The stunning conclusion to our four part series! If you’re just joining us, we’ve been covering Steven Hassan’s BITE model of authoritarian control, which is used to identify cult tactics and power imbalances in high-control religious groups. The first three parts of this series cover behavior control, information control, and thought control. That brings us to emotional control. So, I could just write out a definition of spiritual bypassing and be done with it, but I’ll go into some details! And the obvious and more subtle applications of emotional control tactics.
So, as hinted at, spiritual bypassing is a big part of this. Some feelings are bad, wrong, or simply too scary to be trusted. When those feelings pop up, like doubt or questioning authority, we bypass the work by slapping a scripture or doctrinal teaching over it. For example, any miracle story in scripture may give pause to a rational mind, and when we learn more about historical myth-making we may question whether these things really happened. Rather than grapple with that, spiritual bypassing teaches people that “doubt” is sinful and could lead to hell, and then advises “let go and let god” or “god works in mysterious ways” is always a good one. Spiritual bypassing works to provide brief comfort by avoiding some uncomfortable thought or feeling, and will make those emotions then sinful or employ a slippery slope fallacy to scare people away from a growth opportunity. There’s also an element of gaslighting here, which is that any doubt you have is your fault, a flaw in your sinful flesh, and never about a deity or church leader. The gods and or leaders are always doing what is good for you, if you are struggling it is because you lack faith or need to do something different. So, all good things are blessings from the group, deity, or leader that you totally don’t deserve, and anything that goes wrong is all your fault. Bit of a mindfuck, isn’t it?
A lot of this is normalized, we talk openly about “good catholic guilt” or my growing up was full of “lutheran guilt” as some badge of honor. Your thoughts are sinful, your identity is wrong, your curiosity will lead to falling away, pride in your accomplishments comes before a fall, your family has a bad reputation you need to fix, whatever it is to hit that guilty feeling. Being on edge and feeling guilty for everything that goes wrong in your life is not a healthy or sustainable way to live. So, while feelings of unworthiness are meant to keep you down, members of the group will also practice what is known as “love bombing” which is a typical pattern in abusive relationships. Make someone feel bad about themselves, then shower them with love so they feel even more connected. And if an entire organization or church body is doing this, the effect can be quite powerful. This cycle then perpetuates its own self-policing, you don’t want to run afoul of god or the church because you will be totally to blame, your life will be lonely and miserable and probs you’re going to burn in hell (or be left behind in the rapture, be stuck in perpetual reincarnation, etc). Threaten an eternal consequence, and then love bomb to make the group seem safe and welcoming.
This cycle then spreads out into other forms of emotional control, like creating phobias that strengthen the in-group/out-group dynamics. Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll! Satanic panic! Pokemon, Harry Potter, the gays, trans people, furries in public schools! Whatever the current moral panic, it all follows these same patterns. Life outside of our little religious group is scary and will eventually lead to a shitty life as well as dire eternal consequences. I lived through the Harry Potter teaches kids witchcraft panic, as well as just a general dislike of Pokemon, I don’t even remember if that was demons or what (I mean, outside of the racist overtones) was supposed to be the problem there. Then the group can also threaten public shaming, whether it is a public confession or excommunication, to add another hurdle to leaving the group. And so, it’s just all manipulation through and through. It’s the abuse cycle done on a systemic level as opposed to on an individual basis. All so very yucky.
So, that’s the BITE model. Pretty wild that it can be applied to a lot of groups we think of as being socially acceptable or even privileged in our modern society. Lots of ways to learn more, Steven Hassan has a podcast that looks at different high control groups, and I think a lot of documentaries like Shiny Happy People or Scouts Honor show how these tactics work, while a more extreme version is shown in Wild, Wild Country. If you or someone you know is working on leaving a high control group, or is processing growing up in these conditions, please reach out!