I’ve never met a conspiracy theory I didn’t like. There are so many of them, though, that I often find I’ve forgotten details or attributed extraterrestrial activity to the Illuminati or vice versa. Kudos to Arthur Goldwag, who has compiled some of the best theories, facts, and far-out doctrines into this outstanding reference work.
Divided into the three categories in the title – cults, conspiracies, and secret societies — Goldwag’s book provides brief histories of hundreds of individuals and endeavors, including a few you probably haven’t heard about yet. Each section is introduced with an examination of the broader topic as well as an explanation of the criteria Goldwag uses, but quickly moves on to the alphabetically arranged, cut-to-the-chase entries.
The first introductory piece, “What Makes a Cult Cultish?” includes the dictionary definition of “cult” but wisely elaborates on the distinctions made by others between traditional religious institutions and cults. “When members of [orthodox religion] use the word ‘cult,’ more often than not they are using it pejoratively, to undercut a disreputably heterodox challenge to their own authority,” Goldwag reminds us. He goes on to explain that he has chosen the cults included here based on their “coercive or totalizing relationship” between leader and followers. It’s not only an accurate description of cults but also the only sensible way to define one. This won’t stop members of the included cults from complaining or suing Goldwag for libel, of course, but any resulting publicity will only increase the book’s sales and draw attention to potentially dangerous cult activity.
Admitting to occasional “snarkiness”, Goldwag nevertheless captures the essence of cult movements through history. Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, Satanism, Scientology, and Opus Dei are just a few of the featured groups.
The conspiracies written about here are, for the most part, the truly grand ones, involving hundreds or thousands of plotters engaged in economic, political, or terror schemes that affect the entire world. Al Qaeda, for example, is mentioned in this section rather than in Cults because of its criminal and political agenda and its noticeable lack of religious motivation. Masons, militias, the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Lincoln, and of course Area 51 and the Roswell crash have starring roles with full backgrounds provided.
Secret societies are all around us, or rather societies with secrets. Secret handshakes, secret passwords - it doesn’t have to be an important secret to bind members together and make them feel special. Goldwag selects for inclusions some societies that are well-known, some that are historical, and some “simply because they tickled me.” Aryan Brotherhood, the BPOE, the Masons and the Jasons, Yakuza, and of course the Templars may be found in the Secret Societies section of the book.
Goldwag has sifted through an abundance of information and anecdotes and boiled it down to the basics - how each movement or group began, its fundamental doctrine or mission, its activities. The author restrains himself from commentary, giving the reader an unemotional, non-judgmental account of a far-flung phenomenon that is fascinating at best, terrifying at worst. Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies is a must-have resource for the student of human nature, sociology, or popular culture. It’s also a must-have for the paranoid as well as for those of us who know there are shadow forces at work and want to keep track of them.