If you ask the Meyerists of Hulu’s The Path, they’ll insist they belong to a movement — not a cult or a religion. But from the outside, it’s tricky to work out the difference. Invented by show creator Jessica Goldberg, Meyerism sits somewhere between a doomsday cult and a peaceful back-to-the-Earth hippie commune, with practices and beliefs drawn from Christian mysticism, traditional South American religions, and a variety of fringe cults.
By the time we meet the Meyerists, they’re navigating a transition from their founder’s leadership to the next generation. Cal (Hugh Dancy) sees himself as the next leader, while Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and Eddie (Aaron Paul) grapple with doubt in their own family. Goldberg developed the idea for the show and its religion after a period of loss in her life — her father died and her marriage fell apart — after which she experienced her own crisis of faith and began seeking solace in a number of spiritual sources, from psychics to the Golden Bridge, which has roots in Kundalini yoga.
Meyerism exists in a world that does include organized, and extremist, religion — we hear about Boko Haram on the radio and see nuns, and it’s clear there’s some kind of Christianity in Eddie’s background. To sort out what Meyerism shares with other religions, we broke down some of its key elements, with input from Goldberg.
An Apocalyptic Future
Meyerists believe “the future” is coming, an Earth-consuming doomsday that only the enlightened will escape to live in the Garden, a place of perfect peace that sounds quite a bit like many religions’ idea of paradise. Meyerists see evidence for their belief in news of fires, floods, and global unrest —signs of the end that also appear in a number of sacred texts, including the Bible. This apocalyptic future (just called “the future”) was first glimpsed by Dr. Stephen Meyer, the group’s founder, on what the group commemorates as “Ascension Day.” (If that sounds familiar, it’s because the traditional Christian calendar includes the “Feast of the Ascension,” celebrated 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection, to celebrate his return to heaven.)
But the Meyerists’ coming apocalypse isn’t exactly like similar world-ending events that have been a feature of religions since ancient times. “It’s apocalyptic in the way the Rapture is, except that it’s not made by God,” Goldberg said. “So it has that end-of-days feel, except the difference is that when Steve, the original founder, climbed that ladder, he saw a man-made apocalypse that we were making.” It’s ignorant humans who will bring “the future.” The Meyerists hope to rescue as many as possible before then.
So how does one escape “the future” and live in the Garden? By ascending the rungs of the ladder, the Meyerists’ main focus and means of personal enlightenment. Meyer saw the future when he climbed the ladder, burning his hands — an element that becomes important in later episodes of the show. His followers sing a song — a very hippie folk song — about climbing “up, up, up the ladder to the garden in the sky.”
In Meyerism, the elders are those who have reached higher levels of enlightenment, or higher rungs. Climbing the ladder is a strictly regimented process, encoded in The Ladder, the Meyerists’ foundational text, received by Meyer in the manner of a number of sacred texts from the Koran and the Bible to the Book of Mormon. (There’s also a children’s picture-book version for parents to read to their kids.)
When we meet the Meyerists, the instructions for ascending ten of the 13 rungs are available to them; the final three rungs are still being translated by Meyer in Peru. While the idea of ascending levels — “I’m an 8R,” a character might say, meaning they’ve reached the eighth rung — seems pulled straight from Scientology. In Meyerism, it’s not about investing money to reach higher rungs, but becoming personally enlightened through practices drawn from a smattering of religions. They start with basic actions that resemble yoga and other spiritual practices that seek to unite body and mind, and become more specialized as the adherent reaches higher rungs.
When we first meet Eddie, he’s just returned from the 6R retreat, which takes place in Peru and involves ingesting ayahuasca to heal damage and induce visions. “He must be flying high!” Cal (10R) remarks to Sarah (8R). Ayahuasca is a plant-derived brew with psychotropic properties that is sacred to many indigenous peoples in the Amazon, used for both religious ceremonies and healing. It’s also been used by spiritual seekers from other cultures seeking to transcend consciousness.
Another striking way the Meyerists climb the ladder is “the walk,” which all of the higher-rung Meyerists have accomplished: a 250-mile ritual pilgrimage that re-enacts Meyer’s own journey of enlightenment. The legend is that Meyer walked away from his job rehabilitating soldiers with only $34 in his pocket and journeyed like a pauper, staying in homeless shelters along the way — and Meyerists follow in his footsteps. This mimics the custom among many cultures of a “walkabout,” in which young men typically journey alone, away from civilization, in order to find enlightenment on the cusp of manhood.
Goldberg actually pulled the practice from St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Catholic Jesuit order and of a number of spiritual practices, including a “poverty experiment” that aspiring Jesuits were required to perform. “They would literally go for a month, or three months, without money, just to walk as the poor,” said Goldberg. “I was always moved by the idea that to know the suffering of the poor, you have to live like them. We can’t know what it is to suffer if we don’t walk in the shoes of one who suffers. So we put it in our own mythology.”
When Meyerists do the equivalent of committing a sin — or “transgress,” as they call it — they have a series of rituals around confession and restoration, like many religions, in order to restore balance to the soul. Couples undergo regimented therapy, including reconnection practices. Adherents who transgress go into a sort of solitary confinement where they drink a psychotropic green juice and undergo reprogramming. People participate in “offsetting,” similar to penance; one way of offsetting one’s transgressions, for instance, is to plant trees.
Meyerists don’t believe in a being called God. Instead, they live in “the Light,” praying toward it and seeking to live in it. Their homes are marked by paintings and wooden replicas of an all-seeing eye that is meant to remind them that in the light everything is seen and known. “Yes to the Ladder! Yes to the Light!” the Meyerists chant during their meetings.
However, Meyerists are happy to refer to God in a generic sense when it helps outsiders understand their beliefs. In the second episode, Cal goes on a local news program to talk about the group and invokes Christian terminology, saying that “God created us in his image,” and that the group aims “to be light and eradicate the world’s suffering.”
One way of reminding themselves of the light is by giving testimony, especially to new recruits. Their stories are honed, and in the show’s pilot we hear Eddie’s. This mirrors a very common practice in many branches of evangelical Protestantism, in which testimonies are a way of cementing one’s story and encouraging the group to continue in the faith.
Since they don’t believe in God, Meyerists don’t gather for worship, exactly. But they have a churchlike building and a regular weekly gathering to which all are welcome, from the curious to the most enlightened. Their leader preaches and inspires them; in the pilot, Cal retells Plato’s allegory of the cave and suggests that it’s his job to help them leave the cave and come into the light.
The building for the gathering is located on the Meyerists’ compound, where they grow vegetables, conduct therapy, house new recruits, and center their practices. Meyerists have two ways a person can join their group: they can choose to incorporate the practices of Meyerism into their normal daily lives in the mainstream world — a path chosen by several characters who appear in the show — or they can “take vows,” beginning at age 16, that signal their desire to begin ascending the Ladder toward the Light.
Not everyone lives on the compound, though. Eddie and Sarah, along with their children, live in their own home nearby, close to Sarah’s brother’s family and her parents, with whom they frequently share meals. Family is the cornerstone of Meyerism, and unlike those who take vows to become a monk or a priest, devoted Meyerists are allowed and encouraged to marry and raise families. “In a lot of cults you’ll see that they separate mothers and children and are very threatened by the family,” Goldberg said. “We went against a lot of the stereotypes of cults. I’m definitely trying to veer away from the typical mass suicide, six wives, that kind of stuff.”
Early on, we realize that while the children of the Meyerists attend public school, they feel weird there. The adolescent is hypersensitized, Meyer teaches — extremely vulnerable to being led astray from the light. So teenagers aren’t allowed to spend one-on-one time with those outside the group, and dating outsiders is strictly prohibited, a fact that causes trouble for Eddie and Sarah when their 15-year-old son, Hawk, becomes interested in a classmate. The Meyerists also don’t play video games, eat meat, or listen to contemporary music: “A lot of contemporary music brings darkness into the world, so we listen to music from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Hawk tells his classmate. “More hopeful.”
On the higher rungs of the ladder, Meyerists see little need for art from the outside world. On a visit to the home of a wealthy friend of the movement in the second episode, Cal remarks on the family’s art collection — he can pick out a Modigliani on sight — but says that while he used to use art to “deepen my understanding of the human condition, so Francis Bacon revealed a depth of suffering I couldn’t comprehend, or a Dylan ballad helped me get inside how so many of my fellow citizens live, in existential drift,” now the image of the eye is all he needs. “The rest is a distraction,” he says with a smile.
The Meyerists also practice extreme honesty and forthrightness, which makes kids like Hawk seem awkward and rude around outsiders who might want to avoid uncomfortable topics of conversation. Holding in their feelings and secrets weighs them down, keeping them from enlightenment, so Meyerists regularly engage in the practice of “unburdening” to one another.
The first scene of The Path shows Meyerists rescuing people after a tornado strikes in Rindge, New Hampshire, not far from their compound in upstate New York. It’s a foundational tenet of Meyerism — and of many religions — that their first goal is to reach out to those who need help.
The people Meyerists help range from orphans and single mothers struggling to keep their homes to illegal immigrants and the homeless. Some see this as admirable, while others view it as preying upon the helpless in their time of weakness. They reach out through old-fashioned street evangelism, approaching people in parks and talking with them about their struggles — familiar tactics that even Cal suggests are like “Jews for Jesus.” He thinks they’re outdated, and starts trying to take advantage of media attention, something Meyer had shunned.
One of the primary ways the Meyerists have added to their number is by helping addicts kick their addictions, using a variety of alternative remedies or “medicines.” One character is horrified to discover that the medicine is a dubious drug — but it sure seems to work. The connection between body and soul is emphasized in Meyerism in a way that seems to most closely mirror a number of Eastern religions.
Meyerists also use a series of probes to therapeutically and gently realign their bodies when they feel out of whack. “Scientology has that E-meter, which I guess is like a lie detector,” said Goldberg. But that wasn’t really the inspiration for the device. Instead, the writers looked at religions that try to bring together the body and the mind. “We figure it’s like electrostimulation, a little like giving yourself acupuncture. So if you’re feeling off, you can turn up these things in your body. For the drug addicts, it’s very good, because they’re not getting the same endorphins anymore.”
Exclusion and Doubt
Adherents refer to those outside of Meyerism as “IS,” short for “ignorant systemites.” They’re the people who will bring about “the future” through their unenlightened actions. All they care about is “the moment,” obsessed with their own fulfillment. Meyerists help them when needed, but generally stay away.
But as the show goes on, it becomes clear the Meyerists have even less tolerance for doubters among the converted. That’s where things start to go awry. “I think anything that doesn’t allow doubt is a cult,” Goldberg said. In researching the show, the writers discovered that doubt was a powerful problem in many different religions. “The amazing thing about the computer is you can go in a Mormon chat room or an Orthodox Jewish chat room, and you can find that people are struggling,” said Goldberg. “They have a secret, and it’s very painful to them, and they don’t know how to tell their family.”
Leaving Meyerism can be dangerous, and one character, Alison, is actively hunted down by the movement for leaving. Even for those who have disassociated completely — like Sarah’s sister, whom she hasn’t seen in many years — leaving can be psychologically traumatizing. (This is hinted at in a later scene where bottles of antidepressants and other medications are found in a former adherent’s medicine cabinets.) “We researched a lot, and we had an expert come in who works with people who leave cults — and, under that umbrella, also extreme faiths,” Goldberg said. Various religious groups have different levels of tolerance for doubt: Some kick doubters out entirely, while others (like the Amish, famously) encourage a period of questioning among young people before they commit.
At the center of The Path is not merely a question of belief and doubt — though it explores those experiences in a way that is still not common on TV— but also how something like Meyerism, which Goldberg created by coming up with what would be her ideal religion, can still harbor a dark side. Cults and extreme religions — which are all over pop culture right now, from documentaries like Going Clear, Prophet’s Prey, and Holy Hell to P.T. Anderson’s film The Master, the HBO show The Leftovers, and the peppy Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — are typically marked by a dangerous, power-hungry leader who demands unswerving obedience and resorts to extreme measures to squelch those who would challenge their authority.
What The Path does best is explore the varying shades of altruism, woundedness, and megalomania that even the most peaceful religion can harbor, since religions are made up not of mindless robots, but of people. “It was really important to point out that behind most of God is absolutely beautiful ideas,” Goldberg said. “In our case, ambition is what corrupts: personal wounds, personal ambition.”