Cult Thinking Explained

Cults continue to mystify most people, even those intimately familiar with them. This bothers me. I was a fundamentalist and then a quasi-cult member for more than 20 years. I should understand how cult thinking works; understanding thinking is what I do. Why is it so difficult to grasp?

(I say “quasi-cult” both because I never fully embraced cult thinking, and because “Smith’s Friends,” as they were known at the time, fell on the tamer end of the cult excess scale. Today, they call themselves Brunstad Christian Church or simply BCC, and in many ways are more “normal” now than they used to be, so the group only rates quasi-status in my view.)

During my first few years out of the fundie-cult world, I got little heads-ups that clued me in to the reasons for the pernicious persistence of puzzlement about cults, but I didn’t fully appreciate them until recently. In short, it’s hard to understand cults because we don’t really want to. We don’t want to because cult thinking is very common, familiar, and occurs in all kinds of places we’d rather not admit. Facing that fact makes us uncomfortable, so we blindly assume that there must be strange, esoteric reasons why cults do what they do and why cult members seem so weird. Well, that just ain’t so.

When Smith’s Friends excommunicated me, I reconnoitered. I’d been deeply fooled, so it was time to figure out what was really what. I was surprised to find the same thinking that Smith’s Friends operated under almost everywhere I looked. Some people wondered whether I’d spent so much time with zebras that all I could see was stripes. I wondered, too, so I took 20 years to consider the question. These are my conclusions, still open to revision. You decide whether they make sense.

I covered one of the key characteristics of cult thinking in my piece on Fundamentalism, i.e., elevating our basic beliefs to unquestionable, untouchable status. This is the cornerstone of cult thinking; a crucial piece, but just one of them. Not everyone who closes basic beliefs to scrutiny or challenge qualifies as a cult thinker — not all fundies are cultists, by any means — but they certainly have taken an important step in cult direction.

Fish or Fruitcake?

Cult thinking is a process, not a position or a viewpoint. Cult thinking is a type of psychopathic thinking — a serious aberration of normal, healthy thought process.[1] Conspiracy theories usually involve whopping doses of cult thinking, and so does the thinking that sustains abusive relationships, some of them euphemistically labeled “codependent relationships.” Codependency differs from other kinds of abusive relationship in its mix rather than its ingredients.[2] I’ll use “abusive” to include both “codependent” and “abusive” relationships as a comparison to cult situations.

Whenever a predatory party attempts to entrap and subsist on a victim, the thinking of each and the dynamics of their relationship remain eerily similar across diverse scenarios. It’s very strange. You would expect some variety from place to place in widely different settings and in different eras, but the basic predatory script seems largely unchanged over thousands of years, no matter the scale or what aspect of life it involves. After comparing notes with the author of a “cult recovery” book in the mid-90s, we finally both laughed. We knew that Smith’s Friends had no contact with with the group he wrote about, (both groups were still small enough to avoid notoriety,) and yet their similarities were unbelievable, down to catch-phrases and incidental details. “You’d think these guys all went to cult school somewhere,” he quipped. Well, in one sense, they did: the school of psychopathic thinking.

One of the most remarkable things about psychopathic thinking is its lack of originality. Psychopaths think in largely the same unimaginative ways, regardless how their interests vary. What’s more, their thinking isn’t remarkably different, but rather remarkably similar to “normal” thinking.

M. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, quotes several psychiatrists who worked with Holocaust survivors and studied the psychology of the psychopaths criminally responsible for that horrendous episode. The psychiatrists were surprised to realize that psychopaths are boring. Peck uses the term “the evil.” I use “psychopaths.” Potayto, potahto? He wrote:

It is extraordinary how well the evil fit the mould. Once you’ve seen one evil person, you’ve essentially seen them all. Even psychotics, whom we are accustomed to thinking of as the most seriously deranged, are more interesting.
— M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, p. 303

In covering the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, political theorist Hannah Arendt referred to this as the “banality of evil.” A half-dozen psychiatrists examined Eichmann prior to his trial and unanimously declared him “normal.” In her book on Eichmann’s trial, Arendt wrote:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.
— Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, p. 276

I knew quite a few Smith’s Friends leaders. I spent as much time with them as I could over a period of more than 15 years. I knew how they thought. I consider them psychopaths. I encountered and worked for (and sometimes against) people who thought and behaved like psychopaths, most of them in upper management, during my corporate and private careers. I always wondered how they behaved at home. I could see them bringing flowers to their wives and goodies for their kids, and then over dinner bragging about their exploits and conquests in the concrete jungle, “nailing ’em to the cross” and “kicking the Bejeezus out of them.” I also know what it’s taken (and is taking) to get myself out of psychopathic thinking. Yes, I too am a recovering psychopath. As part of my rehabilitation, I’ve done a lot of investigating into what makes this thing tick.

I believe that the incredible similarities and banality of psychopathic thinking are results of a root cause that is easy to understand in principle, but complex and extremely difficult to unravel in fact. Simply put, psychopaths shut down the parts of their psyches that would otherwise make them interesting, especially the cognitive functions responsible for trust, empathy, and mammalian connection. Psychopaths won’t or can’t connect in healthy ways to either people or animals. What connections they do make serve purposes of their choosing, connections that they control or go to excessive lengths to secure control of. This is why childhood cruelty to animals can be an indicator that serious psychological problems are developing. It’s also why bullies rarely engage (authentically, at least) in either celebration or grief, even with their closest “friends.” Their capacity for empathy or heartfelt connection is impaired, both in joy and sorrow — preempted by the calculating planning they constantly engage in.

Shutting down these parts of our psyches is standard self-defense behavior in response to serious abuse, especially long-term abuse in childhood and adolescence. Opening and reconnecting these shut down functions is what therapists hope to achieve with the minority of abuse victims who seek treatment. How much abuse and how much psyche needs to be shut down to produce psychopathic thinking? Less than you might think. Does all psychopathic thinking result in cult thinking? When we realize that cult thinking can be practiced by “normal” people that we wouldn’t normally identify as “cult members,” the answer is, “Invariably.” The only real difference between cult thinking and non-cult psychopathic thinking might be a cult leader who exploits the psychopathic victim.

Understanding the psychological roots of cult thinking is crucial for understanding not only how it works, but why anyone would choose to think this way. Trying to understand cults by analyzing their strange rhetoric and narratives, i.e., their belief systems and doctrines, plays right into their surreptitious agendas. Belief systems do not a cult make — not the advertised ones, anyway — but a relatively straightforward, easily recognizable, and emotionally charged set of basic beliefs does, at least when exploited by predatory psychopaths. At this underlying level, cult thinking turns out to be pretty familiar to the rest of us. There’s a little psycho, if not a little quasi-cultist, in all of us.

Why They Do It

Not all psychopaths are cult members, but all cult members think psychopathically. That’s not to say that all cult members engage in awful, immoral, or illegal practices any more than all psychopaths do. Simply being on a train headed for increasingly psychopathic behavior does not imply that we’ll ride it to the bitter end of the line. Besides, psychopathic thinking doesn’t revolve around propriety, morality, legality, or any of the concerns we might hope would restrain or control it. These don’t even approach the key issue from a psychopath’s perspective. A psychopath’s prime directive, even if subconscious, is secure safety. This takes place in a reality characterized by a belief that is so primal, the psychopath’s world would unravel if it were compromised. I call the belief adversariality.

Underneath everything they think, under the basic beliefs their thinking rests on, the deepest, most sacred belief in the heads and hearts of psychopaths is a commitment to the proposition that reality is adversarial, and therefore, danger-ridden. To a psychopath, before anything is said or done, living means that you struggle with adversaries, be they elements or enemies; and you must beat them, hide from them, learn to placate them, or die. A psychopath can’t imagine anything outside of an adversarial paradigm without it taking on all the seriousness of a fairy tale. For that matter, even fairy tales — like all “good” stories — revolve around adversariality.

Adversariality presupposes the reality of evil, however we define the term and whatever we consider evil to be. Adherence to the paradigm of adversariality shows that we are committed to believing in the reality of evil, and that dealing with evil is our primary concern. More than Good, God, people, love, or any glory or virtue that a human being might aspire to, a psychopath believes in evil. He might believe that God or Good is more powerful than evil and will overcome evil in the end, but whatever his mental picture of reality might be — however it works and whatever its priorities are — his primary object of emotional fixation is the evil on the scene, not the goodness or the divine.

To some degree, psychopaths are obsessed with evil, and the strength of this obsession drives the thinking and behavior that we normally consider “psychopathic.” Concern about evil is their organizing emotional principle, the locus around which everything arranges itself motivationally. This is why Jesus advised us, “do not resist an evil person;” not because we should let evil have its way, but because as long as we resist psychopaths as psychopaths, fire for fire, we will fail and only make matters worse. Far from remaining quiet or passive in the face of evil, Paul the apostle advised us, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In other words, overcome evil without deference to evil, not by psychopathic thinking that revolves around evil, but very different kinds of thinking originating and organized around concern for good. The crucial issue is not whether we oppose evil, but whether we oppose it as psychopaths or as healthy people.

To a psychopath, Good or God are not for engaging with, connecting to, enjoying, and appreciating, but for saving us from evil. Safety is tantamount, because evil is preeminent; blessings and bliss are gravy. Love towards Good or God are the price required to secure this “salvation.” Whatever salvation consists of, it fundamentally means safety from the evil that the psychopath fears. Ironically, at some level, psychopaths believe that Good or God is responsible for evil, at least for failing to eliminate or sequester it. How could we possibly connect or commune in love born of safety, trust, and benevolence with the very source and conveyor of what we fear? Ultimately, a psychopath serves Good or God not for love, but because it’s better than the alternatives, a lesser of evils in an evil world.

This might sound like an overblown form of hard-bitten cynicism, not psychopathy. The difference is that cynics have the emotional capacity to recognize trust-based intentions and behavior; kindness, for example. They might think that kindness is folly in a world like ours, but they would still be touched if they thought that real kindness, however naive or ill-advised, were directed towards them. Even if they derided the gesture openly, they might still feel a twinge of “if only it were real…” or at least lament the fact that they feel no twinge at all. Psychopaths lack the emotional functionality for that kind of recognition, having rendered it inoperable.

This is why psychopaths don’t register acts of kindness the way healthy people do. A healthy person would think something like, “How nice of you!” or, “I really don’t deserve that, but thank you!” or a bit more neurotically, “I appreciate that; but I wish you hadn’t, because now I might have to reciprocate!” Encountering remarkable generosity or kindness, even a dour cynic might think, “Well, maybe there’s hope for humans yet.” While in really bad moods, acting like complete jerks, healthy people can still register, “That was an act of kindness, and it makes me feel like a complete ass.”

Psychopaths are different. When they encounter acts of kindness, generosity, or other forms of goodwill, they think things like, “The sucker. I wonder what I can get out of this?” or, “Alright, this is going to be fun,” or, “Cool. Let’s see how far I take it with this moron.” I’m not implying that healthy people never behave psychopathically. Healthy people can be insensitive and cruel, but they can also be empathetic and engage with others for the joy of connection and love and appreciation of their fellows. When they behave poorly, they later regret it and make amends. Psychopaths don’t have — or are too afraid to allow themselves — that option.

Safety First

Psychopaths don’t need to be aggressive sorts, nor is psychopathic thinking exclusive to the kinds of people we usually consider “psychopaths,” e.g., serial killers or genocidal criminals like Eichmann. We all slip or glitch and indulge in psychopathic thinking, more than we’d like to admit even to ourselves. When we do, it’s basically for one reason: we feel unsafe, so we seek protection or prepare to protect ourselves. They didn’t teach us much about facing danger in school or at home, so — surprise — we suck at doing it constructively. That’s not to say that feeling unsafe necessarily makes us psychopathic, but the flip side is true: when we start thinking or behaving psychopathically, fear for safety (in some form — physical, financial, emotional, social, spiritual, etc.) is at the root of it. We might imagine a “happy psychopath,” but it implies either delusion or sadism that no healthy person would regard as an element of authentic happiness.

Not many in our upbringing encouraged us to meet danger with violence. Many recommended “non-violence,” but those of us who asked, “How do you do that?” were given a few extraordinary role models — all of whom operated in spheres far removed from the dangers we faced — and then shrugs and silence. In other words, most of the knowledge we possess about dealing with danger is psychopathic. There’s a sore lack of good, practical how-to information about dealing with danger constructively, or at least there was when I needed it, growing up in the sixties and seventies. There might be more now, but in spite of a plethora of theories about nonviolent resistance, nonviolent communication, negotiation, mediation, diplomacy, and the like, we continue to grope for simple, effective methods that enable us to deal with danger without becoming dangerous. It’s one thing to understand how I should think and behave when I feel unsafe, but where is the information that tells me how to feel like thinking and behaving that way? I doubt that we’ll figure it out as long as we keep trying to do it from paradigms of adversariality.

Imagine that we are in real danger and need to seek safety. Our thinking and behavior then depends largely on whether we assume (or hope) that safety is possible. Let’s say we survive the danger and find safety. How do we picture the situation then? Was our flight out of a pocket of danger into an expanse of safety, or away from a big, bad world into a tiny, safe corner? An occasional encounter with danger doesn’t automatically render the whole world a dangerous place, although serious trauma can make us feel like it is even if we know that it isn’t. Trauma necessitates recovery, and recovery is possible precisely because we believe that not all the world is a dangerous place. In other words, trauma victims must come to believe that safety is normal and right, something they deserve; otherwise, they won’t really recover. This is the reverse of the psychopath’s conviction, in which safety is abnormal, something that must be wrenched from a hostile world set against him.[3]

Not even extremely harsh, abusive conditions like concentration camps or war necessarily induce people to believe that adversariality is embedded in the warp and woof of life as we know it. Knowing the depths of depravity to which a human can sink doesn’t automatically mean we expect everyone to sink there, let alone believe that brutal inhumanity is inherent to our natures, i.e., our default condition, our starting point. Recognizing gruesome potential is realistic and healthy; presuming it to be inevitable is not. Considering abuse to be a brutal departure from the norm is quite a different frame of mind than expecting abuse as a rule that safety is the exception to. Psychopathic thinking begins with the latter.

Trust, Hope, and Other Fairytales

Psychopaths believe that reality is adversarial and, therefore, unsafe. Psychopaths feel so deeply unsafe and have for so long that feeling unsafe seems normal, the default state of being human until they do something about it. They usually don’t remember the process by which they came to this conclusion, having blocked it out of memory. They might remember some of the incidents involved, but these don’t seem to them like sources of dysfunctional thinking. Instead, these memories reinforce the psychopath’s belief in adversariality and prove to him that his dysfunctional thinking is both appropriate and justified. It doesn’t occur to him that that these were exceptional incidents, culprits that scared him into believing the adversariality that makes life seem so unsafe. In order to contemplate that possibility, he would first have to imagine the possibility of a non-adversarial reality and give it some credence; but credence implies hope, which is precisely what he long ago ejected.

For a psychopath to grasp hope again would be to set himself up for more of the violation and debasement that pummeled him into throwing it away. He dares not, under any circumstance, risk that travesty again. So, life becomes a necessarily, inherently adversarial, beat or be beaten, survival of the fittest affair in which everyone begins vulnerable and under threat and stays that way until they wise up and toughen up enough to meet the threats, eliminate them, hold them at bay, or escape to less hostile situations. Psychopaths start their thinking under threat. Jesus advised us to first seek the kingdom of God. The highest priority for psychopaths — what they seek first — is safety, but not just any kind of safety.

The safety of normal, healthy human relationships rests on trust. We feel safe with those who love us because we trust them. Safety in abnormal, abusive relationships must be secured in the absence of trust, and more often than not, in spite of severe and degrading violation of trust. The reality of a psychopath is a world that was violently rendered unsafe long before memory, in which trust gets rewarded with exploitation, denigration, and shame. The safety a psychopath seeks is a safety that must be fought for and then defended or it will be lost. Left unguarded, something or someone will eventually, certainly take it away.

Powerful psychopaths go way beyond seeking safety: they carve it out for themselves at the expense of the well-being of others. Through their violations, they teach their victims well, ingraining their mantras ruthlessly and debasingly, all of which echo the refrain: The world is a hard, cruel place, and only the strong survive — someone must suffer, and it won’t be me! “Harm or suffer” is the psychopathic false dichotomy. For psychopaths, “win-win” is merely a ploy to get a quarry’s guard down and take it for even more, not an ideal to strive for; and “mutual benefit” is just a euphemism used to lure targets into striking distance.

Having escaped or their abusers having died off, abuse victims struggle. Many of them never shake their psychopathic conditioning. Some gravitate back to — even recreate — the kinds of abusive circumstances that inflicted it. Familiarity is its own kind of safety. Some seek treatment, and some reverse their conditioning, but not many. Not always, but far too often, they become abusers themselves and the cycle repeats.

Within their circles of safety, even powerful psychopaths don’t like acting the part. Psychopathic thinking is a conditioned defense, a posture against a conflict that was deeply internalized. Like any other human being, even psychopaths need a break. They gravitate to consonance, harmony, and peace like anyone else. Being human, psychopaths are capable of some complexity and nuance — the shutdown of their capacities for trust and connection need not be all-or-nothing. Psychopathic thinking can be “domain specific” as in xenophobia, racism, fanatical patriotism, religious zealotry, or ethnic or religious hatred. It wouldn’t do to treat those who are within our circles of safety the same as we treat our adversaries without. Outside the circle, they’re brutes, animals, and scum! Within the circle, we’re all brothers, sisters, comrades, or fellows. There, in the security of his circle of safety, the psychopath can mete out trust and connection or, as is more often the case, award or reward them to whomever he deems “worthy.” This might seem like benevolence or even generosity, but a psychopath’s benevolence is conditional; his “love” is a proportional response to your contribution to the integrity and security of his circle of safety. A healthy person’s benevolence is affirmative rather than responsive, a function of her goodwill and commitment to the well-being of those she cares about, in disregard or even in spite of her sense of personal well-being or safety — very different orientations and dependencies.

Psychopathic compartmentalization and the conditional goodwill it supports are determined by the relationships of others to a psychopath’s sacred center. Those who are beloved today because they support the primal safety he requires can, should they run afoul of that requirement, be cast out the next day into fires of abuse — via emotional, physical, or sexual punishment, private or public humiliation, banishment, or even death. No one is so close and so dear that he or she is truly exempt. Psychopathic judgments don’t evaluate the merits of alleged offenders’ behavior per se, but its effects on the state of his safety. What offenders say that their choices and behavior meant — their voice — is secondary at best. Whether inside or outside his circle, everything depends on the psychopath’s interpretation of what they did as it relates to his safety. If he acknowledges their intentions, he does so as their superior and benefactor, gracing them with recognition and indulging them with his ear. Their voices make a sound only because he is there to hear it.

This shows the limited, conditional, and patently paranoid nature of a psychopath’s “trust” which, since it avoids putting the psychopath in a vulnerable position, can hardly be called trust. It also hints at the power imbalance that psychopaths require in order to trust and connect at all. Either they must adopt subordinate, deferential positions towards superiors, or they must take superior positions and condescend to inferiors and dependents. In other words, dominance is imperative. The second a psychopath realizes that he faces a peer, trust flies out the window and connection is out of the question, because parity means that the question of dominance — and with it, safety — is unresolved. Every peer is an adversary or rival, a potential superior or underling, until the dominance/safety question is settled. Psychopaths “keep friends close and enemies closer” because their ultimate concern is their own safety in a thoroughly hostile environment.

Crypts, Caverns, Smoke, and a Glimmer

This is the dark mentality from which cult thinking originates. It is also the social environment that cult leaders maintain in order to keep control of their victims. Once the light of faith in the benevolence of reality has been extinguished, it isn’t hard for exploiters to keep their victims in the darkness they already believe in, promising the “light of salvation” with barely a flickering glimmer to show for it. In fact, as I’ll explain below, the weakness of their “evidence” of “salvation” actually makes the prospect more alluring and, incredibly, more credible to psychopathic victims. Its occult nature appeals to once-bitten-twice-shy defenses. Those making clear promises already proved to be deceivers and violators, rendering the world an adversarial place. Salvation (i.e., safety,) might in fact be possible, but even so, it can’t be trusted — it’s sly, skittish, and must be wooed out of dark corners and trapped before it can be possessed. If any real hope can be entertained, if enduring safety can be had, and — should they be so lucky — if light and life can be enjoyed, psychopaths expect that these must be hunted down, lain in wait for, snared, and secured; because otherwise they will certainly flee and fly away.

It is difficult to describe the murk that is life inside the world of a cult, both for its dark intensity and because participants (not leaders) experience it just as a glum backdrop against which they seek light, the background din through which they hope the melody of happiness will emerge. This discord between environment and aspiration is the stuff that the Tao and much Eastern paradox is made of. All the while, at least in the groups I’m familiar with, members are hyper-sensitively aware of the dangers that they escaped — at least thus far. The possibility of “falling” or “backsliding” into delusion or “sin” by transgressing the dictates of the leaders, changeable and implicit as they often are, is always real and present, requiring incessant vigilance. Some of our nightmares come close to the feeling of immanent threat, near-futility, and impending doom of this predicament: we hope and struggle to escape, our very efforts increasing the resistance against which we struggle, so we exert yet more effort to push through, inciting yet more resistance… Rarely do those dreams end with escape and freedom. In fact, rarely do they have endings, another feature that they have in common with cult experience. The little light at the end of the tunnel never goes out, but neither does it grow. Of course, no cult member can be vigilant enough, and most routinely “fall,” which is why immersion in the community or “fellowship” is so important — to the member for acceptance, support, and reinclusion, and to the leaders for monitoring attitudes and gauging where dissent might be brewing.

Cult thinking need not seem as melodramatic as the previous paragraphs might make it sound, although it can easily be stranger — and darker — than even the most nightmarish description. The demons, ghouls, gargoyles, and other bizarre creatures that Middle Age art, religion, and literature were filled with are just extant fractions of the hostile images that filled people’s minds for centuries, and probably for millennia before. Immersing ourselves in the products of those adversary-ridden imaginations can be frightening and depressing on its own; imagine what it might have been like to dream them up! My memories of Check Point Charlie and spending several hours in East Berlin as a teenager in 1969 — aware that any of the uniformed soldiers sporting automatic weapons slung on their shoulders and sidearms on their hips could take me away if I happened to do something they didn’t approve of — bring back a semblance of the sense of precariousness and oppression I felt during my cult experience. Or as a more contemporary point of reference, consider dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels and films. All of these give emotional approximations of the daily mental atmosphere that’s “normal” for members living in cult situations. But don’t expect them to attest to the stench they’re accustomed to breathing, believing it’s holy. They have no other point of reference for “normal” until they emerge from the smoke.

How They Do It

Cult thinking usually doesn’t get generally recognized as such until something extraordinarily bad happens. By then, it seems quite alien; but its basics aren’t so different than the thinking we do all the time. Its adversarial basis is more extreme, but not completely unfamiliar. Its unique difference lies in a subtle circularity that is hard to trace, but obvious when we run into it. To describe this circularity, let’s start with what cult thinking and normal thinking have in common.

In any situation where we’re trying to do or decide something, three kinds of factors are always in play.

  1. Apparent factors: Actualities — things, forces, or circumstances that we’re aware are the case and which we have a handle on. They might not be “within our control,” but we are clear about what control, if any, we have over them.
  2. Occult factors: Potentialities — things, forces, or circumstances that we’re aware might be the case but we don’t have a handle on.[4] In other words, they might be there, but we don’t know if they are, and if they are, we don’t know how relevant they are or what control we do or don’t have over them.
  3. Unreal factors: Oblivialities — things, forces, or circumstances that might well be real and relevant, but we are completely unaware of either their existence or their possibility, so that our thinking at the time doesn’t factor them in at all. These are the notorious “unknown unknowns.”

Now let’s take an example: stopped at an intersection looking at a red light, waiting for the green. We get a green light and start to move. Having driven for some time, we know that a green light doesn’t guarantee that some fool won’t run the red light holding cross-traffic still, so we glance around before going into the intersection. Suddenly, BOOM! The service van behind us rams into our rear.

Apparent factors: The green light; the empty intersection; stationary cross-traffic; physical control of our vehicle; knowledge of rules of the road.

Occult factors: Fools possibly about to run the red light from the right or the left.

Unreal factors: The service van whose driver didn’t notice us hesitate before entering the intersection, unreal to us because our minds were busy looking for fools elsewhere.

As is always the case with surprises and unforeseen accidents, the most important factors turn out to be unreal factors, those which we had no clue about, and so they simply did not exist for us until they burst into our awareness. Meanwhile, we were occupied with the several (and relatively few) factors that we had some awareness of. The lion’s share of our attention gets sucked up by occult factors, precisely because it takes a lot of psychic effort to anticipate, infer, and deduce things that are possibly relevant but aren’t obvious and clear. The more hidden the information is and the more we want it, the more effort we invest in figuring it out; much more than what we devote to apparent factors, which normally need just a quick check. This is part of the power of the occult, the potential but hidden. We can barely resist it’s psychic attraction, if at all.

There is no question that occult factors play a role in everything we do. We can’t avoid that. The question we have some say about is whether we pay them more or less attention than we should. The more we focus our attention on occult factors, the more surrounding information blurs and recedes beyond the periphery of awareness. Focus implies the importance and significance of the factors we focus on. The more attention we give something, the greater a role it plays in our thinking, even if its role becomes exaggerated. The more we think about things, the larger and more centrally they loom in our mental pictures.

In hindsight, we can try to figure out what level of attention to occult factors would have resulted in the best outcome, but that’s hard to gauge ahead of time. Spend too much time looking for i’s to dot and t’s to cross, and the story will miss the deadline. Worry too much about succeeding and you’ll never try. In principle, some level of attention to occult factors would be optimal to get what we want out of a situation. If the attention we give them exceeds this optimal level, (or falls short of it, as when we’re negligent) our thinking, decisions, and subsequent actions will be less effective than they could have been. When it comes to things we care about, we tend to go overboard on attention to occult factors, and negligence is rarely a problem when safety is at stake.

Overemphasis on occult factors coupled with a sense of helplessness can lead to magical thinking: wishful ideas that serve our hopes but are so fanciful that we wouldn’t resort to them except under duress. Magical thinking ushers us from consideration of occult factors into the occult in the popular sense of that term. Magical thinking begins with ideas that occur to us when we’re “reaching” or “groping” or “grasping for straws.” We reach, grope, and grasp because we lack the information that we need. Our brains abhor voids, filling gaps in our mental pictures regardless of whether we want them filled or are aware that it’s happening. Our built-in, gap-filling mental mechanisms are perfectly fine with resorting to ideas that would seem ridiculous under other circumstances. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but of magical thinking as well; and magical thinking operates exclusively within the realm of the occult.

The occult engages our imaginations because we need its hidden, obscure information to fill gaps in our picture of things. The more we care about the gaps, the more automatically and insistently our brains try to fill them in; whether with factual or fanciful information, our gap-filling mental mechanisms don’t have a clue and don’t care. They have but one prime directive: fill gaps. Anything that fills, works. They give us no indication about the reliability of the fill-gap information they provide. This can be a problem if we assume that the information is reliable when it’s not. In fact, we easily mistake our relief over filling the gap as assurance that the information we filled it with is reliable.

This is why we naturally attribute more credibility to far-fetched possibilities than we should when we’re under threat or duress. Add to this the tendency of occult-invoked imagination to exaggerate, not understate. The fill-gap information can be alarming, aggravating anxieties and fears, or assuring, aggravating our hopes and expectations. The net effect either way is that we are far more sure about things than we have any right to be, although it’s a fragile, compulsive kind of assurance.

Magical thinking is a turning point. Once we’re in a condition where resorting to it seems like a good idea, a curious reversal occurs. A normal, healthy relationship between our reason and emotions involves reason working on the interests that are emotionally important to us, while emotions provide the drive and orientation that reason needs to operate and make progress. When the two come into conflict, it’s a judgment call which should defer. Sometimes we follow our hearts and sometimes our heads, and sometimes we later wish we’d done the opposite. In my experience, these conflicts are opportunities for both reason and emotion to mature, and for us to find constructive ways to get them to work in concert; but we don’t always get the luxury of time and reflection for that. Under stress, we can hardly reconcile them. One of them has to take a back seat.

And the Little Wheels Go Round and Round

By the time we’re stretched and stressed enough that magical thinking makes sense to us, reason takes a back seat, and emotional concerns grab the steering wheel with no intention of letting go. We don’t abandon reason completely, but we subordinate it. Pressurized by duress or stress, the interests that forced us to resort to magical thinking involve attachments that now serve as a center of emotional gravity around which our mental worlds begin to revolve and organize themselves. Those attachments become sacred, and their safety becomes paramount. Reason gets reduced to a slave of our now sacred central concerns, present not to guide or control but simply preserve the resulting order. This is what it means to suspend critical thinking: reason can assist but not interrupt or alter the safety agenda.

We can’t allow our reason to take issue with our emotional attachments as long as being detached from them would mean the “end of the world.” In adolescence, for example, that almost means anything we happen to care about at the time. Subjecting an attachment to reason’s scrutiny opens a door to the chance that reason will advise us to disconnect from it. If that prospect threatens us so deeply that we shudder and dare not contemplate it, we put reason in the back seat. If we believe we’ll die or suffer annihilation or abject humiliation — or whatever we fear so much that our thoughts refuse to even approach it — our primal safety is at stake, and we keep reason gagged except to serve the interest of securing and preserving that safety.

This kind of thinking feeds on itself and snowballs. On one hand, a lack of necessary information prompts magical thinking in an effort to manage occult factors. On the other hand, magical thinking energizes occult factors, intensifying our need for fill-gap information and giving it further credibility in spite of its increasingly fantastic character. In other words, we over-focus on potentialities — what might happen — and aggravate the fact that we’re speculating because we lack adequate information. This heightens our sense of need for information we don’t have, in turn exaggerating the importance of occult factors, which in turn prompts more magical thinking to fill in the aggravated information gap. Our thinking becomes a self-reinforcing loop, a vicious, exclusionary circle of magical potentialities. It’s not dissimilar to “falling” for a romantic interest when we’re “on the rebound” from a heartbreak and refuse to listen to our best friend telling us to be careful. I imagine the cult member’s thought processes like an electron shell whirring so fast that every attempt to break through it bounces off. This is why it seems impossible to reason with a cult member. Argument and evidence can’t break through. Reason is impotent against this kind of defense, because it protects concerns that, though understandable, are primal and beyond reason’s reach.

I think a great example of circular cult thinking is gambling, not because it’s so ridiculous, but because the allure of “winning it big” is familiar to all of us, whether our preferred bailiwick is the state lottery, Las Vegas, horse racing, TV game shows, or publisher’s sweepstakes (if those still exist,) even though we know that, rationally and statistically, it’s ridiculous. Something-for-nothing seems to dust itself off and polish up well enough to tempt us over and over again, no matter how many times we throw it to dirt and swear off.

Let’s say we buy a lottery ticket and lose. That’s OK. The next time we might win, so we buy another ticket. We lose again. That’s OK, because there’s still a chance, so we buy another. After hundreds of tickets, each one purchased because we are increasingly committed to the potential that we might hit the elusive winning number — in other words, committed to the occult possibility — we begin thinking magically. In a particular lottery game, it is ever-so-slightly true that the more tickets we buy, the “higher” our odds of winning become, maybe going from 1:100,000,000 to a staggering ten or even a hundred in a million! There’s quite a disproportion between the statistically slight actual improvement in those odds and the emotionally exaggerated sense of improvement we take from it. Worse, we ignore the 1:0 odds — aka, the certainty — that we lost the money we spent buying 10 or 100 tickets in favor of “better” odds that we’ll win “big time.” No logic or reasonable argument could reconcile our dismissal of the actually certain in favor of an absurdly remote potential, and yet we feel good about it; hopeful.

What gets us across such glaring a disconnection from reasonableness? In short, “magic.” Just think about it: gamblers brim over with hunches and gut feelings about the ups and downs of their “luck,” as if there were actual, causal connections between their intuitions and factors so far beyond their ken and control that magical thinking becomes not only necessary but a highly relied-upon source of information for decision-making. How is this different than relying on astrology or superstitions like plucking daisies to know if she does or doesn’t? Lottery after lottery, our expectations steadily rise in spite of reason or evidence to the contrary. We even develop theories and tactics about how to choose winning numbers: patterns from past games that indicate upcoming winners; astrological influences that give us clues; intuitive senses or even occult signs and omens (in the customary, paranormal sense) that guide our choice of “winning” numbers.

The magicalness of lottery thinking becomes even more apparent once we start building a growing sense that “I’ve played for so long, my number is bound to come up soon” across several new games, each one an actual start from scratch statistically. Of course, we might not admit to these “senses” or “hunches” or “gut feelings” in conversation as intelligent, rational people, but something keeps us going back for more in what everyone knows is a net-loss game for everyone but a special few — aside from the lottery sponsors, of course.

The allure of being one of the special few attracts all of us to fantastic something-for-nothing schemes, impossible relationships, doomed causes, bizarre belief systems, and even cults. We might pride ourselves on being able to spot and avoid them, which just shows that we pay them attention, so something about them catches our notice. When getting entangled in exploitative situations, we don’t walk in thinking that’s what they are. By the time we realize what we got ourselves into, the hooks are already well-set. After that, it can be very difficult and painful to tear free.

Lottery gambling is an example of a “positive” cult-thought circularity, since it focuses on acquiring something we want but don’t have. “Positive” is a bit misleading, because the needs or fears that motivate us are hardly positive. When satisfied and safe, we might engage in magical thinking for fun, but not in order to meet important needs. Negative cult-thought circularity would involve the avoidance or removal of something we fear, such as when a child notices that she sucked her thumb in a certain way the one night that her step-father didn’t come into her room and molest her. So, she starts sucking her thumb that way night after night, committed to the hope that it will deter him again. But each night it doesn’t; so the next night, she sucks harder. That doesn’t work, so the next night she sucks a little differently. Each night, it doesn’t work; and each night, she becomes more sure that it will work, if only she can exactly replicate the way she did it that night when it did work.

Such is the genesis and development of circular cult thinking. This kind of thinking does not occur to us when we feel safe and happy. We have no need for it when we feel safe and happy. In fact, when safe and happy, this kind of thinking seems irrational, ridiculous, even stupid. But under threat and stress, everything changes.

These examples aren’t related to those we normally think of as “cult” situations. I chose them to make the point that cult thinking is not exclusive to cult members. There really is no secret ingredient that makes for cult thinking. We all engage in it, just under different guises and banners. There is no great mystery involved, other than that we are so unused to analyzing our own thinking that, unanalyzed, it can seem mysterious, i.e., occult. Fear of the occult aspects of our own psyches is one big reason why we seek counseling and therapy so reluctantly. We are far from sure that we want to face skeletons in old closets of memory and explore dark, buried labyrinths of our hearts and minds. Cult thinking is born from nothing more alien or weird than the attempt to cope with dysfunctional baggage that’s all too familiar and common. We make a mistake to think that a cult member’s baggage is worse or much different than our own.

What They Are After

Something not apparent to most outsiders is the glaring difference between the outlooks of cult leaders and their followers. I continue to find people trying to make sense out of cult situations by assuming that leaders and followers are involved in the same program. For all appearances from an outside vantage, they are. Their respective views of that program, however, are very different. While cult followers wrap themselves around axles trying to know what they can’t know, given that the occult factors of their environment are deliberately created and maintained by their leaders, their leaders take advantage of their preoccupation.

Those who control cult environments are well aware of the real abuse and exploitation they perpetrate, which they make sure remain “unreal” to their followers. Their abuses are not incidental or collateral; abuse is the point. We might think that exploitation is the point. Exploitation could be defined as profiting from abuse. Given that profit is possible apart from abuse, and in many ways preferable to exploitation, why then choose to exploit? Because profit isn’t the primary point — profit at the cost of pain to others is the point.

Abuse is the natural product of doing what psychopaths love to do: force themselves on others. We easily recognize those who directly force themselves on others as abusers. Cult leaders tend to be more sophisticated, creating environments that simultaneously cloak and legitimize their violations, obscuring their abusive nature. Adding to the ruse, cult members are largely willing victims, not unlike Patty Hearst became after being brutalized by the SLA.[5] Cult leaders use some interesting — although again, these are psychopaths, so fairly standard — gimmicks to prevent their victims and outsiders from getting wise to their hidden agendas, to rationalize unconcealable aspects, and to spin-doctor the shenanigans and bloopers they inevitably fail to keep secret. That’s a topic all on its own. All of their gimmicks and ploys exploit the same recipe of adversarially-fomented threat driving a merry-go-round of occult-induced magical thinking and self-delusion.

In cult situations, at least two agendas exist: the one that victims believe and the real, hidden one that their abusers know intimately. Not only don’t the leaders believe or participate in the overt agendas they foist on members to extract all kinds of compensation; they never intended to believe or genuinely participate in them. So, ironically, since they never intended to meet the expectations they so persuasively and often forcefully burden their followers with, they truly don’t feel like hypocrites. They impose (and enforce) requirements intended for “sheep” not “shepherds.” A leader only does what his sheep need to be done, giving them the best that they deserve, all for their own good.

A cult leader’s true allegiance lies with his covert agenda: fleecing the flock. Again, he feels no guilt or sense of hypocrisy in this, because that’s what sheep are for. He merely fulfills the natural or divine order of things. Sheep are for wool and meat, and that means someone must sheer and slaughter. To this a leader must stay true or he will quickly be put out by superiors or sabotaged by subordinates and replaced by someone more reliable. Few immune systems detect pathogens as quickly as a cult leader’s radar for qualms of conscience and dissent, whether in “the body” or the inner circle.

Cult leaders might fleece the wool of money, power, property, sex, honor, reputation, or control for control’s sake, but without doubt they are fleecing something. It takes a lot of work and audacity to construct a cult environment and get it revolving. No one takes that kind of time and trouble out of the “goodness” of his heart for the “welfare” of his “flock.” Someone is getting paid, and someone is footing the bill, with both sides using Good’s or God’s name in vain to do it. It just takes some digging to uncover which commodity is getting extracted.

Like Hannah Arendt’s comment about Eichmann and many like him, the normality and familiarity of cult situations is much more alarming than all the atrocities perpetrated by sensational cults put together. Cult thinking is involved every time someone promises love when all he wants is sex, and every time his hapless “lover” falls for it; every time a salesman preys on the hopes of a gullible customer and misrepresents a product, and every time the gleam or prestige of the product leverages that gullibility into a sale; every time a con man takes his “mark” for a “score;” and every time a politician promises… anything. I mentioned that cult thinking isn’t exclusive to cult members. But, rightly understood, we could say that it actually is; because “they” often turn out to be us.

Cult thinking isn’t that spectacular. If it’s hard to follow, be glad — that’s a good sign. Cult thinking isn’t natural and it’s not healthy; all the more reason to lament that it’s so pervasive.

Fortunately, detecting cult thinking is much simpler than explaining or understanding it. Like all psychopathic thinking, its foundational belief is that the universe is adversarial. Like fundamentalist thinking, it closes its basic beliefs to question and scrutiny, elevating them to sacred status and defending them at all costs. Cults go further than fundamentalist groups, though, by closing their organizational or relationship processes — especially decision-making — from view of not only outsiders but also their victims inside the organization or relationship. We call this crazy-making, a standard tactic in the cult/abuse repertoire. The only organizational counterparts that come close to this level of secrecy and paranoia are clandestine intelligence agencies. Ideally, spy organizations deal with real adversaries and are ultimately accountable to some legitimate authority, but we also know how far short they can fall of that ideal.

Cults, on the other hand, invariably fight against occult adversaries: sinister, shadowy enemies who are either difficult to detect or are real enough but keep the insidiousness of their agendas and programs hidden from all but those who can “see” the truth — aka, the “informed” or “enlightened” leaders.[6] Cult decision-makers answer to no one but themselves, unless they have superiors. At the highest level, they truly are ultimate masters, gods within their domains, which is also how their followers treat them and how they expect to be treated… or else.[7] And, like every victim of abuse who has hoped for rescue that never came, cult thinking relies on magical thinking.

We all engage in magical thinking now and then for fun or self-defense; but we usually find our ways back to reasonableness. Those who don’t come back end up going round and round in self-reinforcing circles of delusion, equally dysfunctional whether we label them as “cult thinking” or not. No manner or amount of reason or evidence can dent the defenses protecting a cult thinker’s sacred central issues, defenses that provide a primal sense of safety from the dangers posed by feared adversaries, whatever or whomever they might be. Most cult thinkers get institutionalized one way or the other, some in mental health facilities, others in prisons, but most of them firmly entrenched in exploitative organizations that promise them safety, even bliss, for a price.

What’s the Difference?

Adversarial nature of reality… Lack of trust… Magical, circular thinking… Surely there must be more to cult thinking, something uniquely different that accounts for how strange cults and cult members look and behave. The problem might not involve overlooking critical differences, but that we mistakenly assumed that cult thinking is different enough to pose a contrast when it’s not. Maybe our “normal” is not as different from “cult” as we thought. To illustrate, consider some words from the Holy Book that some cults just love to quote. According to Isaiah, the best things in life truly are free and freely given, implying that we should suspect anyone who puts them up for sale.

Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you who have no money come, buy and eat.
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
And your wages for what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good,
And delight yourself in abundance.
Incline your ear and come to Me.
Listen, that you may live;
Isaiah 55:1-3 (NASB)

Show me a religious organization or spiritual community that advertises their benefits to those who have no money, making them available for sale without money and without cost, and I’ll consider the possibility that it advocates the ideas that Isaiah promoted in this passage. The money-mills and glory grandstands we call churches? Not a chance.

Isaiah’s words might seem oxymoronic when read through our capitalistic, consumerist lenses. You who have no money, come and buy? Buy wine and milk without money and without cost? Are his words self-contradictory, or is the problem with our lenses? His language isn’t puzzling at all once we take our heads out of the grips of the materialistic wealth-and-safety narratives that both church and state incessantly drone at us. We “buy” metaphorical “wine and milk” and “bread” from each other all the time, in terms of the exchanges and sharing of relationship, without money and without cost, every time we give ourselves to each other sincerely, authentically, whether in friendship, camaraderie, charity, or love. Giving ourselves is one thing that “costs” nothing, because we don’t lose or deplete our assets — our selves — in the process; not in healthy relationships, anyway. On the contrary, we gain. We get nourishment, energy, and satisfaction that no amount of money could buy. And we do it without taking from others, but by giving to them. This is an entirely different kind of economy, one in which Isaiah’s words make perfect sense.

Living beings and their relationships are the first and ultimately the only priority of any spirituality or divinity worth paying attention to. The fact that so many other concerns take priority in our minds indicates how badly our minds have been twisted. The fact that our societies largely reinforce and perpetuate the twisting indicates how corrupt they have become. Isaiah describes a scenario that makes no sense unless we assume a safe environment where trust, mutual care, and cooperation are presumed. In other words, they make no sense from a psychopath’s frame of reference. From a healthy frame of reference, however, Isaiah’s words not only make sense, they seem both familiar and dear.

You will never find a cult that does not expect its members to pay a high price. Cult narratives glorify cost and extol “sacrifice.” Of course, the beneficiaries of a cult member’s payments and sacrifices are ultimately the cult leaders, albeit in the name of the good of the group. And you can hardly find a “church” that doesn’t expect membership to entail at least ongoing cost, no matter how far away from “cult” you go on the spectrum. When it comes to “giving to the church,” more is always better. The differences between the structure and dynamics of involvement with “mainstream” organizations — based on belief in and commitment to the “truths” of adversariality, trust deficit, and the necessity of dominance — compared to the structure and dynamics of healthy, mutually beneficial human, peer relationships should not be lost on us.

Whether about the hell of physical violence or the hell of eternal damnation, when the back story boils down to threat of serious harm and loss, reality is rendered adversarial, trust is alienated, and the question who will “win” eclipses other concerns. After that point, a heaven full of bliss isn’t sufficient to recoup healthy trust. Rewards, no matter how sublime, only emphasize the presumed adversarial nature of a present life rife with threat, which is precisely why trust is and should be absent. Adversarial contexts are death for healthy relationships on any scale, but become amazingly powerful and sustainable ecosystems for abusive relationships and cults — happy hunting grounds for psychopathic predators.

The adversarial-distrust-dominance formula has served cult formation well for thousands of years. Our impetus to foot the cultic bill? Once we’re convinced that the world is an adversarial place, potential “enemies” to be “saved” from abound, and the cost for salvation — especially exemplary salvation, i.e., glory or “sainthood” — can entail even “the ultimate sacrifice.” It’s not an accident that the jargon and metaphors of many religions and militaries overlap in a big way, since they both presume adversarial realities. Why, they’ve even been known to collude on major projects: crusades, inquisitions, genocides, and such.

Relationships and groups which operate in adversarial realities, presuming lack of trust, insisting on domination as the sign of success, tend towards the kinds of abuses and excesses that we usually associate with “cults,” whether they take the form of personal relationships, organizations, large institutions, movements, or entire cultures. Modulated and controlled, they don’t necessarily broach into the extremes of abuse or weirdness implied by “cult,” but our question shouldn’t be, “How do we control behavior and prevent excessive abuse in adversarial contexts?” but rather, “Why even go there?”

Abuse is inherently, organically deterred in environments of safety, trust, and cooperation. Human beings are not wired, as a rule, to misbehave for no reason. When we’re safe and happy, we have better things to do than cause trouble, unless you call occasional rascally mischief “trouble.” And if we cause real trouble deliberately, chances are good that prior abuse and its psychological damage are the reasons for it. Damaged people — even psychopaths — respond favorably to safe, nurturing environments, once they realize that it’s not a trick. No one actually likes being a psychopath; especially not if a way out seems real to them. They can change, and they can heal.[8]

What would life look like if we realized that reality is not adversarial, and that most of our conflicts are the natural consequences of believing that it is? If that’s a hard one to imagine, we have something in common with cultists. They can’t imagine it either, but they can imagine a pocket of safety carved out of an adversarial world, something that they have in common with political and fiscal conservatives. In fact, they are fully convinced that their cult is just such a pocket. Is this so very different than carving a financial or social or geopolitical pocket of safety out of an unforgivingly competitive, combative world? Is the problem with “cults” that they carve out their pockets of safety unacceptably, dysfunctionally, or abusively? Or does the root problem lie deeper, shared by much “normal” thinking: allegiance to the premise of adversariality and its unavoidable crippling of trust?

The most interesting quandary of cult thinking might not be what makes it so different and weird compared to “normal” thinking, but rather why it doesn’t differ more.

— — — — — —

[1] You might find my broadened application of psychopath uncomfortable or unwarranted. Psychology is the science of mind and behavior. Pathology is the study of abnormal processes, especially dysfunctional abnormalities. Psychopathy, in its most basic sense, is abnormal, dysfunctional thought and behavior. Although this includes a slew of abnormalities that we might be reluctant to label psychopathic, I label them as such if they fall on a spectrum of structural and motivational similarities which in practice (aka, in fact) tend towards — and without restraining forces or limitations, inevitably result in — the very thinking and behavior that we are more than happy to label as psychopathic. (continue reading…)

[2] “Codependency” is an amalgamation of symptoms that were first recognized in siblings and especially parents of addicts, as therapists realized the important role that family dynamics play in addiction problems. The concept grew out of practical efforts to treat addiction rather than out of academic research. The major differences between “abusive” relationships and “codependent” relationships seem to be that the latter involve less severe power differentials, resulting in less severe or no physical abuse; and, instead of clear distinctions between abuser and victim, codependent partners alternate as abuser and victim in a complex dance of who’s going to manipulate whom first. Codependents grapple over roles that abusers and their victims agree about. (continue reading…)

[3] The metaphor of a photographic negative is surprisingly apt here. It’s as if the psychopath is left holding a negative imprinted with his past experience, with black appearing as white and white as black. His psyche has been imprinted harshly, leaving him staring at a dark frame, unillumined. Having lost the light of hope and trust, which enables us to look ahead into the future, his orientation is rearward, toward the past where his emotional anchors lie embedded in now-forgotten abuses. He assumes that this lightless impression dominated by fear from the past is an accurate image of the world and tries to make the best of it. When light shines through a negative onto photographic paper, the reverse picture appears, a “positive.” To a psychopath, however, the positive image is an illusion, and the light ((hope and trust) that creates it is a pretense, a projection for effect intended to accomplish an agenda. Only the negative is real.

The brightest spots of joy and goodness (in positive) are often the most aggravating to a psychopath, because they are caused by the darkest spots of the negative. One of the first orders of business in any psychopathic endeavor is to instill order under control of the psychopath, usually by means of intimidation and, if necessary, violence. This means eradicating life-generating (and so, control-resisting) experiences, such as spontaneous laughter, joy-affirming celebration, or unimpugned pleasure; in other words, it means turning day into night and white into black, which forces what the psychopath believes are the true shades to the fore. Only then can exceptions to this new, dark baseline be allowed. In fact, they often need to be forced, because natural, spontaneous fun, levity, and joy have already been squelched.

So, the key for dealing with psychopaths must somehow involve insisting on the positive images created by hope and trust in order to reignite hope and trust in their minds. Otherwise, psychopaths see in negative exactly the opposite of what a healthy person sees in positive. Healthy and psychopathic can’t succeed in coming to terms, let alone agree on anything, until hope and trust are at least provisionally restored, reintroducing “light” that projects a positive (photographic not optimistic) image, allowing the psychopath to consider the matter in positive, even if just hypothetically. Otherwise, psychopaths resolve the dissonance by force: imposing terms and extorting “agreement” by destroying the trust and hope of the healthy person, something that as psychopaths they are only too happy to do. (continue reading…)

[4] “Occult” in modern usage carries paranormal and even sinister connotations, but its original meaning was simply “secret, hidden, not revealed.” I suspect that the perjoration of the word stems from the church’s attempt to outlaw as dangerous all but sanctioned mysteries. “Occult” and “mystery” are related. Either can portend danger or deliverance. Occult refers to the hidden nature of the things that constitute mysteries. The term was in prominent use in Christian scholarship as a non-derogatory synonym for “hidden” up through the 19th Century. (continue reading…)

[5] Symbionese Liberation Army (continue reading…)

[6] Since 9/11/01, at least, many of us wonder how “real” the purported “enemies” of “democracy” and “freedom” actually are. From a global, humanitarian perspective, the distinctions between Western “patriotism” and cultic devotion to coordinated resource rape programs have increasingly blurred over the last half-century. (continue reading…)

[7] Sometimes, the “or else” can be quite a riot. Recently, during a televised “panel Q&A” that proved to be more of a grandstanding opportunity for BCC’s current head hauncho, Kåre Smith, he gave what he seemed to consider quite a rousing “message” in response to a member’s question submitted before the “show.” When he didn’t get the reaction he expected and the MCs went on to the next question, he interrupted them, saying, “I noticed that there was no applause,” referring to the lack of response that he felt was appropriate for such stirring oration. There was a moment of silence, as if to say, “Did you really just do that?” and then enthusiastic, if somewhat dutiful, applause broke out for several seconds from the audience, the MCs, and Smith’s fellow “panel” members. Even though he had to ask for it, he seemed satisfied with the outcome. (continue reading…)

[8] Dr. James Gilligan, veteran therapist of violent offenders in the American penal system, in speaking about the prospects for recovery for one of the worse kind of psychopaths — murderers — went so far as to say, “There is no human being who cannot be reached on some level or another. If you have the dedication and the patience and you’re willing to think of it as something that has to go on sometimes not just for months or years, but for decades — human beings can be… even dead souls can be resurrected.” (@ 1:17 into the video “No One Is Hopeless.” (continue reading…)


About Millard J. Melnyk

Motley past, promising future exploring an open, potent understanding of mutuality, individual dignity and personal power through trust. DEAUTHORITARIANIZE EVERYTHING!
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42 Responses to Cult Thinking Explained

  1. sheri says:

    I love when you wrote (I attended a “smith’s friends” church for 10+ years – I still e-mail them : )…………”Underneath everything they think, under the basic beliefs their thinking rests on, the deepest, most sacred belief in the heads and hearts of psychopaths is a commitment to the proposition that reality is adversarial, and therefore, danger-ridden. To a psychopath, before anything is said or done, living means that you struggle with adversaries, be they elements or enemies; and you must beat them, hide from them, learn to placate them, or you die. A psychopath can’t imagine anything outside of an adversarial paradigm without it taking on all the seriousness of a fairy tale.” But um my reply to this is ———— THIS WORLD IS DANGEROUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you are in a shark pool, and you just swim around and don’t have your guard up a bit YOU’LL GET EATEN. Matthew 10:16 “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
    And would we want this earth to be a “fairy tale” even?????????? I don’t know the answer to this by the masses – would we?????????????? Though I’m sure we’d all agree we would not like wars, we would not like people being homeless, etc. etc. But if there weren’t no wolves, if there was no danger, if it was just all smooth sailing to heaven for us ————— WOULD WE EVEN ENJOY THAT???????????????????????????????? (I am a bodybuilder of the “bodybuilder mentality” FOR SURE!!!!!!!!!!!! I think fighting for what you want is normal (I consider what makes a psychopath a psychopath is their lack of care for people – that’s what I have taken note of – and their lack of care for people often well pretty well always stems from GIANT EGO’S and lot’s of living for themselves so much so that they’ve lost care for human kind)
    WE ARE IN THE SHARK TANK I AM CONVINCED OF THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SHEEPS IN A WOLF INFESTED LIKE HOWLING IN THE NIGHT LIKE …………man thinking about it need to go read my bible.

    • Sheri, I completely agree that this world looks very dangerous. And if we’re ALREADY convinced that it’s dangerous, it certainly will look that way to us whether it is or not.

      There’s a problem with the belief that the world is a dangerous place. Almost no one has seriously tested it. You can’t be sure that something is true if you don’t seriously consider the alternatives. That’s exactly what weights do. The fact that I have big arm muscles might make it look like I’m strong, but if I look like I can press 200 lbs and in fact can only press 50 lbs, looks don’t matter.

      It’s the same with the “danger” in the world. MOST of its dangerousness comes from stories we hear about things happening, not from experience.

      I’ve been challenging and testing the “the world’s a dangerous place” belief big time for the last 6-7 years. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

      99% of the “danger” in the world comes from other people, who also believe that the world is a dangerous place. 99% of the time I don’t experience any actual danger, even from those people. I’m safe at home, safe out in public (the fact that I come home unharmed shows that I was safe, even if I didn’t FEEL safe when I was out there,) safe with my friends, and even safe with my enemies, unless they are actively in the process of harming me, which 99% of the time they aren’t. So, the REAL danger in the world that actually affects me is 1% of 1%. That’s almost nothing.

      So the question becomes why we feel so unsafe when the world is so safe? Why do we believe it’s a dangerous place when we almost never experience the danger? Most of it goes on just in our heads. Even people who live in abusive situations, like with someone who beats them, don’t get beaten all day long. The actual danger is just a fraction of everything that happens to them. The rest of the “danger” is in our heads, thinking about what-ifs and rehearsing things over and over.

      I’m not saying that there is no danger. I’m saying that we exaggerate it and obsess about it. That’s good news, because it’s much easier to stop being afraid when there’s no reason for fear than it is to change things that are dangerous and scary into things that aren’t.

  2. One of the psychopaths says:

    After I read Psychopaths 5 times, I realized that this whole article is garbage. Through this church I have experienced salvation from all my trouble and help in a place that no teacher, book, or life experience could help, my soul. When the day of judgement comes, I will feel no pity for you and those who think like you, I just pray that in the meantime you come to your senses. Good day.

    • “When the day of judgement (sp) comes, I will feel no pity for you and those who link like you…”

      Yes, pitiless lack of empathy is a symptom of psychopathic psychology. Apparently, you realize what you are, so there is hope for you. In contrast, I feel sad for you. The “salvation” you “experience” is a poor substitute for the kind of love that would enable you to feel something for me.

  3. Youareamoron says:

    You (the writer) are a straight moron. I take great joy in knowing people like you, who are completely deceived by your own reasoning, will burn in hell unless you repent. If it took you 15 years to come with this garbage then that further proves my point. I am sure you think you’re are right and that is part of the deception. You are free to make your own choices, but I am glad you chose the fire. Stupidity sometimes can’t be fixed. Good luck

    • Well, I guess all I have to say is that was somewhat less than an intelligent response (being kind), and that anyone who takes great pleasure in knowing that people are deceived and “will burn in hell” have major inferiority issues. Quite the twisted source to derive satisfaction from. Which is why they call people names and belittle them. Makes them feel better. Is that where you’re coming from? 😉

  4. Brunstad Christian Church
    The church I found very recently, with much difficulty, after sending a lot of emails. One of this church’s branch church is in Coimbatore. “So, what’s there in this church?” , this question might arise in your mind. I will share some of the things I have understood so far.
    In my opinion this church has some of the aspects of CSI, Pentecost, Independent, Congregational churches and brethren churches.
    First thing is the songs that are sung here-Many of you might have known that in many churches in Tirunelveli and Tanjur districts of Tamil Nadu CSI churches do not allow new songs to be sung there. They have the old victorian age songs translated into tamil called “Hymns”. Similarly, the church in coimbatore has the translated version of sevral old and new songs that belong to this church. These songs are sung here. If someone press a little to sing the new songs from other churches, they may well get a reply like this from the church members, “This church is not for you !” .
    After the message part is over, the church members one after the other would come to the front and testify what the Holy Spirit has inspired them through the message, some of them would even confess their sins.
    There are no pastors, assistant pastors or sexton kind of roles in this church. But there are few senior brothers who are guiding this church. I believe only if you continue to attend more number of years you will be respected as a senior brother here. There is no such things like monthly subscription, tithe etc here.
    There is no cemetary for the church that gather in coimbatore, they don’t have a gigantic building, and they don’t like it either. But, the conference center of this church is found near Thuravur, near Angamali, called the “Mission House”. The name of this centre is “Alwaye Conference Center”. This centre was built with the combined effort of foreign and Indian brothers. They did not only provide funds, but they have also picked up each brick by themselves to build this centre.
    Ok, what is the teaching of this church?
    “God sent His only son Jesus Christ to this world as a sacrifice, so that those who believe in Him will not perish. Whoever believes in Him, should try to stay away from sin with the help of the Holy Spirit”. If you say, “This is a usual teaching, I knotw this already !” some of them will not accept it. Some of them think only this church has such concepts. Those who heard the “Confession” part in the CSI churches, if they say, “I have never heard such teaching !”, it would be a total lie in my opinion.
    Mostly the teaching of this church would be like, “Sin should be avoided with the help of the Holy Spirit”. 99% of the teaching would be like “You should avoid sin” and 1% of the teaching would be God forgives, but that does not mean you should sin. For the past few months I have not heard anything new in their teaching.
    There is a difference among them in understanding as well. Some senior brothers like Kora Smith, Tomre, Bradley have been the frontrunners for them. During the conference that was conducted last may, one of the foreign brothers named Tomre sang the song, “I have decided to follow Jesus !” written bu Sadu Sundar Singh and continued to tell, Sadu Sundar SIngh was a person saved by Jesus Christ from a Hindu background. But, its very rare for the other brothers in this church to talk about any other Missionary’s life except that of their brothers in Brunstad Church.
    The brothers in coimbatore have really treated me with lot of kindness. At that time one of the brothers asked me, “What do you think about this church?”. I said, “Its a good church!”. He pressed me to say, “Is it good, better or the best?”. I tried my best not to answer this question. “No church is judged by the people who preach there, its only by the life of the people who attend them. Till now I have seen the members of this church treating me with much love, so I consider this as one of the best churches, but otherwise, there are people in other churches also, who truly follow Jesus Christ and work for God truthfully !” I said. “No ! No ! other churches keep their leaders on their head, they conduct praising ceremonies, etc, I see good life only here!” he said. “Is it ?” I said and was not much interested in giving a reply. The next day there was a feast conducted for around 5 hours to talk praises about the brother named Tomre. Few minutes after the feast started, I went away.
    One of the brothers who was very close to me asked about this. “If anyone praises a person other than Jesus Christ inside the church for more than 2 minutes, I would not like it !” I said. I hope he to accepted this.
    Every month the members of this church go to the conference centre in Kerala and conduct work parties. They perform all those maintainance works and cleaning works by themselves, instead of giving it to others.
    The Brunstad church was originated in Norway. Money is collected from all the church members throughout the world to build some thing called, “The Green Church”. The senior brothers have decided that each member should pay Rs.1000 towards this building. In the meanwhile, I heard some brothers talking ill about 2 other brothers who were not able to pay that money. This raised several questions in my mind. Who gave authority to this brothers to determine that each brother should pay Rs.1000? If they receive more money than what is needed, will they pay it back like Moses? Which is important, to help the brother who was not able to pay? or to talk ill about the person who was not able to pay for the building? I do not understand…
    On the whole what I understood was, Brunstad Christian Church is no way lesser than other churches
    At the same time Brunstad Christian Church is no way greater than the other churches.
    Those who search God truthfully are found everywhere, no matter which church they attend they are also children of God.
    If you need good prayer fellowship and brotherly love you may attend Brunstad Christian Church. But if anyone says that you can live truthfully to God only here, just remain silent and smile back at them.
    Samuel (I dont belong to any church, I am a person who study bible and try to follow Christ, thats all !)

    • Samuel, thank you for that VERY interesting account of your experience with BCC in India. I apologize for not responding sooner, but my online access has been limited for several months. I just got reconnected a few days ago.

      What you wrote about BCC, its leaders, (still referred to as “the brothers” I take it,) and its teachings rings very true to my knowledge of them, which is now quite dated. I was a member from 1978 thru 1993. There have been huge changes in the group’s practices since then, so I’ve been wondering how deep the changes went. Apparently, not so deep.

      I agree with you that //Brunstad Christian Church is no way lesser than other churches
      At the same time Brunstad Christian Church is no way greater than the other churches.// ALL churches have the problems that I point out in this article, using BCC as an example — some more and some less. My point in the article is to explain the patterns of thinking and manipulation involved in “cult” behavior, not necessarily to call BCC or any other group a “cult.” I think that kind of labeling is crude and simplistic. Even the best relationships and organizations can fall prey to or stoop to engaging in “cult” patterns of behavior. Doing so doesn’t damn the relationship or the group, while on the other hand, being a good relationship or group does not excuse engaging in destructive patterns of behavior, either.

      I’m like you — not a member of any church, but a student of the Bible since 1972, even after and in spite of being profoundly disappointed by Christianity and its proponents. Please feel free to contact me via email anytime: I love discussing these things with others who love them, too. 🙂

  5. thinkersworkshop says:

    Please leave your prayers for Smith’s Friends here

  6. Pingback: All You need to Know about Brunstad Christian Church | All you need to know about BCC or Smith's Friends

  7. You nailed it. Very well written. Very thorough. Thank you for distinguishing between the ones that only focus on evil and sin, and those that do see the good and god and deal with lufe healthily. I have personally experienced the emotional devastation of this fixation. I too am recovering from psychopath thinking.

    • Thank you! I read some of your posts on your blog, but I see that you haven’t written for awhile. I appreciate your honesty and your questioning. I’m like you, trying to understand. Please continue writing. We’re all just groping our ways — that is if we’re honest. I’ve yet to find a teacher or guru who has actually “figured it out”, but there are plenty of posers. I think Jesus was quite clear on not looking for gurus and masters and leaders: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” The truth comes from gatherings of peers, not gatherings of followers.

  8. burnt says:

    Yes Millard, you are spot on with this. They (Brunstad) are just out to abuse people that are vulnerable. I have personally been abused (sexually, emotionally etc) by the Brunstad group. Their gospel is only for them, and not for everyone, or for those who enjoy their abuse and then use the gospel of the Bible as a means to abuse others. It appeals to the “lust in their flesh”. Sad that the “deeper” Christianity that they promise is marred with stories of abuse and exploitation of others. Personally to me they are just a worldly organisation out to destroy peoples lives 😦

    • burnt, I’m very sorry to hear about that. Ironically, just like you mentioned, they actually do lust for the honor of “overcoming”, but the telltale sign that it’s not what the Bible calls overcoming is that they understand it in worldly terms of domination and submission, justified by the supposed superiority of some over others. That is the way of the scribes and Pharisees, not Jesus. Feel free to email me at if you’d like to talk more openly. There are many, many like us.

  9. SomeoneWithACuriousMind says:

    Hello sir,
    I have read some of the comments too. There was this comment which described the life of someone from India. Yes, I’m from India too. But I’m not a Christian. But I knew someone from ACC ( Alwaye Conference Centre). I cannot give you the name, but she’s a true follower of the church. I know some of the other people there too.
    The reason why I’m writing this is to enquire if you could help me with understanding ACC better. Maybe you have someone whom who you know from there that I could talk to.
    The church, from my understanding, has a weird way of working. One of the boys I knew, told me, “We gain happiness while we suffer”. In my opinion, and as far as I could understand, they’re brainwashed zombies. They also make them clean and do all kinds of work there, claiming that it’s what the youth has to do. I believe they’re manipulating the younger ones into believing that what they’re doing is right. This is an extreme level of brainwashing that I can’t believe, exists in this modern society of ours. They’ve many prejudices there. And the men folks are more dominant over the women. BUT ! They’re really intelligent too. They keep the youth happy by giving them lots of time to play and have fun. They have enough space around to keep them busy.
    I once tried to convince my friend of mine to see through what they’re showing you. These “brothers”, are showing these younger ones what they want them to see. I’m pretty sure there are lots of manipulation going on there. I’m pretty sure there are many stuffs they hide from these youth. And I wanted to know more of what’s going inside there from someone. I value my friend very deeply, she’s my best friend. And I wanna do everything I could to TRY to save her from these Psychopaths. I know her life and it’s a huge struggle for her. She feels like everything she does is a “sin”, which is actually not one. They’re manipulated to think that most of the human stuffs we do are “sins”. They cut out their freedom. And because that she’s surrounded with people who follow the rules and are happy with their life, she takes the blame on herself. She thinks it’s her fault.

    • Dear Someone, thank you for your comment and questions.

      Overall, you have an accurate perception of what it going on with your friend. ACC is the Indian conference center of a Norwegian church called Brunstad Christian Church, as described by BCC at BCC is more familiar to people in Europe and North America as Smith’s Friends.

      I’d be happy to put you in touch with a friend in India who is well familiar the BCC chapter in Combiatore. Please email me at and identify yourself as the author of this comment, and I’ll provide details.

      It’s not her fault.

  10. Dawn says:

    Just stumbled upon this site…
    Born and raised in the Church(SF)….
    The only thing I have to say is this.
    Aside from their ridiculous belief systems and cult like existence, lay horrors one could not imagine is going on behind closed doors!! I lived it, and to this day suffer because of so so so many things! I posted an article on my private FB page once that I had written, in an exercise to help me heal so much of it, and somewhat tell my story of life in that church, suggested by my therapist…and the outlash I received from it, nearly did me in, including from my own family(who I’m mostly excommunicated from)…. but the threats from the church that came in, from leading brothers, were terrifying! 3 steps forward…7 teps backwards for me.
    Unless you have lived within this church, one has NO clue….. and those that were with the church for only a time, would not know much of what also actually goes on….
    I cry for the many many children in that church….it’s like a competition to see who can have the most…. for the many many wives and mothers who have no voice….and for all those abused, sexually, mentally, from both ” leading brothers” and their own family members…..all of it, hushed, and covered up! on Judgement day, but their really be a righteous God!

    • Dawn says:

      *may there really be, a righteous God

      • lancerlot says:

        dawn i was brought up in the church and i saw things that were wrong as well i posted stuff and got treated badly by them .they will not take any criticism at all and will sue at a moments notice. check out bcc site its just started and is full of info on this. drop us an email if you want to talk

    • Dawn, I assume that you know I was in that group for over 20 years, got married in it, and had children and raised some of them in it. Most of them were young enough when I was excommunicated that they largely got raised outside of it, although their mother tried really hard…

      I have long known, by reports from others and the simple fact that abuses of power evident in the open are far worse in private, that emotional, physical, and sexual abuse likely runs rampant behind closed doors in that group, especially at the higher levels of power. However, for fear of repercussions like you mentioned, a thick veil of secrecy remains intact, hiding it all. That veil needs to be torn.

      I once got a letter from a so-called “leading brother” who used to come to the West Coast for conferences, in which he wrote, “there are leaders in the Church, leaders with the authority to close heaven” over people like me. Right. As if those who use the devil’s tactics of fear, intimidation, and retaliation ever had any real contact with God or heaven. Don’t be afraid of them. They are lying.

      Please feel free to contact me at if you’d like to communicate, no judgment, only support. It’s terribly, terribly hard. I know. Being thrown out was like being tossed into chaos, into a nightmare, a fiery hell. But I gradually realized that I wasn’t being torn apart or incinerated. I eventually saw that the threats of doom and gloom were bullshit. I didn’t avoid them — they were never real. No bullets to dodge, because the guns were plastic. I’m still here, over 20 years later, far happier and personally powerful than I ever was in the group, and I don’t see that development slowing or changing. Just the opposite.

      Thank you for saying something. It took guts.

    • You wrote, “may there really be, a righteous God”

      Yes, and if there is, he acts through us. But first, he makes himself known to us when we open up to each other, sharing truth instead of hiding it. You know others like you. Start talking with them.

  11. Jay says:

    I grew up in this church in eastern North America.I’m now in my early 30’s. First I have to say, I believe the fundamental teachings are correct. To be more specific, the teachings of Smith.. and the other pillars of his time received tremendous personal
    revelation over Scripture and wrote about it..This I believe to be correct. The problems occur when the apple falls far from the tree if I can use that expression ,and strange doctrines were introduced by generations after these holy men of God were gone. If you read the writings of the first pillars in this church such as aslaksen, JO smith, his brother Aksel and bratlie as well as others.. You will notice a pure simple enlightening doctrine that did not involve damaging anyone in their surrounding environment. For example, JO Smith himself wrote about Christianity as being very affordable and wrote that if money for missionary work could not be gathered without a lot of human pressure it would be better if it didn’t happen. I read their writings and see them for what they are, great mild men of God who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Somehow down the line things came off track in many areas though. Many years after these men, people came into the picture with strange ideas and ideals. A lot of strange things happened on the east coast of North America/ Canada and west coast as well I have no doubt. The problem was the time period and the regional church I grew up in. There are things that happened that would have had the first pillars of the church rolling over in their graves. My home growing up was a pressure cooker to be exact. I speak a bit with my siblings now and then and we realize it wasn’t a normal childhood. But like the classic expression, there’s no frame of reference of what is normal so these things took time. There was mental/emotional and physical abuse but no sexual . That would’ve been the full circle. There were other things that stick out that were very strange but I won’t list all for sake of keeping this condensed. The one thing that did stick out was general lack of knowledge in many areas.. For one I was held back from health education all through school as were many others in my church ,so I really didn’t know anything about the human bodys functions. This was actually a point of much angry debate with one brother who declared that specific timeframe a huge blunder. Most of my many siblings have experienced low self esteem, depression and anxiety to point of pills, fear and panic and all that goes with it .
    I’ve forgiven my parents long ago and am on good terms with them. I realize they are both rather naive by nature and have mental disturbances from their past.
    . Like I mentioned previously, the original writings are spot on with Scripture and are actually amazing to read if you seek insight and inspiration to live a sin free life. The problem that occurred is quite literally psychopaths or free radicals if I can use that expression started their own spins in the corner , this seemed to happen over time. If I found some bad apples in a barrel, I wouldn’t throw out the barrel but it’s true leavening happens pretty quick with individuals that aren’t thinking clearly and independently. This is a vital asset to have, to be able to think clearly and independently without going into the classic spirals of guilt trip, without questioning yourself!
    Recently my sister had an experience with a rather unpleasant individual who showed his virtue by telling her if she didn’t sign up for automatic banking withdrawal monthly for the charitable giving then she could not attend regional conferences. This is what I’m talking about, there are people making things up as they go trying to sway unstable souls!

    I’m happy to say that my faith in God is strong! When people lose sight of serving God alone then things go horribly wrong! Legalism is horribly destructive to the human mind!

    Thanks for an interesting read, I also know of someone who used to go to this church
    and he has been ill for a very long time .. on top of his illness, he experienced shunning

    To sum up, I don’t hold a group as a whole responsible
    But I sincerely pray and surely God hears my prayers..that He will surely use righteous judgements on any evil people .. Both in this life and the next

  12. Thanks for your frank and insightful comments Jay! I appreciate you taking the time and effort.

    I see things pretty much like you do as far as conditions in the group. Although things have changed a lot externally over the last 20 years, moving the church closer to worldly norms and values, (especially the huge emphasis on fundraising that came in after Kaare Smith took over, which was when I was ousted,) the things that really matter — relationships, love, mental and emotional well-being — have deteriorated. Everyone and everything has been subordinated to raising/making/earning money… in the name of God and his will, of course, a longtime-tested favorite gimmick of religious charlatans throughout history.

    I read Smith’s letters, many of his articles, and many of Aslaksen’s and Bratlie’s articles (all in Norwegian), enough to get a sense for the development of the thinking behind the church’s teachings over the decades. I found Smith profoundly inisghtful and inspiring. His thinking still influences me. Aslaksen was amazing, too, but he shifted attention from the experience of the spirituality/holiness towards the fruits of the spirit. In other words, placed more emphasis on outcomes and behavior. Although we know the tree by its fruit, its fruit does not *make* it the tree it is. The tree determines the fruit it bears, but its true origins and experience make it the tree it is. So that was an important shift. But a big change occurred with Bratlie. There was a marked shift in his Skjulte Skatter articles towards behavorism and legalism around the time of his marriage to Rachel Smith. Very different emphasis and tone afterwards. The threads of legalism that increased to the level of cultism were embedded in the teachings long before they became apparent later in the century.

    There was quite awhile during my time in the group that I thought I was seeing a local problem, similar to how you described things on the East Coast. Norwegian leaders confirmed this. But as the “revival” became clear for what it was as far as Kaare Smith et al were concerned — cover for a power struggle — I realized the problems started at the top. There truly was revival among the sincere, but as soon as Smith’s power solidified, those very people were told to “humble and submit” or find themselves on the outside.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to resolve things with your parents and making some progress with siblings who are still in the group. I’ve tried many times over the last 22 years since I was blacklisted and expelled, but they staunchly refused and continue to refuse even to allow a conversation to start after all this time.

    Bottom line, they are not who they say they are. They do not have the life they pretend they do. That doesn’t make all of them all bad. It makes them more or less like everyone else. They wouldn’t be flaming hypocrites if they’d just admit their hypocrisy and drop their elitist nonsense.

    I hope it’s clear, though, that this article isn’t a covert criticism of the group. I don’t think Smith’s Friends (or BCC) is terrible or monstrous or evil, even though terrible, monstrous, evil things happen among them (especially to children) just like they happen pretty much everywhere. Using them as an example in this article doesn’t make the article primarily about them. It’s an expose of the kinds of ideas, bad logic, information manipulation, and other tactics that make for cult thinking *wherever* it occurs. The group is just a great example of these characteristics and practices, in my opinion.

    Smith’s Friends isn’t “bad” let alone “all bad”. It’s like any other group: where humans are, goodness is inevitable. I do think they are dishonest, though. The real question isn’t about applying an apt label to them, but whether their organizational system (beliefs, rules, and practices) and leaders resist human goodness unless they’re sure that their control isn’t threatened. When authority becomes an idol, cultism has begun. 🙂

    Thanks again. I appreciate you. It takes gumption to talk about these things.

    • Jay says:

      To make things clear though, to anyone else who might read this..
      I’m not speaking against a group, I hope I didn’t let what happened to me in my past rub off in the wrong way. I’m speaking against an isolated pocket of people who were way off the mark and have damaged people they came in contact with, children and youth and it could happen in any group. To anyone who has run into the wrong individuals in this group or any other group in society : get on your knees and pray fervently to God and seek your own connection with God and you will know who you should be seeking fellowship with and who you should steer clear from. Christ will dwell in your hearts by faith and you will get your own motor.

    • Jay says:

      After some deep afterthought, I’d appreciate it if you could remove my previous postings..
      Id like to retract them because what I’ve experienced in no way represents the groups true teachings and I want to be fair
      And I feel like I’m picking at something done with

      • Jay, you’re welcome to retract, revise, explain, etc. But making it look like your comments were never posted is not the same as retracting them. Retracting illuminates what was wrong and what changed. I don’t censor and I don’t engage in information tampering. “I take it back and here’s why” is fair. “I never said it” is not.

        I’d much rather hear how what you’ve experienced in no way represents the group’s true teachings. That would be fair, interesting, and enlightening.

        Deleting information to make it look like it was never said is a retreat into darkness, the opposite of coming into the light. Secrecy and hiding the truth are not in-the-light activities. The truth at the time was what you wrote, because it was what you honestly thought. The truth at this time is something else. There’s nothing wrong with that.

        You said, “After some deep afterthought,” but my experience with the way things work in groups like Smith’s Friends is that you probably got some bad advice. Either way, you’re worried about repercussions. Consider whether that leads you to more freedom or more constriction, more room to move or more prohibitive considerations that, if you move the wrong way, wind up with you in trouble somehow. A life of avoidance is the opposite of a life of love, because love is about engaging, experiencing, and connecting.

        1 John 4:18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.

        There are those who love and encourage freedom. There are others who pile on restrictions and fearful what-ifs that warn of punishment. Choose love.

  13. unbearablysad says:

    All this criticism towards BCC is enough to make me break down in tears. They are kind and wonderful people whom truly love and respect others. I’m very sorry if anyone has gotten abused by any members in the past, but you cannot judge all of them like they are a psychotic cult. I realize that for every opinion there is an opposing viewpoint. I respect this, but even so, these posts are obscure to me. Also, not everyone from BCC considers themselves superior to others. We, as human beings, are all born with the same wretched flesh, but we don’t have to live according to it. We can overcome our temptations and become pure just as Jesus was his whole life!

    • Thank you for your comment. I have no wish to undermine any benefit you are getting from your association with BCC, unless it comes at the expense of others. I think that’s not likely, given what you wrote, so I wish you all the best.

      Please realize that not being aware or lacking knowledge is a very poor basis from which to doubt or question first-hand, specific knowledge to the contrary. Plenty of things, I’m sure you’ll agree from a humble standpoint, are true despite the fact that they remain obscure to you.

      I have never judged “all of them like they are a psychotic cult” — not ever. I don’t need to judge anyone, actually. I find that when I judge false beliefs and hypocritical behavior, those who are engaged in them self-identify and make defenses. That is how Jesus identified hypocrites as well.

      I hope you notice that by saying, “Also, not everyone from BCC considers themselves superior to others,” confirms from an insider’s vantage point that at least some in BCC do consider themselves superior. And, unless current BCC leadership now disagrees and repudiates Bratlie’s views clearly written in “The Bride, the Harlot, and the End Times”, the “whole of the religious world” constitutes “the Harlot” and is in league with Satan, according to him and them. I would say that qualifies for the organization as a whole considering itself superior to all other churches and religious organizations. Do you deny that’s still the teaching of BCC?

    • Sarah says:

      Tow the line and follow the rules. You’ll be just fine. Try going against them just once, and you will soon see a whole other side. Also, I’m sorry to inform you. Me nor my beautiful children were ever born wretched. My family is large within BCC, I was born and raised in it. From molestation by brothers, to affairs happening behind closed doors, to children being abused to the many, many children which many cannot afford….and sooooo, sooooo much more. When buildings, huge buildings, and demanding money, and threatening horrible things at the worst…harsh pressure at the least, become what a religion is all about, God is long gone. Work parties are a form of mind control. These youth should be allowed to live, play sports outside of the church, have friends, not to mention “Real Jobs” where they keep their own hard earned money. Tithing is one thing….being made to give thousands is abuse. My family who really doesn’t talk to me, just suffered an unimaginable tragedy of a beautiful soul, from the torture of that church. Leaving the church caused this soul shunning….. the pain was too much. How many starving children, or homeless people,or war torn cities could eat on the damn costs of Brunstad and all it’s grandeur, technology and money? Can you really tell me that has anything to do with God. I grew up listening to the horrible judgements of so many “Harlot” churches with their drums and platforms and fashions from the antiChrist. Well, would ya look at the church now. They are far worse in the glitz and glamour of their buildings and fashion, then any church I can name off the top of my head. They prey on person’s with mental health, on the down and out, the struggling ones. They are oh so nice to you…maybe for many years….until your dependant..or terrified or leave or somehow get a hold of some behind the scenes info. Have you ANY clue how many mental health issues, are clearly connected to that church. I’ve stopped counting the suicides…many, many not even known about or swept under and silenced. How dare you say they do not consider themselves to be superior, when they excommunicate their own family members for the sake of that cult. They believe “The Church” is the only ticket to heaven for Gods sake. If that’s not superior, I don’t know what is. They will surely be a shocked bunch come judgment day….when they are standing beside a whole lot of people never in that church that will be welcomed through Heaven’s gates. I can guarantee you, if I should ever darken the door of one their fellowships, I could almost quote word by word, what every testimony would be. It’s the same repetitive, brainwashing crap over and over, and over. I learned so much about the bible I never knew, after spending an entire lifetime in that church, when I left and searched God on my own, I was shocked at what being a “christian” actually was.. Imagine, my surprise to learn God is Love, Joy can be reality, one is allowed to enjoy life… not fighting lusts of the flesh from childhood… every single mtg…crucify your flesh….suffer for the Lord…. I have spent 11 long years in therapy…. I’m grateful I got through the hell in my head. the shame, the guilt, the torture of spirit….. even though I was told I would suffer much heartache because I left, and God would never bless my life, until I came back….I’m glad to say, my life is blessed. So blessed. I have joy, I serve a loving God of compassion, and mercy. My children will never know that pain and agony. That in itself is enough for me.

      • Sarah, I’m sorry to hear of the terrible things you and those you know experienced in BCC. What you wrote jives with my experience of them. Sadly, they are not unique. These are the things that hypocrites do in secret regardless what kind of sheep’s clothing they put on, whether religious or some other kind. I’m glad that you’ve gotten clear of it, as it seems from what you wrote. The pressure and humiliation they put their people under are awful. Dominators love to claim that God is on their side, but domination betrays their paranoia and weakness — the truly powerful don’t need to dominate — proving that they have nothing to do with a real God, only the figment of their propaganda and fears.

  14. Matebrake says:

    My brother has been a member of BCC since 1986 when he was, what i term ‘brainwashed’ after going to Norway for a “interdenominational conference”. He came back completely and totally against his family, friends, and religion and within a year or so had met and married his wife. I cannot fault them on their family values etc but the deep hurt he caused my parents by ‘writing them off’ has left a scar on all of us, his siblings. He tried to coax us all into giving up our religious beliefs and to follow his, but thankfully we are all quite solid in our faith. The only thing i can thank God for in all this, is that he forced most of us to search our cradle-belief system which looking back now, i am so thankful for. 30 years later, i have found that my solace, truth and meaning is in what i’ve always believed in and that my eyes must be on Jesus, my Saviour. When i shift focus, i quickly lose sight of who i am, created in the image of God, revealed by Jesus Christ. My Catholic faith has not failed me (yes, PEOPLE have failed me and indeed, the church – alas, sin abounds – but my leader is a descendant from the apostles – st Peter himself – 2000 yrs old. How could i possibly trust anybody else whose teachings would only be nothing more than 400 yrs old? Most of all, how could i trust myself and how i ‘feel’ about what the bible ‘says’?

    • Matebrake, thank you for sharing that, and I’m sorry for the pain and damage. My story was very similar, except I was in your brother’s shoes, causing the hurt. I got into Smith’s Friends (as it was called before they rebranded) in 1978. By 1993 I became a problem for them because I emphasized our direct connection to Jesus and God even if it meant being at odds with “the brothers”. This was not allowed. My marriage and my access to my children were threatened, and shortly after I lost the marriage. My ex-wife is still in the group and still hostile, over 20 years later, but her bid on the advice of “the brothers” to take our children away from me backfired. Awful, terrible stuff happens when authoritarians get control of a faith movement.

      I think your questions, “How could i possibly trust anybody else whose teachings would only be nothing more than 400 yrs old? Most of all, how could i trust myself and how i ‘feel’ about what the bible ‘says’?” present you with a problem. If you have the Holy Spirit who leads you into all truth, how can you NOT trust yourself? If his laws are written on your mind and your heart, how could someone else be a more sure authority than they are? Jesus wasn’t killed by the religious hypocrites of his time because he proposed a competing authoritarian scheme, but because he taught a radical alternative to authoritarianism itself: God in individual persons, as intimately close as heart and mind, making each one of us kings and priests in our own rights conferred directly by him, not by some man-made authoritarian regime like an organized church.

      • Matebrake says:

        thanks for your comments and i am sorry that that liaison led to the break up of your family. With regards your second paragraph – i have to disagree (and i can see we are going to have to agree to disagree on this point 🙂 ) If i had to follow my heart, i would not be where i am today. I am where i am because of spiritual direction, guidance and prayer AND my faith – visiting Jesus often in the tabernacle (and receiving Him in Holy communion), drawing on His mother, the heavenly hosts and the saints constantly to pray for me (NOT worshipping them!) and through reasoning and faith understanding God’s will for my life. I am a counselor – and see many people who are in an emotional mess because they did what you mention above – they ‘followed their hearts’ and the ‘truth’ they found was the counterfeit; where and how do you separate subjectivism from faith when you know nothing else? Most often we have to tap into that ‘inscription in our hearts’ because it’s been muddied by the filth of worldly life-values and an “amnesia’ has set in. I’m happy for you that you have found Truth; but truthfully, most people cant on their own and it is through a caring worshipping community and a guiding shepherd that seeds are sown, the lost is found and most often this Truth is unveiled.

        • Yes, we do disagree, and in that I believe you disagree with teachings of Jesus, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews in particular. I can point out the passages if you’re interested, although I doubt that I can pierce the authoritarian veil that the church has so well masked those teachings with.

          I have yet to find people who actually followed their hearts who ended up like you mentioned, with counterfeits. Counterfeits are always passed by counterfeiters ready to play on the hopes of people whose hearts have been hurt. The most deft counterfeiters are in the church itself, which should be no surprise, since they began well before the apostles were done with their tenures in the First Century and went on to turn Christianity into a state sanctioned authoritarian affair.

          True guides will steer us into independence from them, not perennial dependence on them, just like good parents do or should.

          Your question about separating subjectivism and faith assumes there’s a difference and, presumably, that the judgments/teaching of authorities are not subjective, but that’s simply not true — which you will find if you ever subject your authorities to serious critical examination rather than credulous reverence. If I’d seen authorities lead people to Jesus as the head of the church instead of exploit their desire for connection, I’d still be in the church. Most Christians *substitute* the church’s authority for direct interaction with God, precisely to avoid the risk of working out their own relationship to the divine. Church leaders encourage this and take action against anyone who threatens the arrangement. Always have.

          • Matebrake says:

            Weird then that Jesus had 12 Apostles; gave them the authority to ‘go out and teach all nations’; gave Peter the ‘keys to the kingdom’ (the succession of which i might add, is the church to which i belong – as old as Jesus) and it continues in Matt 16:18…. but yes, i’ll leave it there and wish you God’s blessings! Thanks for the interaction and this blog.

            • Haha “Weird then…” No, not weird at all. When you look through authoritarian lenses, authoritarianism makes eminent sense, and everything you see is colored accordingly. The very notion of succession and the idea that there must be an authoritarian body of men with a preeminent man at its head to stand between the true body and the true head are starkly antipathetic to Jesus’ spirit and teachings, but inevitable given the authoritarian mindset. No, not weird — quite predictable.

            • PS. And thanks for reading and your comments!

              • Jay says:

                Would you say
                that there was a drift from the simple first teachings of Smith
                based on pure Scripture
                , he said himself in all he did he sought to lead people to the Head: Christ
                and not to himself

                • There was a clear drift from Smith’s emphasis in the individual’s “connection to the head” directly to Bratlie’s authoritarianism and emphasis on “the brotherhood”. There was a noticeable change in Bratlie’s Skjulte Skatter articles towards legalism around the time he got married to Smith’s daughter.

  15. It’s simple; it’s a cult or at least quasi-cult. The Indian leader who lives in Alwaye – his favorite phrase was ‘write them off’ and destruction of families and those who did not demonstrate a slave mentality to the Norwegians who control this sect is the norm in this group. Recently, a friend told me about a meeting that he had attended where the central message was that ‘those who do not toe the line of the church will be destroyed’. In this manner, they brainwash a horde of young children and youth and extort money for their Mammon project of Brunstad 2020. Those who live the zombie life and put their money out to be used by Brunstads fascist ‘brothers’ remain happy in this group. Those who sense that something is wrong and ask questions, get hammered down into servility and silence or get pushed out. This is the reality. Avoid this cult like the plague unless you really want to die of the plague.

    • HAHA, and here I was thinking that mayby things had gotten a little less weird over the last 20 years. They sure are putting a lot of effort and money into looking presentable, anyway! The funny thing is they can’t destroy diddly. Hot, stinky air. All they can do is terrorize people into stupid, destructive decisions and behavior. The predators in that group are some of the weakest men I’ve ever met. It takes strength to abide disagreement and recognize the right of others to disagree. People who censor, blackball, terrorize, and expel are feeble-minded pansies. And yes, I mean the “Norwegian brothers”. 🙂

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