If we approach the phenomenon of religious life through the lens of brainwashing and indoctrination, or what is more commonly called undue influence, a rich organizer opens up for study. Undue influence is the most established term used in the legal system for brainwashing-type phenomena. I look at these ideas through the lens of Steven Alan Hassan’s doctoral dissertation “The Bite Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law” (2020).
One of the most important lenses to see cultic undue influence is “illusion of choice,” where it feels like you are making choices, but really you aren’t. We see a prime example of this in Christianity with the idea of “Christ in you,” and “he (Christ) who is in you is greater than he who is within the world.” We can see a full expression of this with Jehovah’s Witnesses, where it is not the individual thinking, but the individual as a vehicle for the ideology. Hassan comments:
Businesses are penalized by law for fraudulent claims or omitting vital information, but religions are exempt from this fundamental obligation. For example, the Watchtower Society’s members have to spend time every month proselytizing, and they do so by offering to study the Bible. However, those approached may be unaware that the Bible the Jehovah’s Witnesses use is denounced by Jewish and Christian scholars as theologically unsound. They should be warned. Jehovah’s Witnesses use their own “New World Translation” which lacks Biblical scholarship (Phillips, 2015). Furthermore, potential recruits are urged to be baptized by the Watchtower Society yet are seldom informed that the group forbids blood transfusions and has a practice of disfellowshipping (shunning). Members may be shunned if the elders believe a member has sinned, even for petty acts like sending a birthday card to a nonmember. Researchers assert that if an organization is to have the benefits of non-profit status, it should be required to be transparent and practice informed consent. Deceptive recruitment violates people’s religious freedom and should be illegal, and the organization’s leadership penalized. This means that a way to legally define and measure undue influence must be found. Members should have the freedom to question the leaders, the doctrine, and the policies and have the freedom to leave the religion with harassment, threats, or experiencing trauma (2020, p. 9).
Cults operate by deconstructing one’s sense of self and belief systems to then create the person anew out of that fertile soil, which Hassan characterizes as “to drastically reinterpret their life’s history, radically alter their world view, accept a new version of reality and causality, and develop a dependency on the organization, thereby being turned into a deployable agent of the organization operating the thought reform program” (Hassan, 2020, p. 3). And this is exactly how religions work—in Christianity’s case demonizing what the apostle Paul called your fleshly/worldly nature, seeing that nature as evil and replacing it with a new spiritual nature.
The replacement religious ideology is arbitrary, but because the mind is usually on autopilot, it is not scrutinized as such and so remains intact. In Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in Behavior Economics, says with Amos Tversky that it was “demonstrated that most human beings depend on unconscious heuristics to make fast decisions and, only when necessary, use slow, conscious data analysis” (Hassan, 2020, p. 13). Thoughtful critique necessitates going to the core of the religious beliefs of the individual, not getting weighed down in the periphery, or with random insults.
Hassan points out we can see analogous cases where people have been subjected to undue influence in other areas:
The Brandle/Heisler/Steigel model:
This model is based on domestic violence relationships, stalking, and sexual assault. It assumes that undue influence parallels these other religious situations.
There are eight factors:
- The victim was kept unaware.
- The victim was isolated from others and information.
- The Influencer tried to create fear.
- The influencer preyed on vulnerabilities.
- The influencer tried to create dependencies.
- The influencer attempted to make victims lose faith in their own beliefs.
- The influencer tried to induce shame and secrecy.
- The influencer performed intermittent acts of kindness.
(Hassan, 2020, p. 18)
It should be obvious to anyone that this is the very heart of Christianity. The potential convert is supposed to do a thorough self-inventory until they come to see how broken they are, which then provides the ground for the reconstructive starting point: the Sinner’s prayer. Religious self-help groups function in the same way, like through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) getting you to start alcohol abstinence by admitting that you are completely lost in an addiction that you can’t fight unless you let God transform you.
There is no difference between a religion and a cult, just that religion is a cult grown larger. In this way, we can see the features of the brainwashed cult member achieved in religion. Hassan comments:
The “thought reform” or “cult” model of Margaret Thaler Singer, PhD developed from her work on the tactics used by cults and cult leaders and has been widely referenced. The model proposes six stages: creating isolation, fostering a siege mentality, inducing dependency, promoting a sense of powerlessness, manipulating fears and vulnerabilities, and keeping the victim unaware and uninformed. The model also specifies certain tactics as follows:
- keeping the victim unaware of what is going on and what changes are taking place;
- controlling the victim’s time and, if possible, physical environment;
- creating a sense of powerlessness, covert fear, and dependency;
- suppressing much of the person’s old behavior and attitudes;
- instilling new behavior and attitudes; and
- putting forth a closed system of logic, allowing no real input or criticism.
Hassan argues that Robert J. Lifton has been instrumental in identifying the most effective look-fors in identifying environments of brainwashing/undue influence. To begin with, we can see the hallmark of the religious mindset in the first of the eight concepts below: that the in-group has the only way to view reality.
(1) Milieu Control
Milieu control involves seeing the group way as the correct and only way: “I am the way and truth and life: No one comes to the father but through me,” Jesus says. “There is often a sequence of events, such as seminars, lectures, and group encounters, which becomes increasingly intense and increasingly isolated, making it extremely difficult both physically and psychologically for one to leave” (Lifton, 1961 p. 421).
(2) Mystical Manipulation
One only needs to watch Steve Martin’s movie Leap of Faith (1992) to see the lengths to which the divine is created out of whole cloth. This can range from overt lies to overemphasizing the importance of coincidence. Yes, it’s unlikely that you will experience a healing that defies medical explanation, but in a planet of 8 billion, it’s not odd that someone will hit the lottery. Really illustrating this is that the probability of you existing at all comes out to 1 in 102,685,000—yes, that’s a 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes! The odds of you being alive are basically zero, but we know that there is nothing miraculous about you existing. Ali Binazir explains that there is an extremely unlikely chain of events that would have to occur for you to exist (Spector, 2012).
Typical with religions and cults is to identify specific persons as being mouthpieces for God, such as Billy Graham, and cultists trust the “prophet’s” revelations infinitely more than that of the next person, as the cult leader is said to be a mediator for God. Hassan adds:
This can be understood as a misattribution error in the person influenced—that he or she wrongly attributes “divine” forces to what is basically trickery. The person thinks the influencer is reading their mind, or that there are magical forces at work, for why things happened the way they did. Another example is a person who comes to a cult “Bible study” but does not realize that the person who invited him was instructed to learn all about his background and report it to the leader. So, when the Bible study is conducted, key teachings would be made, designed to give the new person the subjective feeling that God knew “all about him” and his struggles and was directing him to become involved. (2020, p. 29)
(3) Demand for Purity
Historically, one of the traits that has been useful for control is inspiring guilt. A culture of purity thus fosters dependence and obedience. Cults specifically target the weak and broken because they are more open to the idea that they are fundamentally flawed, and so are ripe soil in which to plant the new ideology. This is what Jesus means when he says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” which has nothing to do with money, but rather with the blessednes of those who feel spiritually broken and destitute and who thus crave a new approach to life. The apostle Paul talks about how the law was given to make the hidden sin nature conspicuous, for this would awaken the Law written on our hearts and inspire repentance. Hassan comments: “Establishing impossible standards for performance, creates an environment of guilt and shame. No matter how hard a person tries, he always falls short, feels bad, and works even harder” (2020, p. 29).
(4) The Cult of Confession
Religion is egotism, such as the idea that my being tempted by someone who isn’t my wife is part of a cosmic battle for a tug of war between God and the Devil for my soul. For what’s the alternative? The alternative is that I am an insignificant evolutionary accident. The cult is interested in every aspect of the person’s life and sees the person’s thoughts and deeds as very important and in need of cultivation. Hassan says there is “a breakdown of healthy boundaries of self/group where the cult or controller believes it is their right to know absolutely everything about the individual’s life, and this person has no right to keep any secrets which includes negative thoughts and feelings about the controller” (2020, p. 31).
(5) Sacred Science
Of course, it is obvious that religions were once cults, and cults are bizarre and silly, so you see the increased drive in religion to legitimize themselves as real science. Hassan says: “The belief that the group’s dogma is absolutely scientifically and morally true, with no room for questions or alternative viewpoints, sacred science can offer considerable security to young people because it greatly simplifies the world” (2020, p. 31).
(6) Loading the Language
A large part of entrenching someone in the religious mindset is to orient the language about it. We see this, for instance, in politicians working God into their speeches, as though it legitimized them to admit that they were superstitious. Hassan comments:
Unlike a healthy use of a large vocabulary to help navigate the world, a person influenced by thought reform has a vastly reduced set of words and concepts. The term loading the language refers to a reification of language—words or images becoming sacred or divine. A much-simplified language may seem cliché-ridden but can have enormous appeal and psychological power in its very simplification. Because every issue in one’s life—and these are often very complicated young lives—can be reduced to a single set of principles that have an inner coherence, one can claim the experience of truth and feel it. (2020, p. 32)
Stephen Colbert famously satirized “truthiness,” the idea that the truth value of something comes from its sounding true rather than being true. Jacques Derrida called this the metaphysics of presence.
(7) Doctrine over Person
Ultimately, what happens to many religious people is that their experience contradicts religious dogma and predictions, which births doubt. Talk of an all-loving and all-powerful God who has a plan for your life is fine and nice, but it is also egotism, and hardly squares with a world where 3-year-old children regularly die from cancer and starvation. The argument to God from beauty—”How can you look at the beauty of a sunset and there not be a divine artist?”—is analogous, and we can ask if a spider finds the sunset beautiful, too. Likewise, doubts are placed in the mind of a schizophrenic about his delusion that he is in a secret relationship with Drew Barrymore when he goes to the bar expecting to meet up with her and she doesn’t show up. Hassan comments: “The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or dogma says one should experience” (2020, p. 33).
(8) Dispensing of Existence
I’ve always wondered about Christian women dating secular men. What are they going to do without them in the afterlife? (Of course, Jesus responds that there is no marriage in the afterlife!) Members of the out-group, especially former members of the cult, are seen as being a defective use of a human life, and so are demonized, which can inspire all forms of negative responses from cult members.
Deconstructing or deprogramming an underlying narrative is neither true nor false. A child being a good friend in school is neither correct nor incorrect, it’s just that the individual and the system functions in a healthier manner (to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s model) if the child is being friendly. So, if a child is being a problem, it may be that the underlying narrative is that the child sees naughty children get more attention from the teacher than well-behaved children and so becomes the center of attention. Deconstruction here involves identifying and challenging the underlying narrative. The naughty child is “correct” in that his underlying narrative yields the results that he wants (attention from the teacher and peers), but his approach is unhealthy and causes systemic (classroom) and individual stress. The child needs to be deprogrammed of his unhealthy attention-seeking narrative and taught that there are healthy ways to get attention. The same holds true for religion. The Christian approach is predicated on the assumption that the Christian interpretation of the evidence makes the most sense, and alternative interpretations are trivialized. So it’s a kind of egotism, which we already knew because the individual has to believe that the author of all reality cares what little insignificant you thinks and does, and there is a war between the forces of good and the forces of darkness to win what you believe.
To see the interpretive underlying narrative, the believer has to assume his religion is correct, because otherwise every act of worship could be angering the true deity (Pascal’s wager be damned!). But there is a deeper internal underlying narrative. Who’s to say? Since we’re only guessing without evidence, perhaps God sent Jesus to preach love of meekness, poverty, master (God), and enemy as a test to see who has the true warrior spirit of wealth and power, so that whoever follows Jesus fails the test and goes to Hell, while whoever maintains warrior values despite Jesus’ empty threats of Hell actually proves their warrior hearts and gains paradise. There are no uninterpreted facts from the point of view of deconstruction/deprogramming, and so weight needs to be restored to other possible interpretations to lessen the force of the popular narrative. Derrida wasn’t just being a jerk or obscure, he was arguing that restoring weight to marginalized interpretations is the way to justice—for example, when we see the violence the previously valued traditional definition of marriage does to LGBTQ+ rights, it’s an occasion to deconstruct the traditional definition and reconstruct it in a more just, inclusive way.
Religiosity is fundamentally irrational, guessing without sufficient evidence, and apologists often point to gaps in scientific knowledge to insert God in that gap, though 100% of the mysteries of reality that have been solved, have been solved by science, not God. To believe in theism means to believe that God can do anything—except appear and say hi and remove all doubt!
Because religion ultimately rests on a foundation of superstition, the secularist needs to be like a sleuth with liberal theists, wading through the theists’ “naturalistic smokescreen” to get to the superstitious elements, frameworks, and foundations. If the liberal theist does not believe in life after death, this is not an issue to focus on. Remember, religion always needs to legitimize itself, because unconsciously it knows that it is illegitimate, and so will bend over backward to present itself as a science. We should not infer that someone is wise about the existential religious questions just because they are a liberal theistic critical historian of religion. To give an analogy: someone can be competent on the piano, but not on the violin. Regarding liberal theists, Richard Carrier comments:
But even liberal-minded, progressive Christians like Justin Brierley are still echoing ancient anti-empirical sentiments. Of course the reason the “response” to this observed defect in Christianity is still never to promote actually reliable methods is that that erodes faith—for reasons only obvious to atheists. Reliable methods + correct information + time = atheism…. That this is fundamental to Christianity is proved by how it infects even its liberals. As I just noted, even Justin Brierley “lets his Bible tell him to consider as ‘blessed’ those who choose to believe things without evidence,” explicitly citing John 20:2, thus demonstrating that the ancient Christian Bible’s anti-intellectualism is corrupting the minds even of its most liberal of devotees. And that’s a problem. This is why all religion is bad for us. As I wrote before, Brierley’s “religion has literally taught him to praise the rejection of evidence-based reasoning,” which is “dangerous as all hell,” a “disastrously bad effect” of his religion on his mind. And we see this across the whole of modern Christendom. It still preaches hostility to sound inductive logic, and elevates in its place completely unempirical deductive systems of logic instead, the ones most easily corrupted to sell anything as true. And even when Christians pay lip service to sound methods of inductive logic, they completely misuse them, rendering them totally unsound. (Carrier, 2022)
Carrier, Richard. (2022, June 1). “A Primer on Christian Anti-Intellectualism.” Richard Carrier Blogs. <https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/20432>.
Hassan, Steven Alan. (2020). “The Bite Model of Authoritarian Control: Undue Influence, Thought Reform, Brainwashing, Mind Control, Trafficking and the Law.” (Publication No. 28263630) [Doctoral dissertation, Fielding Graduate University]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global.
Lifton, Robert Jay (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. W. W. Norton & Company.
Spector, Dina. (2012, June 11). “The Odds Of You Being Alive are Incredibly Small.” Business Insider. <https://www.businessinsider.com/infographic-the-odds-of-being-alive-2012-6>.