Is Minimalism a Cult?

While I’ve already addressed the criticism that Minimalism is an anti-poor philosophy that is only for the privileged, another criticism of minimalism is that it is a pseudo-religious, borderline cult. Indeed, some of the adherents of minimalism follow the philosophy with religious fervor and regard the prominent advocates with reverence usually reserved for religious figures. For example, many of those who call in with questions for The Minimalists seem to be seeking permission from their saviors. Some seem to forget The Minimalists are just two guys named Josh and Ryan.  To their credit, The Minimalists often give callers helpful rules of thumb and suggestions to work through their issues, but reject any perceived messiah status. Listeners can often hear The Minimalists telling those who ask questions, “you don’t need our permission.” 

I grew up without a structured religion. As a practitioner and teacher of yoga and a recovering Philosophy major, I am not a stranger to a wide range of philosophical ideas, and I’m fairly well-versed in Eastern religions for a Westerner. The philosophy of minimalism does not have overt religious connotations in and of itself, but one could certainly project their own religious and moral values onto the philosophy if they were so inclined.

As Josh pointed out in a recent live show/podcast, people often project their own beliefs on to the minimalist philosophy.  Josh points out that, in the same week, a Christian praised them for spreading the Bible’s word and someone more familiar with Eastern religions noted that they seemed to be very in tune with Buddha’s message.  The Minimalists themselves have different religious and political beliefs.  They adhere to that old maxim about avoiding those topics of conversation with each other or, according to them, all they’d ever do is fight about it. When asked about which religious and spiritual practices they align with, Ryan answered, “It doesn’t matter what organized religion you belong to or what God you worship, they all want you to live a simple life.”

There really is something to that.  For example, the Bible says the meek will inherit the Earth. Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Proverbs 13:7 reminds us “A pretentious, showy life is an empty life; a plain and simple life is a full life.” Poets like Thoreau and Wordsworth that likely leaned Christian have extolled the virtues of living a simple life. However, every group has its hypocrites.  The philosophy of living a simple life that was present in early Protestantism is highly contradictory to the  modern megachurches, highly-paid celebrity preachers, and the so-called prosperity gospel. Some argue that churches should be opulent to honor God and inspire awe in the people who worship there. I would argue that perhaps God would prefer to be honored by using that money to help those in need.

Living simply is not an exclusively Christian idea; most religions teach the value of humility and living simply.  Leaders of almost every religion are expected to renounce material possessions to some level. Mahatma Gandhi, who drew spiritual inspiration from Hinduism, Jainism, the Ascetics and others, said “Live simply so that others may simply live.” Buddhism teaches that attachment is the root of all suffering. Everything is temporary so to attach one’s happiness to something like material possessions which can easily be lost, stolen or broken is setting oneself up for unhappiness. Despite the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish people being wealthy and even greedy, this article written by a Rabbi sounds like it could have been written by one of The Minimalists. Indeed, many of those who are Orthodox wear black to demonstrate their lack of concern about being fashionable. They also cite the ease with which they can choose clothing to wear when it all matches. They are more concerned about their inner, spiritual selves than what others think. Sounds pretty familiar, huh?

Almost all religions teach some version of Minimalism, so it is pretty disingenuous to suggest that The Minimalists or any other person promoting a minimalist lifestyle are part of some sort of religious cult promoting any particular religion. Indeed, much about organized religion makes me uncomfortable and I probably would have avoided it if it was related to any particular organized religion. The philosophy itself transcends religion; regardless of what your spiritual, religious, moral or other beliefs, minimalism can be applied to your life and, I believe, benefit it greatly.


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