About 3 years ago, I started an online course called Square 1 which has since grown into a large online community where people who are going through the pain and uncertainty of religious Deconstruction can process their questions and discover – at their own pace and in their own way – what Reconstruction might look like for them.
Since starting Square 1, the course and community have branched into Square 2 – a more Reconstruction-focused module – and Square 3 – a weekly Zoom discussion for those who have completed the first 2 courses and want to continue the dialog without fear or judgment.
In many ways, these communities have become my surrogate replacement for the church I once knew, except that everyone is free to say whatever they think, disagree with me, or one another, and find their own path out of toxic Evangelical theology and into something that genuinely brings them joy, and hope, and sincere connection with the Divine.
A few weeks ago in our Square 3 discussions, someone mentioned the “BITE Model” which was created by Steven Hassan, a former Mooney Cult member who today dedicates his life to identifying the marks of a cult and helping people escape their control.
Steven Hassan created The Freedom of Mind resource center [HERE] where you can learn more about the “BITE Model”, but in his own words:
“Many people think of mind control as an ambiguous, mystical process that cannot be defined in concrete terms. In reality, mind control refers to a specific set of methods and techniques, such as hypnosis or thought-stopping, that influence how a person thinks, feels, and acts.
“Based on research and theory by Robert Jay Lifton, Margaret Singer, Edgar Schein, Louis Jolyon West, and others who studied brainwashing in Maoist China as well as cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger, Steven Hassan developed the BITE Model to describe the specific methods that cults use to recruit and maintain control over people.
“BITE” stands for Behavior, Information, Thought, and Emotional control.”
After listening to a few of his interviews on various other programs and podcasts, I started to realize just how many of the characteristics of a cult [as outlined in his helpful BITE Model below], correspond to what I and others have experienced as members of an Evangelical Christian church in America.
I’ve copied the bullet points for each of the 4 sections that compose the BITE Model below and provided some commentary under each section to clarify what I and others have witnessed first-hand.
Keep in mind, as you read, that Steven Hassan often stresses that cults need not check every one of these boxes to be considered a cult, or for their behaviors to be considered “cult-like.”
As long as they check most of these boxes – and surprisingly, many Christian Church groups do check most of these boxes – the group is most certainly a cult.
So, let’s look at the list, shall we?
- Regulate individual’s physical reality
- Dictate where, how, and with whom the member lives and associates or isolates
- When, how and with whom the member has sex
- Control types of clothing and hairstyles
- Regulate diet – food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
- Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
- Financial exploitation, manipulation or dependence
- Restrict leisure, entertainment, vacation time
- Major time spent with group indoctrination and rituals and/or self indoctrination (including the Internet)
- Permission required for major decisions
- Rewards and punishments used to modify behaviors, both positive and negative
- Discourage individualism, encourage group-think
- Impose rigid rules and regulations
- Punish disobedience
- Threaten harm to family and friends
- Encourage and engage in corporal punishment
- Instill dependency and obedience
- Separation of Families
NOTE: In my own personal experience, Southern Baptist Churches [where I was licensed and ordained] and Vineyard Churches [where I helped to plant a church], both exhibit these Behavior Control tendencies.
For example, Southern Baptists certainly control types of clothing and hairstyles, diet and drink [no alcohol, for example], and both Vineyard and the SBC groups manipulate and exploit finances via pressure to tithe [with consequences for those who do not], and pressure to contribute to building campaigns, etc., and both punish disobedience with threats of miscommunication and disfellowship, and use those threats to control behaviors.
Both groups, in my experience, also discouraged individualism, especially when/if someone had a different view on scripture than the pastor or the denomination.
Don’t even get me started on how Baptist Churches restrict the behaviors of young people when it comes to dancing, and clothing is policed [largely for girls and women] on the side of extreme modesty or an attempt to control the sexual urges of men in the congregation.
- Deliberately withhold information
- Distort information to make it more acceptable
- Systematically lie to members
Minimize or discourage access to non-cult sources of information, including:
- Internet, TV, radio, books, articles, newspapers, magazines, media
- Critical information
- Former members
- Keep members busy so they don’t have time to think and investigate
- Control through cell phone with texting, calls, internet tracking
Compartmentalize information into Outsider vs. Insider doctrines
- Ensure that information is not freely accessible
- Control information at different levels and missions within group
- Allow only leadership to decide who needs to know what and when
Encourage spying on other members
- Impose a buddy system to monitor and control member
- Report deviant thoughts, feelings and actions to leadership
- Ensure that individual behavior is monitored by group
Extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda, including:
- Newsletters, magazines, journals, audiotapes, videotapes, YouTube, movies and other media
- Misquoting statements or using them out of context from non-cult sources
Unethical use of confession
- Information about sins used to disrupt and/or dissolve identity boundaries
- Withholding forgiveness or absolution
- Manipulation of memory, possible false memories
NOTE: So much to point out here. Where to begin? Let’s see….the churches I’ve seen certainly are selective about forgiveness for certain members [again, usually women], and overly-forgiving of leadership [especially when/if they “stumble” into sexual sin].
I’ve also seen Christian Church leaders misquote teachers or personalities they disagree with to build straw-men attacks against. [See Alisa Childers, Mike Winger, Sean McDowell, etc. for more recent examples].
Churches are also notorious for overloading their members with as much “volunteer” work as they possibly can to keep them so busy they don’t have time for their families, or to listen to other voices outside their community.
I’ve also been in church staff meetings where the leadership knowingly discussed how to “control” or “spin” information that might be seen as disturbing or critical to the congregation – usually regarding mishandled finances, unethical pastoral behaviors, or even questions about doctrines that were taught from the pulpit even if/when not everyone agreed or even believed what they were preaching.
Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
- Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
- Instill black and white thinking
- Decide between good vs. evil
- Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
Change person’s name and identity
Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
- Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
- Speaking in tongues
- Singing or humming
Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
Instill new “map of reality”
NOTES: So, almost everyone who’s ever been a member of a Christian Church in America can testify that most of what is in this section has been seen or experienced first-hand.
Do Christian leaders forbid critical questions about the leader? Yes. Do they forbid or discourage critical questions about their doctrines? Oh, yes they do.
Do they forbid critical questions about church policy? Uh-huh.
Do they label alternative belief systems as illegitimate or evil? Of course they do!
Do Christian churches use thought-stopping techniques like wishful thinking? Yep.
Do they encourage chanting, speaking in tongues, singing the same chorus for 30 minutes until your brain is mushy?
Yes, yes, and yes!
Do they instill black and white thinking? Yes!
Do they adopt and “Us vs Them” posture towards anyone – even other Christians – who disagree with them?
Let’s move on to the next section:
Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness, such as:
- Identity guilt
- You are not living up to your potential
- Your family is deficient
- Your past is suspect
- Your affiliations are unwise
- Your thoughts, feelings, actions are irrelevant or selfish
- Social guilt
- Historical guilt
Instill fear, such as fear of:
- Thinking independently
- The outside world
- Losing one’s salvation
- Leaving or being shunned by the group
- Other’s disapproval
- Historical guilt
Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority
- No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
- Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
- Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends and family
- Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
- Threats of harm to ex-member and family
NOTE: I call most of what you see above as “Worm Theology” and it’s one of the most destructive and pervasive cult methods I’ve seen in my 20+ years as a pastor and church-staff member.
You know what I’m talking about. That “I’m so unworthy” and “All my thoughts are evil all the time” sort of language that many Christians are out-right PROGRAMMED to adopt as their own identity.
Frankly, it’s one of the main ways Evangelical Christian leaders manipulate and control their members. Because as long as you believe that you are incapable of knowing what’s right or wrong by yourself, you will always require an approved holy Christian leader/pastor to think for you.
In fact, in our Square 1 community people have identified 3 main weapons that the Evangelical Christian cult uses to keep us in check: Fear, Shame and Guilt.
The other side of the manipulation technique – the “carrot” to the “stick” if you will – is what Steven Hassan refers to above as “love bombing.” Now, I’ve never heard that term before, but I have most certainly experienced it for myself each time I was welcomed into a new Church community. Especially when I was part of the Vineyard and other non-denominational Charismatic church events. You’re surrounded by people who affirm you, lay hands on you, speak encouraging words over you, pray incredible over-the-top-blessings over you, proclaim God’s favor on your life, and essentially bombard you with so much positive energy that you kind of get addicted to that feeling. You want to come back. You want them to do it again…and again….and again.
And then the idea that “happiness or fulfillment is impossible outside the group” becomes an implicit reality for you. You never want to leave. You feel sorry for all those other Christians out there who just don’t have it as good as you do. [Yes, I’ve actually said and thought this during my time at the Vineyard Church].
Bottom line, for me, I’ve become totally convinced that much of the Evangelical Christian Church in America is very cult-like, and behaves exactly the way Hassan describes above.
Keep in mind, I’ve not even touched on the more recent Q-Anon and Cult of Trump phenomenon that’s also increasing around the country these days. This is just ordinary, everyday Evangelical Christianity 101 here, and it’s enough to make me quite concerned for all those people who are being emotionally, physically, and spiritually controlled, manipulated and abused as part of their involvement in these seemingly safe and normal Christian communities.
If you’re part of a church that checks most of those boxes above, I would strongly urge you to run, as fast as you can, to the nearest exit and not look back.
If you’ve already realized this and want to find a safe place to think for yourself, believe what you want, and find others who want to escape the mind control Evangelical Christian cult, there are several wonderful options available to you.
Since I started Square 1 I’ve come across several other groups like ours that encourage dialog, welcome questions, and don’t require you to accept certain doctrines, or agree with the leadership, or think any certain way other than your own.
David Hayward [the Naked Pastor] has a little group he leads that is pretty wonderful.
Paul Gray also leads a weekly Zoom call/group that I recommend.
Jim Palmer leads a group for those who have mostly walked away from Christianity altogether.
Don Keathley is another guy I really trust and recommend. He leads a wonderful group online that I recommend.
And, as I mentioned, my own Square 1 course and online community is another option for those who want a more structured, step-by-step way of navigating the Deconstruction/Reconstruction journey, and want to connect with a small group of people who find themselves in the same place of doubt and theological confusion. [Our next session starts August 22, 2022 and there are a few seats still available at 75% off. We also have a few FREE “sponsored seats for those who really want to join but can’t afford to register. PM me for details.]
If you’re worried that your Church is controlling or manipulating you emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc., please feel free to step away while you can.
One thing you’ll realize after you’ve stepped away for a few months is just how refreshing it is to think for yourself and feel your own feelings.
My goal is to help people get set free from toxic theology and dangerous faith communities that dehumanize us and control us.
It is for freedom that Christ has set you free, and if Christ sets you free, then you are free indeed.
Think for yourself.
Trust your heart.
Be your own guru.
Life is too short to let someone else live your life for you.
Keith Giles is the author of the hot new bestseller, SOLA MYSTERIUM: Celebrating the Beautiful Uncertainty of Everything, available now on Amazon. Keith is also the host of Second Cup with Keith [a new solo podcast available now on the Ethos Radio App, for Apple and Android and on Spotify.