Identifying Religious Brainwashing: Loading the Language (Part 6 of 8)

This is the sixth 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.

For folks outside of cults it may seem unbelievable how cult members can submit to spiritual abuse. Can’t they see how manipulative and controlling the group leader is?

No, they can’t.

The reason they can’t see is because they are blinded by religious brainwashing. And while each cult member bears responsibility for his or her own soul, cult leaders bear responsibility for deceiving them.

How can a manipulative leader deceive sincere Christians in a manner that causes them to submit completely to his or her control? One of the primary ways is by “loading” religious-sounding words with twisted meaning.

“Loading the language” according to cult-expert Stephen Martin means to manipulate “words and phrases to produce ‘thought-terminating clichés’” which results in a “narrowing and constriction of thought processes.”

Here’s how cult leaders play the language game.

1.)    Over-Active Mental Filters

In order to isolate their followers from outside influences, leaders of unhealthy groups create buzzwords which shut the door on truth and outside input.

For example, such leaders define any negative feedback about their group as “persecution,” and they call the source of such feedback a “slanderer.” Instead of stopping to consider whether the criticism is true, group members are taught to treat negative comments about the group leader as a threat.

An analogy might help. I attended a Christian university in Indiana which installed strict filtering software on Internet search results. While the filters prevented exposure to much filth, they also sometimes blocked legitimate sites or helpful terms.

In a similar way, members of cults are trained to put up stiff filters against any suggestion that their group may be unhealthy. They call any negative feedback “slander.” In reality, slander is defined as something which is untrue. But to the group members, any criticism about their group is untrue. Thus their minds function like the hyper-active filtering software in my college’s computers.

Mary Alice Chrnalogar, in her book Twisted Scriptures describes such an environment:

“What if the group labels those who give you that negative information as ‘the enemy,’ or tells you that these persons are persecutors? You can be persuaded to project hatred towards these people and to denounce outside influences. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for you to objectively evaluate the dissenting comments. You are on a merry-go-round, and you must get off in order to study the information away from the influence of the group.”

The only reason to call all outside criticism “slander” or “persecution” is in order for the group leader to more fully control his or her members. Healthy groups, on the other hand, are open to outside input, consider carefully charges against leaders, and wisely discern truth from error.

2.)    Thought Suppression

Once cult leaders have labeled outside influences “evil,” they can then suppress the thinking of their followers inside the group. They do this by loading certain words or phrases with a twisted meaning which causes their followers to shut down mentally. It is really a form of verbal hypnosis.

For example, cult leaders create verbal formulas to manipulate the minds of their followers. They use a form of mental algebra which works something like this: asking questions (a) = rebellion (b) = sin (c), therefore, asking questions (a) = sin (c). In this case, the leader has taken a biblical term, “sin,” and equated it with asking questions. But in reality “a” does not equal “c.” It is all just a verbal game the leader plays in order to control his or her followers.

Leaders of unhealthy groups also use what Dr. Lifton calls “thought-terminating clichés.” These are phrases which have been hijacked by the group leader, stripped of their true meaning, and clothed in a counterfeit meaning.

For example, the group leader may call hobbies “fleshly” pursuits, with “fleshly” meaning “sinful” or “of the Devil.” If a follower wants to play a tennis match on a Saturday, but the match conflicts with a group activity, the cult leader may say, “Sally, you’re just being fleshly here. The Apostle Paul said that his spirit and his flesh were in conflict. You know that God wants you to be spiritual and to crucify the desires of your flesh. Remember that Jesus said if we are to be his true disciples we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. Stop being fleshly.”

Do you see what the group leader has done? He or she has just equated playing tennis with a “fleshly” pursuit, and “fleshly” implies sinful rather than spiritual. Sally therefore feels that she has only one choice (though in reality she can also choose to think for herself): she must forsake the tennis match in order to take up her cross and follow Christ.

Leaders of unhealthy groups may also use what Dr. Lifton calls “all-encompassing jargon.” This occurs when a term which may technically describe one behavior is universalized to describe almost any behavior.

For example, in my former church, one of my pastor’s favorite terms was “inappropriate.” By this he meant that something was sinful. If children were running outside after church, he might pull them aside and say, “Now kids, you know that it is inappropriate to run on the Lord’s Day.” Or he might say, “That movie is inappropriate,” or “To wear sandals in church is inappropriate.” The term “inappropriate” was so broad that it was hard to define. Was running outside really a sin? We weren’t sure. We only knew that it was “inappropriate” and so we had to stop or else we would offend God.

Mary Chrnalogar says:

“Deeply programmed disciples are subject to a form of instant amnesia. A discipler who fears that questioning might show the cracks in his twisted Scriptures has only to say, ‘That is doubt.’ Click! The disciple’s mind shuts out the question because the disciple doesn’t want to commit a sin. That’s how it works—much as the stage hypnotist’s trigger-word puts his subject into a state of unconsciousness, the discipler has trigger words, too.”

In groups like this, leaders are constantly loading biblical terms with unbiblical meanings. But the group members respond like programmed computers to shut down their brains at the slightest mention of a trigger word.

3.)    Attitudinal Sins

Another way that cult leaders load the language of their group in order to control members is by focusing incessantly on sins of attitude rather than behavior. This is subtle, but catch it. While the Bible does talk about attitudinal sins such as pride and selfishness, cult leaders invest these words with a whole new range of meaning.

For example, a cult leader may convey the message that to be “committed” to Christ means to attend every single group activity, even if it leads to exhaustion. The Bible never says that commitment to Christ demands attendance at every group activity, but cult members come to believe that it does.

Or again, the group leader may equate asking questions with being “proud” and “rebellious.” Thus if a follower comes to the group leader with honest (and probably accurate) doubts, the group leader says, “Todd, you’re just being proud and rebellious. The Bible says to obey your leaders and submit to their authority, not to question them.” Todd instantly feels guilty about his supposed “rebellion” (though his guilt is false guilt), and his mind shuts down in penitence.

Other words that cult leaders imbue with their own range of meaning are: insubordination, independence, uncooperative, selfish, troublemaker, gossip, slanderer, unsubmissive and immature. Do you see how many of these terms relate to aspects of authority and submission? That’s no accident. Group leaders try to eliminate any questions about their abuse of authority by squelching critical thinking and labeling question-askers as rebels.


Where does “loading the language” lead? It leads to enforced dependence on the group leader, a focus on uniformity rather than unity based on truth, and ultimately to controlled behavior.

Dependence. Leaders of unhealthy groups love to create a climate of enforced dependence. Dr. Lifton calls this a regressive childlike state known as “abnormal dependency disorder.” Whereas healthy group leaders try to lead their followers to maturity in Christ (1 Pet 2:2-3), unhealthy group leaders foster infantilism and co-dependent relationships. This gives them a sense of power and self-esteem.

Uniformity. By loading the language, cult leaders emphasize outward uniformity instead of unity based on the truth of God. While Jesus prayed that all of his followers would be one (Jn 17:21), that unity is based on the truth of God as revealed in the Word of God (Jn 17:17). The author of Hebrews tells us that scripture “divides” like a two-edged sword (Heb 4:12-13). And the heart of God rejoices in diversity of culture and personality (cf. Rev 7:9ff; Rom 14-15; 1 Cor 8; Acts 17:24-28).

Controlled Behavior. The ultimate goal of cult leaders is to control the behavior of their followers. They use loaded language to brainwash their followers in order to keep them subservient, beaten down with fear, and lacking critical thinking skills.

In the old comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” cartoonist Bill Waterson created a precocious 6-year-old boy named Calvin and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes often played a game called “Calvinball,” whose only rule was that there were no permanent rules. Thus both players could shout out rule-changes at any time, and the one who thought more quickly could win the game by defining his own rules.

Cults are like that, except the only person allowed to change the rules is the group leader. When a group leader “loads the language” and redefines all of the terms, he or she wins the game of control every time.

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

11 comments on “Identifying Religious Brainwashing: Loading the Language (Part 6 of 8)

  1. I have personally been called a slanderer and have been persecuting the ‘group’. Steve, thank you for this website and the words of insight and wisdom. I have purchased the book, “Twisted Scriptures” and will begin reading it immediately.

    • Karen, I am so sorry that this has happened to you. And I am humbled to be part of the truth-telling process. Thanks for your encouraging words. May God bring you much truth and grace through the book. It is excellent.

      • I need help here- please ! My daughter attends a private christian school that is behind on mortgage payments – they developed a list of prayers the children are encouraged to pray over when the word “deep” is said. They are to stop what they are doing and pray that the school receives money- is this cult behavior

      • Hi jaeme, it sounds like the school is using a memory device whereby students are encouraged to pray when they hear a certain word. It is a prayer-by-association technique, not hypnosis or brainwashing. The goal is probably to get children to remember to pray for the mortgage crisis regularly, rather than to forget about it entirely. Since this is the only item you mentioned, it does not sound like brainwashing. I may not be a fan of this technique, but I wouldn’t be too concerned about it. Best wishes to the school that they can pay their debts!

  2. Not sure why I had this thought while reading your blog, but I’ll share it. It is very seductive to think that you can do exactly what God wants you to do – all the time – if you just ask your pastor and then do what he says. Perhaps that is all part of the brain washing.

  3. […] Part Six: Loading the Language – “Loading the language” according to cult-expert Stephen Martin means to manipulate […]

  4. I keep searching the blog, but i can’t find what u mean when u say Christian. I come from an orthodox christian tradition (rarely practicing), and i’ve been searching for ways, something, to understand an evangelical christian, actually the wall in his mind. He refuses to use the denomination, refuses any critic, but says that he is simply christian and a believer. And I am a non-believer, stone-minded, proud and all that. So far I’ve recognized him in all the posts u’ve written, he has all the signs of brainwashing and mind reformation, and it’s seems hopeless, frustrating, we’ve stopped communicating, but i still want to help. Maybe this is not the right post for my comment but I don’t know what to do. He is very, very young, early twenties and a preacher (??) which is something I find ridiculous. The question is are all evangelicals “crazy”, believing the bible word by word, that the end is near, that people die every day and go to hell, that sex, even between people who love eachother but are non-married, is sinful. I can’t find anywhere that the evangelical church is like e cult, but what i know so far about my friend, his friends, it seems like a cult, like a brainwashing. Is it or is it not? Cause I cant’ really understand the vigorous public display of religious statuses, photos, thoughts of ALL evangelicals. I believe that faith is an intimate feeling.

    • Hi Bebeep, thanks for asking your question. It’s true I never define “Christian” on this blog, but the simplest answer is that a Christian is a person who follows Jesus Christ. That means that they believe the things he taught, have put their faith in him to save them, and they try to practice what he preached. Christians find Jesus’ teaching in the Bible, and they believe that the Bible is God’s revelation of Truth. While there is a very broad spectrum of belief within Christendom, all Christians everywhere adhere to some basic ideas about the world, about God, and about people. You can find these beliefs in something called “The Apostles Creed.” This is the bare-bones doctrine that all Christians who want to call themselves orthodox (that means having correct doctrine) believe.

      Evangelical Christians traditionally have focused on Scripture as God’s inspired (that means that God is the one who inspired the human authors to write it), inerrant (without errors) Word. They often take a literal approach to scripture which is known as the historical-grammatical interpretive framework. And they focus on evangelism (trying to spread the good news of the gospel message).

      Even within evangelicalism there is a broad spectrum of practice. It sounds like your friend is more on the fundamentalist side of the evangelical spectrum. Whether he is brainwashed or not, I can’t tell. That would depend on whether he is in a cult.

      Are evangelicals crazy to believe what they do? That would depend on the individual, since some evangelicals are quite extreme in what they believe and many other evangelicals would not agree with their belief or practice. Personally, I find that the Christian worldview makes good sense of what we see and experience, and I do believe that the Bible is God’s Word and guides us to the Truth. But I have certainly also experienced the dark side of religion, as this blog probably shows.

      If you want to learn more about what evangelicals believe (to compare it to what your friend specifically believes), I recommend D.A. Carson’s book, “A Survey of Bible Doctrine.” Also, A.W. Tozer’s book, “Knowledge of the Holy” presents a Christian view of God. And C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” describes a more broadly Christian worldview.

      Best wishes!

  5. I was member of a cult from birth to age 30. 5 years ago I left and I still struggle with the effects of that history.This site has been,and will continue to be, extremely helpful.While I am no longer religious,the core information is valuable and aids in putting that experience into a context I can understand and resolve.Thank you.

  6. I left an unhealthy church two years
    Ago. Still trying to figure out if they were cult. Though pastor has stepped
    Down. I need healing from this negative experience. I guess I feel guilty because part of it was my codependency. I thought too highly of people especially leaders and spouses. I am traumatized. I kind of attend a church here but I’m so scared of being controlled like I was. This is much needed information on what the role of church and pastor is for! A lot of my issues were my upbringing. I didn’t realize I was allowed to disagree with a pastor. I feel kind of stupid actually. My gut was telling me but being coda we often feel like WE are the problem!

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