I’m going to say this right up front and in all caps in the hopes that people will get it:
THE CULT IN CULTIC MILIEU REFERS TO NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS. IT DOES NOT REFER TO IDEOLOGICALLY ABUSIVE COMMUNITIES.
If you’re linking to this post to go “see, Ozy is a rationalist, and even they admit that rationality is a cult! Rationalists are never allowed to disagree with the orthodoxy! They all worship Eliezer Yudkowsky as a god! Grouphouses AI polyamory Roko’s Basilisk!” then you are BAD AT READING.
The “cultic milieu” is a concept developed by sociologist Colin Campbell. The “cultic milieu” is the subculture from which new religious movements usually emerge; it also produces conspiracy theories, heretical sects of currently existing religions, and woo/quackery.
An important insight is that these are all the same people. Naively, you would think that the UFOlogists would be over here, and the people who think the Jews are secretly running the world would be over there, and the energy channelers would be in a third place, and the occultists would be in a fourth place, and incredibly weird variants of fundamentalist Christianity would be somewhere different entirely. In fact, it is an enormous interconnected ecosystem. No one interacts with all parts of the cultic milieu. But UFOlogists and occultists are surprisingly likely to read each other’s blogs. Even if the weird fundamentalist Christians hate the energy channelers, they’re often only a few degrees of separation apart.
You might notice that a lot of conspiracy theories have a sort of Crisis On Infinite Conspiracies air to them. It is not just that a pedophile conspiracy is secretly running the world, battled by only Donald Trump. The conspiracy is also harvesting blood from children to produce drugs, and the conspiracy worships Satan, and most taxes are illegitimate and can be safely ignored if you use the correct procedures, and covid is actually caused by exposure to electromagnetic fields, and vaccines cause autism, and John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death, and the government is covering up UFOs, and Bush did 9/11, and and and. This is because sovereign citizens are friends with the UFO people and the quack medicine people. They’re all part of the same group.
Members of the cultic milieu tend to drift between wildly contradictory new religious movements. It’s very common for someone to start out a UFOlogist, become a theosophist, and eventually wind up a sedevacantist. The basic thought process between all of these groups is the same.
The cultic milieu is marked by its deep interest in stigmatized knowledge. Stigmatized knowledge falls into five categories:
Forgotten knowledge (things that supposedly were once widely known and is forgotten, e.g. the lost wisdom of Atlantis)
Superseded knowledge (things that people used to believe but don’t anymore, e.g astrology)
Ignored knowledge (things that low-status people believe, e.g. folk medicine)
Rejected knowledge (things that the mainstream thinks are false from the outset, e.g. UFOs)
Suppressed knowledge (things that authoritative institutions allegedly know to be true but are hiding for some reason, e.g. cancer cures)
All stigmatized knowledge tends to become suppressed knowledge over time. Believers need to answer the question “why don’t people believe this, if it’s true?” The easy answer is that someone is covering it up.
With a few exceptions, the cultic milieu is obsessively empirical and scholarly. QAnon believers urge people to “do their own research” and never to take anything on faith. This is not new to QAnon! Members of the cultic milieu are encouraged to verify things for themselves. If you want to find out whether a quack medicine works, try taking it. If you want to see if magic works, try casting your own spells. If you’re not sure if the conspiracy theory is true, investigate it for yourself.
The cultic milieu is also scholarly to an extent which is likely surprising to people unfamiliar with it. Conspiracy texts are typically well-footnoted and full of citations. Their bibliographies are extensive. Although they’re opposed to academia, they want to appear to be academically credible.
The cultic milieu is by its nature anti-authoritarian. Of course, they are opposed to large religions, academia, the government, corporations, and other powerful institutions in our society. But it goes deeper. No single organization within the cultic milieu can tell people what to do. While the controlling and abusive communities get the most press, most belief systems in the cultic milieu are loosely structured and don’t prescribe many practices among their adherents. It’s really hard to get people in the cultic milieu to do what you told them to do. They’re going to come up with their own personal Atlantis-Nostradamus-UFO synthesis and ignore whatever you said.
If you’re like me, you’re like “damn, this group of people sounds very familiar.”
The rationalist movement (and to a lesser but still real extent effective altruism) is deeply suspicious of the government, corporations, academia, religion, and society as a whole. It is very interested in suppressed knowledge: masks and ventilation early in the coronavirus pandemic; lumenators; cryonics; existential risks; parenting not mattering much to children’s outcomes; various economics beliefs this space is too small to contain; various rationality techniques this space is too small to contain. In spite of its skepticism about academia, it tends quite scholarly: participants read academic nonfiction and scientific papers or at least pretend to; it’s embarrassing to publish a work without a single citation. Members are urged to do their own research and not rely on what authorities say. Whenever possible, you’re supposed to test things for yourself and see if they work. The community is also profoundly anti-authoritarian. As the joke goes, a rationalist is someone who disagrees with Eliezer Yudkowsky. No amount of anguished blog posts about how the rational decision is X—even from very high-status community members—will cause people to X if they don’t feel like it.
Now, obviously, there is a very important difference between “I think masks would help prevent covid” and “I think prophylactic ivermectin would help prevent covid.” You can do sociological observations as much as you like, but ultimately you have to pay attention to the facts about what people actually believe. Empirically, rationalists have been proven right about a fair number of things.Many of the other claims common in the community are, whatever else you may have to say about them, certainly more plausible than Nostradamus. But I think that rationalists are part of the cultic milieu; they’re just members of the cultic milieu who are way better than most members of the cultic milieu at being right.
The rationalist movement strikes me as, in many ways, not part of the cultic milieu qua community. We don’t read the blogs of UFOlogists or sovereign citizens; we read the blogs of economists and historians. But the fundamental personality type is the same.
I was long puzzled about why rationalists keep becoming traditional Catholics, or getting really into chakras, or trying to summon demons, or joining the alt-right. You would think, given all the learning how to think good training we’re allegedly getting, we wouldn’t do that stuff! I think, given the “cultic milieu” concept, this observation is exactly what you would expect. While rationalists are more right than UFOlogists or for that matter people who believe in chakras, people do not become rationalists because they are especially good at thinking. People become rationalists because they are attracted to the cultic milieu—that is, people who distrust authority and want to figure things out for themselves and like knowing secrets that no one else knows. People who are attracted to the cultic milieu are attracted to stigmatized knowledge whether or not it is in fact correct. The members of the conventional cultic milieu drift smoothly from astrology to aliens. It is to be expected that some rationalists do the same.
A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, by Michael Barkun. Published 2013. 320 pages. $30.
We are going to be doing victory laps about covid for years.
This is fascinating, although for me (not being a member of the rationalist community) much of what is fascinating is the entire notion of the cultic milieu (which I'd never come across before) as much as its application to the rationalists.
I assume there has been work drawing structural parallels between the vast web of the cultic milieu and other cultural webs: for instance, the culture of fandom (from SF to anime to all sorts of things) strikes me as parallel in interesting ways: overlapping, people tend to move from one to the other, intense, scholarly in an out-of-academia sort of way, interested in forgotten/ignored/rejected things (in this case, aesthetic rather than knowledge per se), etc. I wonder whether this might be a more generalizable model of how culture works on a vast scale and different type of platform (mass media and internet) than the localized village/tribe model that we often think of when we think of culture.
Anyway, lots of food for thought. Thanks.
It looks to me like one obvious difference between rationalists and the more generic cultic milieu is the idea of "suppressed knowledge". The inference that "someone is covering it up" relies on a belief in the general competence of most people that rationalists, it would seem to me, do not share. I think we'd generally say that if we're doing better it's due to ignored or rejected knowledge, not suppressed knowledge; there doesn't need to be any suppressive conspiracy to explain why these ideas aren't more popular, because it turns out that the propagation of good ideas is actually hard and not automatic! Even in the few cases where one might reasonably claim suppression, this is generally due to compartmentalization and doublethink, not active lying. You don't need to claim people are lying when you can simply say they're irrational instead.