Wednesday, February 15, 2012

M.E. Anders: The "C" Word

Today's blog was written by M.E. Anders, a former member of another controversial group. As with all of my guest bloggers, the opinions and statements of the guest do not necessarily reflect my own beliefs or opinions. Please read with an open mind and feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment.

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M.E. Anders’ life reads like a tale of escape from a modern-day Jonestown. Born the preacher’s kid of a burgeoning fundamentalist society, M.E. battled critical thinking as the unforgivable sin. Mining those experiences for storytelling, M.E. Anders pens psychological tales exploring the difficult questions of the human condition.These sagas excite the mind and stop the heart. Weaving webs of twisting plots are her specialty, horror tempered by mind-bending drama. Her passion is to shed light where all is darkness. To bring hope to those living in shadows. Fiction and fact blur seamlessly into her gripping thriller novels.

What Makes a Cult a Cult

What images come to mind when you hear the word, “cult”? For me, it’s a sickening series of images from the Jonestown massacre. Though cults come in various types, I will be discussing what characterizes a religious cult in this article.

My cult enthusiast friend, Peter Saint-Clair, defines universal cults as such:

CULT - Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God; Nirvana; Paradise; Ultimate Reality; Full Potential, Way to Happiness etc, and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.

This definition covers cults within all major world religions, along with those cults which have no OBVIOUS religious base such as commercial, educational and psychological cults. Others may define these a little differently, but this is the simplest to work from.”

Steve Hassan, the cult expert author, says that destructive mind control can be understood in terms of four basic components, which form the acronym BITE:

I. Behavior Control
II. Information Control
III. Thought Control
IV. Emotional Control

Let’s examine each of these components to discover what makes a cult a cult.

  1. Behavior Control

Cults are not necessarily isolated compounds in the middle of nowhere where members are not permitted to leave the property. Modern cults are clever in their attempts to control their members. Manipulating members’ behavior is their clever tactic. Each one of these aspects could be present within a cult.

  • Cult members may experience strict dress codes, restricted food choices, limited sleep hours, and financial dependence upon the leadership.
  • Major time commitments for indoctrination sessions take precedence over free time.
  • All major decisions should be run by the leadership staff.
  • Group think is the standard of excellence. Individual thought that differs from the group is punished.
  • Trust and obey is a common theme in behavior control.

An example of behavior control from my religious cult, the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement, would be that strict dress codes were imposed upon both male and female members, but especially females. We were forced to undergo surprise “dress checks” where one of the female leaders would examine us individually from head to toe. If our outfit did not meet their lengthy list of modesty requirements, then they issued us a demerit slip. This forbad us from attending classes until we changed our outfit and had our appearance re-approved.

2. Information Control

Cults are masters at manipulating the information their members receive about the outside world. The leaders consider themselves to be filters for the “worldly” infiltration of evil intent upon destroying their members’ lives. This control is exhibited in the following ways.

  • Information may be forcefully protected and held back from common knowledge.
  • Any access to outsiders’ information is preached against and often punished severely.
  • Leaders control who gets to know what about the inner workings of the group.
  • Members are usually sent out in pairs or groups when leaving the campus to prevent contamination from the world.
  • All types of video, audio, and printed media are prohibited by the leadership unless they are affiliated with the cult.

An example of information control from my past attendance at my cultic alma mater was that women who lived on the college campus were not allowed to leave the campus unless they had a group of three or four females, in addition to an “approved girl.” This approved girl was an upperclassmen, who had proved herself to the leadership as loyal to the college. This “buddy system” ensured that the innocent college girls were not exposed to outside influences.

  1. Thought Control

Cults use thought control to internalize their doctrine as the one truth. Black and white thinking is common. It’s either their way to heaven or the high way to hell. An antagonist attitude prevails amongst the members: the us versus them mentality.

  • They also use a “loaded language.” These are words that only cult insiders know. The lingo distinguishes the inner circle members from newcomers and outsiders. A cult member cannot rise through the ranks until he or she becomes fluent in their language.
  • Negative thoughts about the group, the leaders, or the doctrine are not tolerated. These thoughts are either of the devil or the members’ sinful nature. Therefore, they are to be suppressed through cult techniques: chanting, meditating, prayer, evangelization, praising God, speaking in tongues, singing, listening to sermons, or calling an accountability friend.
  • No differing belief systems are allowed to be positively discussed within the group. Only the leaders can explore belief systems and interpret how members should act accordingly.

An example of thought control from my cult-church was the invitation time after every sermon. Members were expected to respond to the sermon by “going forward” or “walking the aisle” to “get right with God.” If not enough members came forward, then the pastor would verbally express his displeasure. He might be angry or upset that members had not listened to the voice of God. He used the altar calls as a cathartic reassurance of his “man of God” status.

  1. Emotional Control
Cults manipulate their members feelings about topics and identity. Members are never perfect enough, no matter how much they change to fit the cult’s “ideal member.” If there ever is a problem in a member’s life, it is never the fault of the group ideology or the leadership. It’s the individual’s fault every time.

  • Members who feel negative emotions are berated and told that the devil is after them. Only happy and positive emotions are cultivated. Each cult has different traits they prize above all. If an individual differs from these emotional identities, they are belittled.
  • Guilt is used excessively to pressure members to meet the cult’s agenda. Many experience resulting psychological damage and depression because of the relentless guilt trips. Every sermon is purposefully packed with guilt-inducing language.
  • Fear is the most commonly used weapon against breaking the will of the members. Thinking critically is a sin. The outside world is evil and unhappy. Enemies are constantly trying to penetrate the members’ homes. Ex-members are treated with outright hostility and shunned until they repent.
  • In the cult’s ideology, there is never a legitimate reason to leave the group. Once a member has been inducted into the inner circle, they are expected to meet cult expectations for the rest of their lives and raise their children to do the same.

An example of emotional manipulation from my former cult-pastor was that he preached about his being chosen by God himself as our leader. If we ever defamed him in any way, even if he sinned, God would strike us down. God might even kill us and our children because we “stretched out our hand against the man of God.” He told us horror stories of people who God supposedly maimed and murdered because they did not accept our pastor as God’s authority.

Final Thoughts

Steve Hassan, the cult expert author, explains the vital aspect of cult mind control.

It is important to understand that destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Mind controlled cult members can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.”

Cults are prevalent in our society, often cloaked beneath the guise of mainstream religion. To determine whether or not a group is a cult, use the BITE Model above. After leaving my cult, I actually recorded an audio taping of the BITE method for my personal use. I went through every point and gave an example of how my prior church met the cult criteria. This solidified my suspicion that my former church assuredly was (and still is) a cult.

What say you? Have you ever experienced traits of a cult in a religious group or secular organization? How did you leave that unhealthy environment? I’d love to hear your stories. Just leave a comment below.

For further resources about cults, I recommend Cults in Our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer and Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan.


  1. Thanks for hosting me today on your blog, Suzi. :) I really enjoyed writing this post about cult characteristics.

  2. Interesting information. No, I can't say I've ever experienced anything like this and I can't imagine it. I'm still not sure how adults allow themselves to fall for things like this. Sure, kids growing up in that environment are different, but for an adult, that's a lot of control to give up even if you have whatever issues would lead you to a group like that.

    1. Hi Kelly - Thanks for your comment. For many adults who get sucked into cultic groups, they are attracted to them during a period of great instability in their lives. Cults prey upon adults when they are in desperate straits.

  3. Obviously the word "cult" can and is often defined in a subjective manner.
    For me the key to what I consider to be a cult is whether or not the individual is allowed to decide for themselves what to believe.

    I've attended independent Baptist Churches for most of my life although I've also attended others on a limited basis and no, I've never experienced anything that would approach thought control or brainwashing IMO.

    To the contrary, all of the independent Baptist Churches I've attended emphasized the individual's responsibility to make certain that what they believed was freely and honestly based on scripture rather than any interpretation of the scriptures put forth by the preachers or any other mortal being.
    Obviously each church has it's own set of doctrines but it is ultimately up to the individual to accept or refuse to accept them.

    I have little doubt that such groups exist but I've never experienced any of them in the many Baptist Churches I've attended.

    1. Tom - I am so glad that you have attended several good independent Baptist Churches. There are only a few offshoots of the independent Baptist groups that are particularly damaging. Most are not cultic. My grandma and several of my friends are members of good baptist churches. It all depends upon the leadership and ties to the pastor's mentor.

  4. I would also like to add that the posted definition of what constitutes a cult by the writer's friend, Peter Saint-Clair, is a little too loose IMO and would appear to have been lifted and modified from the version that appears on Steve Hassan's site.
    I think that Mr. Hassan's definition is a much more pointed and reasonable one and he uses a couple of VERY important words in my opinion;

    "A destructive cult is a pyramid-shaped authoritarian regime with a person or group of people that have DICTATORIAL control.
    It uses DECEPTION...(and)seeks to “clone” recruits in the image of the cult leader, rather than respect and encourage their individuality, creativity and self-will.

    Benign cult groups are any group of people who have a set of beliefs and rituals that are non-mainstream."

    I think Mr Hassan's characterization is a much more reasonable one.

    I feel that there is a vast difference between the intimidation that a cult-like group employs and the friendly persuasion that characterizes the vast majority of religious organizations.

    Free-thinking intelligent individuals can accept a belief system and set of doctrines without coercion or intimidation and retain their individuality and sovereign judgement.

    I would say that in my view these points are key differences between cults and legitimate religious groups.

    1. I agree that those words are crucial to this definition.

    2. Tom, thank you for your well-researched response. I have no personal experience with IFBC (although I was once a member of a Baptist church, which was a completely positive experience). One thing that does bother me in what I know of IFBC is their purported belief/practice of tax evasion. Give to Caesar what is Caesar's.

      I believe that Christians are subject to laws and government authority, UNLESS a law or government tried to impose an action that would put our salvation at risk. So I will pay my taxes and get medical care for my children, but if I'm asked to take the mark of the beast, then I will take a stand!

    3. Tom - I would agree that Mr. Hassan's definition is much more accurate when applied to a cultic group. Thanks for chiming in about that.

  5. I see his point also, you could call any religion a cult. Friendly persuasion, and exhortation to the truth is part of being a good brother in the faith. If you were so inclined you could consider that to be unwelcomed coercion. If you've had a bad experience with a church, then that is very likely.

  6. The word "cult" conveys many meanings and leaves each of us with different thoughts depending upon our experiences. I applaud M.E. Anders for broaching the subject as academically as possible in such limited space. I do agree with Tom also that the guidelines expressed are a little loose, and also there could be much discussion to the objectives of a cult. Understandably if every aspect of what defined a cult was discussed Suzanne would have been posting a book and not a blog post.

    I do wonder with these definitions if the early church in Acts would have qualified as a cult? With their pyramid type leadership, Christ,Apostles, elders and such; their claim to be the only truth (Acts 4:12); their communal living and eating (Acts 2:46); their dress codes and eating codes ( I Pet. 3:3; Acts 15:29); their acclimation of the wealth of their adherents (Acts 4:35,37); financial dependence upon the group (Acts 4:35) their prioritizing indoctrination (Acts 6:2,4); their use of fear and intimidation among believers (Acts 5:5,9); their behavior control (I Cor. 5:4-11); Separateness from the World (II Cor. 6:17); and even their mantra, "Trust and Obey" (Rom. 16:26).

    In fact an interesting twist is that the "cult busters" themselves may be a cult. Rick Ross, Rita Swan and others are disseminating their beliefs through organizations into the schools, using the media and relying on their persuasion of the populace and the judicial system to regulate religious beliefs all in the name of Science and medicine (a case could be made they are cults as well, at least the have a cultish following). Ted Patrick is even known to orchestrate kidnappings and hold involuntary and intense psychiatric sessions. Seems what they call "brainwashing" when done by others, is called "deprogramming" in their own camp, and that is more acceptable than the voluntary indoctrinations of a religion.

    OK, so this is a difficult topic, with the objectivity being very subjective.

    1. Darren - Agreed. I believe that the early Christian church was considered a cult at the time by other religious groups and political leaders. Based upon all those biblical references and descriptions of the early church, it fits the definition of a cult.

    2. Darren, if you are still reading, science, and disseminating scientific information is HARDLY "cultic behavior." Let's take the list you gave as an example:

      "Pyramid-type leadership." Science is all about peer-review after peer-review. So....nope.

      "Claims to be the only truth." Sorry. Not this either. Again, science is constantly doing peer-review. Also, the absolute most important part of science is when a scientist says the words: "I don't know. But I am going to find out." Also, do note that the second step in the scientific method, is coming up with a "hypothesis." Or "a guess." And for different things, different scientists have different opinions about something they don;t know yet.

      "Communal living and eating." Uuummm....that's laughable when it comes to science. I have never seen, nor heard of this before among the scientific community.

      "their dress codes and eating codes" Same as above. Some scientists (we call them "doctors") will PRESCRIBE certain diets, but will never FORCE a person to follow such a diet. The prescribed diet is clinically proven to be beneficial for whatever it may be: Less sugar for type 1 diabetics, for example.

      "Acclimation of wealth." For themselves, yes. And why not? But for students of scientific classes, they are poor as all get-out. And are strictly prohibited from being given anything by their instructors or professors. Especially student-athletes.

      "Financnial dependance upon the group." Well....not really. Considering that once a person graduates and officially becomes a scientist, they are expected to do like everyone else: Get a job to support yourself.

      "their use of fear and intimidation among believers" Assuming "science" is a "beleif system." (Which it is not. In fact, it is the exact OPPOSITE of a "belief system:" It is a "skeptical system.") And certainly there is no "fear" of "intimidation" between scientists, and professors and their students.

      "behavior control."

      "Separateness from the world." Again, laughable. Science is not SEPARATE from the world, but is, in fact, the single most important aspect of our modern lives. (I find it rather ironic that you are using one of THE greatest scientific achievement in mankind's history to write about anti-science garbage: A computer that accesses the World Wide Web!)

      And finally, science does not have a mantra. I suppose the closest thing it comes to that, is the "Scientific Method." But that's an extremely useful tool to come to actual knowledge of how something works.

      In short: Faith-healing is bogus. Not to mention, potentially deadly. It has never worked, and never will work. 2+2 will never equal 5 no matter how badly you want it to. And to say that is not a "belief" in anything. It is a skeptical stance. Not a belief.

  7. Suzanne, What do you make of the President's recent mandate to force religious institutions to pay for health care that is against their beliefs? Does it warrant civil disobedience if the mandate is allowed to stand?

    What do you consider the mark of the beast?


    1. I assume you mean that employers are required to provide reproductive health coverage? That is a really hard pill to swallow, but it's not you, personally, who are performing abortions. The individuals who seek abortions or other medical procedures that you are ethically against, will seek them regardless of what is in their healthcare package. If you disagree with that policy, then the right thing to do (in my opinion) is to try and change the law. We can't force others to behave the way we believe is right. That's free will, as any parent knows, it's not easy to see people you care for making decisions that you disagree with.

      The mark of the beast is an unbreakable seal with the devil. How it will come about (that the citizens of Earth will be asked to take it), I cannot fathom - though I suppose the images from the "Left Behind" series shape my imagination.

  8. The mandate is not meant to force religious institutions to pay for health care that is against their beliefs--you make it sound like the big bad government is persecuting religious organizations. It is meant to force them to pay for health care that their employees may chose, as freethinking individuals, who may or may not agree with their employers views or beliefs. I would hate to think that my own personal healthcare choices were limited by the beliefs of my employer, regardless of what those beliefs are.

    1. IMO many insurance companies may be affected by this mandate. For instance, in Oregon one of the largest medical insurance companies is Providence (which is Catholic based). I know that this mandate is against their beliefs.

    2. It doesn't matter what the intent of the mandate is. What matters is the effect on an employer's religious freedom and the right not to be forced to violate religious conscience. Forcing payment is a long held principle of violating someone's rights.

      Your personal choices ARE already limited by any health insurance policy you have. Employers are allowed by law to pick the coverage they want to offer and it varies widely from employer to employer as to what is covered and how much is paid by insurance vs the employee co-pay. So your employer-defined limitation to choose the coverage you want is inherent in the system already and will not change. An employee has the right to consent to their employer's choice by paying the premium or they can opt out, including finding another job with a policy more to their liking. There is no infringement on YOUR rights. YOU are not forced by law to pay for anything that violate's YOUR conscience. You may be inconvenienced but freedom is often inconvenient.

      People who think in morally relative terms tend to have trouble with the concept that a person can have a religious/moral code that includes a sense of responsibility to think/act beyond themselves, not only to do good to others but also to not personally contribute to what they believe corrupts others, whether others believe as they do or not.

      This IS a big bad gov. we are seeing now and this action is an unprecedented violation of the 1st amendment. Don't let the fact that you like the idea of free contraception interfere with comprehending the bigger picture or one day you may discover that it's you who will be forced to participate in something that violates your freedom. Google and read Martin Niemoller's poem.

    3. A woman has historically paid more in health insurance premiums than men. They use more services than men also. If business had it their way they may have continued hiring cheaper employees, maybe even lighter skinned, English only speaking? The list goes on, but the big bad government has said that they are going to see that everyone is going to get a fair shake. Insurance companies continue to make obscene profits while providing less and less all the time. Maybe it is a minority of employees that use birth control, ha ha, but it is not the slightest bit overbearing of the government to ask the wealthy to provide such a simple thing . Not to mention, if it's such a tiny, overlook able minority that is in need of it,,, then it shouldn't cost anyone very much to provide it huh? If you start letting insurance companies, and businesses opt out of everything they don't "agree" with then they won't be covering anything in no time. IMO

    4. That poem is very poiniant, but don't you think it would be more relevant to protecting the rights of minorities. Ya know, I'm not a woman, so when they screwed them on health care I didn't stand up for them? I may have missed the point of his poem, but I really don't think I did. If its being suggested that we're supposed to stand up for corporations, and insurance companies, at the expense of women's health care? Then this world has gone completely bonkers. The moral of that story, or poem, is that we need to stand up for women now, because eventually they will get around to screwing you every group over soon enough. We have to call them out whenever they try to pull something like this. It's the same old story, republicans have historically pitted race against race, men against women, to meet the wants and wishes of their huge contributers. Reagan pitted the whites against the black welfare queen, today the GOP"greedy one percent" are making women the punching bag. It's all a scam to bend the will of the little people, myself included. Don't fall for it, they CAN afford to help everyone who needs it.

    5. OK Anon, so if providing certain health care options violates your religious freedom, I would think that paying your employees a salary would also violate that freedom - who knows what your employees will do with that salary? Maybe purchase porn, alcohol, illegal drugs.... God gave us free will knowing that we would inevitably make some wrong choices ... and most adults have children knowing the same is true of them. We can't control the choices of others or carry the blame/guilt of those choices.

    6. Sorry but your analogy doesn't fit. The employer is forced to directly provide the service (drugs, surgery, etc) via the insurance policy.

      If we switch your analogy around it will be clearer. It's the difference between providing your teen with free booze to drink if he wants it and giving your teen an allowance which he uses to buy booze. The first one will get you arrested, the second one won't. Big difference in culpability both moral and legal.

  9. With regard to the healthcare mandate. The government may mandate that you carry health insurance. However, the government cannot mandate that you utilize that health insurance. Just because my insurance company offers acupuncture as an option that they will pay for does not in any way insinuate that I am required to participate in acupuncture. I thought that republicans believe that personal health care issues were matters that should be discussed between the patient and their doctor, not between the employer in their insurance company. I'm pretty positive that the republican party was grounded in the philosophy that the individual has the independent right and obligations to make their own choices. It sounds to me like that poem is saying that the government, employers, and insurance companies are given the right to infringe upon the free choice of the individual by limiting there access to care. This begs the question is that constitutional

  10. Thanks, Wade for using your name! LOL. I try not to even respond to people who post as 'Anonymous', because, as exampled above, you never know if you are talking to one person or four.

  11. If the church is doing their job convincing women not to use any birth control, there will be no added cost to anyone. If your doing a good job of raising your teen, you won't have to worry about them running out and buying crack with it. If a follower company has to provide health care at all, isn't that a huge infringement on their rights. This is precisely what we're debating here. IMO this is a practical, reasonable thing for them to spend a tiny bit of their proceeds to provide. If you want to talk about rediculous, "gender reassignment" is what I would consider a valid argument as a catastrophic waste of money. You do realize that your money is paying for that, don't you?

    1. Legion, if you are still reading these comments and if you are subscribed to this one, I think you should do a bit of research into gender identity, and why gender reassignment could actually be life-saving.


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