Enthralled Subjects: Cults, Conversion, and Quarantine Fixations

Poulomi Saha, English, UC Berkeley, and Grace Goudiss, PhD Candidate, History, UC Berkeley

In this conversation, professor Poulomi Saha and PhD candidate Grace Goudiss discuss the enduring popularity of popular media surrounding “cults,” and this kind of content’s seemingly renewed relevance in the context of quarantine. What is it about these narratives that draw us in? What is a “cult” anyway, and why do many experts chafe at the term’s overuse? How are these groups understood as religious and/or pathologized as criminal? These “cults”/new religious movements and the narratives of current and former members become an object of almost cult-like fixation by many fans who are entranced by the strangeness, transcendence, and sometimes tragedy of their stories. Saha and Goudiss tackle questions of faith, skepticism, conversion, and the many ways in which “cult” content helps nonbelievers understand themselves and their world. 

Poulomi Saha is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently at work on two new projects. The first is a book entitled Fascination: America’s “Hindu” Cults which considers the allure and scandal of so-called “Hindu cults” in America. It enquires into the figures, ideas, and social forms seemingly imported from India, but in fact homegrown, that so enthrall an America public and that continue to shape its racial and spiritual self-conception. The second book project, Bengal to Berkeley, examines conspiracy as a legal, philosophical, and political concept to understand the rise of the surveillance of racial and sexual subjects in WWI America.

Grace Goudiss is a PhD candidate in the History Department at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation, tentatively titled “Let Our Children Go: the Cult phenomenon and American Politics, 1965-1995,” explores the influence of New Religious Movements, as well as discourses around “cults”, on American politics and the changing political salience of the American family in the last third of the 20th century. She more broadly researches and teaches the history of American religion, politics, and popular culture with a special interest in the history of American popular music.

As part of the Berkeley Democracy and Public Theology Program, BCSR’s Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic brings together scholars and the public to address the current pandemic and its commensurate crises, exploring the intersection between religion and timely topics such as the environment, public health, elections and democracy, religious freedom, and nationalism in order to foster dialogue and reflection.

The Berkeley Public Forum on Religion and Pandemic is generously sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation