The Use of Mind Control in Religious Cults (Part Two)

David Henke

In the last issue of the News & Views we looked at the methodology of mind control, or thought reform, used by both the communist governments and religious cults. Dr. Robert J. Lifton published his findings regarding this methodology after studying the effect of what we then called brainwashing on our returning POWs from the Korean War.

Since that time students of the cults have found that the same principles are being used by most cults in the recruitment and retention of converts. Did the cults study Dr. Lifton's book? That is highly unlikely. More likely is the dark side of human nature at work finding the most effective methods of control that also protect those in power from accountability for truth and justice.

Control of others is alien to Christian teaching. It is also alien to human nature as God created us. It is not alien to our fallen nature. Control can only be exercised in an atmosphere of ignorance, dependence and untruth. Once the light of truth enters controllers are threatened. Therefore of first importance to the communist dictator, or religious cult leader, is that his followers remain ignorant and dependent. The methods for achieving this, since the cult's "truth" is really a lie, is to practice the same methods used by the communist prison camps.

Last month we looked at five of the eight criteria defined by Lifton. The most necessary element for any of the patterns below to operate is for the leaders to control the milieu, or environment in which thinking takes place. Without the option of questioning, a lie cannot be uncovered. All the other criteria serve that first one. This is why cults tend to separate their new recruits from family and friends. Keep this principle in mind as we look at the final three criteria.

Loading the Language

Lifton said, "The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis" (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, page 429).

An example would be the Jehovah's Witness term "Jehovah's theocratic arrangement." This term implies to Jehovah's Witnesses that Jehovah has appointed the Watchtower Society as His channel of communication to mankind and has invested it with a level of authority and truth equivalent to that of an Old Testament prophet (The Nations Shall Know That I Am Jehovah, page 58).

If a Jehovah's Witness questions anything from the Society the questioning can be stopped by saying that it is Jehovah's theocratic arrangement. The implication for the questioner is that he is disagreeing with God Himself, hence he stops questioning. Within such totalistic systems the alternatives are almost always stark black and white choices.

For the communists, according the Lifton, the equivalent term would be 'bourgeois mentality' (Thought Reform, page 429).

For the Christian a thought stopping cliché is the same as manipulation. It is opposed to the principle of accountability and the reality that truth can stand the test.

Doctrine Over Person

If a person's experience is contrary to the group's doctrine then the doctrine must win out and personal experience must be dismissed.

The classic example of this is the socialist command economy of the old Soviet Union. The doctrine held that all property was owned by the people as represented by the State. They expressed this communal system with this adage - "From each according to his means to each according to his need." The fallacy of this system is seen in that productivity never rose to what was commanded because the model failed to account for a fundamental truth, the self-interested motivation of the citizen. When the product of your labor is taken from you to be given to others the motivation to produce goes with it. When you can keep the product of your labor the motive is to produce. The final end of the Soviet experiment was economic collapse and the replacement of much of the system with a barter economy.

If the doctrine does not square with reality and questioning and disagreement is prohibited then the ultimate end of such a system is total collapse. It is not possible, short of revolution, to rescue such a system before the end is apparent.

Christianity holds that doctrine is consistent with reality, and therefore consistent with personal experience, because both are derived from the same source, God. Where tensions appear between doctrine and experience it is appropriate for the Christian to seek more knowledge and wisdom. Given time such tensions will disappear as was the case with Copernicus' position that the Earth revolved around the Sun while the Catholic Church said the opposite.

The Dispensing of Existence

The system of doctrine is so sacred that only those who adhere to it are, as Lifton describes them, real people. Those who do not adhere to it are not real people. Those outside the system are expendable. Even those within the system can be expendable if they raise questions. When they raise questions there will be an application of the preceding seven criteria. If that does not stop the questioning, then the person can be 'eliminated'.

That elimination takes different forms with different groups. For the communists it can mean the Gulag, a re-education camp, or death. For the Jehovah's Witness it can mean disfellowshipping which completely ostracizes the offender from other Witnesses keeping the group pure.

Even in legalistic Christian groups the rule can become more important than the individual. The person who is at odds with the group is labeled as a rebel, troublemaker, or schismatic. It is then easier to dismiss the label than it is to dismiss a real person.

The attempt by the Pharisees to silence or discredit Jesus and later the Apostles illustrates the dispensing of existence in biblical times. Most paid the ultimate price for violating the sense of order and truth as set forth by those in power.

These eight mind control criteria exist in a spectrum of severity. On one end are the lethal examples of the suicide cults and communist history. On the other end is the subtle pressure and undue influence in legalistic groups, cults, and even in American politics.

Objection to the Mind Control Model

It is for us as Christians to recognize that the people lying dead on the ground in Jonestown, Guyana did not arrive at that condition due to a rational thought process. Something corrupted their thinking. It is for us as Christians to see that as motivation to reach out to those in such delusion with the gospel of God's love in Christ.

There are some that disagree with the mind control model as a way of explaining cult conversion. The primary objection is that it minimizes personal responsibility for the wrongs committed. This was illustrated on Bill O'Reilly's news talk show on the Fox News Channel. He was interviewing Steven Hassan, author of Combatting Cult Mind Control, about what should happen with John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. Hassan said he thought Lindh should get a sentence of community service because he was a victim of mind control. O'Reilly almost went berserk.

The problem for Christians in this is that it is not up to us to determine the level of guilt before God. That is within His Sovereign prerogative only. It is dangerous for us to engage in levels of guilt and levels of responsibility where eternity is concerned. He knows all the issues involved with cult victims just as He knows the issues involved with the person who has never heard the gospel.

In Conclusion

I felt it was useful to understand the mind control model at work in the cults by departing somewhat from the field of counter-cult apologetics to look at the issue in a different context, the political realm. After starting this article I received a copy of the Cultic Studies Journal from the American Family Foundation (Vol. 1, No. 3, 2002), which had an article entitled The Cult That Is North Korea by Christopher M. Centner of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The article can be obtained online via a subscription at

The article cited examples of many of the control methods discussed in Lifton's book. The deity of North Korea is Kim Il-Sung, The Great Leader, and his son Kim Jong-Il, The Dear Leader. The doctrine of their religion is called Juche (pronounced Joo-Chay) which literally means self reliance, but is not because they actually rely on their Leader and the State. Salvation will be the defeat of their enemies, South Korea, Japan and the United States, which will be followed by the spread of Juche across the world. Each North Korean soldier takes an oath to defend the Dear Leader to the death. This is religious cultism.

I conclude with this quote from his article.

"World policymakers are puzzled by North Korea's erratic and violent behavior, failing to understand that North Korea is not a traditional nation-state, but a cult that possesses territory. As a cult, North Korea needs to maintain tensions with the outside world and resist reforms that would seem to others as rationally necessary. Moreover, Pyongyang seems to be slipping more and more toward a totalistic cult model that mirrors the behavior of groups that have, in the past, used weapons of mass destruction, murdered outsiders, and committed group suicide. By viewing North Korea not as a rational nation-state but as a religious cult, policymakers will have a better model to understand and predict Pyongyang's behavior. Some attributes of South Korea's Sunshine Policy appear to correctly focus on weakening Kim Jong Il's absolute control over the North Korean population."

Lifton's Eight Criteria

Milieu Control - the control of the environment including information, associations, time, and energy work to exclude any opportunity for opposition while also promoting the 'party line'.

Mystical Manipulation - this is the 'higher calling' for the follower to be a part of a utopian goal which requires his full devotion. The followers see the leaders as having achieved this higher calling hence they are worthy to be followed.

Demand For Purity - the utopian goal can only be achieved by purity of devotion. Any failure to succeed means impurity exists somewhere and will be searched out by those in control.

Cult of Confession - Failure to succeed means confessions must be made. Any weakness or failure, real or perceived, are to be confessed for the sake of the group. Even confessions where no wrong was actually done can spur the group to more purity.

Sacred Science - The ideology, doctrine and mission of the group are so sacred that they must not be doubted or questioned. To do so is one of the worst offenses possible. However, without the option of questioning, a lie cannot be uncovered.

Loading the Language - Certain words and phrases are so loaded with meaning that stark choices are implied leading to the end of critical thinking.

Doctrine Over Person - What you see, hear or think is irrelevant in the face of the groups doctrine. You must submerge your opinions in the group's worldview.

Dispensing of Existence - Only those who are committed to the group are valued. Those who oppose or betray the group can be dismissed, defamed, disfellowshipped, or killed.

Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. John 8:32, 36

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