Cult mind control is a topic that has recently been popping up more and more in my YouTube feed. This is thanks to my recent subscription to Telltale Atheist, an ex-Jehovah’s Witness atheist YouTuber who examines cults and oppressive religions. He often uses a method called the BITE Model to determine whether different groups are cults, but he is most familiar with his own former cult, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
He and Mr. Atheist have been releasing a series together where they work out whether the Mormons, Mr. Atheist’s former group, are a cult using Telltale’s expertise on the BITE Model and Mr. Atheist’s personal insider experience in Mormonism. Watching their videos, I wondered if I had anything to contribute to this greater conversation on groups being cults, examining them using personal experience from the inside. Thus, I decided to put the religion (well, the Christian denomination) I was raised in, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, to the test.
I’m excited to find out whether the LCMS could really be called a cult, especially since in a time of extreme frustration, I once made the claim that I thought it was a cult. That being said, my own analysis will be based off of my personal experience and various Lutheran doctrine that I’ve had the chance to read. I do have a personal dislike and deep disdain for the LCMS, but I’m going to do my very best to be fair and objective when pitting it against the BITE Model. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s a cult. Maybe it is, but maybe it’s not. Let’s find out.
The BITE Model stands for the four main attributes of a cult: behavior control, information control, thought control, and emotional control. To see them in full, check out this page that lists them all and even links to a PDF that goes into even greater detail.
I know that Telltale Atheist uses a complex rating system, which I assume is more technically correct, but in the interest of ease and simplicity, I’m rating each cult characteristic out of two. Zero out of two means the LCMS doesn’t really do this at all. One out of two means that they can sometimes do this but not often, or they do but it’s not that bad. Two out of two means they’re either very guilty of this, they do it constantly, or it has at some point caused me great personal distress in my life.
Behavior Control: Does the LCMS…
Promote dependence and obedience? Not really, in my experience. 0/2
Modify behavior with rewards and punishments? Not any more than any other non-cult group. 0/2
Dictate where and with whom you live? There’s not any kind of commune-living or specific dictation of this, but it is frowned upon to live with a significant other before marriage. This caused a bit of tension before I got married. 1/2
Restrict or control sexuality? Absolutely. Sex is only allowed between two straight married people. Long story short: my breaking of this rule is what led to me having to come out as atheist to my whole family. That wasn’t a good time. 2/2
Control clothing and hairstyle? Not really. I wasn’t allowed to dress up as a witch for Halloween, but I think that was more about my mom’s principles than those of the LCMS. 0/2
Regulate what and how much you eat and drink? Nope. 0/2
Deprive you of seven to nine hours of sleep? It would for me personally because I had to get up before 7 am on Sundays to make it to church. That was just because my mom played the organ at the early service. But other than that, no. 0/2
Exploit you financially? Yes. 2/2
Restrict leisure time and activities? No. Unless your leisure time consists of reading The God Delusion and writing blog posts exposing their bible studies and sermons. They don’t like that. But I think I was an unusual case. 0/2
Require you to seek permission for major decisions? Not really, for me. 0/2
Behavior control total: 5/20
Information Control: Does the LCMS…
Deliberately withhold and distort information? Yes. The LCMS as a whole is very committed to belief in creationism, despite claiming that they don’t have an official position. In the past, I’ve looked at different articles, pamphlets, and even my former church’s book collection (including this gem) where they give every regurgitated creationist “argument” in the book and seem to be incapable of giving any evidence of evolution at all. And that’s a lot of evidence to conveniently forget. 2/2
Forbid you from speaking with ex-members and critics? The LCMS doesn’t have any kind of excommunication practice for deconverts like myself. However, growing up I would occasionally hear mention of people who had left the LCMS and who were now looked down upon and avoided. 1/2
Discourage access to non-cult sources of information? Yes. When I told my mom that I learned about evolution, atheism, and the like using the Internet and books, she was disgusted, and she warned me that I couldn’t trust anyone who claims to “be smarter than God” or who “believes they can disprove God”. 2/2
Divide information into Insider vs. Outsider doctrine? Yes. See above. 2/2
Generate and use propaganda extensively? Yes. See the response to the question about withholding and distorting information. 2/2
Use information gained in confession sessions against you? Nope, Lutheranism doesn’t have confessions. 0/2
Gaslight to make you doubt your own memory? No. 0/2
Require you to report thoughts, feelings, & activities to superiors? No. 0/2
Encourage you to spy and report on others’ “misconduct”? No. 0/2
Information control total: 9/18
Thought Control: Does the LCMS…
Instill Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, & Good vs. Evil thinking? This is central to the Lutheran faith. It’s interesting to me that it’s not always clear who Them is. Us certainly includes LCMS Lutherans, and Them always involves Muslims, “non-believers”, and any other nonChristian group. At times, though, Them can also include non-LCMS Lutherans and other Christian denominations.
But the Us vs Them manifests itself most saliently in possibly most the intense persecution complex I’ve ever witnessed in person. It’s all they talk about, whether it’s the LCMS or Christians at large that are always somehow being persecuted. It’s a great tactic to gain the emotional sympathy and trigger the defense of the congregation members, and it creates a more tight-knit community full of people willing to give up all their money for the cause. 2/2
Change your identity, possibly even your name? Nope. 0/2
Use loaded language and cliches to stop complex thought? I remember from my time at church that this definitely occurred, but I’m only giving it a one because I can’t think of any specific examples. 1/2
Induce hypnotic or trance states to indoctrinate? Not that I recall… 0/2
Teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent critical thoughts? Absolutely. When I was writing this post, I made note of LCMS president Matthew Harrison’s mechanism for coping with his understandable doubts about creationism:
“Though I’m no scientist, I’ve had challenges myself believing that the creation accounts are history. When will a talking snake appear believable to reason? How, in the face of the dominant theory of evolution, will the special creation of Adam out of dust and in a flash appear reasonable? And what of Eve from a rib? How can I possibly hold on to an actual creation of all things in six natural days?”
You can read his full article here and here, but his conclusion to the “scandal” of believing in creationism in 2018 is “I believe [the creation accounts] because I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior.” This is obviously a non-answer. This post is all about the thought-stopping techniques of the LCMS if you want to see even more. 2/2
Allow only positive thoughts? Not positive thoughts. Mostly persecution thoughts. 0/2
Use excessive meditation, singing, prayer, & chanting to block thoughts? Yes. Lots of hymn-singing and chanting about all of God’s wonders but none of his faults. 2/2
Reject rational analysis, critical thinking, & doubt? Yes. See my answers to the questions about distortion of information and thought-stopping techniques. 2/2
Thought control total: 9/16
Emotional Control: Does the LCMS…
Instill irrational fears (phobias) of questioning or leaving the group? Not really. I was afraid to come out in the case that my family might no longer accept me, but as for the group as a whole, I didn’t really have any fear of leaving. 0/2
Label some emotions as evil, worldly, sinful, or wrong? Oh, yes. Skepticism and autonomy were among the worst. 2/2
Teach emotion-stopping techniques to prevent anger, homesickness? Not really. LCMS Lutherans aren’t really required to go anywhere or do anything specific other than go to church and give their money, so there’s no homesickness involved. 0/2
Promote feelings of guilt, shame, & unworthiness? Yes. These are typical of Christianity, of course, but it does apply to the LCMS. They claim that you get into heaven by faith and not by works (just by the grace of Jesus, because you’re unworthy), but it seems that there are a lot of things you can do that would stop you from qualifying for getting into heaven. 1/2
Shower you with praise and attention (“love bombing”)? Not that comes to mind. 0/2
Threaten your friends and family? It’s not really the fire-and-brimstone type. 0/2
Shun you if you disobey or disbelieve? This is hard to tell. I think that this is more of a person-by-person or family-by-family basis, but I don’t know what the group as a whole does. 0/2
Teach that there is no happiness or peace outside the group? Yes. In this case, once again, the group is Christianity at large, and any atheists knows their arguments that without religion, there is no morality, peace, meaning, happiness, purpose, and most importantly, no entrance into heaven and eternal life. Allegedly, though, there’s also no persecution! 2/2
Emotional control total: 5/16
And the LCMS’s total cult-score within my rating system using the BITE Model is……
If this were a test, the LCMS would have gotten 40%. I know I could have been more precise, using the BITE Model’s official, more weighted scale of rating things as 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, or 21. This way, if the group only meets a few of the criteria, but is extreme with those few, it can still qualify as a cult. Maybe I’ll use this system one day, but for today, I just used 0, 1, and 2. I just thought that having seven choices for each item was too many for me to pick.
I definitely have a better idea now of whether or not the LCMS is a cult, and I would probably say almost, but not quite. In school, 40% is a failing grade, but my family’s denomination being 40% cult is still unnerving to me.
What do you think? Did I judge fairly? Would you say the LCMS is a cult? And if you were raised LCMS, do you agree with my answers? Let me know, and be sure to check out my online merch store!