I once found myself on a date with a son of the FBI's top 10 most wanted. Warren Jeffs has 30 sons and here I was having dinner with one of them. I nearly spit out my drink. I was going to college in Utah, and matched with this guy on Bumble (don't judge me too harshly). He was very nice and we went on a few dates. On our second date, I asked about his family, a typically safe date topic. This is when he told me his story. He was raised in a strict religious compound in Arizona and escaped when he was 18. His dad, Warren Jeffs, was not only in charge of the compound, but was the president of the entire religion- the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS religion is practices polygamy, and discriminates openly against people of color, gays, and women. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the FLDS religion as a dangerous hate group . And it's leader, Warren Jeffs was convicted of 2 counts of aggravated rape of a minor in 2011. Warren Jeffs is certainly an evil cult leader.

I was fascinated (and very disturbed) by my date's stories. A society where girls as young as 12 were forced into plural marriages with older men. Some were sister-wives and mother-daughter wives. The children in these compounds aren't educated, and most live in poverty. Sons are exiled to get rid of competition for wives. I had heard of the "culty" FLDS religion before β€” FLDS is an extremist splinter group from the LDS (Mormon) religion I was currently practicing. I knew right away that the FLDS religion was definitely a cult since marrying 14-year-old girls and exiling sons is definitely wrong, but I didn't consider my LDS religion a cult, but I couldn't pinpoint why.

"The biggest joke in religious studies is that cult + time = religion"

-Reza Aslan religious scholar

The LDS religion is an accepted religion. Sure, Mormons are made fun of in the media and there is even a Broadway play about how weird Mormons are, but most people don't consider Mormons too harmful, one was even the runner-up for President of the United States. Mormons have been around long enough (and have rebranded enough) to be granted the badge of "religion" giving the group protection under the 1st Amendment and tax incentives. But the FLDS "religion" falls far enough into the "cult" category, that it doesn't get protection from the government. In fact, the FBI raided an FLDS compound in 2008 and again in 2016.

So while Mormons no longer marry off their 14-year-old daughters to older men and have rebranded to be happy and kind people, many of the fundamental beliefs of the LDS religion and the FLDS religion are the same (like eternal polygamy, the Book of Mormon, and creepy temple rituals) AND they both even have their fair share of sex scandals too!) So why is one considered a respectable religion and the other a cult? Why is one protected by the US government, while the other is raided by the US government? What even is the difference between a cult and a religion?

It has been years since that date and my original awakening to how many cults are around me, but when I saw the Book Cultish by Amanda Montell I went to 4 bookstores to get my hands on a copy THAT DAY.

Cults don't really fall into a "STEM" bucket, so I was hesitant to pick it for the book club even though I really wanted to know everyone's thoughts on cults. So I did something different... I posted a poll to pick the next book for #theStemBookClub:

Option #1: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism (a book about the linguistic tools used by cults)

Option #2: The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World (a book about behavioral evolution, a very clear STEM subject)

The winner was decisively clear, Cultish got twice as many votes as The Social Instinct. I was pleasantly surprised! Cultish is a book about language, not really a STEM topic. While the Social Instinct falls neatly into a STEM topic. There were 2 possible conclusions from this poll β€” either people wanted something different than STEM or people are fascinated with Cults. Both are likely, but I discovered the answer while reading Cultish.

PEOPLE LOVE CULTS. We are currently in a phase of both high susceptibility to cults, and a fascination with them in media. I probably shouldn't have been so surprised by this β€” from the dozens of documentaries, books, and podcasts all popping up about cults (currently I'm watching The Vow 🀯).

Peak interest in cults (like right now) tends to appear during times of "sociopolitical unrest and mistrust of long-established institutions". Today, people don't trust Big Pharma, governments, Big Corporations, and religions. We are also in an environment where we are paralyzed with options... this is unlike anything humanity has seen before. More doors are opened than closed, we have more options in life than ever before. We also are in a world with billions of people online sharing their thoughts. Humans weren't meant to know that this many people existed β€”let alone their thoughts. All three of these things combined make us ripe for existential questioning, and therefore ripe for cults.

Most developed countries in the world are currently experiencing higher cult rates. The United States is unique in its especially high (and consistent) susceptibility to cults. Citizens of other nations have social safety nets where people feel secure and taken care of in their hour of need. The US is a free-for-all leaving people searching for support in other institutions. "Generation after generation, this lack of support paves the way for alternative, supernaturally minded groups to surge."

"... in every corner of life, business and otherwise, when you can tell deep down that something is ethically wrong but are having trouble pinpointing why, language is a good place to look for evidence." - Cultish by Amanda Montell

Not all cults result in polygamist marriages, secret sex rings, or group suicide. Like all things, cults come in different ranges. You can even make the argument, that some Cults are good and helpful for people. Cults provide community, safety, and belonging.

Humans are terrible at being alone, in fact feeling excluded from social interactions fires of the same pain signals in your brain that are fired off when you get hurt β€” like fracturing a bone or scraping your knee*. This also explains why breakups are so painful and difficult. And since cults are a spectrum, we need to understand what a cult is and what determines a good cult from a bad cult.

Steve Hassan is one of the best-known Cult Experts. Having joined and left "The Moonies" in his college years, he provides ways to "take back your mind" from Cults, and in his Ph.D. thesis, he created the B.I.T.E model. The B.I.T.E model is the de-facto model for determining how someone could be under Undue Influence (brainwashing). Steve boils down whether a cult is good or bad through a few simple things β€” whether or not you're allowed to leave and if you know what you are getting into from the beginning.

Alcoholics Anonymous is an exclusive group with its own rituals, dedicated members, distinct language, and in all definitions of the word- a cult. But we can all agree that AA with a mission to help people suffering from alcohol addiction, is a very ethical cult, and we should continue to support people to attend. Some examples of Ethical Cults are fandoms, some religions, and workout groups. Basically, if you're part of the "Swifties" (people who love Taylor Swift music), and you decide one day you like Kayne West's music better and leave, you may be teased, by there are really no serious consequences. Or if you decide that you want to run instead of cycling for your workout, your SoulCycle friends will still be your friends. While on the other end of the spectrum, when my friend left the FLDS religion, his entire family (even his mother) turned their backs on him leaving him financially and emotionally empty. Since FLDS children aren't provided proper education (especially the girls), it is almost impossible to get out of an FLDS compound. Leaving it has serious consequences.

"Creating special language to influence people's behavior and beliefs is so effective in part simply because speech is the first thing we're willing to change about ourselves .. and also the last thing we let go" - Cultish by Amanda Montell

How could there be so many destructive cults? How could one person convince "followers" to marry off their 14-year-old daughters, move to a compound in South American, or even drink cyanide Kool-Aid (it was actually closer to lemonade, but society has misremembered it as Kool-Aid)? Most fascinatingly, the backgrounds of many of these noxious cult leaders are very similar. Starting a (dangerous) cult isn't random, there is a playbook for it. Basically, a "How to start a Cult 101"... the B.I.T.E model is the curriculum and language is the tool.

Cultish lists quite a few language tools that cult leaders use (and what you should look out for) when convincing people to join and stay in their group. Here are just a few (the definitions below are directly from the book when possible)-

Love Bombing: "Intense validation later traded for control" (example - when a leader or partner just really "gets' you, shows a lot of interest in you, and compliments you to a point that is over the top).

Thought Terminating Cliques: "Catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought" (e.g. "Doubt your doubts before doubting your faith", "It is what it is", or "boys will be boys").

Us versus Them language: Labeling outsiders different than insiders. This allows people to differentiate themselves while clearly pointing out a common enemy.

Vague Rhetoric: "Loaded language and euphemisms [which] are made purposefully amorphous to mask off-putting specifics about their ideology" (and to leave space for that ideology to change).

Toxic Positivity: "Forcing a silver lining around an experience that is actually quite complex, upsetting, and deserving of more careful attention".

"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" - Cultish by Amanda Montell

These are just a few of the many tools that cult leaders use to get "followers" to do their bidding, and these tools aren't that different from what "influencers" get you to "follow" them πŸ€”, or what marketers do to convince you to buy something, or what your gym coach says to convince you to keep returning to their $30 classes. But just because someone Love Bombs you or shares with you a Thought Terminating Cliques on Pinterest, doesn't mean they are going to trap you in an unhealthy cult anytime soon. Language is powerful, but only to a point. Language isn't directly tied to the thoughts you will have β€” so while language DOES influence how we conceive of ideas, language CAN'T control your thoughts directly.

Reading Cultish answered my question of whether or not my childhood religion, LDS, was a cult. It certainly was. I can point out very clear examples when the LDS religion used the Fanatic language of cults, and where my perception of the world was impacted by the language the religion taught me. The real question isn't if something is a cult, cults are very common, but if it's a noxious cult or an ethical cult.

Most cults are actually pretty ethical creating a community that brings you positivity and support. But there is a risk of a noxious cult. So if you're very fearful of being too involved in a single cult, try joining many, and pick and choose what you like from each. I guess the protection from cults can be boiled down to this β€” just don't make a cult your entire life, pick and choose what you like from a cult, but don't lose yourself. In the last chapter of Cultish there is a sentence which I think is a perfect ending here too "Tuning in to the rhetoric these communities use, and how its influence works for both good and not so good, can help us participate, however we choose, with clearer eyes." Take the good, leave the bad, and don't ignore the ugly in any organization.

P.S. If you made it this far and want to get these newsletters in your email monthly, feel free to join #theSTEMBookClub here.

* This info came from The Social Instinct (the book that was not picked for this month). There was surprisingly a lot of overlap between the two books!