How A YouTuber's Cult Following Became An Actual Cult
Yes, people can make a living playing video games -- especially on YouTube (to teenagers, PewDiePie is more recognizable than Jennifer Lawrence). But how far does the phenomenon go? Does it surprise you that fans travel across the country just to hang out with YouTube stars at conventions? What if we told you that some even booked it all the way to Germany? To ... move in with a YouTube gamer. And join his cult. Athene (real name Bachir Boumaaza) is a pro gamer who lives with 25 of his followers. Together, they make philosophical videos and perform vaguely defined "experiments" into human consciousness. We spoke to Athene, as well as his friend and right-hand man Dries Leysen, to find out how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.
Silly Little Gaming Videos Became A Huge Force
Athene was one of the first people to tap into the gaming video phenomenon, getting his start in the YouTube dark ages of 2007. His first video, where he played World Of Warcraft like an eccentric but talented maniac, racked up over four million views.
He eventually accumulated just shy of 720,000 subscribers, over 450 million views, and a six-figure income. His channel became popular not only for Athene's gaming skills, but for his charitable interests and his bizarre sense of humor (the videos of his girlfriend wearing revealing outfits probably didn't hurt much, either). He also had a stint as a poker player, and appeared on a season of Belgian Big Brother.
Excuse us, hot girl. We're trying to see the cats.
It isn't the most subtle content in the world.
But it's enough to earn him pages on Wikipedia, KnowYourMeme, and EncyclopediaDramatica (the big three!), get a League Of Legends item named after him, book a TEDx talk, net some gaming news headlines about his feats, and garner him a profile by the noted gaming journalists at Bloomberg. He's so popular, he was able to rally 4000 fans to crash a World Of Warcraft server by having a coordinated goof-off in one of the game's cities ...
... and Leysen claims they once got kicked out of a convention for accidentally posing a security risk.
"A few years back, we got thrown out of DreamHack [a gaming/music/art festival] in Sweden due to security risks with the huge crowd of fans that would gather around Athene wherever we would walk."
What's the next step when you've become hugely successful in the world of gaming? You guessed it -- an abrupt switch to lengthy, serious philosophical lectures!
The Start Of A Cult-Like Following
In 2011, after a few years of gaming and goofs, Athene released a 50-minute documentary about the nature of consciousness called Athene's Theory of Everything. It was like if Nicki Minaj abruptly started hosting podcasts about the Crimean War. And everybody loved her for it. Athene's video has over 4.3 million views.
It claims to offer a solution to the "many current unsolved problems in physics," and warns that it may require multiple viewings to fully appreciate the implications it has for life, death, and the origins of the universe. Needless to say, it caused both confusion and controversy amongst Athene's fans, especially since he has precisely zero relevant credentials (although we were told "Athene studied political sciences, has a bachelor's in IT, and has spent many years autodidactically studying parts of psychology, neuroscience, and physics."). Some die-hard fans loved it anyway, because they're die-hard fans. That's what die-hard fans do. Some haters hated it, because that's what haters do. But most were just left baffled:
"And, of course, cats and boobs."
It seemed like a weird one-off experiment, but in late 2015, Athene began focusing heavily on philosophy. In November 2016, he released a 23-minute video called Science Finds God, a new-age mix of pseudoscience and philosophy explaining his outlook on life. It watches like something you'd find deep in the dark recesses of Netflix's documentary section, wedged between A Brief History Of Ham and Rabbits: Our Greatest Foe?
Here's a three-and-a-half-minute video on how to live an ethical life without God as a moral compass. Again, this is from a man who got famous for being really good at World Of Warcraft.
He also took his Twitch stream, which used to be mostly gaming shenanigans, and began to feature live philosophical debates between himself and other YouTubers. Here's the archive of a discussion on consciousness and determinism, which clocks in at a breezy two hours.
Long story short: Athene has created a movement called Neuro-spinozism, or, more modestly, Athenism. It's inspired by Spinozism, a 17th-century religious movement that claimed every single living being's mind and body is part of an infinite interdependent organism, essentially meaning that all of existence interconnects to form God. You can learn more about Spinozism by talking to basically any stoner alive, but the point is that this guy became e-famous by acting like a crazy troll, then felt qualified to launch a quasi-religious movement. Wouldn't you, if you had hundreds of thousands of followers who hung on your every word?
Then He Started A Compound In Germany
Athenism began as a dude streaming from his apartment, but soon became a movement of about 25 people, all living together and working on "projects." Sort of a lamer, internet-based version of Fight Club's "Project Mayhem." Anyone can come join what Athene has dubbed the Singularity Group, as long as they're financially self-sufficient, a vegan, and serious about working.
They don't make vegan Doritos or else membership would be in the millions.
Athene made a video tour of his compound (his word, not ours). And it looks like an appropriate descriptor to us:
You're free to leave any time you want, but you have to untangle your own PC wires first.
We'll let you decide whether it looks more like a college dorm, or just a few refreshments away from Jonestown (they debated a rule encouraging members to hug more, but ultimately decided against it). Here are a few of their projects:
Plus poker and stock trading, obviously.
They think that their work, which includes messing around with hypnosis and sensory deprivation, will improve a person's cognitive abilities and unlock the brain's "potential." It feels like a cult with a 21st-century twist, although some of that may be intentional, because the same showman tactics that help you develop a YouTube following are great for convincing people to pack up their lives and live with you in a converted retirement home.
"We do this in our main documentary, Science Finds God, and everything from the title to the way it is stylized is done in a strategic way to reach as many people as possible. While it's nonsensical to portray valuing critical thinking as something that is potentially psychologically damaging, presenting it as an almost arcane and dangerous brain-hack got a lot more people interested."
Here's what they said a regular day looks like: "Everyone is sort of doing their own thing to try to maximize the impact we can have, so it's a continuously morphing phenomenon here and it really depends on who you ask when it comes to what a typical day looks like. For me, I'm right now fully into production of our next video on YouTube, and Athene spends a lot of time livestreaming and being part of brainstorming whenever people want his input."
That sounds a little weird, sure, but it all follows pretty logically. And then ...
He Claimed To Know The Secret Of Life
When pressed to be more precise about their experiments, they told us: "We did do a lot of math tests and such to document the 'click' effect as we're working on a scientific paper."
The "click" is their buzzword for the end-goal of their ideas. They claim that by making logic and critical thinking, not emotional decision making, the focus of your life, "your intelligence goes up like crazy." There are also other benefits to being logical. As Athene himself puts it, new members are "going to get laid with logic pussy." If enough people "click," the world will supposedly become a much better place where poverty is a thing of the past. Basically, they think their beliefs can turn people into a bunch of Vulcans who also kick ass at League Of Legends.
"Trying to take that objective by yourself would be illogical, sir."
"People can experience a strong shift in confidence and intelligence when deciding to value critical thinking more than what was previously driving them. In a similar way as a gamer who is much more invested in winning is more likely to win than a casual gamer, someone who highly values critical thinking is more likely to see logical solutions to problems. The effect has similarities with what is described in many spiritual teachings but as science evolves, it becomes clearer how such a mindset can be achieved more optimally and without the need for esoteric beliefs."
So is he serious, or is he just trolling? It's hard to tell: In one video, Athene claims to be the most intelligent person on the planet. But when old fans made videos accusing Athene of running a cult, he responded by making a goofy video that purposely made them look as cult-like as possible. And yet dozens of people don't just move to Germany to help execute a joke. There's even a subreddit dedicated to helping people "make the click."
Others call Athene out for his angry, egomaniacal outbursts, and his creepy attitude towards women. While some just generally wonder what the hell is going on, and how to put a stop to it. How does Athene himself respond to being accused of running a cult?
"We are a loosely defined group of people who work to make as much of a positive difference in the world as we can. The more we focused our content on critical thinking and exploring how science can nowadays answer questions that used to be considered as exclusively belonging to the domain of philosophy or religion, the more we were baffled that some people felt compelled to label our movement as a cult. But as with everything, we love to just roll with these things and use the controversy to our advantage rather than trying to fight it."
He's Also Helped Raise Millions For Charity
What's especially un-cult-like here is, Athene doesn't seem to be in it for the money. Remember the Ebola outbreak? Athene and his pals flew to Liberia as a part of a fundraising effort. He even made a documentary, and streamed their lives with the community there.
When the wifi is too bad to even play Minecraft, you tend to spend all your time helping others.
It wasn't a misguided vanity project -- it was endorsed by Save The Children. Which has an entire page on him, because the Twitch-based charity he founded, Gaming For Good, has raised 23 million dollars for them. CNBC, IB Times, CBS, and others have done profiles on his charity work.
They ran into some trouble when trying to register themselves as a charity, and everyone had a laugh when one of their members jokingly suggested they just register as a religion ... until they realized that was a good idea.
"[Registering as a charity] turned out to be problematic due to the fact that we mobilize our audience to donate not to us but directly to the charities that we know are effective. As a result, we ran into the funny obstacle of every lawyer telling us we can't prove that it's us doing the fundraising. The twist we then came up with was: What if our non-profit would be a religion that is basically just critical thinking? The response we got from lawyers that we consulted was that this is a possibility, and we're now waiting to see if we get approval for it."
Scientology got one and they're basically a shitty sci-fi book club.
All of that leads to one final question ...
So, Is This Really A Cult?
There isn't a clear-cut framework for cults. There's no "cult stamp" you can just smack on a form and make it official. So where do you draw the line between an exploitative, possibly dangerous situation, and just a gaggle of geeks playing mind games?
And before you say "mind-control goggles" and "dead-eyed stares" ...
Athene does portray himself as the one guy in the world who can teach you how to be happy, and that's a pretty cult-like move. On the other hand, he doesn't want your money, or for you cut all ties with your family -- the classic cult "one-two" combo. We don't know what his endgame is: Maybe the German police will bust down the doors after the neighbors complain about a nasty smell one day, maybe they'll all just quietly move on to something new after a few years, maybe it'll all turn out to be an elaborate prank, or hey, maybe they really will discover the meaning of life. But for now, they are, as far as anyone can tell, completely serious about it.
"Athene and myself initially threw all our savings into it and thus far we've been fortunate to get enough donations from our viewers on Twitch to keep the lights on. We sort of improvise as we go along. And the side effect of putting together a team of people who are financially self-sufficient and love to think outside the box is that you tend to end up with mostly entrepreneurial individuals. We have members of the team who've been with us for almost two years now, and others who have just been part of it for about a month. From anywhere from the UK to Serbia to New Zealand."
Just one, big, happy family. And they all claim to have banged your mom.
We only know this: Someone who got famous for playing video games and trolling has raised millions of dollars for charity, while also convincing people to come live with him in a compound and participate in strange experiments on the human mind. We're calling it: That's the plot of the next BioShock.
For more looks into creepy cults, check out 7 Horror Movie Scenes I Lived Inside a Real Apocalyptic Cult and The Cult My Parents Forced Me Into Was A Hippie Sex Scam.
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