It's a fascinating question:
"What are the characteristics one would expect to find in a cult?"
Why do we think "cult" is a bad word? The base definition is "a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. " In my opinion, the word isn't necessarily bad; rather, it's the attributes of the group (which are often irrational) which make it good or bad, safe or dangerous.
Once those characteristics and/or attributes are identified, the next question to ask might be, "Is the LDS Church a cult?"
For many decades, many have said that it is.
But in my opinion, much like beauty, cult status may be in the eye of the beholder. After all, no church wants to be categorized as a cult. I mean, that puts them right up there with NXIVM, Heaven's Gate, Branch Davidians, Jonestown, Scientology and more, right?
Regardless, if you're in a cult, the perception is that not only are you whacked, but you're also helping to perpetuate the influence and power of the cult's chief whack-a-doodles as well. That's why there needs to be authoritative, objective criteria to determine if an organization is an actual cult.
Let's see what's out there, what works and what doesn't.
The BITE Model
What are the specific methods cults use to recruit and maintain control over people?
Steven Hassan's BITE Model may provide some answers.
Hassan's bio can be found here. I'll admit: With a resume including a PhD, M.Ed. and LMHC, who am I to argue with his credentials? Still there are others, like cults expert Rick Alan Ross, who dispute details of Hassan's resume.
And even beyond Hassan, one difficulty with the BITE Model is that it is supposedly only accepted by a fraction of all psychologists/sociologists of religion. But (1) even though the BITE Model may not be the academic gold standard, it does resonate with a lot of people and (2) BITE is based on research and theory by experts who studied brainwashing in China. So, while "BITE" may not have the credentials, the info it's based on certainly does. A quick Google search will bring up the info needed.
Which leads us to Hassan's book, "Combating Cult Mind Control." It provides a framework for assessing how cult-like an organization is (or isn't). In it, he describes his BITE Model, which categorizes cult-like behavior into four domains:
Thought Control, and
Emotional Manipulation and Control.
Here's a video which explains BITE Model basics:
Now let's put this evaluation to practice. Below are the four components of the BITE model. Each point has a checkbox. Feel free to check any boxes you are absolutely positive are applicable to the LDS Church.
[ ] Regulate individual's physical reality
[ ] Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
[ ] When, how and with whom the member has sex
[ ] Control types of clothing and hairstyles
[ ] Regulate diet - food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
[ ] Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
[ ] Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
[ ] Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
[ ] Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination including the Internet
[ ] Permission required for major decisions
[ ] Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
[ ] Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
[ ] Impose rigid rules and regulations
[ ] Punish disobedience by beating, torture, burning, cutting, rape, or tattooing/branding
[ ] Threaten harm to family and friends
[ ] Force individual to rape or be raped
[ ] Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
[ ] Instill dependency and obedience
[ ] Kidnapping
[ ] Beating
[ ] Torture
[ ] Rape
[ ] Separation of Families
[ ] Imprisonment
[ ] Murder
____ / 25
[ ] Deception:
- Deliberately withhold information
- Distort information to make it more acceptable
- Systematically lie to the cult member
[ ] Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
- Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
- Critical information
- Former members
- Keep members busy so they don't have time to think and investigate
- Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
[ ] Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
- Ensure that information is not freely accessible
- Control information at different levels and missions within group
- Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
[ ] Encourage spying on other members
- Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
- Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
- Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
[ ] Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
- Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
- Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
[ ] Unethical use of confession
- Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
- Withholding forgiveness or absolution
- Manipulation of memory, possible false memories
_____ / 6
[ ] Require members to internalize the group's doctrine as truth
- Adopting the group's 'map of reality' as reality
- Instill black and white thinking
- Decide between good vs. evil
- Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
[ ] Change person's name and identity
[ ] Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
[ ] Encourage only 'good and proper' thoughts
[ ] Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
[ ] Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
[ ] Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
- Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
- Speaking in tongues
- Singing or humming
[ ] Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
[ ] Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
[ ] Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
[ ] Instill new "map of reality"
_____ / 11
[ ] Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings - some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
[ ] Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
[ ] Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader's or the group's fault
[ ] Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
- Identity guilt
- You are not living up to your potential
- Your family is deficient
- Your past is suspect
- Your affiliations are unwise
- Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
- Social guilt
- Historical guilt
[ ] Instill fear, such as fear of:
- Thinking independently
- The outside world
- Losing one's salvation
- Leaving or being shunned by the group
- Other's disapproval
- Historical guilt
[ ] Extremes of emotional highs and lows - love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
[ ] Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
[ ] Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader's authority
- No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
- Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
- Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
- Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
- Threats of harm to ex-member and family
_____ / 8
TOTAL: _____ / 50
Interestingly, there may be times in a member's life when a particular point is relevant, and other times when it's not. For example, if you're serving a mission or attending a church-owned school, then yes, the church will "Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates" and "Control types of clothing and hairstyles." But those points may not be applicable to all members. Some members may find "Control types of clothing and hairstyles" applicable because they wear garments, whereas others don't.
And sometimes, there can be variation within a church. Could a BYU-I student ward be a tighter fit to the BITE model than a Southern California ward? Would a Sandy, UT ward be a better BITE fit than a ward in France? How about any of those wards compared with a mission?
Cult Research & Information Center / The Lalich Model
If Dr. Hassan's resume isn't solid enough for you, you might want to check out Dr. Janja Lalich, Professor Emerita of Sociology at California State University, Chico. As the head of the Cult Research & Information Center. Dr. Lalich is a world-renowned expert in cultic studies, and has the credentials to prove it. You can read more about her here: http://cultresearch.org/about
Dr. Lalich also has a model of sorts, found here. Here is what she says about it:
"Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may be manipulated, exploited, or even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may help you assess a particular group or relationship.
Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is a cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a "cult scale," or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult; this is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool:
[ ] The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
[ ] Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
[ ] Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
[ ] The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (e.g., members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry-or leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
[ ] The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (e.g., the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar-or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
[ ] The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
[ ] The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders, or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
[ ] The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (e.g., lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
[ ] The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and control members. Often this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
[ ] Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
[ ] The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
[ ] The group is preoccupied with making money.
[ ] Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
[ ] Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
[ ] The most loyal members (the "true believers") feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave-or even consider leaving-the group."
_____ / 15
Objective or Subjective?
In a way, the various cult models could be considered subjective in that somebody had to pick which things did and didn't belong on their list. It's sort of like how depression is diagnosed: People made a list of symptoms - symptoms they saw over and over again. They saw them so often, everybody pretty much agreed on their importance, and the list of symptoms was subsequently included in the DSM. Those who exhibited the symptoms found in the DSM were considered depressed.
Is such criteria arbitrary? One may believe so, but when you see the same characteristics/attributes over and over again in these various models, it must mean something. In this way, the subjective becomes objective.
The c word is offensive to many because it describes an organization that exercises undue/irrational influence on its members. It should be offensive.
I'm not sure how your scoring of these various models went, but in my case, it's perfectly appropriate to use in evaluating today's LDS Church.
After all, if it quacks like a cult and walks like a cult…
I invite you to score the LDS Church in relation to the BITE Model (individual component and total scores) and the Lalich Model.
Feel free to leave your scores in the comments below, as well as any comments you have as you scored the sections.