A recent study was circulated that shows the psychological markers of “church abuse,” or an environment in a religious atmosphere that can lead to exploitation or abuse of individuals who join.  In the study, participants rated their religion in light of the following 28 organizational behaviors, as either exerting a lot of pressure and control or very little pressure and control.

Because the study is administered to individual adherents (or former adherents), one problem with this type of study is that individuals seldom have experience with multiple religious groups.  Additionally, individuals may experience their religious group as more extreme or less extreme than the norm based on their local congregation and leaders, their family members, and most importantly their own personalities, particularly with regard to their own confidence and abilities.

Additionally, many groups behave in these same ways without being extreme.  We apply the pejorative “cult” and consider those who join extreme groups to be “gullible,” but all organizations use the same techniques to create cohesion and to recruit members, simply to a lesser extent.  The difference between the army and al Qaeda may be ideological, but recruitment techniques differ in degree, not in kind.  Likewise the difference between the Boy Scouts and a cult; both use rituals and attempt to create dependence.  Both are attractive to those experiencing a time of transition.

An article in Psychology Today identifies 5 characteristics of extreme groups:

  • A demand for members to isolate themselves from others not in the group.  This also happens in monasteries which are not typically considered cults.
  • Members are given arbitrary rules they must follow with exactness to ensure allegiance.  This also happens in the army to break in new soldiers.
  • Group members often have to do long hours of tedious work, rendering them physically and emotionally exhausted.  This also happens in the Karate Kid.  Wax on, wax off.
  • Extreme groups nearly always engage members in filling the group’s coffers.  While nearly all groups require some form of financial contribution, an extreme group may require a person to sign over all their assets or to engage in illegal activities or scams to quickly obtain funds.
  • Groups bar the exits.  While many groups makes it more difficult to leave than to join, extreme groups go to greater lengths to prevent, discourage or punish those who wish to depart from doing so.  They may even sic Tom Cruise on you.

Understanding that groups and those who join them (all of us, people from all income levels, and all walks of life) share many characteristics should make us more understanding.  Based on the article in Psychology Today, though, people often join groups, including extreme groups because of a few characteristics:

Recruiters know that what they appear to have in common is they are at some transitional phase in their life: something has gone and not been replaced. They may have moved location or given up work or education. They may have just left the bosom of the family because of age or poverty or divorce. They may have drifted away from their religion or ideological roots. They are dislodged from their social group…and looking for another.

Secret, not sacred.

And what does a group provide to such an individual?

Shy, unassertive people who seem inhibited and awkward in social situations are particularly attracted to groups with formulaic interaction patterns with their predictability and rule following.


Extreme groups offer simple, clear messages in an increasingly complex world.

So do political pundits.  At least, popular ones do.

Back to the original survey.

  1. The group tells members how to conduct their sex lives.  While nearly all religions have guidelines about sexual behaviors and chastity, cults and extreme groups often go much further.  Charles Manson used to break in new family members by assigning them a sexual partner and activity; by directing them in such intimate matters, he quickly broke their independent free will.
  2. Women are directed to use their bodies for the purpose of recruiting or of manipulation.  This just sounds like an episode of Mad Men.
  3. The group advocates or implies that breaking the law is okay if it serves the interests of the group.  No wait, this one sounds like an episode of Mad Men.  Or pre-recession investment firms.
  4. Members are expected to postpone or give up their personal, vocational, and educational goals in order to work for the group.  While some disaffected Mormons would say missions do this, there’s a big difference between serving a mission and moving to Jonestown or handing out flowers at the airport.
  5. The group discourages ill members from getting medical assistance.  Mormons tend to be big believers in professional medical care; priesthood blessings are seen as an add-on, not a substitute, for proper medical care.
  6. Gaining political power is a major goal of the group.  This sounds more like early Mormonism, although for those who don’t share the church’s conservative majority opinion, it can feel like an oppressive environment.
  7. Members believe that to leave the group would be death or eternal damnation for themselves or their families.  What religion doesn’t preach this?  A small percentage (e.g. Universal Unitarianism), but most do preach this.  When actual death threats accompany, then it’s an extreme group.  Danites, anyone?
  8. The group discourages members from displaying negative emotions.  Huh.  Aside from AA, what groups encourage you to display negative emotions?
  9. Members feel they are part of a special elite.  This just seems to me like all groups.  The Singapore American Club did this.  So do the Boy Scouts.  So does Costco.
  10. The group teaches that persons who are critical of the group are in the power of evil, satanic forces.  Again, that’s probably true of many religions.
  11. The group uses coercive persuasion and mind control.  As defined by . . . ?
  12. The group approves of violence against outsiders.  This is definitely extreme.  Unfortunately, Mountain Meadows Massacre comes to mind.
  13. Members are expected to live with other members.  Thank goodness this isn’t a thing!
  14. Members must abide by the group’s guidelines regarding dating and intimate relationships.  What does “must” mean?  In most Christian churches there are youth guidelines, but no actual coercion.  A group like the FLDS probably meets this standard.
  15. People who stay in the group do so because they are deceived and manipulated.  Well, this applies to any group you later leave.  You think it’s great until one day you don’t.
  16. The group teaches special exercises (e.g., meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues) to push doubts or negative thoughts out of consciousness.  And yet, trying to overcome negative feelings is probably a good thing, right?  I went to a leadership training that qualifies on this point.
  17. Medical attention is discouraged, even though there may be a medical problem.  Isn’t this the same as #5?
  18. Members are expected to serve the group’s leaders.  Certainly an expectation of undue deference to authority that goes against conscience is where the line is drawn, which is what makes the new policy so difficult for some of us.  But actually serving the group’s leaders is not and can’t be required in such a large community.
  19. Raising money is a major goal of the group.  Many groups are focused on making sure they are financially supported; the differentiator is probably in what the money is to be used for, particularly surpluses.  The lack of financial transparency in most religions can create suspicion.
  20. The group does not hesitate to threaten outside critics.  While all groups dislike criticism, actually threatening those outside critics is pretty extreme and difficult to pull off.
  21. Members are discouraged from making decisions without consulting the group’s leader(s).  Given the size of most churches, few individuals would have direct access to leaders, one reason that small groups may be extreme, but at some point they become too large to function as cults.
  22. Members are less capable of independent critical thinking than they were before they joined the group.  This is highly subjective.  For example, soldiers may have an increased deference for orders and authority based on their training, but that’s how military groups work.
  23. The group believes or implies its leader is divine.  This is done to prevent questioning orders given from above.  While all Christian churches consider Jesus to be divine, how much the human leaders are given that divine authority by proxy is probably an indication of this one.
  24. Mind control is used without conscious consent of members.  I’m not really sure what mind control really is, even after reading Helter Skelter.  It looked just like following orders to me.
  25. Members feel significant psychological pressure from leaders.  The amount of pressure people feel seems like something some are more susceptible to than others.
  26. The group’s leader(s) often criticize members.  My son would say this happens at Chipotle where he works.
  27. Recruiting members is a major goal of the group.  Most groups want to recruit new members.  One could certainly say college football teams fit this description.
  28. Members are expected to consult with leaders about most decisions, including those concerning work, child rearing, whether or not to visit relatives, etc.  This sounds like a repeat of #21.

In short, the article in Psychology Today made some great points about extreme groups–we are all susceptible to organizational pressures and tactics.

People who join extreme groups are not strange, disturbed, sheep-like idiots. We are social animals and members of many groups. The more secretive the group the more we are likely to label it a cult. . . . A lot of dark-side behaviour in organizations is group work. . . . People club together . . . they do things on behalf of groups that many seem strange and unacceptable primarily because they do not fully comprehend the value of group membership.