Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: The “Sacred Science” (Part 5 of 8)

This is the fifth 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.

“I don’t want to sound presumptuous,” my pastor said quietly, sitting on the living room chair with his legs crossed, “but because of how God has worked in my life I am likely the wisest man you will ever meet.”

His words stuck in my mind like peanut-butter—made my thoughts feel sluggish and thick. I gulped hard and tried to swallow. I was 19.

“Therefore,” he continued serenely, “I am trustworthy and you need to obey what I say, believing that God is working through me whether you understand it or not. Don’t you, Steve.” It was a statement, not a question.

And I agreed.

In our church we had been taught for years that pastors are appointed by God to hold absolute spiritual authority over their flocks. They are called, equipped and sustained by God, and God alone can question them or call them to account. Followers must submit to them without question. The Bible tells us so… doesn’t it?

With no questions allowed, my pastor proceeded to legislate an area of personal preference. An hour later when he got up to leave, I showed him meekly to the door.

“Thank you for helping me to see the truth,” I said, and meant it. Thank you for speaking for God.

What is “Sacred Science”?

“Sacred Science” is the term used by Dr. Robert Lifton to describe totalitarian environments which maintain an aura of sacredness—of unquestionable perfection—around their teaching and practices.

Leaders in such environments frown upon critical-thinking, since the teacher is an “expert” on the subject matter and the audience can presumably contribute little to his or her understanding. The leader encourages a spirit of submission and unity—actually uniformity—instead of discernment and occasional disagreement.

When a member of the audience raises his or her hand to point out an error, the leader may sound frustrated and angry with them. “You don’t have the training that I do,” says the leader. “You need to trust me because God has specially gifted me and prepared me. Someday you’ll understand. Until then, you need to follow me by faith.”

There are two components which help to create an environment in which “sacred science” is promoted and critical thinking is discouraged. Find these two components, and you’ll find folks who have enabled brainwashing by a religious leader.

1.)    The Halo Effect

In order to brainwash followers, a religious leader must create the illusion that he or she is nearly perfect in wisdom and intelligence. They do this by emphasizing their gifts, both natural and spiritual, and by developing a charismatic personality.

Stephen Martin explains it this way:

“Human nature tends to believe those who are perceived as authority figures… A cult is typically formed by a person who has charisma. By seeming to demonstrate the miraculous or simply having an impressive personality, he/she may easily convince us that he/she is the spokesperson of God. As observers, we thus attribute an aura of sacredness to such an individual so that a ‘he can do no wrong’ mentality develops—thus a ‘halo effect.’”

For instance, my former pastor had gone to one of the nation’s top three Ivy League schools and then attended a premier seminary. He studied the Bible for decades, had learned Greek and Hebrew, and spoke with a confidence that allowed no questions. Since no one else in our small New England church knew the original biblical languages, our pastor appealed to his knowledge as a way to authenticate his special revelations from God. I, for one, believed him. Instead of thinking critically about his claims, I chose to give my pastor the unquestioned authority he desired. In doing so, I became a culpable partner in my own brainwashing.

Followers of a “sacred science” leader become confused as to what is from God and what is from the leader. The lines become blurred. Since the leader claims that he or she tells the group what God wants them to know, followers may abandon critical thinking and accept unquestioningly the claims of the leader. The leader hijacks the minds of his or her followers and promotes an environment of total dependence and mental enslavement. When a group accepts a leader’s claims that he or she speaks for God and that his or her opinion is God’s divine word, bad things happen. This is religious brainwashing.

Please note: this is not to say that pastors and spiritual leaders cannot claim to speak for God when preaching from his Word. The point here is that leaders of cults make their personal interpretations of scripture equal to scripture, they make personal revelations from God equal to scripture, and they make their personal opinions on disputable matters equal to divine law. And they use all of these methods to manipulate their followers into doing what the leader wants. Such leaders promote themselves as God’s infallible, unquestionable messenger whose opinion is always true and right. Thus, anyone who disagrees with them is evil and must be proud or unsubmissive. The Apostle Paul made sure to distinguish his personal opinions from divine revelation (cf. 1 Cor 7).

2.)    Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Totalitarian religious groups discourage critical thinking by labeling question-askers as “unsubmissive,” “proud,” or “of the devil.” They usually look askance at other sources of truth about the Bible, such as commentaries, Bible software, or theological classes. “Don’t waste your time with this chaff,” they might say. “Be a ‘one-Book’ person—study the Bible only and make sure to listen to the leader’s sermon on such-and-such a topic as the final authority.”

While this may sound strange to folks who come from a free-thinking background where discussion is encouraged and leaders are humble and open, there are many churches in the United States which consider critical thinking evil. Questioners are met with statements such as “Don’t cause disunity,” or “Have a teachable spirit,” or “Just believe.”

I sometimes feel reluctant to use my own church as an example, since we eventually fell on the extreme end of control and legalism. Yet I think other believers can learn from our example, since it took us 25 years to get to that point. We didn’t start out that way. And toward the end, when things got really bad, critical thinking again started to bubble up through cracks in our view of our pastor’s “sacred” persona.

A Personal Example

In my second year at seminary, when I was 29, my pastor asked me to research the limited atonement (Christ died only for the elect) versus unlimited atonement (Christ died even for the non-elect) debate. I felt surprised, since he had never encouraged me to study a topic for myself.

“I want you to list all of the biblical passages which teach each side of this debate,” he told me.

Since he had authorized the study, I attacked the problem with zeal. I perused books and articles, talked with friends at seminary to get their opinion, read widely on both sides of the debate, and eventually came up with a six-page document which detailed the prominent arguments of both sides and the scriptures they use. The main thing I learned from my research was that very smart and godly people subscribe to both positions. I couldn’t wait to discuss my findings with my pastor.

On Christmas Break, I entered the small parsonage in Southern Maine through a dust of snow and slippery slush. The evening was gray and full of murk. My gloved hand clutched a manila folder stuffed with color-coded passages. I felt like a 19th century school-boy approaching his headmaster to decline Latin verbs, or a knight entering the lists. I couldn’t wait to hear my pastor’s perspective on the Atonement debate and gain even more insight into what I imagined would remain a thorny issue.

My pastor welcomed me warmly and we sat at his kitchen table. The big bay window to my left overlooked an apple orchard and I watched the trees with delight. Eight-foot fences surrounded the orchard—the farmer’s best attempt to keep enterprising deer from sampling his harvest. The fence kept deer out and apples in. Simple, I thought. Build a fence high enough and you can keep even the most agile animal out. I wonder if the same is true for ideas?

Ferris* shook my sheaf of papers and spread them over the caramel-colored table-top. Painstakingly, he moved his index finger down the left-hand margin, noting each verse I’d typed to support both positions. At the last verse he looked up and my heart dropped. He frowned.

“Steve,” he said, “you failed to follow my instructions exactly. Do you remember what I asked you to do?”

The blood rushed to my face and my pulse fluttered like a cat-clawed mouse. Oh no! I thought. What have I done? I couldn’t have taken this assignment more seriously. I did my very best. What have I done wrong?

My pastor rephrased his question: “What was your assignment?”

I had written it down, in order to be certain. These things had a way of morphing in my pastor’s mind over time. I looked at my index card and said, “To find every verse in the Bible which supports either limited or unlimited atonement.”

Ferris huffed through his nose. Then he leaned forward and spoke sternly. “Steve, you failed to obey my instructions exactly. I told you to find every verse in the Bible which supports limited atonement. There are none. You free-lanced.”

Really? I thought. I’m being chastised for seeking balance? For wanting to understand a debate intelligently? Why am I even at seminary? I should just listen to what Ferris has to say about everything and spare myself the cost of tuition.

Part of me shriveled under his gaze and I didn’t know what to say. I was growing tired of the constant belittling—the game of never being good enough, no matter what. Of never being allowed to entertain alternative perspectives. But I was too weak to protest; too timid and too beat.

Ferris continued: “Seminary professors are going to want you to study all these debates from both angles, but God’s servants are not to be involved in human controversies, do you understand? God’s Word is clear on this matter. You don’t have to waste your time debating with anyone—that’s just what Satan wants you to do. Your job is to know what God’s Word says and to teach it clearly—the biblical word is elenko, which means to set something forth plainly. There is no debate.”

I trudged out of the parsonage carrying my little manila folder. Ferris didn’t care to entertain my questions. The discussion was over. As I got into my vehicle I threw the folder against the back seat. Papers scattered over the slushy floor. Across the snowed-in yard the fence stood tall and the sun had set.

And in my brain, it was night.

*Not his real name.

Next Post: A Biblical View of Critical Thinking and Relating to Authority

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

2 comments on “Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brainwashing: The “Sacred Science” (Part 5 of 8)

  1. I’d like to see that Manila folder of verses. One of the things I most appreciate about my current church in Atlanta is the head pastor’s willingness to admit when a topic is difficult or up for debate, and the acknowledgement that godly, wise people subscribe to either side. There is wisdom in learning to be comfortable with “I’m not sure.”

  2. […] Part Five: The “Sacred Science” – “Sacred Science” is the term used by Dr. Robert Lifton to describe totalitarian environments […]

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