Membership Has Its Privileges: Cults and Closed Systems of Faith

She was upset and clearly nervous. “I think my daughter is being brainwashed,” she said, “and I am concerned about some of the beliefs she is expressing.” This would be an alarming confession for any minister to hear. What was one to do to allay this mother’s fears? I found myself particularly challenged for several reasons. For starters, I was a young “minister” not much older than sixteen. A grown woman more than twice my age was talking to me about her teenage daughter. Further complicating the matter was the small detail of me being the “cult leader” she was worried about. That’s right, yours truly was the brainwasher.

Cult fever in the populist mind tends to infect in direct proportion with mass suicide or celebrity participation. All it takes is a cybersect ingesting cyanide[1] or Tom Cruise stumping on the Today Show and cults move out of the shadows and into the line-up of water cooler conversations and television news magazine profiles.  In my case, I became involved in 1979 in what many classified simply as a cult and some more gently as a Christian cult.[2] The Jonestown tragedy[3] was barely a year old, the Unification Church was in ascendancy and all God-fearing Christians were on guard against the seduction of these insidious groups. Becoming a militant proselytizer for a fringe religious group in such an era wasn’t for the faint of heart; especially when it meant being confronted by your friends’ parents.

What is a cult? In simple terms, I would define it as another man’s religion. But such definitions won’t do. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines a cult as “a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous.”[4] The problem with the term is that it has been stretched too thin. When the same word is used to brand Heaven’s Gate and the Roman Catholic Church, it ceases to be useful. Instead of a noun that consistently describes a thing, “cult” has become the pejorative of the established mainstream against the counter-culture. It is the n-word of religious and social discourse.

Consider three well known American religions: Christian Science (400,000 members worldwide), Jehovah’s Witnesses (7.96 million worldwide), and Mormonism (15 million worldwide).[5] All three of these organizations have been consistently classified as cults by evangelical Protestant denominations. With one word, over twenty-three million people are placed on a level playing field with The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate. How are we to seriously discuss beliefs with such loose use of semantics?

The case of Mormonism is particularly revealing. The evangelical community has spilled much ink in its fight against Joseph Smith’s creation. Books, pamphlets, and classes are dedicated to explaining his errors from orthodoxy and how one is to witness to a Mormon. Yet, in the final weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign, prominent evangelicals seemed to run over their convictions and theology in their rush to endorse Mitt Romney, a committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). People who had held sophisticated arguments and theological positions seemed to capitulate to a truncated caveman logic, “Romney politics good, religion bad. Me vote politics.”[6]

LDS history illustrates some of the hilarity of the American Christian tapestry. A good argument can be made that the LDS Church owes more to Brigham Young for its shape and success than it does to Joseph Smith’s revelations. But what brought Brigham Young to Joseph Smith’s attention? It was his reputation for speaking in tongues in an impressive and commanding fashion.[7] That Brigham Young spoke in tongues would signify to unprejudiced Charismatics that he was born again and had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But since he was a Mormon, they would most likely conclude that he had evidenced a false gift. I suppose this is preferable to believing in a born again, Spirit-filled Mormon! Evangelical cessationists would say it proved that Brigham Young was no less a charlatan than Joseph Smith as the gift of tongues ceased with the passing of the Apostles. Jehovah’s Witnesses would simply find this fact as evidence that Young was demonized. At least they can all agree that he was in a cult.

And what of brainwashing? Brainwashing, or mind control, is the power tool of cultic organizations. Trained, malevolent operatives capture the unsuspecting and implant aberrant world views to enslave them for the enrichment of the Founder. As a small group leader in The Way International (TWI), I believed much of the bad press Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church was receiving. Though people accused us of brainwashing, I knew we weren’t doing the sorts of things the Moonies were to enslave their followers. It was eye opening to me when as a TWI missionary[8] I invited a group of Moonies over to give us their schpeal. There were four of them. There were four of us. They had a video. We had videos. Their founder had a deeper revelation of God. Our founder had a deeper revelation of God. They had volunteered to serve as proselytizers. We had volunteered to serve as proselytizers. They were sober and rational. We were rational and sober (most of the time). For the first time, I realized that they were no more brainwashed than I was. But we had all been indoctrinated.

Brainwashing, like cult, is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I myself have used it (or a form of it) in this article no less than seven times and I’m not finished yet. If a group of people hold to a belief system in spite of social pressure, contravening facts, or majority opinion; they must have been “brainwashed.” Personally, I think it is easier to convince people that they have been victims of brainwashing than it is to actually brainwash someone.

Technically, brainwashing is the forcible indoctrination of someone to give up basic political, social, or religious beliefs and accept contrasting regimented ideas.[9] Brainwashing, also known as thought reform, is a severe form of social influence that combines compliance, persuasion, and education while isolating the target and making them completely dependent on the brainwasher, or agent. The target’s basic human needs (e.g., food, clothing, shelter, toilet, sleep) are under the direct control of the agent. Through his manipulation of the needs and use of torture, the agent begins to twist the target and mold his mind to the desired shape.[10] This isn’t what happens in most of what people call cults today. And it wasn’t what I had done to the girl at the start of this story.

After ten years in TWI, I began to make forays back into mainstream Christianity. It wasn’t easy. I joked with one of my pastors in those early days that if I had confessed to being a delivered Satanist, they would have had me in front of the church sharing my testimony and teaching seminars on the occult the day after I walked in the door. But mention that you had been involved with The Way International and you were quarantined. “Watch out for that guy, he’s been in a cult!” As my wife and I reintegrated into the greater body of Christ, I discovered some of the reasons that had made TWI and groups like it so attractive to so many people.

Before I continue, I would like to exchange words. Instead of cult, I prefer “closed system of faith.” In a closed system of faith, all the complexities and variables of life are simplified through a standardized grid of dogma. Knowledge of and adherence to the grid is empowerment, superiority, success, and acceptance. All closed systems of faith that I have encountered share this phenomenon. Its adherents express it differently. Some feel sorry for those outside who are called unbelievers, lost, fools, ignorant or Gentiles. Others are antagonistic to the “them” that always seem to be out to get “us”. Many exhibit the arrogance of those in the know amongst the ignorant masses. But those on the inside share an intimacy that those on the outside struggle daily to achieve.

The first note of the siren’s song is the invitation to the Secret Seminar. We have knowledge that you need. To get it, you have to take our class. And thus the indoctrination begins. These training outreaches are generally designed in a way that they deliver more information than can be processed in the time of presentation. And the presentation time can be long, hours a night for weeks or intensive weekends where the audience absorbs (or is bombarded by) the rapid-fire delivery of the instructor. No time is given for questions. Hold those to the end because more than likely, your questions will be answered as we move through the course. By the finish line, most have forgotten what the questions were.

Having been stuffed with new information, the proselyte is now encouraged to master the material. Not through questioning and discourse, however, but through follow-up homework and workshops. Thus the ideas are hammered in and the new perspective grows. Due to the time commitment involved, deep bonds are formed with fellow students who all share a gratitude for the privilege of special knowledge.

The song has hit its bridge. No longer do we ponder what should be done. We have standard formulas for conduct that guarantee results. The daunting confusion of the world has been tamed. We have the answers and this gives us confidence. People on the outside wonder why people on the inside stay in the face of leadership failures, manipulation, and spiritual abuse. People on the inside wonder why people on the outside would ever expect them to leave a place that assures them that they are right and cannot fail; where friends can be had at a glance and people are trusted because we believe the same things.

As we approach the coda, accomplishment chimes in with accolades few on the outside will know. Small victories figure large in our fish bowl. The world may not notice, but our colleagues reward us with recognition. We are important. We matter.

I’ve seen this cycle played out in the dojo, in The Way International, in multilevel marketing schemes, in corporate America, and in major para-church ministries like Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles. Acceptance is a basic need of the human heart. Closed systems of faith can provide it in spades. It’s what makes them dangerous. Having provided it, they can take it away. Membership, after all, has its privileges.


[1] On March 26, 1997, thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate sect were found dead in a mansion in the San Diego area. They were trying to catch a ride on the Mother Ship.

[2] The organization was The Way International. I was involved with them from 1979-1989.

[3] Jim Jones led his People’s Temple to mass suicide on November 18, 1978. 918 people died drinking poisoned Flavor Aid. But in the popular mind, it was Kool Aid everyone had. The event turned into a proverb. To this day, when we advise people against following organizations or ideas blindly we tell them “Don’t drink the Kool Aid!”

[5] Figures cited are from Wikipedia, accessed 3/16/2014. Figure for Mormonism is actually the figure for the LDS Church, the largest group of Mormonism.

[6] For those tempted to make it a white/black thing, a higher percentage of white Protestants voted for Obama than black Protestants voted for Romney.

[7] The Mormonizing of America, Stephen Mansfield, © 2012 by Stephen Mansfield, Worthy Publishing, Brentwood, TN, p. 171.

[8] We were called Word Over the World Ambassadors or WOWs. The commitment was for a year of service in an assigned community. We were obligated to proselytize 40 hours a week and work a job no less than 20 hours a week. We were self-supported. The dedication level was high, though only half as long as the Mormons’.

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7 thoughts on “Membership Has Its Privileges: Cults and Closed Systems of Faith

  1. As a prior IBLP attendee and ATIA student this helps explain a lot of the reaction of the participants as well as those in (and around) leadership of those organizations. I’ve never been attracted to or drawn in but always wondered what it was in human nature that draws folks to groups. I guess we all just want to be accepted and feel special. Are we just like Adam? When half the people on the planet (Eve) were tricked to sin he didn’t want to be the odd man out.

  2. If brainwashing is the forcible indoctrination of someone to give up existing beliefs and accept contrasting ideas what is the right term for forced educational models enforced upon children that teach there is no god and hence no responsibility, “you’re just an animal” and immorality without consequences in opposition to the broadly held views of society and hedonism in opposition to specifically held views of their parents?
    When the views of normal moral and law abiding folks are portrayed by the entertainment media as “old fashioned”, mocked as “rednecks” for their down-home and back-woods views, or labeled as “bigots” for having the moral directive to call evil by it’s real name: What sort of social re-engineering process is that if brainwashing isn’t the right word would the right word be propaganda?

    1. I think the term “indoctrination” fits well, propaganda being one of the tools of indoctrination. The key differentiation in brainwashing is the “forcible” aspect. People may feel compelled to stay for the indoctrination sessions, but I don’t think it fits brainwashing unless the room is locked and someone is slapping you around if you are not paying attention (which, oddly enough, sounds like my primary school experience in Spain!). When people get disappointed in an organization/system of faith and reflect on their experience, oftentimes they come to the conclusion that they must have been brainwashed to have staid as long as they did. This to me is avoidance of responsibility and a watering down of term all rolled up into one. It’s on the level of categorizing the actions of a ten-year-old boy who steals a kiss as sexual assault. I view indoctrination (this is what you must think) differently than education (this how you think things through). An educational impartation can lead to wisdom. Indoctrination simply attempts to emboss a world view. God says, “Come now, let us reason.” He invites us to a dialog of options regarding redemption because He is after relationship first, reproduction second.

  3. Great article, Nik.
    I learn something every time you write something!

    …Wait. I must be indoctrinated now. D’oh.

    If brainwashing means cleaning my head of filth similar to hand washing I’m okay with it.
    I don’t believe anyone ‘forces’ another to think anything, technically. We think as we accept by deliberation, play by play.
    Dean Don spoke practical things like that, I recall.
    Walter Cummins once mentioned in a presentation “No one makes me mad. I make me mad, happy, etc.”.
    One may influence heavily another as “faith cometh by hearing”. And if you fall into evil you do so “even as ye were led.” But either way –for better or worse — good or evil — force is more abstract or figurative in that we approve our decisions one thought at a time.

    There. I have spoken. Believe it or I will starve your pets.
    #Influence #bribery #wholesomechristianintentions

  4. Just read (9/14/14) Breaking Free: Escaping an Exclusivist Christian Group. The author stopped putting his name on it because he was getting death threats from folks who were sure he was writing about them. If you found this article interesting, you will find this book to be informative.

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