Part three let’s goooooo! We’re continuing our look at Steven Hassan’s BITE Model for authoritarian control. In parts one and two we looked at behavior control and information control. We move onto what I think is the most obvious part of religious cults and authoritarian groups, today we’re looking at thought control! Literal cult mind control. Not a new concept, we talk about mind control often in terms of cults, it’s how Charles Manson was found guilty of crimes he himself did not commit. So, let’s dive in and look at some obvious examples, and how mainstream groups sneak more insidious versions of it into their groups.
So, as I’ve talked about before, the main goal of organized religions is social control, and that is based on the human brain’s bias of having in-groups and out-groups. That puts pretty much every religious group into cult territory in and of itself. Breaking it down just a bit further though, the in-group is defined by adhering to a certain set of beliefs or doctrines. Many religions teach their kids these doctrines (hey, that’s indoctrination!) and have special books or classes so that each person can be taught the same beliefs. This promotes black-and-white thinking, and stifles critical thinking. Thought control also helps to crystallize a group’s idea about good and evil, and builds that framework out to suggest all outsiders are some version of “evil.” These different forms of indoctrination create an entire worldview, that then in-group adherents start perpetuating the thought control themselves, such that “evil” forces are tempting them so they won’t learn about science or philosophy or how to not be a bigot.
While the worldview insulates them from challenging thoughts, thought control also shows up in smaller ways. One way that I see often working with religious trauma is what we call spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is using scriptures, mantras, or prayers as a way to avoid uncomfortable thoughts/feelings and use a religious teaching to sidestep doing any processing of those feelings. “Let go and let god” or saying “hail marys” or even just offering up “thoughts and prayers” are ways where thought control can exhibit itself. These bypassing phrases limit potential opportunity for growth, but also protect the group’s status quo by avoiding questioning the authority of group leaders or even deities, or having to challenge hierarchical structures. “God works in mysterious ways” is another popular one, which is just a catch all for having to deal with any sort of negative outcome, or even worse, that natural disasters or sudden loss of loved ones are some sort of plan for our good. Yuck! And I say yuck, because when you look at it as thought control, it is very obviously manipulation at its core. Protect the in-group at all costs, blame the victim type manipulation. But this is especially insidious, because for adherents or in-group members this feels very calming, likely because they have been indoctrinated with these ideas from an early age (or later in life usually at a vulnerable time of their lives). They feel like they are doing something, while unfortunately not doing anything beyond burying their head in the sand.
The crystallization of all these thoughts into a worldview is key in moving from a tiny, secluded cult into moving a more mainstream version that is passed down from generation to generation. Hell trauma is a good example of this, where it is indistinguishable from intergenerational trauma as victims turn perpetrator with the previous generation. All so churches can keep membership up and the money flowing in. Other ways this can still show up is creating new names and whole identities for adherents, which is a way to make the worldview stronger and continue to keep out-group influences away from people. At this point then, any out-group can be labeled as evil, from the devil, or not useful so the other forms of behavior, information, and emotion control are seen as good things, as benefits or blessings from a leader or deity. Thank goodness we don’t have to hear what those heathens are saying! Praise be that the evil serpent can’t trick us with his fancy science! Then groups can demonize critical thinking or any form of questioning, doubting can lead to punishment (often eternally!) and the in-group continues to grow stronger and stronger.
This all adds up to continue to show that anyone can be subject to cult control, and that there is no level of intelligence or street smarts that can make people immune. We need to teach people what to look out for, and we need to be vigilant ourselves, knowing that these groups prey on cognitive biases that are hardwired into our brain. It’s also why many people continue to call out these behaviors, it isn’t about attacking religion, it’s about accountability and equity. Religion maintains a privileged status in our society, a status it has abused and continues to abuse. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at emotional control with the next post!