I’ve long maintained that religion is a meme. And religions as we know it today have evolved over the last few hundred years (or millenia), though a combination of replication, crossover and mutation. I’ve argued that fun practices are necessary for religions to maintain their memetic fitness, and that people (at the margin) will choose to celebrate festivals that are more fun, and festivals need to be more fun to improve memetic fitness.
Today I came across this old article in the New York Times (possible paywall) about how the decline of cults is a problem. One of the arguments that the author Ross Douthat makes is that cults keep religions fresh, and help them continuously evolve. Yes, cults can be destructive and dangerous and could even kill, but in case they are not and they “survive”, they could even go mainstream.
He gives the examples of Mormonism in the 1900s in the United States, or Jesuits and Franciscans even earlier, as cults that over the period of time became mainstream in terms of religion.
Based on the religion-as-meme framework, you can think of cults as mutations in the religious meme code. Cults keep large parts of their “parent religion” and then experiment with important differences. If these differences prove to be popular (and not dangerous), the cults will prosper, giving rise to a new strand of the religion. Sometimes that can lead to a new religion itself.
While the article linked above is US-centric, and from 2014, India in 2020 has no shortage of cults. A number of cult leaders, such as Paramahamsa Nithyananda and Jaggi Vasudev, have become memes in themselves (apart from their respective cults trying out mutations in the Hindu meme code). Some others, such as Gurmeeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan and Asaram Bapu have been found to be dangerous and put in jail – it’s likely that their cults’ memes aren’t too fit.
And as these cults come and go, mainstream Hinduism sometimes copy from them, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. And what the cults ensure (not willingly) is that the religion itself remains fresh, and as the religion remains fresh, more people will be inclined to follow it.
So while at the level of the individual (think of the victims of (sexual and other) harassment that is rather common in some cults) the cults may not be a great thing, at the systemic level, they make sense.
And the more we make fun of Nithyananda and the more we forward his funny videos on WhatsApp, the more the next “religious entrepreneur” will be inclined to make it big.