This one comes to us from Mockingtern Evan Brush:

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote last fall about the decline in the number of cults capturing America’s attention. He recalled the 1980s when cults worried the parents of estranged children and often caught headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, Douthat actually saw the decline in cults as indicative of a lack of vitality in American religious life: less people seeking to go outside the mainstream in search of the answers to the big questions. He thinks that the lack of a somewhat radical fringe is indicative of stagnation within mainstream American religious life: a slowdown of the sort of creative energy and activist zeal that characterizes healthy religious institutions. Peter Suderman, senior editor of Reason magazine, responded that while the old idea of cults may have fallen by the wayside (think of those focused on a charismatic leader like the David Koreshes and Jim Joneses of the world) that in fact cults are alive and well. He thinks  the internet has allowed such subcultures to flourish saying,

1148691000At its height, Occupy Wall Street was as much an alternative lifestyle and belief community as a political movement. What is Crossfit if not a ritualized system that offers its highly dedicated, tightly-knit cells of followers a better and more meaningful existence? None of these are cults in the specific sense that Douthat describes, with gated compounds and secret songs, but they are all experiments in behavior, taste, and belief intended to help adherents find meaning and connection in their lives.

Douthat and others have argued, on the other hand, that such belief systems, if they could be called that, lack the intellectual depth, the historical framework, and the prerequisite levels of commitment that religious life once required and provided. That ultimately society will be less well-off when its adherents’ practice is focused on power-cleans and burpees rather than Holy Communion and feeding the poor. But from foodies to workout junkies to the Phish faithful, such subcultures only seem to be growing more widespread. In this breakout, we will explore the nature of these loose networks of the like-minded that have become such popular lifestyle choices for 21st century Americans.