Lately we’ve been talking about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs)–how dishonest they are, how predatory they are, how much of a losing bet they are. Lately I’ve been reminded anew about just how big the overlap is between MLMs and fundagelical-style Christianity. Today I’ll show you some of those similarities–and we’ll see how easy it is for someone to escape one false and harmful group only to land smack-dab in the middle of one that’s just as bad or worse, all because of indoctrination points shared by both groups.
A Venn Diagram Near-Juxtaposition.
We’ve been saying for a while now that MLMs enjoy such popularity among Christians because the two mindsets are so similar. That’s why people joke that MLM stands for Mormons Losing Money, a nod to the fact that Mormons are seriously over-represented in the ranks of people who join an MLM hoping their investments will mean money for nothin’ and chicks for free, eventually.
One needn’t head over to Utah to see tons of people involved in MLMs, though. Any group that features those basic indoctrination points is going to have members who are very vulnerable to the come-ons of a scam.
In fact, if we made a Venn diagram of the similarities between the mindsets of people in MLMs and Christianity, we’d end up with two circles that were very nearly printed one on top of the other!
It’s important to note that Christianity itself isn’t the problem so much as the ideas that undergird the religion. If a Christian deconverts tomorrow, they still might fall into a similar deception by Saturday if they don’t figure out what led them to that religious group in the first place and (even more importantly!) start addressing those vulnerabilities.1
That’s why I’m not going to just point and laugh at the poor silly Christians in their many hundreds of MLMs flogging their cheap-ass books and terrible makeup on social media. I’m going to do something far, far worse. I’m going to paint a clear arrow from one group to the other.
Important Questions That Aren’t Allowed.
The message is always perfect, in a broken system. Any time we see this belief in a group, we need to consider that a huge red flag. Alas, in both Christianity and MLMs, the people involved are taught–and largely believe–that the system works, as long as you work the system. That means that as long as they are fervent, diligent, and sincere enough, then they will be successful with the system they’ve bought into.
The people who get sucked up into these groups simply aren’t allowed to ask how they can know that this system works the way its salespeople say it should. They won’t be allowed to set a cutoff date or victory/defeat condition for their involvement with this system. There’ll be no “If at (a reasonable deadline, not the 2-5 years one MLM guy suggested) I’m not doing considerably and tangibly better than I am now, then I’m walking away from this group.” The mere suggestion of such a test will have people in both groups up in arms! Such a brave soul will be lectured about how they can’t possibly set a time limit on success, or else upbraided for daring to test the Powers That Be.
In a way this process looks a bit like how a gambling addict thinks of the big payoff: it’s always just a little bit down the road, but when it comes, oh honey, it’s going to be big–and it’ll totally make everything perfect. When the payoff doesn’t happen in a reasonable timeframe, though, neither Christians nor MLM participants are allowed to decide that the experiment has concluded–especially if the results aren’t kind to the broken system.
Of course, when the participants leave anyway, the MLMers and Christians left behind in their groups will insult, malign, and belittle those quitters. From the post where I found the above image, one excuse cited was “My dog is sick.” We’re given no context whatsoever for that odd excuse (and no evidence that he really ever heard it from anyone directly), but it’s very clear that the creepy guy up there with the Uncanny Valley grimace/grin is telling us this reason because he wants us to think the person giving it was wrong to leave his MLM because their dog was sick. In similar fashion, Christian leaders are also very fond of policing people’s reasons for leaving their groups–and they also don’t think that there’s ever a valid reason for doing so.
Seriously. Watch out for any group that simply never allows for any virtuous reason to leave. Watch how they treat those who leave, and how they talk about those who have already left. That’s how they’ll be talking about you, if and when you leave. Same goes for anyone who rejects the group without joining at all. Remember that it is not anyone else’s right to criticize why or when or how you leave any group, and your reasons aren’t anybody’s business but your own.
Distrust of Reality and Genuine Experts.
People who get involved in wackadoodle religions and MLMs aren’t all dumb. They’ve got cell phones just like everybody else. They can easily look up debunks of whatever it is they’re considering investing their time and money into.
Every single person attending Mark Driscoll’s new church in Scottsdale, Arizona goes into their building only after passing demonstrators holding up signs to tell them that Mark Driscoll is a terrible human being and an incredible hypocrite. They know. They could certainly find out more if they so chose. And yet they walk into Trinity Church anyway and, presumably, give this guy money with some sort of reliability.
In similar fashion, the people getting into MLMs could easily discover that almost every single soul who gets into one of these scams is going to lose massive amounts of money at their fake “business.” This information is very easily found online in multiple places; there are even entire blogs written by people who’ve escaped this or that MLM and have the battle scars to prove it.
But when hope and desperation take hold of someone who already deeply distrusts what critics have to say about anything, then the pie-in-the-sky promises of both MLMs and Christianity start sounding really good.
Little wonder MLMers often entwine their religion and their “business” and talk about how their scam is a “blessing” to both themselves and anybody they can persuade to play along with it (or just manipulate or even coerce into it). Obviously Christians feel that their religion is a “blessing” to everyone and don’t mind manipulating or coercing people into playing along with their Pretendy Fun Time Game with them–since it’ll be to those folks’ benefit in the end, amirite? They, along with MLM participants, literally don’t get why anybody thinks anything else about their group!
(We could sure talk here some more about authoritarian followers, but I think we’re good already as it is.)
I’ll just say this: if I were going to scam a group, I couldn’t possibly ask for better marks than a population trained since infancy to look away from real-world evidence of any kind if it contradicts their indoctrination, to look down on critical thinking, and to avoid questioning leaders.
Usually X is Bad, Yes. But My X is a Good X.
The increase in cultural attention being paid to both MLMs’ and fundagelicalism’s destructive natures has resulted in a weird sight: people who loudly declare that yes, they know that this X is often very predatory and results in nothing but misery for the participants involved, but that their X is one of the few good ones and of course that is why they are involved with it and not one of those ickie ones. And like these other situations, this one happens in both MLMs and Christianity.
When a sweet, wide-eyed Christian from one of the really awful groups shows up to tell everyone that yes, they know that their group is bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and one of the worst and most regressive social clubs in the nation (a situation they will usually describe as having its flaws), but they’re still an active part of it for whatever reason, they’re saying something really uncomplimentary in the long scheme of things. (Yes, I’ve encountered this personally. Often.)
In a similar way, when anybody in any MLM tells us that yes, they’re aware that fewer than 1% of participants will even break even in their chosen scam, but that they themselves are successful at it so they’re sticking with it, that’s a person we need to avoid like the plague. That’s someone who is okay with spreading and causing misery as long as they benefit from it.
That said, they don’t want to be judged by the company they keep. First, it’d make them sad for others to think poorly of them, sure. But second and more importantly, they may still want to make a sale with us, even if it happens at the expense of the other people in their tribe.
Don’t trust a salesperson who tells you that they’re totally aware of all the sketchy aspects of the group they’re in–but that their little corner of that sandbox is great. A broken system is broken throughout. Also, that is someone who is willing to throw their tribemates under the bus if it means maybe making a sale.
This point of indoctrination is also lurking behind both MLMers and Christians’ perfect willingness to try to score sales from those who are even more desperate than they are. And I’m not okay with that either.
Something For Nothing.
Here’s where it all comes together.
We’ve talked off and on in comments for ages about Christians’ fascination with instant forgiveness, their eagerness to find “the angle,” and their trouble with delaying gratification. For all that blather about self-sacrifice and charity, the average Christian is not even vaguely interested in any of that. Veruca Salt would adore them!
When someone who lacks the ability, experience, or skills to gain a desired result considers their options, therefore, they see a couple of avenues. They can either gain those requisites through time and effort and then go after the result they desire, or else they can somehow instantly come into that result through some quick-fix scheme.
Most of us wouldn’t even consider the scheme because we know they don’t work and are often hideously unethical even so. That’s why none of us has a white-hot career right now as ex-atheist faith healers.
The person who gravitates to the instant scheme is someone who’s been indoctrinated to ignore expert opinions about how unworkable that scheme is; who’s okay with participating in a purely predatory system as long as it’ll benefit themselves; who truly believes that something can come from nothing;2 and who doesn’t feel like they’re allowed to even think about asking uncomfortable questions about the scheme–like even if it really actually works at all.
And that’s the indoctrination we have to defeat in ourselves when we deconvert. Those are the underpinnings that make us vulnerable to scams and conspiracy theories. Otherwise we’ll just be like this lady having what the r/antiMLM subreddit called a “LuLaMeltdown” when she realized just how much money she’d lost in her time as a LuLaRoe
distributor victim: feeling betrayed, angry, even disconsolate–and yet she’s still involved in four other MLMs that she’s not quitting!
That’s it for today! The second-to-last part of this miniseries involves someone who walked away from being a “Bible-thumper,” as he puts it, into something far, far more rational and intelligent (sorry, I can’t keep a straight face: gang, he’s found a way to turn the Ancient Astronauts hoax into a conspiracy theory–and it’s even more awesomely wackadoodle than it sounds). And last of all we’ll look at someone who’s found a way to morph his involvement in the Satanic Panic into something more acceptable to modern-day fundagelicals. Old scams never die; they just put on new unicorn leggings. See you soon!
1 Christianity just gathers up all those awful indoctrination points into one nauseating bundle of joy, is all, and then extends its grabby hands outward to try to gather everyone in reach into its grasp, so it’s a lot easier to see–and push back against–that tribe.
2 Which makes Creationism all the more laughable! The idea that something can’t possibly come from nothing is one of their criticisms of the accepted scientific consensus regarding the origins of the universe/Earth/life/etc, but their worldview is based entirely on this idea.
Endnote: I’m not actually a contributing member of the r/antiMLM subreddit. I just lurk there–and highly recommend it. Sometimes it’s really helpful to see how religious indoctrination points play out in non-churchy contexts.
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