostly on support/acceptance from the establishment (socially and legally).

– The language of cults allows for othering and demonization of non-followers. Developing that “us vs them” dichotomy is key in creating isolation from the outside world, which is part of how people get pulled so deeply in and then are not sure how to get back out (well, that and the other language and the potential heavily harming consequences for leaving).

– Other language maneuvers to create that complete buy-in include the importance of renaming members and the confluence of mysticism and scientific vocabulary.

– Instead of preying on the most emotionally vulnerable (those “damaged” or needing saving), cults often get their most fanatic followers from the most idealistic, because of the vulnerability of big dreams and what utopias the cults promise (which totally makes sense as to why they’re such intense followers and don’t fall apart mentally).

– Really interesting discussions of using confirmation bias and gaslighting by cult leaders to manipulate followers towards self-distrust (and thus further dependence).

– Connections drawn among cultish language use from Great Reformation and evangelical preaching/church to the American Dream/capitalism/toxic positivity and productivity and Protestant work ethic (as universal definition of professionalism), all in all the “prosperity theology,” was captivating. So many different concepts all tied together over time to get us to where we are now! 

–  Actual science behind gullibility and systems of thinking and impulsivity and levels of need and even what mood a person is in as contributing (or mitigating) factors for potential cult involvement. 

– This intellectual and academic look at boutique fitness, like SoulCycle and CrossFit, is fascinating to read with lived experience of my own. It was sometimes hard not to get defensive (but I worked through it, cause I have my own issues with it and, as someone more personally enmeshed, it would make sense that my feelings have more nuance), and so many true/good points were made! I’d also have loved Montell’s take on the crossover of boutique fitness replacing religion for millennials and the extremely religious CrossFit communities – it’s a subsect (a cult within a cult, if you will) that I feel would make a fascinating study.

–  Exploring the ways the connectivity of the internet and social media has created space and opportunity for like minded people to find each other, for good (those living isolated, for whatever reason, and needing a community for mental health/safety/protection) and bad (the small numbers of violent dissenters and/or remote guru-types with negative health influence). On this note, Montell’s explanation of the ever more single-circle-Venn-diagram situation of Qanon and extreme leftists (government and medical distrust) as the most recent iteration of a centuries long slew of doomsday cults was fascinating.

As the finale, Montell sums up the “explosion” of smaller cult-like groups and options in recent years by drawing a line from the unique “developed but few-safety-nets” reality of American life and the withdrawal of millennials from religious and civic-minded community groups to the pull towards the connection/community of cults/cultish groups. There was so much about the discussion – the idea of taking pieces of different things to meet your needs – that resonated with me. And I can truly empathize (though I do think I am too naturally skeptical, or confrontational, to be drawn in to an extreme). But I did feel better about the distinctions made about cult versus cult-like, in regards to who is given power/empowerment (the leader/guru or the individual) and the “are you free to make different decisions/ask questions/leave?” aspect, in knowing that I can buy into something for my own benefit but not let it take me too far. Honestly, I wish this had been twice as long, three times as long. I don’t remember the last time I was this absorbed and I recommend this *so* highly. Enthralling.

Lots of highlighted passages. Enjoy this selection:

“What techniques do charismatic leaders use to exploit people’s fundamental needs for community and meaning? How do they cultivate that kind of power?”

“Language is a leader’s charisma. It’s what empowers them to create a mini universe—a system of values and truths—and then compel their followers to heed its rules.”

“Hassan says that groups toward the destructive end use three kinds of deception: omission of what you need to know, distortion to make whatever they’re saying more acceptable, and outright lies.”

“Ultimately, the needs for identity, purpose, and belonging have existed for a very long time, and cultish groups have always sprung up during cultural limbos when these needs have gone sorely unmet.”

“That’s because language doesn’t work to manipulate people into believing things they don’t want to believe; instead, it gives them license to believe ideas they’re already open to. Language—both literal and figurative, well-intentioned and ill-intentioned, politically correct and politically incorrect—reshapes a person’s reality only if they are in an ideological place where that reshaping is welcome.”

“The majority leave before things get deadly, but the reasons some don’t might also sound familiar. They’re the same reasons you might put off a necessary breakup: denial, listlessness, social stresses, fear they might seek revenge, lack of money, lack of outside support, doubt that you’ll be able to find something better, and the sheer hope that your current situation will improve—go back to how it was at the start—if only you hold on a few more months, commit a fraction more.”

“When you’re experimenting with faith and belief, there has to be room to ask questions, express your misgivings, and seek outside information, both early on and deep into your membership. “The most important thing to remember is that if something is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny,” Steven Hassan told me.”

“Combine this withdrawal from mainstream medicine with young people’s disillusionment with traditional faith, and cult fitness exploded to fill these corporeal and spiritual voids.”

“Exercisers driven only by numbers tend to quit within twelve months. It’s when elements of belonging, self-worth, and empowerment enter the picture that members are moved to renew their fitness memberships year after year. Language is the glue that binds that “addictive” combo of community and motivation.”

“In lieu of a physical place to meet, cultish jargon gives followers something to assemble around.”

“The internet scammeth, and the internet fact-checketh away.”

“It’s not that smart people aren’t capable of believing in cultish things; instead, says Shermer, it’s that smart people are better at “defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.””

“…martyrdom. Events like this serve as proof that overlooking the nuances of cultish communities only perpetuates a culture of hyperbole and chaos.”

“It’s in our DNA to want to believe in something, to feel something, alongside other people seeking the same. I’m confident there’s a healthy way to do that. Part of me thinks it’s actually by becoming a part of several “cults” at once—like our Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl exchanging her one-commune lifestyle for involvement in a medley of separate groups. That way, we’re free to chant, to hashtag, to talk of manifesting and blessings, to use glossolalia even . . . to speak some form of Cultish . . . all the while staying tethered to reality.”


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