Book Review: Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies by Arthur Goldwag

I was at a friend’s house recently, hanging out with a few other people from my generation, when I spotted a set of World Book Encyclopedia on their shelves. The sight of those faux gold-and-leather bound books filled me with nostalgia and a powerful sadness. Sadness because I realized, in a flash, that the children growing up today will never own an encyclopedia. There’s no need. They’ll just have Wikipedia on their iPhones.

Then I picked up Arthur Goldwag’s excellent CULTS, CONSPIRACIES, & SECRET SOCIETIES and discovered a way in which the digital age is going to create a new demand for a different type of reference book. Something that can hack through the overgrown tangle of misinformation and data overload. History that can’t be edited by an end-user on a whim.

Don’t be mistaken: this is a reference book. But it reads like a Grisham novel. The introduction alone is worth the price of admission, as Arthur details his Manhattan 9/11 experiences and how that tragedy inspired the research behind the book. He also takes a novel and admirably moralistic approach to these topics. Rather than go the Houdini/Randi/Shermer approach and attempt to debunk or ridicule those suffering from the madness of crowds or the hubris of self-deification, Arthur treats these afflictions as a historian might.

Arranged in three sections (check the title again) the book can be read front-to-back or with a browser’s delight. I chose the former, but found myself more deeply absorbed in some topics over others. Arthur seemed to anticipate this, spending much more time and effort on the topics that are most popular (or contemporary). And the more I thought I knew a topic, the more I discovered that I didn’t. Details about the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Assassins, Area 51, Scientology, Charles Manson, and The Bilderberg Group washed away years of prior misinformation.

And there’s a second level of learning to be had: along with the details you’ll learn about each entry, there’s an overall tapestry that you soon recognize and become floored by. After reading a hundred accounts of the same several mental disorders, a larger picture of the human condition is spotted. All these groups and their adherents suffer from a handful of psychological… well I can’t say “ailments” because most of them seem to be common to us all. It’s more a question of “degree” than “kind.” Rare is the person that doesn’t think they’re surrounded by signs. That the clock isn’t speaking to them with repeated and daily-seen patterns. That their horoscope nailed it once again.

No, I’m more of the mind that people like myself are the ones missing something: an extreme form of pattern-recognition that’s meant to assist our survival at the cost of truth. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, when Urg died after crossing the stream while eating the red berries, two rules were created. The “Urg Rules”: (1) Don’t eat the red berries. (2) Don’t cross the stream between the Great Oak and the Largish Rock.

Not very scientific. But then, Urg’s people didn’t care about facts so much. They cared about sex, material wealth, sex, resources, status, sex, and staying alive so they could enjoy all three. What sense does it make for a dog to drool at the ringing of a bell? Here’s my question: what sense does it make for one creature to ring a bell before he feeds another creature while jotting down the results in ledger after ledger?

Every day, our psychologies encounter systems for which they were never intended. Take something as simple as meeting a stranger and all the myriad problems that arise. The abnormal is becoming frequent and we wonder why we need medication? We now live in a vast population of strangers–has the brilliant strategy of evolving charismatic leaders and willing followers become a recipe for cult creation? Are yesterday’s solutions today’s problems?

Probably not. Urg’s people would likely tell us that the human condition has always been thus. Just never on such a scale. If you’re interested in these crazy things, the crazy people that think them, and the crazy way in which you’re similar, check out Arthur Goldwag’s book. More than once, preferably.

Cults, Conspiracies, & Secret Societies on


Yet another interesting book for my TRQ. I’ve had my own Interesting Experiences from having been (ahem) “in recovery” and while there I had some Close Encounters with a few other things, likely including something covered in that book.

The premise appears to overlap that of “Healing The Unhappy Caveman.” I actually haven’t fully read it – I heard the author speak for an hour in which he seemed to cover things so well his book seemed almost superfluous. But that was a year ago, perhaps I should go through it again. It’s also recommended. It’s (hope I’m doing it justice, though this IS an oversimplification) how “primitive” urges impede success in the an average modern man’s life rather than in those at the fringes of society, but with my “been there, done that” t-shirt, I can see the similarities.

My own bio/memoir will come out any year now. All I have to do is write it.