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Mind Control Tactics of Harmful Religious Groups

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Mind Control Tactics of Harmful Religious Groups

Joel B. Groat

College students and young adults are prime targets for religious groups using deceptive and coercive tactics. The passion, idealism, insecurity, and inexperience of young people leave them vulnerable to the subtle manipulation used by these groups. 

  • Deception can range from misleading information to outright lying about the group, it’s purposes, its teachings, its founder and its leaders.
  • Manipulation can include flattery, indoctrination, love-bombing, sleep deprivation, ecstatic and emotionally charged experiences and mental conditioning.
  • Coercion shows up as threats, shaming, social, emotional and/or spiritual rejection for those who question or don’t comply with group norms.
  • Isolation is from parents, extended family, close friends, professors, counselors and anyone with the potential to influence the person away from the group. It is often justified or prompted by the group’s claim to an elevated or exclusive status as uniquely right, true or faithful to God or a specific cause (like caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, defending the disenfranchised).

The key to keeping young adults safe is prevention and inoculation through education and real-life examples.

Recognize the Tactics

There is a systematic recruitment process used by this type of group. The manipulation is subtle, but intentional and plays on the passion, idealism and insecurity characteristic of college students who often suffer under the effects of LOAD (Loneliness, Overindulgence, Arrogance, and Depression).

Recruiters can pose as fellow college students or even get accepted as informal counselors or spiritual mentors for students.

According to mind control expert, Steven Hassan (Combatting Cult Mind Control, rev., updated 2018, pp. 114-124) there are four primary components to cultic mind-control. These are: behavior control, information control, thought control and emotion control. He employs the acronym BITE. 

  • Behavior Control: This involves control of the member’s physical reality.  While it may begin slowly, it can encroach on their schedule, where they live, their dress code, and relationships (both inside and outside the group). It generally includes control over their involvement in group ritual practices, like worship, prayer, fasting, recruiting, fund raising, etc.  

Leadership justifies the control with claims to spiritual superiority and knowing what is best for the member.  It is not uncommon to see a blanket appeal to an “apostolic” or “prophetic” covering possessed by the topmost leaders that guarantees the rightness of everything that happens in the group. 

The control is also justified as necessary to help the member reach their personal goals of spiritual fulfillment or guide them to best help the group reach its goals. Members are encouraged to surrender their personal desires in exchange for the greater good of the group. The individual’s sacrifice furthers the group’s goals of winning the world, reaching the lost, feeding the hungry, worshipping appropriately, or hastening Christ’s second coming.  “Good” behavior can be rewarded with lavish praise, better position, and privileges. “Bad” behavior can be met with harsh and shaming punishment, and loss of position or privilege. 

  • Information Control: This is control of the tools the person uses to gauge and understand reality. It removes the ability of the member to truly provide informed consent.  The twisted genius of information control is the person is easily convinced they came to the group’s conclusions on their own, and therefore readily accept and internalize the group’s teachings.  Yet, the group has carefully guided the process from the very beginning, only allowing the member or potential member to see and know what they want then to see and know.  Therefore, the only possible conclusion is the one prescribed by the group. 

This is accomplished by limiting the member’s access to the outside world and to people and resources which might have adverse influence. The group also employs various levels or layers of knowledge that varies for the outsider, the novice, and the insider. Like behavior control, information control is justified by the leaders’ intellectual and spiritual superiority, and their direct connection to God for revelation for the good of the whole group. 

Leaders can also promote a sense of superiority of group members over outsiders which justifies the use of deception and outright lying. Deception is good if the goal is furthering the ends of the group. Groups may even have specific terms for this type of deception.  Jehovah’s Witnesses use the term ‘theocratic warfare strategy,’ Muslims have the term ‘taqiyya’, the Moonies (Unification Church) used the term ‘heavenly deception’, and Mormons refer to ‘lying for the Lord.’   

  • Thought Control: This component of mind control focuses on the thorough indoctrination of members that includes teaching them how to control their own thoughts. As a result, they will “internalize the group doctrine, incorporate a new language system, and use thought-stopping techniques to keep their mind ‘centered.’” Everything coming from the group is “right” anything critical of the group must be “wrong” by virtue of its being in opposition or contradiction to group teaching. 

Over time, members build up a complex mechanism with several lines of defense designed to block contrary information about the group or its teaching. The most common progression is: denial, justification, irrelevance, fideism/blind trust. 

The first is denial. When an outsider presents concerns about a behavior or teaching of the group the member will respond with “What you are saying is not true.”  When this denial is countered with irrefutable proof, often in the form of documentation, the response shifts to justification, “The group is doing or teaching this for a good reason.” 

If the impact of the information is shown to be negative, the response may then shift to, “It is not important or relevant to the larger picture.”  If relevance is demonstrated and understood, the response may shift to fideism, “True knowledge only comes through belief and trust, not facts,” or to blind trust. The member will say to themselves, “Leadership has made the decision, so in some way it must be true or for our good” – which sounds eerily similar to the first response of denial. 

Thought-stopping is especially effective because it throws up a barrier to the penetration of any further critical thought on the matter.  These narratives can become so automatic the person is not aware they’ve employed them till they are fully in the process. Common examples are:

  • “all doubts or feelings of unease are from the devil”
  • “all non-members are under the sway of Satan or demons” or
  • “no one outside the group can correctly understand or interpret the Bible” 

All of these counter or disarm information that threatens the group’s position or teaching, and effectively negates the person’s ability to test reality. 

  • Emotional Control: This serves to narrow or manipulate the range of what a person feels. There is little room for gray areas or moderation.  The person either feels good while they are in total compliance with the group, or they feel bad when they are not. Very often the person will range between extremes. They can be caught up in wonderful, ecstatic spiritual highs where love and acceptance from God and others abound, and plunged to shameful, guilt-ridden lows full of fear and dread that they are unholy and unworthy of anything but eternal condemnation.

Leaders can control emotions by defining the feelings themselves.  If you can only be happy when God is pleased with you, and the leader alone determines what pleases God, then leaders dictate what you must do to feel happy. In some cases, members are purposefully kept off-balance emotionally, lavishly praised one moment, tongue-lashed the next. Leaders set the standard for “worthiness” and therefore can dictate what level of performance constitutes being worthy. They will also use confession to themselves or the group as a tool to control emotions through guilt and shame.

Another powerful control factor is the fear of ‘apostasy,’ leaving the group. Apostasy results in the total loss of any and all spiritual benefits in the next life. Yet for many, the consequences for this life are just as terrifying. Some groups teach that members who leave risk, insanity, drug addiction, demonic oppression and potential tragedies of every kind for themselves and everyone they hold dear. 

The group or leader who succeeds in gaining control over a person’s behavior, information, thoughts, and emotions can exert extreme influence on then. Those who are unaware of the techniques and how they are employed are open and vulnerable to them. This opens the door for the group to further alter the person’s view and understanding of their life and world. We will look at this next.

Altering Reality

Key to gaining and keeping control over another person is changing their understanding of reality, especially how it relates to the group, group teachings and the person’s own relationship to the group.

Here are common mind-control themes group leaders and recruiters use to bring about paradigm changes. These are taken from noted mind control expert, Steven Hassan (Combatting Cult Mind Control, rev., updated 2018, pp. 139-147. 

  • Doctrine is reality. What the group teaches is not just theory or one of multiple alternative ways of understanding the world – it is the only correct way to understand the world. The doctrinal system as a whole is often confusing, elaborate and even self-contradictory. The emphasis is on trusting the whole of the system for it alone represents truth. It dictates beliefs, feelings and actions.  Leaders are necessary guides to help followers sort through the maze and guide them to a deeper, fuller understanding that can only come by having faith in the system and its leaders. 
  • Reality is Black and White and Good v. Evil.  There is no room for nuancing or gray areas. There is no allowing that anything outside the group and its teachings has absolute value.  White and Good is represented by the group. All else is Black and Bad/False; albeit in varying degrees. Leaders will allow that all religions or faiths have some truth, but ultimately, they are under the sway of the Evil One. There is, therefore, great spiritual danger in seriously considering anything but the group and its doctrine as true. Failure to be absolutely and exclusively loyal to the group leaves a person open to demonic influence or control. 
  • Elitist Mentality. Since the group is exclusively true, members are made to feel special, set apart, elite. They are unique and chosen by God, which is why He allowed them to find and join this group. Other similar groups are labeled “cults” led by false prophets, and their adherents are considered lost, misguided or brainwashed. The member’s group is the only one with the true and right path to pleasing God and obtaining salvation and ushering in His kingdom. It is therefore superior to any and all other groups which do not support it. 
  • Group Will over Individual Will. To accomplish God’s will one must submit the individual will to the group will. Individuality is bad, conformity is good. Reality is now defined by externals – the group, its doctrines, and its agenda. This creates a growing dependency on the group leaders for the person’s sense of self. What they are allowed to think, feel and do is filtered through the grid of the group. 

Groups leaders foster dependency in members by controlling the major decisions of their lives.  Leaders dictate where to live, where to work, what career to pursue, and will introduce changes suddenly and randomly to keep the member off-balance. Sudden changes in location are also an effective mechanism to keep members away from anyone with influence that is not in the group. Any outsider that might potentially introduce independent thinking, critical evaluation, or doubts is considered dangerous. 

  • Strict Obedience - Model the Leader. Young members are paired with more senior members who act as guides and mentors. These intermediate leaders model complete submission and obedience to the leaders above them. They imitate their forms of speech, mannerisms, dress code, attitudes, and loyalty to the group. This facilitates high degrees of uniformity within the group that is often touted as “unity.” 
  • Happiness through Good Performance. Initial entry into the group is marked by effusive praise, personalized attention, and what seems like unending, unconditional love and acceptance.  The technical term is “love bombing.” It creates an immediate sense of belonging and community for the newcomer, drawing them in socially and emotionally. At this point they know little to nothing of the group’s doctrine, history or inner-workings, but are quickly connected at a heart-level with other members. 

However, this begins to change in a relatively short period of time, maybe just a matter of weeks or months.  After the new member proves their loyalty to the group, they are given their own tasks or callings, and the flattery and attention are diverted to other newer members. At this point the only way to secure continued acceptance is through performance. Leaders assign tasks, members complete them.  Willing submission and good performance results in reward. Poor performance, questions or reticence results in punishments. 

Authentic, open, and close peer friendships are subtly discouraged.  Primary emotional loyalty is reserved for the leaders. Love is for God and the leaders, who are often referred to as apostles and prophets. These are said to represent God and provide the spiritual “covering” for the work done at lower levels.  As a result, the member is limited to superficial relationships, denying or stuffing any deep personal feelings, especially if they are negative or doubtful. These are seen as signs of spiritual weakness or moral deficiency.

Rejection or criticism from the outside or attempts to expose the member to material critical of the group, is considered “persecution.” This validates the member’s decision to cut ties with outsiders. This includes family, close friends and previous spiritual mentors.

  • Manipulation through fear and guilt. All failure, doubt or poor performance is the fault of the member. There is perpetual guilt and shame for not living the standards, for not meeting fund-raising or proselytizing goals set by the leaders or for not being appropriately grateful or enthusiastic.  This is accompanied by the infusion of fear; fear of not measuring up, fear of failing God, and the fear of demonic oppression. Perhaps the biggest fear is of eternal separation from God. The member is taught they will face eternal condemnation if they lose their membership in the group. This can result from committing “apostasy” by leaving the group, or by failing in one’s duties or not being sufficiently loyalty to the point of being kicked out.   
  • Emotional highs and lows. Life within the group context is an emotional, social and spiritual rollercoaster. Members swing from extreme highs when they are getting it right, to extreme lows when they fail to measure up.  Moderation and balance are subverted by the life rhythms prescribed by the group. These keep the member dependent on the group for any sense of happiness or fulfillment.
  • Changes in Time Orientation.  The member’s perception of their past, present and future is altered by the group. Their past, before joining the group, is reexplained and recast in negative terms. Group leaders may convince the member they were manipulated by parents or previous church leaders to believe a lie. Members may be told they were not cared for or truly loved but were actually abused by those closest to them. The new member may come to believe they had been kept in darkness, and even though this had been unintentionally, it still resulted in their harm. They come to believe they have been hurt by those they were closest to when outside the group. 

The present is also controlled by the group, infused with a sense of urgency or dread, or fear or uncertainty, or a bouncing back and forth among all these. Armageddon is right around the corner and if they are not found faithful when it hits they will lose everything that matters. 

The future is recast as the only reality worth living for.  It will be the time of reward, of blessing, of finally getting all they have been working so hard for. Or, it will be a time of dreadful punishment and suffering if they are found wanting at the day of judgement. 

  • No Legit Way Out. In a destructive, controlling group there is never a legitimate reason nor honorable way for the member to leave. To leave the group is to leave the truth. All other groups are false, and to some degree or another under the influence of Satan. Members are told the only reasons people leave are weakness, moral lapses, pride, failure to live the commandments, a personal falling out with others, etc.  Members are thoroughly indoctrinated to believe leaving the group will bring upon them the most terrible of consequences both in the present and the future. They are taught there is no way to leave and still live a happy, fulfilled life, worthy of God’s favor and in close relationships with others. It is socially, emotionally and spiritually crippling to believe that leaving the group denies a member any chance at meaningful existence.     

This subtle, complex process of mind-conditioning results in the member relinquishing control of who they are, what they believe and how they view the world. The group’s hold on the person stems largely from a powerful illusion. The member believes they took each step freely, came to every conclusion independently, and made sure each teaching was biblical. Because they are unaware of how the process works, they are fully persuaded there was no coercion, no manipulation, and no deception.   

An Ounce of Prevention …

This is why preventive education is so important. Just as a person’s sales resistance is increased when they know the common tactics employed by dishonest salespeople, a person’s resistance to religious manipulation is increased when they understand the common tactics of manipulative, controlling religious groups. Inoculating a person against the coercive tactics of these groups before they join is far better and easier than convincing them to leave once they are immersed in the group’s culture and worldview. 

IRR has been providing training and resources for over 30 years that help people recognize, respond to, and reach people in performance-based religions. We have multi-media presentations for ages Jr High to Adult, and multiple levels of conferences and workshops for training adults. 

For more information on IRR and Joel B Groat please visit our About Us page.