New religious movements and cults can appear as themes or subjects in literature and popular culture, while notable representatives of such groups have produced, for their own part, a large body of literary works.
Some anthropologists and sociologists studying cults have argued that no one has yet been able to define “cult” in a way that enables the term to apply only to groups identified as problematic; however, even without the "problematic" concern, scientific criteria of characteristics attributed to cults do exist. Note a little-known example: the Alexander and Rollins (1984) scientific study labels the socially well-received group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) a cult, yet Vaillant, 2005, concluded that AA is beneficial.
Commentators other than social scientists participate to a greater degree in cultic studies than in many comparable topics, which may render it difficult to demarcate the boundaries of scientific research from theology, politics, journalism, family cultural values, and the anecdotal findings of some mental-health professionals. According to James T. Richardson (1993), the "popular use" of the term "cult" has, since the 1920s, "gained such credence and momentum that it has virtually swallowed up the more neutral historical meaning of the term from the sociology of religion." A twentieth-century attempt by sociologists to replace "cult" with the term New Religious Movement (NRM), failed to resonate with the public and gained only partial acceptance in the scientific community. Some scholars use the term "New Religious Movement" (as opposed to "cult") with the implication that the group in question either lacks "destructive" cult characteristics or has evolved away from past controversial practices.
Members of the groups in question usually strongly dispute the label "cult", especially as used in the media and popular culture, and some scholars and social scientists regard any definitions that focus on special authoritarian characteristics as flawed.
This article deals with the treatment of such groups in literature and popular culture, which may depict exaggerated and or even inaccurate perceptions of particular or generic groups. The mention of any real (as opposed to fictional) organization or person in this article reflects only that some specific source regards it as having (or having had in the past) the characteristics associated with such groups. Some organizations or movements mentioned herein have evolved over the years, as has the surrounding culture, and no longer experience the opprobrium they did at the time particular literary works about them (or literary works by their founders or members) originated. Other historical groups, such as Theosophy in the late 19th century, became known for their novel beliefs and charismatic leadership but not necessarily for abusive practices: one might regard them as the NRMs of their day.
Alexander the False Prophet, a deeply hostile satire by Lucian of Samosata, allows this second-century-AD writer to describe Alexander of Abonoteichus, an oracle who built a following in parts of the Roman Empire, and who (according to Lucian) swindled many people and engaged, through his followers, in various forms of thuggery. The strength of Lucian's venom against Alexander is attributed to Alexander's hate of the Epicureans (Lucian admired the works of Epicurus, a eulogy of which concludes the piece). Whether or not Alexander epitomized fraud and deceit as portrayed by Lucian; he may not have differed greatly from other oracles of the age, in which a great deal of dishonest exploitation occurred in some shrines.
Sociologist Stephen A. Kent, in a study of the text, compares Lucian's Alexander to the "malignant narcissist" in modern psychiatric theory, and suggests that the "behaviors" described by Lucian "have parallels with several modern cult leaders." Ian Freckelton has noted at least a surface similarity between Alexander and the leader of a contemporary religious group, the Children of God.
Other scholars have described Alexander as an oracle who perpetrated a hoax to deceive gullible citizens, or as a false prophet and charlatan who played on the hopes of simple people, who "made predictions, discovered fugitive slaves, detected thieves and robbers, caused treasures to be dug up, healed the sick, and in some cases actually raised the dead" (ch. 24). Alexander did more than combine healing instructions with the oracle (not uncommon at the time); he also instituted mysteries. His main opposition came from Epicureans and Christians.
Lucian also wrote a satire called The Passing of Peregrinus, in which the lead character, Proteus, described by Lucian as a charlatan, takes advantage of the generosity and gullibility of Christians.
In the last chapter of Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Lucius, the hero, eager for his initiation into the mystery cult of Isis, abstains from forbidden foods, bathes and purifies himself. Then the secrets of the cult's books are explained to him, and further secrets revealed before he goes through the process of initiation, which involves a trial by the elements in a journey to the underworld. Lucius is then asked to seek initiation into the cult of Osiris in Rome, and eventually is initiated into the pastophoroi — a group of priests that serves Isis and Osiris.
Even apart from the religious Reformation, the Renaissance era exhibited experimental belief-systems and resultant arguments about their merits. Shakespeare noted ca. 1595 in a passing comparison the phenomenon of the apostate: "the heresies that men do leave / Are hated most of those they did deceive" A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 2, Scene 2).
Mark Twain wrote a highly critical book (1907) about Christian Science. Willa Cather, a newspaper and magazine journalist and editor before turning to full-time fiction-writing, co-authored a detailed muckraking book (1909) on the same religious movement. (Christian Science gained a large measure of respectability in later years.)
Zane Grey, in his Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), a Western novel that would have a major influence on Hollywood, lambasts the Mormons and has his gunslinger hero rescue a wealthy young woman in the early 1870s from the clutches of elderly polygamists via exceedingly bloody gunfights. The novel contains a portrayal of the psychological conflicts of the young woman, raised a Mormon but gradually coming to the realization that she wants a supposedly less constricted life. (The Mormon misdeeds depicted in the story take place on the southern frontier of Utah, and Grey makes no suggestion of the involvement of Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City.) The harassment of the young woman reflects a popular literary theme in Queen Victoria's England.
In Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse (1929), much of the mystery puzzle revolves around the Temple of the Holy Grail, a fictitious California circle that Hammett's characters repeatedly describe as a "cult". Hammett depicts it as starting as a scam, although the putative leader begins to believe in his own fraudulent claims.
The Italian novelist Sibilla Aleramo, in Amo, dunque sono (I Love, Therefore I Am) (1927) depicted Julius Evola's UR Group, a hermetical circle and intellectual movement — strongly influenced by Anthroposophy — that attempted to provide a spiritual direction to Benito Mussolini's fascism. Aleramo described the character based on her former lover Evola as "inhuman, an icy architect of acrobatic theories, vain, vicious, perverse." Aleramo based her hero on Giulio Parise, who would unsuccessfully attempt to oust the pro-Fascist Evola as the circle's leader in 1928, resulting in an announcement by Evola that he would thenceforth exert "an absolute unity of direction" over the circle's publications.
Science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein wrote two novels that deal with fictitious cult-like groups. A leading figure in his early "Future History" series (see If This Goes On--, a short novel published in Revolt in 2100), Nehemiah Scudder, a religious "prophet", becomes dictator of the United States. By his own admission in an afterword, Heinlein poured into this book his distrust of all forms of religious fundamentalism, the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party and other movements that he regarded as authoritarian. Heinlein also stated in the afterword that he had worked out the plot of other books about Scudder, but had decided not to write them — in part because he found Scudder so unpleasant. (A Scudder-like dictatorship complete with sexual slavery for selected fertile women would later become the setting of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.) Heinlein's novel Stranger in a Strange Land features two cults: the "Dionysian Church of the New Revelation, Fosterite", and the protagonist Valentine Michael Smith's own "Church of All Worlds". Heinlein treats of the motives and methods of religious leaders in some detail.
Fictitious cults also feature in science fantasy and in horror novels. In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis describes the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or "NICE", a quasi-governmental front concealing a kind of doomsday cult that worships a disembodied head kept alive by scientific means. Some commentators have interpreted this head, who/which plots to turn the Earth into a dead world like the Moon, as a symbol of secularism and materialism. Lewis' novel is notable for its elaboration of his 1944 address "The Inner Ring." The latter work criticizes the lust to "belong" to a powerful clique — a common human failing that Lewis believed was the basis for people being seduced into power-hungry and spiritually twisted movements.
In William Campbell Gault's Sweet Wild Wench, L.A. private eye Joe Puma investigates the "Children of Proton", a fictional cult that has attracted the support of the daughter of a wealthy businessman.
Gore Vidal's Messiah depicts the rise of a cult leader, while Vidal's Kalki, a science-fiction novel, recounts how a small but scientifically adept fictitious cult kills off the entire human race by means of germ warfare.
Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor presents Tender Branson as the last surviving member of the fictional Creedish Church/cult. He starts off as a loyal servant for a rich couple, sent out of his community to service and improve the outside world, as well as to earn money for the church. Once identified as the last survivor, he becomes a media messiah and religious celebrity.
Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), portrays a hero and heroine in flight from an assassin who belongs to the Catholic organization Opus Dei. (Opus Dei has disputed the accuracy of the portrayal, as has much of the media. For example, The Da Vinci Code portrays its villain as a monk, but the real Opus Dei includes no monks.)
Paul Malmont's The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (2006) portrays a young L. Ron Hubbard as one of three 1930s pulp-fiction writers who fight the forces of evil in a novel that nostalgically mimics the pulps. Although Malmont portrays the young Hubbard and future Scientology-founder as having a tendency to pad his résumé (a charge also made by some biographers of the real Hubbard), Malmont's Hubbard appears in most respects as a sympathetic character as well as a hero of the action.
Mike Doogan's detective thriller Lost Angel (2006) takes place at a fictional Christian commune in Alaska called "Rejoiced". In the opening pages, Doogan's novel appears to present a stereotypical cult, but it soon emerges that many of the members show independence of mind and routinely (if quietly) disobey the commune's founder and nominal leader.
Robert Muchamore has written a book for teenagers, Divine Madness, about a religious cult that has a vast number of members: the main characters of the book must infiltrate the cult to discover a sinister plot.
The primary antagonists of Brad Fear's A Macabre Myth of a Moth-Man (2008) are an organization of super-enhanced fanatics called 'The Swarm'. The cult's beliefs seem focused on the flaws of man as a species; their motivations based on ushering in an age of superior, gene-spliced hybrids. They conceal their 'imperfect' human forms beneath gas masks and body armour (with the exception of the cult-leader, Dante Eclipse, who wears a porcelain theatre mask and robes).
The novel Godless centers around a teenager who forms a religious cult that worships his hometown's watertower.
Aleister Crowley, founder of the English-speaking branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis and of a short-lived commune (the "Abbey of Thelema") in Sicily, wrote poetry (anthologized in 1917 in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse) and novels (Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922) and Moonchild (1929)). Crowley died in 1947. His autobiography, The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, republished in 1969, attracted much attention. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes Crowley's fiction and his manuals on the occult as examples of "lifestyle fantasy".
The travel-writer, poet and painter Nicholas Roerich, the founder of Agni Yoga, expressed his spiritual beliefs through his depiction of the stark mountains of Central Asia. His classic travel-books include Heart of Asia: Memoirs from the Himalayas (1929) and Shambhala: In Search of the New Era (1930).
L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, worked as a contributing author in the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1930s to 1950s) and in the horror and fantasy genres. In a bibliographical study of his works, Marco Frenschkowski agrees with Stephen King in regarding Fear (1940) as one of the major horror tales of the twentieth century, and praises "its imaginative use of the prosaic and its demythologizing of traditional weird fiction themes". Other works which Frenschkowski cites as notable include Typewriter in the Sky (1940), To the Stars (1950), the best-selling Battlefield Earth (1982), and the ten-volume Mission Earth (1985-1987). Frenschkowski concludes that although Hubbard's fiction has received excessive praise from his followers, science-fiction critics leery of Scientology have underrated it. John Clute and Peter Nichols, however, manage to praise much of Hubbard's oeuvre while also raising questions about the thematic link to Scientology. Hubbard's "canny utilization of superman protagonists" in his early work, they argue, came to "tantalize" s-f writers and fans "with visions of transcendental power" and may explain why so many early followers of Hubbard's movement came from the s-f community.
G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher who introduced and taught the Fourth Way, authored three literary works that comprise his All and Everything trilogy. The best known, Meetings with Remarkable Men, a memoir of Gurdjieff's youthful search for spiritual truth, has become a minor classic. Peter Brook made it into a film (1979). The trilogy also includes Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, a curious melange of philosophy, humor and science-fiction that some regard as a masterpiece. P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series and a disciple of Gurdjieff, described Beelzebub as "soaring off into space, like a great, lumbering flying cathedral". Martin Seymour-Smith included Beelzebub in his 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, characterising it as "...the most convincing fusion of Eastern and Western thought that has yet been seen." Gurdjieff's final volume, Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am', consists of an incomplete text published posthumously.
Ayn Rand, founder of the Objectivist movement, wrote two bestsellers, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). The Fountainhead sold over 6.5 million copies by 2008; and Atlas Shrugged over 6 million. Rand's science-fiction novella Anthem (1938) also found a wide readership.
Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, wrote highly regarded poetry. William Carlos Williams described his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" (1925) as his "major poem", and wrote that Siegel "belongs in the first ranks of our living artists". Other critics and poets who praised Siegel's work included Selden Rodman and Kenneth Rexroth; the latter wrote that "it's about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets."
Helena Blavatsky, the Russian adventuress who founded Theosophy, wrote Isis Unveiled (1887) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), and had an immense cultural and intellectual influence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, helping to stimulate the Indian nationalist movement, the interfaith ecumenical movement, parapsychology, the fantasy literary genre, and today's New Age movement. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy describes her two major books as "enormous, entrancing honeypots of myth, fairytale, speculation, fabrication and tomfoolery".
Rudolf Steiner (1861 - 1925), the founder of Anthroposophy, wrote in a variety of fields (his collected works total 350 volumes) and influenced such figures as the novelist Herman Hesse and the philosopher Owen Barfield. Through his writings and lectures, Steiner stimulated the development of the cooperative movement, alternative medicine, organic farming, the Waldorf schools, and "eurythmy" in modern dance.
Several authors have prolifically produced tracts, and although their writings may not have influenced contemporary culture to the degree of a Reich or a Blavatsky, they have stimulated many to join their churches or movements and have expressed ideas that writers and spiritual "entrepreneurs" outside of their own circles have adopted and adapted. Examples include JZ Knight, founder of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, whose popular Ramtha books have done much to spread the practice of spirit channelling among New Agers; and Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the Church Universal and Triumphant who, with her late husband Mark Prophet, wrote over 75 books on the "Ascended Masters" and similar topics. Other examples include the late Herbert W. Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God, whose books on Biblical prophecy and British Israelism were widely read for over a half century; and conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche — the author of over 500 books, articles and published speeches which have had a significant if often subterranean influence on various movements of the left and right as well as on the media in some countries.