Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism” Sheds Light on How & Why We Hold Our Beliefs

 Cover image courtesy of Goodreads

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When I decided to read Amanda Montell’s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, I didn’t really expect to see myself in its (audio) pages. Ah yes, I thought, it will be interesting to see how those other people wind up in cults. 

Except that once Montell defined cult and began explaining how the language of groups functioned, I realized I might be in a cult. In fact, I might be in several. 

Likely aware that readers will have this reaction, Montell is quick to remind us that “cult” and “cult-ish” groups are varied in their beliefs, their goals, and their cost of entry (and exit), and that the bulk of her book will explore the how and why of cult language in all its form, from MLMs to Jamestown to Social Media. 

With an introduction like that, of course I had to listen every chance I got! I confess I struggle with reviewing audiobooks because I take in the information differently and it’s harder to reference back if I want to check something, but I enjoyed this title so much, I knew I had to try. 

CW: this review mentions briefly death by suicide, as this content appears in the book. 

As Montell acknowledges at the start of this book, people have long been fascinated by — and wary of — cults. With tragedies like the Jamestown and Heaven’s Gate suicides, the word “cult” has taken on a cultural connotation synonymous with “brainwashing” and blindly following leaders, even to the point of death. 

The actual definition of the word, if there is one, seems harder to grasp, and Montell opens her book trying to establish such a definition. This, given that the book centers and examines language, makes a great deal of sense. 

In the end, she settles on the broader word of “cultish” to describe the set of behaviors and linguistic patterns that define cult-like thinking — us vs. them mentality, in-group language and terms, and a sense of dedication to the group (or leader). 

As I listened to this opening, I became equal parts fascinated and unsettled, flipping through my own mental vocabulary, riddled with words and phrases that make sense only amongst certain in-groups of people. Abbreviations from my running club like PHRC, FRC, and PPP. Words that have different meanings in that context, like “cap.” The way I wear my “find what feels good” t-shirt to in-person yoga as a sort of bat signal to fellow FWFG yogis. 

Holy shit, I thought. This woman has nailed one of the key things that makes you feel like part of something. Language that is unique and specific to the group that, once you’ve learned it, signals you, too, as an insider. 

In addition to these eerily familiar in-group language examples of the “cult-ish,” Montell does also tackle the most stereotypical associations of the word cult, as well. Each chapter has a particular focus, from the in-person, all-consuming cults like Jamestown and Heaven’s Gate to the virtual cult of Instagram (yes, really). 

This structure allows Montell to examine how language shapes and shifts our beliefs and our thoughts, while also breaking down the different degrees to which cult leaders have nefarious intent with said language. 

While your high school acquaintance trying to sell you Mary Kay or Scentsy is engaged in a cult-like MLM structure intended to keep her invested in recruiting others, this is not the exact same as, say, clicking “like” on a wellness influencer’s latest post, and neither functions at the same level of us vs. them as nefarious cults with charismatic leaders like Jim Jones and Elrond Hubbard. 

Nevertheless, there are some fascinating key similarities in the type of language used and how it escalates over time, creating more and more buy-in. 

I’m no cult or linguistic expert, but this book felt well-researched and thorough, incorporating a number of interviews with current and former cult participants (again, across all spectrums of “cultish” groups) as well as a number of studies and papers about religion and the spiritual role of gyms and wellness spaces today. 

This thorough research is coupled with a wry and humorous tone that makes the book imminently readable and endlessly fascinating. Montell does what I love best in my nonfiction — she lets herself step into the story where relevant, while falling away in moments where research needs to take center stage. 

Cultish is such a gripping and interesting read that I fully made excuses to keep listening — longer walks, taking the long way home, and even — gasp — cleaning the house.

Its look at the ways in which language can shape our thinking and behavior feels incredibly relevant, and she isn’t afraid to point out the ways in which groups like Trump supporters, QAnon, and even our alarmingly siloed internet spaces follow these same linguistic patterns that create cult-like allegiance to brands, ideas, or groups. 

Montell strives to end on a hopeful note, reminding us that it’s okay to put yourself in spaces where you feel, for a time, like part of the group. But, she cautions, it’s important to have many such groups, and not let any one allegiance become your identity. 

I recommend this book to anyone who’s ever wondered how their cousin fell down the QAnon rabbit hole or thrown out the phrase “drank the kool-aid” without a true consideration of where that phrase originates. In short, I think this is an essential read for navigating these times and keeping our eyes out for the ways in which language makes — and breaks — who we are. 

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