Here's an interesting
primer on cults that you can find in a book on advertising.
The author of "Coercion:
Why We Listen to What 'They' Say" describes religious
cults as powerful pyramid schemes.
Author Douglas Rushkoff lists 20 common steps of indoctrination
in destructive cults. His steps are quoted in italics with
my comments included below each step.
1. The Goal
Every cult has a stated, vague and metaphorical goal. Because
this goal must serve as the "illuminated eye" of the pyramid,
it cannot be attainable. Rather, it is expressed as an abstract
idea - like "salvation" - which the cult members will enjoy
once they have made it to the top of the pyramid.
So what is the ultimate goal for Mormons? Nothing less than
Godhood, not salvation. Mormons don't talk about salvation
as the ultimate goal. They talk about "Exaltation" and "having
all that God has," becoming "priests and kings" and having
"kingdoms, thrones, principalities, powers, dominions and
The top of the Celestial Kingdom is the goal for Mormons.
Yet very little is known about it. And it's certainly impossible
to attain and experience that goal in this life. Best case
scenario is you die and go the Celestial Kingdom, but it's
not something that exists or can be reached during this
2. A Charismatic Leader
All cults - whether spiritual or mundane - have a charismatic
figurehead. The leader must be someone whose speech, manner
and energy exert inexplicable influence. In religious cults,
the leader attains his divine status in one of two ways.
The first is by claiming to be the hand-picked successor
to the last guru. The second is by claiming to embody an
entirely new spiritual force - either to have been born
sacred or to have suffered an "awakening" trauma or a sudden
"new breeze" of insight.
Most True Believing Mormons find the General Authorities
to be very Charismatic. They are celebrities and almost
worshiped wherever they go among the membership. Even Gordon
B. Hinckley is charismatic enough to woo over Mike Wallace
from 60 Minutes, who was so impressed with Hinckley he called
For Mormons, the last guru before Mormonism was Jesus Christ.
Smith claimed to be picked by Jesus Christ and God the Father
to restore the only true church. He claimed they personally
came to him in a grove of trees and started off his prophetic
ministry. Every church president since then has also claimed
that Joseph Smith was the hand-picked successor to Jesus
Christ to restore His gospel in this "dispensation." Only
Joseph Smith had the divine mandate to translate and restore
the gospel due to his personal calling by God Himself. You
can't claim more authority than that.
3. Sacred Doctrine
Most cults have a sacred text or doctrine. Often a cult
will adopt an established text, like the Bible or the Koran.
Others use a spontaneously revealed doctrine. These are
usually "channeled" or transcribed.
Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price,
Ensign, General Conference Talks, etc..
4. Divine Coincidence
New members must learn of the cult as if by grace. If
the members believe they came to the cult through conscious
or rational process, then they are in a position to take
responsibility and credit for their participation. Cults
try to avoid this perception because members should be separated
from their sense of willpower in order to be fully indoctrinated.
Most converts see their discovery of the church as a divine
coincidence of some kind. Missionaries thrive on stories
of divine intervention and every convert has that as part
of their story of joining the church.
But I think this goes even deeper than that. Instead of
following a rational process, converts follow the irrational
instructions of the "Moroni Promise" in the Book of Mormon.
Missionaries tell people to join the church because of how
they feel when they pray about the Book of Mormon, not because
Mormonism makes logical sense.
True spiritual converts to the church do experience divine
coincidence either in how they met the missionaries or how
they felt their answer to the "Moroni Promise."
5. Positive Results Through Commitment
While discovery and introduction are almost always free,
the newcomer is told that he will experience satisfaction
only when he has made a financial or equivalent commitment.
At sales meetings for another of the cults I investigated,
writing a check was equated with the first step toward changing
one's life, and new members reported feeling results the
moment they made this commitment.
For Mormons, this commitment is primarily expressed in tithing.
Tithing is affectionately known as "fire insurance" in the
Mormon Church and the Bishop does not see you as a member
in good standing if you are not a full tithe payer. Those
who do not pay tithing are second-class members that are
not given leadership callings, cannot perform church ordinances
or attend the temple (endowments or family weddings). Most
True Believing Mormons think something bad will happen to
them if they stop paying tithing and superstitiously attribute
good luck experiences to their paying of tithing. What follows
are temple recommend cards which for many believing Mormons
is a symbol of their worthiness and self-esteem.
6. Extraordinary Measures
Once new members have made their initial surrender or contribution
to the cult, they are asked to do something that contradicts
their judgement. What's important is that the act goes against
the new members' own internal sense of appropriateness.
The members must get used to acting against their own values.
The big examples of this are found in the temple. Everything
from garments, naked touching and secret handshakes go against
what most people would consider extraordinary. The full-time
missionary experience is also full of required behavior
that goes against the many people's internal sense of appropriateness.
One of the hallmarks of all destructive cults is their bizzare
rites of passage, which Mormonism has in spades.
7. Member Complicity
Once an extraordinary measure is taken, the members are
rewarded with complicity in the greater pyramid. To get
out of the cult after this act of complicity, a member will
have to own up to all of the cult's practices as if they
were his/her own.
This goes back to what happens to people in the temple.
After accepting garments for life, being touched while naked,
making loyalty oaths and learning secret handshakes, members
are then rewarded with inclusion into the temple club and
the privileges that includes. Being a temple card-carrying
member is a huge sign of complicity.
Apart from the temple, church leadership positions also
work this way.
8. A Cycle of Breaking "Self"
After extracting extraordinary measures and complicity,
the cult exploits the commonly practiced spiritual discipline
of self-denial and demands increasingly difficult acts of
faith from its followers. Sometimes these requests seem
to benefit the cult - members are instructed to donate huge
sums of money or contribute tremendous time and labor to
the cult. Just as often, however, these requests will be
completely arbitrary or even against the interests of the
cult. By interspersing real requests with these random and
bizarre instructions, the cult can avoid the appearance
of self-interest. It can also paralyze the followers' ability
to second-guess cult actions.
Look at this from the convert's perspective. Most don't
know about all of the responsibilities and duties of membership
before they join the church. For many it is a shock to learn
how much time the church really demands of them, from church
meetings, home teaching, genealogy work, missionary service
To people who weren't born in the church, Mormonism is very
demanding of time and restrictive on behavior. And it gets
worse the longer you strive to be a "Faithful Mormon."
Compared to 19th-century Mormons, the church demands less.
But compared to a normal life, the church demands more of
people and it only gets worse as you climb the church hierarchy,
just like other destructive cults.
9. Confusion and Transference
By alternating self-interested and random demands, the cult
brings its followers into a state of great confusion - they
aren't sure how to please the cult. Sometime leaders will
reward members who fail to carry out commands, and punish
those who complete them successfully. The CIA suggests using
rewards and punishments in a random, illogical manner so
that the subjects regress into a childlike dependence. Similarly,
the confused cult member will eventually regress to a childlike
state and transfers parental authority to the cult leaders
- which is why so many cult leaders insist on being called
"Mother" or "Father."
Confusion and Transference is all about reducing people
to childlike dependence on the church through confusion.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mormon obsession
with "following the spirit" which leads to all kinds of
personal confusion. Look at the people in the church you
know are doing their damndest to follow the spirit and you'll
see they are adults in the most childlike mentality.
Titles like "President," "Bishop," and "Apostle" all imply
these people are authority figures that should be obeyed.
True Believing Mormons accept that people with these titles
are more "in tune with the spirit" and in a state of personal
confusion will cling to their leadership. To true believers,
the Bishop is the "Father" of the ward and deserves the
same respect and obedience as if he were your father - despite
the fact that the Bishop is really just a lay member without
any real education or extra wisdom. The whole church system
is demeaning to adults and reduces the faithful to dependence,
10. Prescriptive Behavior
Like any victim of induced regression and transference,
once their ability to make decisions have been suspended,
the cult members look to their leaders for guidance on how
to behave. They long for direction on what to think, do
Why does the church have Sunday School, Priesthood instruction,
General Conference, Stake Conference, Leadership training,
Patriarchal Blessings, Seminary, Institute, Scriptures,
Magazines etc.. if not for dishing out instructions on how
members should think, do and believe?
The Mormon Church is about 90% instructions on behavior
and beliefs. The other 10% is testimony bearing, which is
modeling of correct thinking and behavior.
In what church lesson or speech are they not telling you
overtly or covertly how to think, act and/or believe? That's
what Mormonism is all about! It's not about "finding your
own way" or "discovering your true self." It's about obedience.
All good Mormons know that obedience is the first law of
11. The Goal of Inclusion
Once transference has been achieved, the elusive stated
goal of the pyramid cult is replaced with the much more
tangible one of establishing a relationship with the cult
leaders and acceptance in the cult. The cult members become,
in effect, siblings competing for their parent's approval.
The result is a prolonged psychodrama that capitalizes on
unresolved issues from the members' own family backgrounds.
The cult leaders orchestrate emotional battles, pitting
members against one another as they seek to develop a "special
relationship" with the leaders.
Because Mormons are reduced to a childlike state, they become
obsessed with acceptance and its evil counterparts, judging
and gossip. Mormons are obsessed with acceptance and being
defined by the group. One way to gain acceptance in the
group is through unquestioned loyalty and obedience. Other
ways include putting up an elaborate façade of perfection
- the Mormon image. Another is to gossip and put down others
because this makes you feel better about yourself (temporarily).
Anyone who's spent any real time with Mormons recognizes
that this is a real problem in Mormonism. But the people
aren't really to blame, because it's the Mormon system that
brings this out in people. The cult is designed to make
people behave like this because it keeps the members off
balance and the leadership in control, just as Joseph Smith
12. Never Expose Uncertainty to Those Lower in the
By the time a member is this far into a cult, he/she is
required to preserve the illusion of its cohesion and perfection.
Since a member's sense of status and nearness to the leaders
are directly related to how many people are beneath him/her
in the cult hierarchy, he/she must always make an effort
to recruit more members. The need to subscribe newcomers
outweighs whatever benefits the products or cult system
might offer. Cult members seek new recruits to raise their
own positions in the hierarchy. The power of networking
- social, economic, and technological - is exploited by
people who offer little more than the promise of complicity
in the scheme itself. The elusive eye atop the pyramid remains
as elusive as ever.
Members' statures are directly related to their ability
to maintain the appearance of steadfast devotion to the
cult. They cannot reveal any lingering doubts about the
divinity of the leader lest they lose their own places in
the hierarchy to more ardent followers beneath them. Furthermore,
expressing doubt to a new member is seen as an act of heresy.
In fact, a cult member's very position in the pyramid is
defined by his ability to quell the doubts of those beneath
him, without being thrown into doubt himself.
Uncertainty here is defined as uncertainty in the authority
claims of the cult leadership. When has any church leader
ever said he wasn't sure if Joseph Smith was a prophet,
or if the Book of Abraham were true? Leaders never express
doubts about the church's claims of truth and authority.
At the same time, there's no threat to the cult if the leaders
say the members are screwed up, are not obeying the commandments
or are full of pride. In fact, these kinds of statements
just substantiate the leader's authority even more.
13. Never Expose Uncertainty to Those Higher in the
Eventually, any expression of doubt at all is deemed offense
against the cult. To spread one's misgivings to a higher
member is, in effect, a challenge to that member's own resolve.
Such expressions can be allowed up to a point, but ultimately
the members must learn that they are the source of their
won doubts and must overcome crisis without spreading confusion
to others. Confessing one's misgivings to a higher member
merely affirms the latter's superior status in the pyramid.
If one is to move up, he/she must show less doubt and more
commitment that those above him/her.
If you tell your Bishop or Stake President that you don't
believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, then you can kiss your
temple recommend goodbye. As an institution - not just a
culture - Mormonism punishes doubt and disbelief in its
truth and authority claims.
Honest, sincere questioning will not earn you any points
or blessings in Mormonism - with the Bishop, with the members
or with your own family. It's systemic, not cultural and
follows the pattern of Mormonism being a destructive cult
right up there with the Jehova Witnesses and Scientology.
14. The Cult Precludes All Other Commitments
One by one, each member's connection with the real world
must be reinterpreted as base "attachments" that need to
be limited or purged. The member's original religion, job,
friends, spouse and children are less important that his
relationship with the cult and its leaders. The members
must not gain positive reinforcement from anything or anyone
outside of the cult. Family and social bonds are reinterpreted
as distractions from the higher values the member is adopting.
All real-world associating, inevitably and by design, come
into conflict with one's commitment to the higher goal.
This is true for many members of the church, especially
those serving full-time missions and local leaders who feel
they can't turn down a calling.
One of the great lies of Mormonism is that it is extraordinarily
"family friendly." Most Mormons buy into this myth because
the church stresses that image so much. But there is little
substance behind it.
One of the main purposes of Mormonism is to make families
into mini-cults that reinforce the larger cult's objectives
of control. But are Mormon families really that much healthier
than families outside of the church?
Does the church really support the family in its needs,
or does it simply enforce its own will on families?
The answers to these questions can be found in the real-world
practices of Mormonism, not the rhetoric.
Look what the church does when one family member is not
following the church dogma. Does the church help the family
or add stress?
Do families have more or less time together after they join
Do families have more or less money for family needs after
they join the church?
Do families truly accept one another more or less after
they join the church?
Do families show more or less tolerance for non-member family
members after they join the church?
Do children accept a non-member parent more or less after
joining the church?
Is there more or less respect/appreciation for female members
of a family after they join the church?
Are families more or less worried about what the neighbors
think after they join the church?
An honest look at Mormonism in practice reveals that families
are better off without Mormonism. That is of course, unless
you've bought into the carrot of the "Celestial Kingdom"
dangling in front of you. Then you're willing to sacrifice
family time, money and love in order to reach the unattainable
goal of the cult.
15. Never Refuse a Request
A member may never refuse a request made by a cult leader,
or in the name of the cult. To do so is to place some other
value ahead of the sanctity of the group.
Members can refuse church callings, but it's frowned upon
and that's no way to get ahead in the cult. In non-cult
churches people recognize that the church is a voluntary
organization and there are no serious ramifications if you
turn down a request.
But in the Mormon cult, it's not volunteer work but "callings
from the Lord" and tremendous pressure is brought to bear
on people to accept "callings" to work. If you don't believe
this, then ask nineteen-year-old males in the church if
they feel pressure to serve missions. Ask the twenty-year-olds
that didn't go if they feel second-class for not going.
Mormons are conditioned to accept callings despite their
16. All Requests Can Be Challenged
A cult member who has made an inappropriately personal or
self-interested request in the name of the cult will be
challenged. On the other hand, members who are in the leader's
favor can get away with almost anything of those beneath
Real churches have moral and ethical obligations to their
members. But if you're in a church that doesn't teach or
enforce what the church owes the members, then you're probably
in a destructive cult. In Mormonism, the church doesn't
owe the members anything - not even financial disclosures
or honest history.
17. Never Take Action in the Cult Leaders' Names
The cult leaders are free from all responsibility. To make
a request in the cult leader's name is to blame the cult
leader for any ill will that might result. To claim, for
example, that "I divorced my wife because the leader told
me to" is to refuse responsibility for one's own actions.
Although a cult leader may have "shown the way," a member
divorces his wife or disowns his children because it's the
"right thing to do." To use the leader as an excuse is just
another way to express doubt.
When have church leaders ever stood up and accepted responsibility
for their poor counsel, false prophecies or financial incompetence?
If the church isn't working for people, the church teaches
that it's the members' fault, never the leadership. Mormons
held the common belief that "the church is perfect, but
the members aren't." In other words, the system is perfect
and never to blame. If the Bishop tells you to get divorced
and things go sour, it's not the Bishop's fault, now is
18. Act Automatically
Members must strive to act in accordance with the cult leaders'
wishes without thinking. The conditioning, confusion, and
fear to which the members are subjected result in a set
of new behaviors that take the place of what normally might
be called intuition or instinct. Once achieved, this automatic
behavior is a welcome relief from the constant questioning
of one's own actions.
Choose the right! Follow the Prophet! Just Do it! Obedience
is the first law of Heaven! Isn't that what Mormons are
Are there any church lessons on real critical thinking?
Witness and Accept the Leaders' Faults
Once they reach the highest levels of the cult pyramid,
members are privy to their leaders' darkest actions. Members
must also come to terms with the abusive behavior of their
Mormon missionaries also experience this cult phenomena
first hand. True Believing Missionaries in the field think
their assignments are inspired and the Mission President
is a prophet. Those who end up working in the office learn
the President has a dark side that is petty, arbitrary and
cruel. Yet those exposed to this still propagate the myth
that the President is divinely-inspired leader. This is
also common in ward and stake leadership.
20. The Cult Leaders Are Perfection
The final stage of cult indoctrination is to accept the
leaders as the perfect center of the universe, from which
all else derives. The "fully evolved" cult member thus understands
all the pain and suffering as resistance to the cult leaders'
divinity. The leader is the single point of entry for God
and perfection in the otherwise imperfect universe.
Once cult leaders have achieved such a stature in his followers'
minds, the leader can ask them to do anything, even to kill
themselves. They already have been trained to go against
their own instincts. Thwarting one's natural tendency toward
self-preservation becomes a pleasurable, almost fetishistic
obsession. As members look for more outrageous ways to break
their own attachment to life, suicide emerges as the ultimate
act of devotion.
This is the one aspect of destructive cults that does not
currently exist in Mormon practice. Nor do I think that
current Mormon Church leaders have reached this status in
the minds of believing members. What Mormon would commit
suicide solely on the order of the Bishop, Stake President
Granted, the dogma still exists in the temple endowment
when members covenant to "sacrifice all that [they] possess,
even [their] own lives if necessary, in sustaining
and defending the Kingdom of God." But this little clause
in the endowment is not currently exercised by church leaders.
Today, the Mormon Church enjoys the benefits of the first
nineteen indoctrination steps of a destructive cult. If
it ever needs to resort to indoctrination step number twenty,
it's certainly not out of reach.