Many people who have interacted with Gnu atheists have noticed a certain cult-like behavior among many Gnus. To better assess this, let’s use a check off list from Lalich and Langone’s Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups. I’ll score each characteristic, as it applies to Gnu atheists, as No Fit, Weak Fit, Good Fit, and Excellent Fit. Keep in mind, these are my own perceptions rooted in my own experience. Whether or not my analysis rings true to you is up to you.
Let’s get started.
The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
I’d say this is a Good Fit. The Gnus have no Jim Jones-like leader, but they do have a set of leaders called the Four Horsemen. In addition to the Four, there are several scientists and philosophers who regularly write for the community who likewise fill a leadership role. What makes this a good fit is the manner in which many Gnus react to criticisms of these Gnu leaders. Anyone who has ever critiqued a Gnu leader knows that the Gnu atheists often display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to these leaders.
Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
I’d say this is an Excellent Fit. First, if you read any of the popular New Atheist blogs, you’ll quickly find that questioning, doubt, and dissent of New Atheism are discouraged or even punished. Secondly, atheists who dissent, question, and doubt the Gnu movement are attacked (for example, consider the “accomodationists” ).
Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
Weak fit. Sam Harris advocates using meditation and drugs as a form of atheist spirituality. However, there is no evidence such activity is used to suppress doubts about the group.
The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Weak-to-Good Fit. While the leadership does not dictate, it does advocate. And such advocacy produces a remarkable similarity of thought and opinion among the Gnus when it comes to religion.
The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
This is an Excellent Fit. The Gnus are clearly elitist, often bragging about most elite scientists being atheists and claiming some superior ability to reason and process evidence. Gnus also tend to overestimate the expertise of their leaders, where a prolific blogger with a PhD in science is perceived as some leading scientist.
The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Excellent Fit. Clearly, the us-vs.-them mentality defines the group when it comes to religion, but even when it comes to other atheists and agnostics, whether they be the “accomdationists” or those who don’t join the A+ movement.
The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
Good fit. Gnus accept that their leaders are accountable to the law of the land, but they don’t hold them accountable when it comes to hypocrisy and the use of double-standards.
The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
Good fit. Gnus clearly believe the ends justify the means, as behavior and positions are judged good or bad in light of how well they serve the anti-religious cause. I have even seen Gnus atheists explicitly argue that the ends do justify the means.
The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Weak fit. A lot of this was on display with the very public fight over Elevatorgate, but I don’t know about the inner workings of the group to know it is applied when particular Gnu members begin to think they should start easing up on their anti-religious positions/activity.
Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Excellent fit. Gnus constantly visit various blogs and forums in an attempt to lead people into atheism.
The group is preoccupied with making money.
Good fit. The Gnu leaders do seem awfully invested in trying to make money off of atheism.
Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
Weak fit. While I don’t see any public encouragement to do so, the fact remains that Gnu atheists don’t appear to socialize with religious people. For example, do Dawkins or Myers have any religious friends?
The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
Weak fit. Again, I see no public evidence that anything like this is going on, but the manner in which Gnus tend to cluster with other Gnus and viciously attack other atheists who soften their stand on religion suggest something like this could be in play.
So there you have it. By my count, that’s 4 criteria with an excellent fit, 4 with a good fit, 1 with a weak-to-good fit, 4 with a weak fit, and 2 that do not fit.