Mind-Field: Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing (Part 1 of 8)

Aki Ray, a former child-soldier in Cambodia, is now one of the world’s foremost mine-clearing experts. He walks through the jungle looking for landmines and then defuses them one by one. He’s alive because he knows what to look for in the weeds.

Can you identify the subtle signs of mind control?

I couldn’t. That’s why I remained in a legalistic Bible-cult for over 25 years.

But now that I’m out of the jungle, I can better read the signs. The purpose of this series is to give you the same eight identifiers so that you never find yourself in the midst of a religious mind-field.

Can a group affirm the Bible and still be a cult?


What makes some groups destructive is not their doctrine but rather their practice. Jesus said, “By their fruits you will know them,” (cf. Matthew 7:15-20), and destructive groups have a way of twisting scriptures and practicing coercion which results in damaged followers. Ironically, groups like this are often intensely concerned about the fruits of salvation in their followers, yet their own fruit is rotten.

While these groups do not usually intend to coercively control the minds of their followers, that is exactly what they do. And whether intentional or not, the Bible repudiates such mental manipulation, instead calling all Christians to exercise healthy critical thinking (Acts 17:11), a renewed mind which refuses to conform to the destructive standards of this world (Romans 12:2), and to examine everything carefully (I Thess 5:21).

This is the first in an eight-part series on how to identify brainwashing in a destructive group or cult. It is based off of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s “Eight-Point Model of Thought Reform” and borrows from several other authorities on the topic of religious mind-control.*

1.) Part One: Milieu Control
2.) Part Two: Mystical Manipulation
3.) Part Three: The Demand for Purity
4.) Part Four: The Cult of Confession
5.) Part Five: The “Sacred Science”
6.) Part Six: Loading the Language
7.) Part Seven: Doctrine Over Person
8.) Part Eight: The Dispensing of Existence

*Stephen Martin’s book, The Heresy of Mind Control, and Margaret Singer’s Cults in Our Midst.

Part One: Milieu Control

The first step in controlling the mind of a person is to control his or her environment. “Milieu” is just a fancy name for environment. Cults and other destructive groups try to control members’ access to the outside world. They do this by limiting contact with two things: people and information.

1.) First, limiting contact with people. Destructive religious groups have an “us vs. them” mentality and therefore limit communication with people outside of their group. This includes friends, family members, and anyone else not wholeheartedly approving of the group or its leader(s). People outside the group are considered bad, evil, or unenlightened. The leaders discourage free-thinking dialogue. They also promote an unhealthy fear of contamination by outsiders.

Many cults encourage or require members to live communally so that leaders can control their members. Members may have to ask permission to visit family members, make a phone call to a relative, or send a letter to a friend. Leaders may ask to monitor any such conversations or demand to censor correspondence. Members are told that they are not yet wise enough or mature enough to discern between harmful and benign outside influences. Leaders discourage genuine dialogue and instead encourage one-sided proselytizing and scripted, stilted encounters with family members.

For example, in my former church we were told to distinguish between our “spiritual” family and our “natural” family, and to cut off any family member who expressed concerns about the pastor or the church. The pastor also encouraged group members to move closer to the church. Church events—scheduled to the point of exhaustion—were mandatory. In one instance, my pastor forbid me to reply to an email from my twin brother, since my brother had left our church.

Biblical passages cited to support this mentality of cutting off family members or “worldy” influences include James 4:4–“Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”; 2 Corinthians 6:14–“Do not be bound together with unbelievers”; and Luke 14:26–“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

Biblical refutation of this point: While the Bible does call Christians to live pure lives and avoid contamination from sinful influences, the New Testament also encourages openness to outsiders (John 4:7-10, 39, 40; Acts 10; Acts 17). When the Apostle Peter closed himself off from Gentile believers (“outsiders” in Jewish terms) he was rebuked openly by Paul for his hypocrisy (cf. Gal 2:11-14). Peter accepted the rebuke and later acknowledged Paul’s wisdom as a man who even wrote scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Jesus was so connected with the local community and engaged with “sinners” that he scandalized the Pharisees (Matthew 9:11; Luke 5:30). He understood that God loves the world (John 3:16) and that he wants mercy rather than self-righteous sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).

In regard to family members, Matthew 10:37 shows that the “hate” in Luke 14:26 does not mean to truly hate family members—instead, it is a matter of preference and degree. We should love our parents and relatives, but we must love God to a greater degree. Indeed, the Pharisees tried to use biblical justification to dishonor their parents, but Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites (cf. Matthew 15:15ff).

The problem is that cultists define “unbelievers” as everyone outside of their group. This is because, as Stephen Martin says, they too narrowly define “their own group as the only true believers in Jesus. The fact is, cult members will find that there are many true believers in Jesus ‘out there’ if they will just openly and honestly listen to what they say and see what they do.”

This is precisely why cult leaders try to control their members by having them cut off contact with other people. This is a symptom of milieu-control.

2.) Second, limiting information. Cults and destructive religious groups have an obsessive need to restrict “worldly” influences which they define as other religious teachings, negative news reports about the group, or any information passed on to group members by concerned family members. Leaders may prohibit group members from watching the news, getting on the Internet, reading non-religious books, or accepting any resources from people outside of the group. When news reports or family members express concern about the group, group leaders may feel a need to exhaustively discuss the reports to prove to group members why the reports are false or unbiblical. Critical thinking is discouraged, and the interpretation of the leader(s) is exalted as God’s truth on every matter.

As an example, when my former church garnered media attention due to our aberrant practices such as accusations against former members and harmful shunning, our pastor spoke from the pulpit refuting each item in detail. When relatives outside the church expressed concern through books or pamphlets, our pastor confiscated the items and used them as examples of heresy. On one occasion, my pastor made me print for him all of my email correspondence with a college friend. My pastor then read through the stack in detail, discussing with me every word or phrase which proved that my relationship with this friend was “worldy.” Needless to say, my relationship with that friend quickly ended.

Biblical passages cited to support information-control are 1 John 2:15—“Do not love the world or anything in the world”; James 1:27—“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this… to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”; and Matthew 16:6—“Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.”

Biblical refutation for this point: While the Bible does call Christians to avoid corrupting influences and to respect the judgment of true, trustworthy leaders, I Thessalonians 5:21 says that believers should “examine everything carefully.” Acts 17:11 commends the Bereans who listened to Paul and then searched the scriptures diligently to see if what he said was true. And in Galatians, Paul chastises the Galatian believers for putting up with unsound doctrine and allowing false teachers to take them captive with a gospel which was really no gospel at all. In his concern for their lack of critical thinking, Paul exclaims, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1).

Bewitch. A fitting term to describe how cult leaders brainwash their followers through milieu-control.

Related Post: One Who Got Away: Libby Phelps Alvarez, Religious Brainwashing, and the Westboro Baptist Church

43 comments on “Mind-Field: Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing (Part 1 of 8)

  1. We have had all 3 Scriptures–James 4:4, 2 Cor. 6:14, Luke 14:26, and Matthew 10:34-36 used as justification for cutting us off from our family members that are deeply entrenched in this group, YMBBA Ministries/The Church of Wells. The Lord has used this as a visual picture of how Satan can take Scripture and turn it to be used for evil purposes. I am anxiously awaiting the next segment…

  2. Another great post! I’m reminded of the passage, “Don’t believe every spirit; test the spirits to see whether they be of God…” Being a church member is not sufficient; we have to have a solid knowledge of Scripture and be able to think for ourselves about how to apply it. Churches and pastors were meant to support us, not think for us…

  3. Thank you for posting this! It is all the scripture that was given me by my son-in-law and daughter when they joined YMBBA. I searched scripture and found a lot of the same ones you did to explain the biblical meanings to them. But, it’s nice to get confirmation of them! Thank you, this has been so helpful to me!

  4. Your pastor “MADE YOU” print all of your emails?!?!

    Could it be that you are attributing more to your pastor and church’s problems than your own fear of man? I appreciate your thoughts, but this doesn’t quite pass the “smell test” for that much blame WHILE not taking responsibility.

    I LOVE the noble Bereans though—I tell that to people I minister to ALL THE TIME.
    Receive the word eagerly YET EXAMINE the Word to see if what they say is the truth!

    • Minimus, you raise a valid point. Every soul is responsible for the decisions they make. I think I may have answered your concern already in an earlier post: “Someone Like Me: Anatomy of a Cult Member” (https://libertyforcaptives.com/2012/07/14/someone-like-me-anatomy-of-a-cult-member/) where I show how certain folks are more prone to stay in a cult. Folks like me. Followers are culpable; teachers are more culpable. There is plenty of responsibility to go around. But the purpose of the post above was to show symptoms of religious brainwashing.

      • guess they missed the whole point of the article. So sorry that you went thru all this and very happy you finally come to realize that you were being manipulated! God BLess!!!

      • I am reading this for the first time and must ask “how does one help a religiously brainwashed person? My dad is 83 years old who is praying constantly, but reacts violently to anyone who does not accept his way of thinking? He is a John Leary follower who is building a refuge to shelter people when the time comes” Excerpt from NEW MESSAGES TO PROPHET JOHN LEARY – At one point I will call My faithful to My refuges, and My angels will shield you from the evil ones who want to kill you.

  5. Minimus, it sounds like you have never encountered a spiritually abusive situation. Your comment presumes a certain level of understanding that does not exist in a such a situation nor would members be encouraged to be Bereans and search the scriptures to test what is being taught. That idea would be foreign. The more abusive the authority, the less disagreement among members is tolerated and thinking anything other than what is being promoted is discouraged. It may even result in members being shunned. Also, what makes a situation abusive is when members are taught that their Christian status is tied to acceptance of teaching and demands. If this is all members know, how could you reasonably expect that the problem is they are not taking responsibility? For the member under such control, to them they ARE taking responsibility to make sure they measure up to the demands. Otherwise, there is fear of not receiving God’s acceptance.

  6. […] came across this 8 part series on identifying religious brainwashing. I think there are many Christians stuck in these situations […]

  7. Your way of explaining all in this piece of writing is genuinely
    fastidious, every one can easily be aware of it, Thanks a lot.

  8. […] Liberty For Captives – Confronting Spiritual Abuse With Grace and Truth […]

  9. how can u stop a destructive leader,legally?

    • Hi Tom, welcome to the conversation. Great question. If the leader has done something illegal, you can press charges. If the leader has done nothing illegal per se, but is abusive, harassing, or immoral, then as Christians we must speak up about such conduct and warn others about such a destructive leader. Please note: no one is perfect. We want to give grace to leaders who are doing their best but make mistakes. But you said “destructive” leader, so I am assuming that this person is over-the-top and unrepentant/unwilling to admit their problems. Julie Anne Smith over at Spiritual Sounding Board has some great posts about how to deal with a destructive leader. She has experience with the legal system in this regard. I recommend you check out “Spiritual Sounding Board.”

  10. […] the same lines, this book by renowned psychiatrist Robert Lifton (inventor of the famous eight warning signs of mind control) examines the dangers of millenarianism in the twenty-first century through the prism of Aum […]

  11. The Bible is just one book among billions of books that are available for the development of our minds. I believe humans should not dogmatically focus on one book to the exclusion of others – a widely-read person is much harder to manipulate than a person who focuses mostly on one book.

  12. Does not most of this post reflect Jesus’ behavior in the four gospels?

  13. The sickest people i’ve ever met were those i met at church. As i look back now, 20yrs later, i realize how NAIVE i was. I dreamed that decent people were in the steeple….but NOW realize that the sickest people are in the steeple. Religious Predators abound looking for the next Soul to feed on. Narcissist Sociopaths with delusions of being on a mission granted to them as “Gods Purpose”—-and they are the instruments of that purpose. They were truly THE LOST sheep, with no self esteem, no identity and no REAL PURPOSE. Those who preached he truch but could never abide in it. What a ironical paradox. I applaud Mr.Smith for having the courage to comprise and promulgate the tactics of Psychopathic Narcissistic Ego Maniac Religious “Leaders” who when closely study are really Satan in disguise. You will find them preying on the weak, the needy, the young, the disenfranchised, and the lonely. If there is a Hell, these people were birthed from there. They do their best work in the pulpit and pew. You will know them by their works and the double talk confounding REASONING they exude. Open your eyes…and wake up to the farce.

  14. Can you guys Help me, What can i do, my daughter has been brainwashed at her church.

  15. Hi I am a mother whose son has been taken away by a family in a cult I want to fight this movement so that other moms do not suffer the same fate. I also want to get my son back .They took him away when he was 22 now 25. Thx

    • Dear Roshni, I am untrained in cult intervention, but a group that might be able to help you is the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). You can find their website here: http://www.icsahome.com/ I suggest you contact them and see if they can help you. I wish you all the best. Grace and peace, Steve

  16. My friend got brainwashed by an unregistered/unofficial religion. I feel like they’re more like a mental pyramid than a church. How can I help her?

  17. Seeing this first hand,, was not that hard to figure out what was hapoening,, its just not being able to fight back so i can get my loved one out of this web,,, i feel like i did when i was a kid and lost one of my siblings,, the depth of my loss is something that could never be measured,, ,, its a living and daily torture,, Cruel and Unusual punishment,,

    • Cults misunderstand what Jesus meant when he said that we should hate our mother, father, brothers, sisters, and children. He meant we should put God first, not that we should cut off all contact with our loved ones if they happened to disagree with our religious beliefs or practices. Even if someone disagrees strongly with us, we should be able to interact with them and agree to disagree. But cults have a black-and-white, all-or-nothing mentality. Because they are ultimately based on fear, any disagreement seems like a threat to their leader and that’s why shunning is so common in these groups. I am sorry that you have experienced this. I pray that there will be restoration and healing.

  18. Very interesting article. Im catholic and in love with a born again christian. He is very judgmental towards my way of life. I am a single mum and never married!!! shame!!! shame!!! jajajaj but more seriously, he is deep into his commitment to god which is ok to a certain extent. His beliefs and his commitment to it does not make him a happy man; he is miserable and depressed. However he really believes that he is part of a bigger thing, that he talks directly to the highest (with his notebooks, dreams and prayers). He also believes he is a happy man when everybody can see it is not the case. I am also a believer of a higher something that created us and loves us. I do pray to my spiritual mom (Virgin Mary) almost everyday ( it can be while I am brushing my teeth or when working etc… nothing fanatical about it. I am trying not to be judgmental too but it irritates me to feel I am not good enough, that I am not a spiritual person or a good person. I am not perfect but sure I try my best to be a good mum, friends and girlfriend, Now my bf has a very strict way to live and will not tolerate any mistakes from others but when he is at fault he will never assume it and avoid to acknowledge it.
    He said to me recently that he is kind of prophet and followed an argument you can imagine. I did not understand how full of himself he thinks he is.Also I am worried that in the future he might start his own church and i will have to accept it (we were thinking of marriage)!! I was supposed to go to a weekend today but i could not go cause i feel i am doing a huge mistake. Sex is not allowed of course but he teases me. I found it so hypocritical because he is a divorced father and that he had full on sex with his second almost wife.Because of his religion he is not a man who will find peace within himself and will hate everybody. Because of his beliefs I don’t see him being a better person quite the opposite i am afraid. I am a sinner and not perfect but I am not trying to change someone’s life because it is not the way i like. I will never change him I don’t want to but i want in return that he keeps his beliefs to himself. He is a very good friend and gives good advice but i am not sure that he is a man that will respect his wife the way it should. Overall i know it is quite personal and maybe out of subject but to my i feel like i am being sucked in to his “church” therefore it is why I am writing this. I don’t want to be used, to be judged and lose him or my friends because i am an outsider.

    • Dear Mercy,

      I agree that you and your boyfriend seem to have different worldviews. I am not a relationship counselor, but I doubt very much that your boyfriend will ever keep his views to himself. Not all born again Christians are judgmental, but most emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus, moral living, and commitment to their church. If you dislike those things, I don’t see the relationship progressing much beyond where it is. If your boyfriend is judgmental, harsh, and hypocritical, that is obviously unpleasant and not at all like Jesus. Again, not great for a relationship. I suggest you guys seek out a relationship counselor you both could respect and get some professional advice. I am not a counselor, so take this all with a grain of salt. I wish you all the best.

      Regards, Steve

    • Mercy,
      You are are being emotionally abused.. it is a very real type of abuse. I hear him trying to control, redirect blame, judge, incriminate to avoid being an obvious hypocrite. You ARE a good person, and none should have to be put into this situation by anyone. You deserve more for yourself than this.

  19. Hi Steve,
    This has happend to my daughter..I don’t know what i can do to bring her home. Can you please help me.

    • Dear Rose,

      I recommend you contact the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) to see if they have experts who can help you. You can find their website here: http://www.icsahome.com/ They are the experts in the field and may have folks who can either give you advice or do an intervention.

      Grace and peace, Steve

  20. I grew up in a southern Baptist cult, just my family, but they actively brainwashed all 6 of us, we were raised to believe ever word of the Bible is true.

    I was always curious and asked questions, which is why I’m a chemist today. Thankfully, at 25, I finally admitted to myself that the Bible is bullshit, and has no basis in reality. I’m agnostic today. My siblings are still all brainwashed, and hardcore religious. It is very sad.

    I am angry sometimes, that a quarter century of my life was wasted on it.

    Thanks for the article.

  21. The SDA Church is a cult , it ticks all the boxes but because of his large hold in America and being a Capitalist money making machine is not put in the
    What can we do to that organisations that are studying and support the spread of the information include them as such ?

  22. […] A Great Article Series Documenting 8 Brainwashing Tactics […]

  23. […] come as a surprise that even evangelical churches can become cultic groups. But so it is. Quoting Steve Smith […]

  24. […] purposes: it keeps group members from spending time with people from outside of their group (see milieu control in part one of this series); and it cultivates altered brain patterns and a state of suggestibility […]

  25. […] 原文出處: Mind-Field: Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing (Part 1 of 8) | Liberty for Captives […]

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