Trigger Warning: Eating disorders.
Way before TikTok, sororities, or Her Campus, there was religion. People gathered around campfires to tell stories. Medieval peasants found solace in churches. Society was screwed up, but hey, they had each other, and I can’t knock that.
Flash forward to today. More Americans are secular than they’ve ever been, myself included. I’ve been an atheist to the point of bordering on anti-theism at certain points. Part of it was me being an edgy teenager raised in a Christian school, but part of it was because I couldn’t really bring myself to believe in a higher power — not a God, not spirits, not even astrology (it’s fun but just that). While I’d love to run off to a commune and avoid my responsibilities to find myself, reality sets in. There’s no comfort in emptiness.
I find myself at peace when I’m around my friends. I love going to downtown Denver with my boyfriend. But when his parents found out that their son has been dating me, an atheist, for two years, I found myself in a spot I’ve been avoiding the most — religion.
I had two choices.
- I convert to Islam and marry him.
- Break up due to differences.
And while I would do many things for the man I love the most, converting to a religion I know nothing about was not one of them. Also, why did they think that I would convert to Islam like that? I can’t abandon a core part of me and decide that a monotheistic God is something I believe in. That’s not how it works.
Honestly, I don’t think his parents really represent the vast majority of religious people, but it got me thinking. Whenever my boyfriend went to the mosque or threw parties during Ramadan and invited dozens of people to worship with them, the concept seemed comforting. I wish I could be in a community of welcoming people. My parents were always atheists (my dad used to be a Catholic monk, but that didn’t work out, and there wasn’t really a community. Mostly just cynicism.) Most atheists I know are at least pseudo-intellectuals and usually have, ironically, a God complex over the sheep that fell for society’s cancer (religion).
But isn’t that worse?
What do secular people bond over?
An article from the Atlantic points out that political ideologies have dominated the floor instead of the conflicting messages from different religions, with each side pointing fingers at each other. Society has found a way to have a cult-like bond over rigid political beliefs, unlike religion, and even bond over that. We’ve traded wars for Twitter. In my human-computer interaction class, I learned that companies sometimes encourage this sort of behavior to capitalize on it. And instead of thinking that the other is wrong, we think that the other is horrible. Liberals see conservatives as people who disregard human rights. Conservatives see liberals as being influenced by Satan. And while this is technically a form of bonding, it’s not out of love, but hate. Ideologies worship figures (Donald Trump) to the point of abandoning their critical thinking skills (QAnon?) And while some of these groups overlap with conservative and traditionally Christian crowds, they idolize politicians over their faith.
So, a cult?
If you’ve talked to me for more than 10 seconds, you’ll probably figure out that I’m a leftist. I’m a philosopher. It’s in my blood. But after realizing that my friend’s dad is a mildly right-wing person (libertarian), I realized he was just that. A person. In fact, one of the best people I’ve met. He helps people in need on a regular basis and is probably one of the smartest people I’ve met too. He does not hold misogynistic or anti-feminist views, and when I was part of a large echo chamber on social media, I forgot about that.
But what if someone’s not political? It gets worse.
When I was 18, my ex-boyfriend pointed out that I was gaining weight. And I was. Rapidly. Combined with the fact that a friend of mine took her own life and my anxieties about my post-high school future, I turned to food. And the pendulum swung when I started obsessing over dieting and found myself in some cult-like subreddits.
Namely, r/1200isplenty, r/loseit, and r/fatlogic. Mortified of losing social capital, combined with extreme internalized fatphobia, I turned to an echo chamber of people who honestly hated fat people. Being fat was a personal problem and one of the worst parts of society, or at least that’s what I got out of r/fatlogic. Women in r/1200isplenty held on tightly to bizarre beliefs such as, well, 1200 calories is plenty. And the more time I spent there, the dizzier I became, delusional to the point where the only people I’d listen to were strangers who dedicated their lives to undereating. I worshiped calorie counting more than the Pope worshiped Jesus, and my cognition weakened, partially so I could be part of the endless cycle of starving myself. I got bradycardia and a gym aversion, but that didn’t matter. I was brainwashed.
So, a cult?
Cult culture goes beyond niche online communities and politics. Take celebrities, which we put on a pedestal and idolize. The cryptocurrency stuff that the guy on Tinder mansplained to you is mainstream for a reason — people like Elon Musk have fans that take him WAY too seriously. The billionaire tweeted, “Tesla merch buyable with Dogecoin,” and soon, the altcoin’s value skyrocketed, only for him to retract his statement. I honestly don’t know much about Elon Musk or cryptocurrency but as a computer scientist, I am surrounded by tech-obsessed people, and I know the power Elon Musk holds over his fanboys. It reminds me of the time in the early 2010s when Kylie Jenner got lip fillers and claimed that her lipstick makes her lips look bigger, then sold it, only for the lipsticks to run out within minutes. When we idolize celebrities, they hold power over us, and places such as Twitter are a breeding ground for toxic communities that bond over obsessing over celebrities (K-Pop Twitter).
I’m mostly content with the world. Feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, and altruism shine more than ever before, and that’s much more important than a sense of community. But I realized I spent most of my life fooling myself into thinking I was immune to any sort of hivemind because of my atheism. And I was wrong. I don’t really have a conclusion to this or an alternative to the current state of the world. I only have criticism. The direction from religious to secular isn’t as linear as a lot of us like to believe. It comes with nuances, and the rapid rate of change came with a consequence that a lot of us didn’t notice. We didn’t want to. But maybe we should do something about it instead of sitting around, tolerating this sort of bizarre behavior because it’s better than the alternative.