A Cult-Based Framework for Understanding Social-Justice Dogma

One of my favourite podcasts is Dear Franklin Jones, a seven-episode 2018 production that detailed the narrator’s immersion into, and gradual estrangement from, an American cult led by Franklin Albert Jones (1939-2008)—aka Bubba Free John, aka Da Free John, aka Da Love-Ananda, aka Adi Da Love-Ananda Samraj. As a boy growing up in California, Jonathan Hirsch would listen to recordings of Jones’s speeches, and become mesmerized by his rambling, self-glorifying claims about human destiny. It was only when Hirsch got older that he suspected Jones was just another manipulative narcissist with a gift for exploiting the confused and vulnerable.

The podcast includes snippets from Jones’s recorded sermons. As a listener, you cannot believe that anyone would take his vapid exhortations as the basis for an all-encompassing system of belief. Here’s a small sample, taken from one of the dozens of cassettes that Hirsch found in his family’s storage locker:

Give me your attention. At any moment, you will receive this grace. It is always pouring through this body-mind. Which is no longer a person, you see? There’s nobody here. No Franklin Jones. Nobody like you, you see? It’s not here any more. Totally absent…This is the moment of happiness. And every future moment after death. On this world and other worlds. Higher worlds. Afterworlds. No worlds. It is all the moment of infinite delight.

It’s all a circle of gibberish, with Jones using one ludicrous claim to justify the next. Yet the narrator, clearly an intelligent, self-aware person, confesses to having been utterly convinced that Jones was a modern-day prophet. To listen to Dear Franklin Jones is to understand that even the best among us can be indoctrinated into cultish ideas. On a more practical level, the podcast also shows how cults impose discipline on wavering members. Hirsch’s mother was Jones’ personal acupuncturist. And her clients, many of them Jones’s followers, abandoned her as soon as she lost Jones’s favour.

One of the most memorable portions of the podcast comes toward the end of the second episode, in which a former cultist named Tanya explains how she finally came to understand the fraudulent nature of Jones’s teachings. Working with another cult member, Tanya had been tasked with translating Jones’s sermons into French. “We’d read [the translations] back to each other, and we’d say ‘What in the world does that mean?’ And, little by little, we realized it was nonsense.” The notion of stress-testing cultish ideas through the act of translation stuck with me, for I think it’s a technique with broad applicability.

* * *

The words “cult” and “cultish” often are used loosely to describe not only literal cults such as the one created by Jones, but also militant political movements, and even the fanatical followers of entertainers and sports teams. Yet I do think that the cult concept is precise enough to serve as a useful framework for modern forms of ideological tribalism.

In this regard, I would define a cultish movement as one that (1) purports to offer adherents a complete system of judging human worth on the basis of stated beliefs whose meaning is unstable, and which cannot be explained coherently outside the movement’s own self-reinforcing linguistic subculture; and (2) maintains both internally applied disciplinary mechanisms and externally applied rhetorical strategies as a means to categorize any critique of the cult as a manifestation of the critic’s own personal defects. Prominent examples include Scientologists’ efforts to brand critics as “Suppressive Persons” who must be silenced or punished, and social-justice extremists’ description of pushback against claims of racism as “white fragility.”

Cult doctrines are, by their nature, unfalsifiable. And so a milieu that becomes infected with cult-think always will be hostile to rational discourse. As the United States shows, multiple cult-like movements can dominate different sectors simultaneously. In the realm of politics, it is now seen as normal everyday news for Donald Trump and his minions to utter obvious lies about everything from Ukraine to the predicted path of a hurricane, and to expect followers and sympathetic media to parrot those claims. In the realm of academia, meanwhile, many students are expected to accede to the claim that sexual dimorphism is a myth, and that biology itself is a colonial construct.

These movements come and go in cycles. Both populist fanaticism on the Right and social-justice fanaticism on the Left eventually will fall away. But in the meantime, it’s useful to find ways to inoculate ourselves. And the experience of Tanya, the aforementioned Franklin Jones ex-disciple, shows us a possible strategy: When presented with cult-speak, imagine the task of translating it into another language, or simply into plain English.

By way of illustration, consider this recent blog entry on the website of the American Mathematical Society, entitled Can Mathematics Be Antiracist? Here is a representative passage, which I challenge readers to translate comprehensibly:

Attempts to shoehorn social justice into mathematics curricula perhaps say more about the political leanings of the teacher than anything else. At the same time, we must be wary of diversity initiatives in mathematics which simply reproduce a different class of scientists that perpetuate structures of domination and oppression, in place of work to dismantle the whiteness which mathematics operates as, and to truly equip students for a world of growing inequality.

What are “structures of domination and oppression”? They’re structures controlled by whiteness. What is “whiteness”? It’s the creed of institutionalized racial inequality. How do we define inequality? It’s something that perpetuates structures of domination and oppression.

Of course, it is technically possible to translate isolated phrases such as “structures of domination and oppression” into other languages, or into a form of English that is nominally accessible to ordinary people. But to do so in any meaningful way requires an investigation into the text as a whole, whose only real purpose is to signify the author’s allegiance to a certain system of thought. (In true cultish fashion, the author added a postscript to the original article, confessing to a minor source-attribution mistake that apparently furthered “the erasure and antiblack racism perpetuated consciously and unconsciously by nonblack people such as myself, including in science and math, profiting off the work and labour of black people.”) Ultimately, this is a patchwork of propaganda jargon—what Orwell once described as “prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set.”

* * *

Franklin Jones was disgraced in the mid-1980s, after numerous former followers revealed details of his sexual abuse and brainwashing. Indeed, cults generally went into decline during this period. In part, this was because society began to take the issue of sexual and child abuse more seriously, and so the most notorious communes were raided (including, disastrously, the Waco Siege of 1993). Moreover, the emergence of the world wide web in the 1990s meant that many of the same people who were otherwise vulnerable to cult indoctrination could find communities, and get their marching orders from would-be prophets, without leaving their homes or selling off their possessions.

One result is that cultism now has increasingly blurred into mainstream web-mediated subcultures, including politics and academia. Another is that cultish ideas can spread more quickly. The above-quoted tract about racism and mathematics, written by a visiting professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, may appeal to only a small portion of the American population. But because the author channels a jargon that’s been adopted by at least some academics and activists in every English-speaking country, the potential audience is substantial. Thanks to the Internet, all cultish movements can spread their ideas (and punish heretics) on a global scale, subject only to the boundaries imposed by language.

Cults can never be organized in any kind of democratic way because there is always some anointed class (often consisting of just one person) that monopolizes access to a critical body of revealed truths. And in this aspect, intersectionality is well-suited to a cult paradigm because its adherents presume that the “lived experience” that typifies every sub-group is fundamentally unknowable except to members of that sub-group. The conceit of secret knowledge confers an aura of mysticism on followers, especially in regard to the issue of gender identity, which is cast as an internally experienced secular rapture.

On one hand, this means that discussions within social-justice circles tend to be tortured and unproductive, as no one is allowed to presume a truth-telling power that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own intersectional constituency. On the other hand, this system of balkanized information monopolies helps protect intersectional dogmas from outside criticism, as no argument may contradict the internally experienced pain, trauma or perception of bigotry expressed by an acolyte who identifies as a member of an oppressed group. In this regard, social-justice cults diverge significantly from the interwar ideological cults that formed around various interpretations of Marxism (with which social-justice cultism is sometimes compared), as these older movements tended toward universalism in their underlying epistemological approach.

* * *

My own country, Canada, provides an interesting case study in the propagation of social-justice cultism, as it has two official languages—English and French. And while English-speaking colleges and universities have largely fallen into line with the “structures of domination and oppression” narrative, the situation in French-speaking Quebec is still in flux. One reason for this, I believe, is that social-justice dogmas still strike many Francophones as a translated Anglo import whose mantras don’t quite ring true in the local tongue. Moreover, the racial and gender-based hierarchy presented by intersectionality runs at odds with Quebecers’ own historical conception of themselves as a culturally isolated and vulnerable people within English-speaking North America.

On January 30, a group of students and artists published an open letter in Le Devoir, a venerable Quebec newspaper, titled Manifeste contre le dogmatisme universitaire (Manifesto against university dogmatism). The article denounces those Quebec intellectuals who have become captivated by “les luttes victimistes propulsées par les campus américains” (victimhood campaigns emitting from American campuses), including American academics’ fixation on Islamophobia, transphobia, decolonization and gender ideology.

The authors skewer these “professeurs de la gauche postmoderne” with arguments that many Quillette readers will find familiar. (“Véritables apôtres de la tolérance, ces enseignants ont ironiquement du mal à tolérer toute forme de pensée contraire à la leur”/ True apostles of tolerance, these professors ironically find it difficult to tolerate any opinion that contradicts their own.) But there is also something new here: The authors note that this imported “anglo-saxonne” victimhood cult completely ignores the marginalized status of French-speaking Quebecers themselves, and instead just presents the Quebec people as another branch office of white American-led imperialism: “Le Québécois est réduit à l’état d’homme blanc privilégié, piétinant un territoire autochtone.” (“The Quebecer is reduced to the status of privileged white man, occupying indigenous land.”)

Quebec has its own highly distinct political culture, one typified by a more full-throated brand of nationalism than that of English-speaking Canada. And sometimes, cultural protectionists really do go too far, such as they did with a 2018 law that bans many public servants from wearing Muslim head scarves (as well as other religious symbols) in the name of “the laicity of the State.” But when it comes to “l’intersectionnalité,” these student signatories are largely correct to cast these translated cultish creeds as part of a hégémonique Anglo academic movement that now is imposing itself on others in an ironic reprise of old colonial patterns. And so it will be interesting to see whether the language barrier (and its associated cultural divide) is enough to inoculate Quebec’s intellectual class from the sort of cultism that has taken over Smith College and a thousand other Anglo ashrams besides.

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of 
Quillette, and Tweets at @jonkay.  

Featured image: Adi Da Samraj, born Franklin Jones, on November 3, 2008.


  1. I have always found “cult” to be a particularly useless word. It is simply a disparaging reference to an ideology.

    Subjective Truth, on the other hand, is a fairly strong delineation between good ideology and bad ideology. There are still a host of logical fallacies, to say nothing of bad data, buttressing incorrect beliefs among those who regard truth as objective, but the subjective crowd is hopeless.

    SJW ideology is built on subjectivity.

  2. A cult is “a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.” It has a negative connotation, but really cults can have a positive (Christianity) or negative (Islam) impact, based on the ethics of the person being venerated. Jesus put a softer, more inclusive touch on Judaism, while Mohammed was a warlord who raped a 9 year old. I don’t think cults can be painted with so broad a brush.

    Who does intersectionality venerate? Conservatives like to joke about a theoretical person at the very top of the new hierarchy: A half-Native, half-Somali Muslim illegal immigrant who is a transgender lesbian and disabled. Is this the Messiah the cult of intersectionality is waiting for? Whether this cult is virtuous or not will depend on their (gender neutral pronouns, of course) teachings. But the absence of such a figure makes me think “cult” is not the right framework.

    Have to say that the off-handed, unjustified, unexplored sniping about conservatives is tiresome. If you’re not going to make an actual case about it, control your emotions and leave it out. It’s annoying when authors assume the politics of their audience.

  3. The problem with defining a cult as a broadly emcompassing ideology of human worth and morality which is circular and non falsifiable is that it would include all religions and moral philosphies.

    The hallmark of the cult is when it seeks to persecute and supress arguments even when there is good evidence for them. In the most extreme form then false statements are defined as true and those that make true statements contraducting the dogma are persecuted and attacked.

    The obscurantist gibberish that characterises the language the author gives as examples of ‘cult speak’ arises from the need to obscure the self contradictory or contra-factual nature of the cult’s ideology. The jargon serves the purpose of obscuring what is actually being said while providing the impression of detailled knowledge and rational argument.

    Any detailled examination of what is being said and most especially an attempt to translate it into plain language will necessarily undermine the cult.

  4. Good article. However, I would also like see to an article about the history of the Social Justice movement, and how the common humanity approach advocated by MLK was displaced by the modern oppression/oppressor narrative. I have the sneaking suspicion that the third-wave feminists realised the the tendency for men and women to want to sleep together, and set up families, was undermining their doctrine, and they simply incorporated the most powerful narratives to hand, to increase the potency of their message. White Patriarchy sounds like far more of an existential threat, after all, than simple Patriarchy. It likely was a key step in fermenting their uneasy alliance with Islam.

    It might also be useful to explore intersectionalism from the perspective of whether or not it qualifies as a Ponzi scheme. We know from history that religions are prone to rent-seeking: the sale of indulgences, to the eradication of village wise women to monopolise medicine and the Church tithes are all examples of ways in which Christian institutions fell prey to the pecuniary urge. Would it not be reasonable to expect the same from a secular religion, especially when it possesses none of the moral proscriptions against greed and avarice. The role of tenure, publishing and paid-for speaking events could all be seen as signs the rise of a socio-economically privileged priestly class. This YouTube video with a rather indignant offence-as-defence by noted historian David Starkey, perhaps pulls the curtain back on the money behind the phenomena:
  5. Nice try, but I’m afraid its completely wrong.

    To state the obvious, Francophones started this. It was they who perpetrated postmodernism. Nonetheless, their ‘ideas’ have been very successful in the anglo world in translation.

    The founding French postmodernist texts are meaningless tripe. The fact that they are written in a foreign language is actually helpful to the cult. There’s always the possibility that material has been ineffectively translated, and that it would make sense in the original language.

    Perhaps that’s the reason you can’t understand it ?! Maybe you just need to read a little more ?

    Here’s a burst of On Grammatology by Derrida

    We already have a foreboding that phonocentrism merges with the historical determination of the meaning of being in general as presence, with all the subdeterminations which depend on this general form and which organize within it their system and their historical sequence (presence of the thing to the sight as eidos, presence as substance/ essence/ existence [ousiaJ, temporal presence as point [stigme] of the now or of the moment [nun], the self-presence of the cogito, consciousness, subjectivity, the co-presence of the other and of the self, intersubjectivity as the intentional phenomenon of the ego, and so forth )

    Despite being utter nonsense, this book launched a thousand postmodern ships onto anglo campuses. The language is (unfortunately) irrelevant.

  6. I don’t know if cult is the best term for modern leftism since I don’t see an overarching leader but it absolutely is a neo-pagan fundamentalist religion. Here are some Social-Justice terms that are analogous to religious beliefs.

    White Privilege/Mankind’s Environmental Impact - Original Sin. Although we are polluting less we will always have a carbon footprint which means we are all guilty of killing the earth.
    Carbon Taxes - Indulgences. This is a way to pardon one’s self of the crime of killing the earth without actually changing personal behaviors.
    Intersectionality - Papal Structure, a hierarchy of positions of unquestionable authority. The disabled transgender lesbian you mentioned earlier would not be the messiah but they would be infallible similar to the Pope.
    Abortion - Child Sacrifice. Previously abortion was a horrible decision that women should be able to make due to desperation. Now it is viewed as transactional way to better your life. If I want to be successful I have to abort my child. And on top of that it has become a point of celebration, see “Shout Your Abortion”
    "Right Side Of History" - Book Of The Living. By being on the right side of history a leftist can assume a sense of immortality by believing that they are important enough to be historically documented and that they are so righteous that they will be noted as such for all time.
    Socialist Utopia - Kingdom of God. Pretty straight forward.
    Social Justice Warrior - Missionaries
    Social Media Swarms - Inquisitions. Stephen King ran afoul of this recently.
    AntiChrist Figure - Donald Trump. By being the embodiment of this archetype whatever Donald Trump does has to be by definition evil. To say that Donald Trump has done ANYTHING good or beneficial to the country would be heresy.
    Patriarchy/Racial Biases - Satan/Evil Spirits. The ideas of the patriarchy and racial biases have become increasing ethereal among the far left. SJW’s have a hard time describing what the patriarchy is and how to combat it. The patriarchy is similar to evil spirits in that it is all around, unseen, and can even posses your body and force you to commit microaggressions against your will!

    Lena Dunham’s claim that her mind was colonized by the patriarchy is a good example of this.

    On top of all that the way SJW’s handles apostates is similar to Islam.

    Jonathan Haidt has a great perspective on these new religious tendencies of college students in the liberal arts.
  7. Your comment would have been more polite and useful without this part.

    As to the rest, despite my unfamiliarity with the gospel I was aware of these passages, leading me to believe those who wish to make a case that Christianity is violent have only a couple of passages to point to. In practice, Christianity spread much further than Judaism because it was universal rather than tribal, and did away with the onerous restrictions involved with being a Jew.

  8. I have long argued that the word “religion” is the most harmful word in contemporary English. Its actual usage is as the atheist version of “heretic”. That is, a “religious” person is a person who is saying anything heretical.

    The difference being that everyone understands what is being said when a person is called a “heretic” or “infidel”, but the users of “religious” pretend that their usage is different. This is their great dishonesty, and it is why I despise the word.

    When a Muslim uses the word “infidel”, he does not care whether his target is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, or Vegan. They are all wrong, and so they are all infidels. They can be lumped together and attacked as a group. If one infidel camp quarrels with another (say, Christians vs Atheists), then the Muslim simply laughs at the foolish, hypocritical, self-contradicting “infidels”. He does not care that they are different groups. Any criticism of one applies to all.

    So too any other group with a “heretic” concept, including (and especially) the users of “religious”. Islamic terrorist attacks are reasons to fear and marginalize Christians, because “religious” is “religious” is “religious”. They’re all the same! The Handmaid’s Tale’s Christianization of Islamic treatment of women is another example; no critic of “religion” cares in the slightest for the Christian objection to this conflation.

    But they’re still furious if you call things “socialism” that they don’t think are socialism.

    The “anti-religious” dishonesty around their usage of “religion” is compounded by the use of the word “religion” in the Establishment Clause, as well as Jefferson’s polemic about “separation of church and state”. My misinterpreting the Establishment Clause’s caution against giving extra power to a religion as a requirement that religion have zero power, the political Left declares that all who disagree with it (heretics, aka the “religious”) are not supposed to be allowed to advocate their positions at all. Congress’s greatest protection against tyranny has been transformed into the ultimate tyranny - the establishment of Leftism as the only acceptable state ideology.

    Witness the inevitable declaration that abortion opposition isn’t allowed because of “separation of church and state”. It’s wrong on several counts: 1. Opposition isn’t all Christian. 2. Christian motivation doesn’t invalidate a position.

    Imagine declaring all murder, theft, and rape legal so as not to align with any of the Ten Commandments!

    The downstream consequences of the abuse of the word “religion” are honestly hard to even tabulate, let alone quantify. This problem has a foundational role in a lot of our problems today.

    There is no one who needs the word “religion”. A Christian is a Christian, a Muslim is a Muslim, and so on. None benefit from being lumped together with each other. Only harm is done. The word should be recognized by its current usage and either discarded or very publicly rebranded to mean simply “belief set”, which would encompass all beliefs, including atheism and all left-wing dogmas. It would render the word largely useless, but it would fix the problem of misinterpreting/abusing the Establishment Clause and stop a lot of left-wing abuse.

  9. Well it depends on what you mean by religion. If you mean it as in the traditional sense, a structured spiritual belief, then yes. However how it appears to me with Western Civilization’s departure into the secular realm that we are innately religious creatures and if a group of people moves away from one religion they will inevitably create a new religious structure for social cohesion. See France’s Cult of Reason and the current SJW movement.

    These new religious structures will still have hierarchical and dogmatic aspects to them similar to a spiritual religion. So atheism, humanism, SJW, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all have religious qualities, the difference being is that some do not have any spiritual or supernatural components.

  10. Got it. “Populist fanaticism on the Right” manifests itself in cult-like movement.

    “…a milieu that becomes infected with cult-think always will be hostile to rational discourse… In the realm of politics, it is now seen as normal everyday news for Donald Trump and his minions to utter obvious lies about everything … and to expect followers and sympathetic media to parrot those claims.“

    We are making progress. Accusations in “everyday …obvious lies about everything” represent “rational discourse”. Hillary Clinton described Trump’s constituency as ‘deplorables’. Jonathan Kay – as cultish movement, populist fanatics.

    When robust American economy - which floats all boats - secures Trump election in 2020, Jonathan Kay will publish an article about perils of American democracy. Can’t wait.

  11. I noticed he was rather over-egging his statement. I think that he might wish to rephrase that, since the reason many people are joining Trump is economic prosperity, and I am surprised that he thinks that this is a cult…

    Maybe he thinks that Mammon will devour America’s soul?

  12. “On one hand, this means that discussions within social-justice circles tend to be tortured and unproductive, as no one is allowed to presume a truth-telling power that extends beyond the narrow confines of one’s own intersectional constituency.”

    Actually that is not true. Those higher up the intersection hierarchy have more truth telling power than those below it. A straight white male, being at the bottom, is not allowed to have any truth telling power as he is automatically a toxic-male, white-supremacist fascist. His place is as the silent whipping post.
    However, those higher up the food chain can attribute any “truth” they see fit to the despicable white male at the bottom.

  13. If I may hang from your coattails here, I think you’re quite correct with the ‘colonial’ analogy. You only need to look that the fortunes of indigenous peoples all around the world to see what happens when a culture that thinks they know better than the “savages” (deplorables?) moves in and destroys a perfectly functional society. Convert or kill the adults (or use a campaign of character assassination to ruin them and remove their ability to earn a livelihood), and brainwash the children to turn them against the adults and their society. Without wanting to minimize the suffering of Native Americans or other indigenous peoples, they are a stark warning of what is happening to North American society currently. They’ve been suffering from “diseases of despair” for decades, if not centuries, and they’re our future if we allow the continued fragmentation of our society.

  14. Blockquote In the realm of politics, it is now seen as normal everyday news for Donald Trump and his minions to utter obvious lies about everything from Ukraine to the predicted path of a hurricane, and to expect followers and sympathetic media to parrot those claims.

    This may be a bit flippant and conclusory, particularly as you bring Ukraine into it. The most “obvious lies” I have heard about Ukraine were probably in Adam Schiff’s “I’m telling ya for the ninth time” performance. In some ways it is difficult to take issue, as it is not really clear to what you are referring. Anyone who listened to a fraction of Trump’s defense team should properly come to the conclusion that reasonable minds can differ on the question of Ukraine. A characterization such as “perfect phone call” is no “lie” as a matter of principle, but just that – a characterization. If there were truly a black and white way to characterize the phone call, the House managers would not have relied upon an inherently loose, argumentative, “abuse of power” standard ungrounded in any precedent, law, or Constitutional provision, which was literally being made up as we went along.

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