Back with part two of our look at Steven Hassan’s BITE model of authoritarian control. We covered behavior control in part one, so if you missed that, check it out here. Now we’re going to look at the “I” in the BITE model, information control. We’ll look at how it works and some of the more subtle or insidious ways this can show up.
Organized religion, as authoritarian groups, exist by creating in-groups and out-groups. You’re saved, you’re the elect, the chosen few, of all the religions your group alone has the correct interpretation of scripture, and then there are unbelievers, heathens, the ubiquitous “other” in the out-group. Information control is key in this, and personally I think one of the reasons church attendance is cratering. For a long time, the church had an outsized level of control on the flow of information. From book burnings to scribal edits to persecution of “heretics,” the church employed many destructive tactics of control. Some of these tactics persist to this day, like cringey politicians with flamethrowers for some reason, but the damage done before the rise of the printing press is significantly different. Information control in the age of the printing press became much harder, and with the rise of the internet information has become impossible to fully repress. While the church could once destroy texts and burn, hang, and otherwise torture nonbelievers, the internet has made connection and sharing of information so easy that the church can’t even cover up its own scandals anymore, let alone stop people from learning or hearing about other forms of meaning making outside of religion. But religion hasn’t stayed around for no reason, so they’ve learned to adapt, albeit while hemorrhaging membership and attendance.
The modern age of information control looks much more like misinformation and creating false hierarchies of “good” and “bad” information. Every church I was ever a member of had their own terrible little libraries, so you can avoid any books that might contain information the church doesn’t want you to see. Many religions also have their own publishing houses, so they can pump out propaganda without the need to bother with proper peer review. My AP Bio teacher literally wrote and said “Evil-ution” when he taught us about evolution, a topic that was about 25% of a standardized test for college credit. That’s the definition of indoctrination.
And while I can give silly examples all day, this can be really insidious in other ways. Limiting contact with the secular world creates major gaps of knowledge for people, and this can lead to delayed or stunted social, emotional, and mental development. A good example is purity culture (I’ve blogged and done a panel on this topic). The pervasiveness of sexual abuse in organized religion is based partly upon kids having no idea of what consent is. When all they learn about their bodies is shame, they are far more likely to feel guilt about being abused, allowing abusers to take advantage of the situation. Comprehensive sex ed is key in reducing abuse, and the reason the church fights against sex ed so strongly is that it loses the ability to control people’s bodies (and then abuse them, way to be on the right side of this issue religion!). The lack of information creates the environment where abuse can happen, and is allowed to happen over and over again. Purity culture is how this information control works on the topic of sex, but information control happens for healthy boundaries in general. Some version of god, church, family is common (may be a leader, elders, or another figure) and the concept of not trusting yourself (sinful flesh!) or making yourself subservient to everyone else means that healthy boundaries can’t exist, a key piece of information the church hides and/or misrepresents.
Another big issue around misinformation is the bible itself. It is published out of order, which, I was raised fundamentalist, so taught it was the literal word of god, surely no human publisher could overpower that! But, real talk, this is like a big inside secret. No pastor or preacher likes to talk about it, but no serious scholar refutes or debates it as fact. The gospels were written after Paul’s letters. The new testament is written in a way which provides sort of a narrative structure, here is the biography of Jesus in the first four books, and here is a leading apostle adding depth and context in the subsequent chapters. Except, that’s not accurate at all. And if you’re a believer, you may excuse that and say, well, it is a touch misleading but what’s the harm? But, it’s a devastating piece of information that suggests the gospels are just fan fic. Paul over and over goes out of this way to say his writing is not based on eye witness testimony, but rather only through visions and revelation. And the gospels are based on Paul’s book, likely creating narrative details where none actually existed (for more on this, check out Dr Richard Carrier’s work). So, lots of harm, because we have a “holy scripture” that is presented as a biography when it is clearly not a reliable source in any definition of what we would consider reliable. It would not be fit to print by today’s standards. Pretty big deal.
So, lots of other examples, but these show the range of silly nonsense to serious paradigm shifting to creating an environment of abuse, and we can apply these concepts to mainstream religions as well as the more extreme cults. Check back next week for part three, Thought Control!