There was an online discussion recently about whether or not models describing cults apply to the Church or not, and although the topic started with Steve Hassan’s BITE model that I’ve previously written about here, a participant shared a different list of criteria from Luna Cordben, author of Recovering Agency. I thought this new list was somewhat interesting to evaluate as well.

As mentioned in my previous post, there are some background considerations that should apply whenever looking at this type of list:

  • How does this organization compare to peer organizations? More extreme or less?
  • How much variation of individual experience exists within the group? How is variation dealt with by the organization?
  • How is the group changing over time? Become more or less extreme on the scale or aspect?
  • Intentionality–how much are these effects intended by the organization as a means of growth & self-preservation vs. how much are these effects a byproduct of other efforts that aren’t related or a byproduct of member expectations?
  • How much variation exists among leaders within the group? Is leadership’s approach consistent or varied based on individuals?

With all that in mind, let’s hit the new list! There’s a fair bit of overlap here with the BITE model, but it’s condensed (yay!). A few of these might make you laugh because they are pretty typical Mormon behavior, but there are also quite a few that don’t feel like the norm to me.

Love Bombing. Friendliness, flattery, praise, and affection are used to entice participation and attendance for potential recruits, and to retain members who may be showing less enthusiasm or are thinking of leaving. Diagnosis: Mormons kind of do this, although not to the extent of the full-on cults I’ve read about. For example, Manson would entice group members by putting young, nubile girls out to seduce recruits with actual orgies. We’re prone to making people projects and plastering a young woman’s garage door with hearts (a “heart attack”). In general, Mormons tend to be extra nice to those they want to woo, but they aren’t offering themselves sexually to them, and a lot of superficial friendship attempts feel frankly half-hearted. IMO, we aren’t really that good at this or that committed to it on the whole.

Destabilizing the Self. Barriers are torn down that would otherwise prevent acceptance of new beliefs. Includes those who have already been destabilized by life situations and the indoctrination of children, who have not yet formed a sense of self. Diagnosis: yes and no. We aren’t as bad as the military which is really into this tactic. Missions probably come closest within the Church to achieving an erasure of self in favor of the person the Church wants representing it.

Deception. Lies, omissions, and “front” activities cover up flaws or unusual aspects of the group, doctrine, leadership, and history. Some deceptions will be revealed later when a member is “ready.” Diagnosis: This is a huge yes. Our version of Church history is deliberately misleading, and what occurs in the temple, including the covenants an individual will be making, are unknown until one is actually there. Having said that, the temple experience is constantly evolving and becoming more palatable to initiates based on feedback, although the hidden meanings (some of which are concerning to patrons) remain intact.

Sacred Science (Closed System of Logic). The ideology and leader have the one and only truth. Members should only seek answers in group teachings. Doctrinal logic is airtight. The leaders are above criticism and those who question or criticize are immoral. Diagnosis: 100% yes, and in comparison to most other churches, ours is far more authoritarian and full of leader-worship. Some of the things we say and sing would make the Pope blush.

Mystical Manipulation. Forces exist which are more powerful than the self. The group strives to fulfill a higher purpose. Ends justify the means. Events and experiences are orchestrated, manipulated, or reframed to appear supernatural and prove the leader is chosen and the doctrines are true. Diagnosis: mostly yes, but this one feels like just another Tuesday in Christianity. Mainstream Christians tend to see the hand of God or Satan in the things that occur in life. If anything, Mormons might be a little lower on this one because we also believe a lot that human actions drive consequences (except for leaders who are exempt from negative consequences regardless their actions).

Milieu Control. Information and environment are tightly controlled. Gossip, questioning, and criticism is tightly regulated, as is access to outside information, especially that which might raise doubts or be critical of the group. Diagnosis: Meh, mixed bag. The Church would prefer to contain questioning and criticism more than it is able to do so. If we rate this on intentions, it’s got to be pretty high, but if we rate it on how effectively it’s done, it’s probably middle of the road.

Demand for Purity (Perpetual Inadequacy). Lofty moral goals are set. At first the goals seem achievable, but the standards for achievement grow ever more impossible to meet, keeping the follower perpetually inadequate. Diagnosis: This one depends entirely on whether one’s life matches up with the Mormon ideal or not. For married, white, male heterosexuals, the goals aren’t all that lofty. For anyone else, you have to basically try to be someone you are not.

Dispensing of Existence. The individual’s literal or figurative existence is threatened as a consequence for impurity, doubt, or leaving the group. Life, the eternal soul, self-esteem, a sense of “being good”, and one’s identity hangs in the balance. Diagnosis: mostly the intention on this one is a yes. I tend to think that most family-based religions operate this way, though. But do the majority of Church members buy this? I suspect this has more to do with individual temperament and one’s social circle, so I imagine a lot of variation on this.

Doctrine Over Self. The individual is subordinate to the group, leader, and teachings. When personal desires, goals, and values conflict with group values, they become selfish or immoral. Diagnosis: another yes, if the intentions of the organization are considered, although it didn’t used to be this way. In yesteryear, the party line was that the Church had policies that were “the rule,” but individuals, through the gift of the Holy Ghost, could receive personal revelation that was for themselves only (or their immediate family) and that meant they were an “exception.” Even E. Oaks has preached that the Church only talks about rules, not exceptions, but exceptions exist.

Loading the Language. Existing words are loaded with new meaning. New words are added. Other words are banned or dropped from usage. This affects ability to think, as well as ability to communicate comfortably with those outside the group. Diagnosis: LOL, there is definitely this tendency to redefine words, and to claim that the actual meaning of the word is the “world’s definition.” I had a bit of fun with this in my Mormon Jargon posts several years ago here and here. I’m not really sure how effective this re-definition words business actually is. Does anyone out there actually believe “preside” means “equal”? If so, come on.

Totalist Reframing. Situations, thoughts, or feelings are reinterpreted in a way that suits the goals of the organization. This is used to continually prove the ideology correct, to squelch doubts, and to silence outsiders. Diagnosis: To an extent, the Church does this. Clearly the intent is there, but it also feels like there’s a lot of variation in individual experience on this one.

Thought-Terminating Clichés. Short phrases, pat answers, metaphors, and emotional reactions are pre-established to frame doubts. Doubt and questions are automatically shut down. Diagnosis: The closest example of this I can think of is quoting passages of scripture to oneself (which all religious people do, just cherry picking different verses that the sect finds most meaningful to their worldview), or the song from Book of Mormon: The Musical in which the one elder with sexy thoughts sings “Turn it off! Like a light bulb!” referring to the Mormon advice to sing a hymn or change your thoughts when facing temptation. It’s a catchy little tune. However, none of these approaches are on par with the thought-stopping that is done in your garden variety cults.

Social Pressure. Social acceptance and rejection are used to reward and punish. A member becomes driven with a desire to conform. Diagnosis: This is another one where we have to consider how extreme it is because I can’t think of a community on the planet where this doesn’t happen. If you were hunting and gathering, this happened in your social group. It’s just how humans work. If (as the author of this list is doing) you are attempting to extricate yourself from a group that is harmful, sure, it’s useful to identify the social pressures the group is exerting on you to enable you to do so. Personally, I have been in many wards where the social pressure wasn’t that high, but then again, I’m not a joiner. YMMV.

Belief Follows Behavior. Action generates the associated beliefs. Diagnosis: Insofar as Mormonism is more orthoprax than orthodox, I suppose this may be true. This one confuses me.

Public Commitment. Commitments are expressed aloud. Public statements reinforce belief and dedication to the group. Diagnosis: Yes, in terms of fast and testimony meetings and inviting people to bear testimony, including all teachers being encouraged to do so at the end of the lesson, and people being randomly invited to do so in various meetings.

Creating Dependency. A member comes to depend on the group for physical, emotional, social, spiritual, or other needs. The member has a high stake in continuing to stay loyal to the group. Diagnosis: This one came up in the post I did on the BITE model, but this wording is more convincingly affirmative. Loyalty is reinforced through sunk costs like tithing, mission service, temple marriage, sealings, and callings. For many Mormons, their entire social world is the Church, and they have invested so much money in it that if they fall on hard financial times, their only way out will be the Church. The Church doesn’t like this financial reliance, though, and encourages members to be self-reliant or to go to family first, only asking for financial assistance from the Church if all else fails. I suppose if someone had socked away that 10% into retirement savings, one might have a better safety net given that situation. (However, as I’ve often noted, a LOT of my non-LDS friends spend roughly 10% of their income on booze, so there ya go).

Black and White Thinking. Broad spectrums of thought and morality become reduced to two options: Good vs. Evil, Love vs. Hate, Weak vs. Strong. Humble vs. Proud. Diagnosis: This one sounds like the curriculum of any conservative church, but individuals who live in the real world usually don’t see things this way. There is a lot of variation among members on this.

Elitism. The members of the group are chosen people, exalted, righteous. Members are made to feel special when compared to outsiders. Diagnosis: This used to be a bigger problem than it is now, although there’s always a tendency in high demand religions to do this. Basically the whole premise of this country was based on this idea that the Colonists were God’s chosen people creating a light on the hill, blah, blah, blah. Exceptionalism is our bread and butter as a nation, and it’s based on the Puritan doctrines that were there from the inception.

Us-Versus-Them Thinking. This is a form of black-and-white thinking wherein outsiders, ex-members, and those critical of the group are dehumanized and labeled as evil, apostate, vicious, hateful, prideful, blinded, deceived, etc. A persecution complex may exist whereby reasonable criticism is reframed as an attack. Diagnosis: Yes, a thousand times, yes. This one is huge. It was particularly embarrassing when some Mormons were posting a thing during the Black Lives Matter protests about how persecuted Mormons were when driven out of Nauvoo, overlooking the fact that they weren’t exactly fantastic neighbors, and they were also not enslaved at any point. It was pretty gross.

Indirect Directives. Certain restrictions or demands on behavior are implied rather than express. The logical elements for a given conclusion are supplied, leaving the member to draw the conclusion herself. Leadership remains innocent of issuing any unseemly teachings. Diagnosis: Unwritten rules, anyone? (E. Packer’s infamous talk about the unwritten rules within the Church). However, social norms always operate this way. Every group has unwritten norms. You can’t write them all down!

Identification and Example. Those who behave correctly or incorrectly are used as examples. Suggested behavior can be inferred from these stories without direct commandment. Stories are told, which may be reframed or blatantly untrue, to demonstrate consequences. The human mind relates strongly to stories, and it also inspires social pressure. Diagnosis: Very much so. Milk strippings story comes to mind, as do many others. Someone recently pointed to Ziff’s post on the Church’s abortion stance and the fact that while the policy carves out reasonable exceptions, every talk on this topic illustrates the example of a woman who, against all advice, risks her life and brings a baby into the world (and they lived happily ever after, the end).

Emotion Over Intellect. Emotion is emphasized as the preferred decision-making tool. The value of using reason is downplayed. Doctrines are frequently taught in emotional contexts, such as through stories told in tearful or gentle tones. Diagnosis: Yes, totally this, BUT again, this just feels like what religions do. Are there churches out there that just discuss things logically rather than emotionally? I thought the point of church was to elevate emotions and set logic aside for this one part of your life.

Induced Phobias. Fears are instilled which are either imaginary, based on real or exaggerated consequences, or on artificial effects created from group pressures. Diagnosis: Huge big fat yes on this one. Sad heaven, anyone?

Trance Induction & Dissociative States. Critical thinking skills are reduced through regular encouragement of receptive mental states. Altered states can be mild and seem normal, and include concentration, fatigue, boredom, and hunger. Diagnosis: This one feels nah to me, certainly when compared to other cult-like organizations. I mean, if we’re including boredom, sure, but come on, that’s a low bar. Is every business meeting a cult now?

Time Control. The member has little time or energy to question beliefs, associate with outsiders, or examine life too closely. Time spent on group-related activities is strongly encouraged or enforced, and usually fills every spare moment. Diagnosis: Less true than it used to be, which is a good trend. Cutting church down to two hours has made a big difference, and aside from the youth who are basically held hostage daily in seminary, most of us really just go to church on Sunday and that’s it. It used to be much more involved, but all the cultural stuff got killed, and the activities got pared back a lot.

Double-Bind. The member is “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” She must betray the group or betray her own integrity. Diagnosis: Kind of, but that doesn’t have to be the case. The last few years of talks have really softened this rhetoric, although many of them have been amateurish. The effort to dial it down seems to be there for a change.

Blame Reversal. The leadership, group, and doctrine are above reproach, so any failed promises and bad situations are always the fault of the member. Diagnosis: Perhaps my biggest pet peeve of all, this one is classic behavior in the Church.

Guilt & Shame. A cycle of guilt and shame comes from repressed doubts, social pressure, and failure to meet impossible standards. Diagnosis: This type of scrupulosity certainly exists in the Church, and while it’s not uncommon, it’s far from universal. I think we all know people like this, but we also all know lots of people nothing like this.

Confession. The individual surrenders to leaders through confession, which reduces privacy and boundaries. Successful purification can grant temporary relief from guilt, which increases trust and dedication. Members are motivated to obey to avoid confession. Diagnosis: This one kind of makes me laugh because clearly the Church attempts to do this through worthiness interviews, but it can’t be that successful except for the youth who haven’t yet learned how to lie to the bishop or for BYU students whose education hangs in the balance.

Euphoria Induction. The euphoria of group participation and fulfilling the member’s ideals motivates good behavior and reduces doubts while proving the validity of the group. Diagnosis: Euphoria? That’s not a word I would associate with my Church experience. What is this, yoga?

Proselytizing. Members are encouraged to propagate teachings to outsiders. This not only maintains or increases the size of the group, but also soothes cognitive dissonance, consumes time, and provides opportunities for public commitment. Diagnosis: Yes, and certainly compared to other faiths this is a pretty strong expectation due to proselyting missions. The encouragement to invite others to join never ends, although once you’re an adult, nearly everyone secretly ignores this, like walking past a homeless person while patting down your empty pockets.

Assuming the Church doesn’t want to appear cult-like, or at least not in comparison to other sects, what could they do to change this? Here are a few that would help, particularly in a proselytizing Church that wants to win converts rather than scare them away:

  • Scrap the human leader worship. No quoting other leaders, particularly those who are living. This is getting completely out of control. Kill the horrible Primary song “Follow the Prophet” which is nothing Jesus ever promoted. That song is creepy anyway and has an unsettling melody that ends on a minor chord. Spooky! Stop using the word “obedience” in reference to human leaders. Change it to “wise counsel from reverred leaders” if you must.
  • Quit presenting misleading history narratives. Can we just quit talking about history? It’s pretty clear that we can’t be trusted with it. Any investigator can know in five minutes with a Google search that we are full of crap.
  • Get rid of the Strengthening the Members Committee. This is LONG overdue. Be secure enough to never again excommunicte anyone for so-called apostasy. If we have to excommunicate people, let it be for real problems like embezzlement, adultery or using the ward directory to pitch MLMs or sell insurance.
  • Get rid of worthiness interviews, probably altogether, but for sure in their present form. No sexual questions beyond using the words “law of chastity” if you absolutely can’t let it go. Bear in mind, we’ve deputized 100K middle aged men to interrogate people behind doors and assess their worthiness. That’s a pretty large barrel if we’re trying to avoid bad apples.
  • Modify mission service to be more self-directed (length of service) and flexible (service missions or proselytizing at the choice of the applicant).
  • Be transparent about finances. Members should be able to be proud of how their contributions are spent, and if they aren’t going to be proud of how they’re being spent, well, that’s just not good enough. Where much is given, much is required. The lack of transparency in today’s internet age is beginning to feel like a lack of accountability and respect.

In addition, we need to be more accepting of people who leave or are not full-throated in their commitment to the Church, like Catholics are. We need to quit demonizing people who don’t fit the mold. If the “plan” isn’t compelling to them, maybe it’s the plan’s fault, not theirs. Let’s be honest that variation exists and isn’t thwarting God’s plan for human life. Also, if Church isn’t enjoyable, let’s make it enjoyable, not just tell people they are the problem for not enjoying it.

Someone in the discussion said that a measure of “cultiness” is whether it’s possible to leave while retaining your dignity. I think that’s an interesting thought experiment, but the core question between cults and Churches in our modern world also feels like how easy is it to leave in general? The more you experience retaliation, threats, shunning, and other non-natural consequences for leaving, the higher it is on the cult spectrum.

  • How do you measure the Church against this list? Do you like this list more or less than the BITE model?
  • What are the top 3-5 ways you would recommend we reduce “cultiness” in the Church or do you think it’s fine as it is?
  • Do you think the Church is getting less culty or more culty in your lifetime? Defend your answer.
  • How do you think the Church compares to other churches across these measures?