Something Darker?

Last Friday (25 February 2011) the Wall Street Journal (digital edition) ran an article by Mitch Horowitz titled “When Does a Religion Become a Cult?” Mr. Horowitz comments, “America has long been a safe harbor for experimental faiths. But the unorthodox can descend into something darker.”

Noting that the term “cult” carries with it some unwanted baggage, Mr. Horowitz nevertheless provides criteria which indicates a group may have crossed the line from merely unconventional, to cult. Mr. Horowitz writes,

“Many academics and observers of cult phenomena, such as psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford, agree on four criteria to define a cult. The first is behavior control, i.e., monitoring of where you go and what you do. The second is information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group. The third is thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. The fourth is emotional control—using humiliation or guilt. Yet at times these traits can also be detected within mainstream faiths. So I would add two more categories: financial control and extreme leadership.”

Mr. Horowitz describes financial control as “levying ruinous dues or fees, or effectively hiring members and placing them on stipends or sales quotas” such as the religious groups once known for selling books or flowers in airports and on street corners. Extremist leadership, he says, is sometimes harder to recognize, but every coercive religious group harbors one telltale trait: untoward secrecy.”

While reading this article I couldn’t help but think about my own church – how does it compare to this list of six criteria that Mr. Horowitz uses to define a cult? As far as I can determine, my church – and my entire personal religious experience – is free from any of these traits.

What about Mormonism? What if we apply these criteria to the history and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

What follows is not to be construed as any sort of in-depth analysis; it’s just a cursory look at some aspects of the LDS religious culture.

Behavior control: Many examples of this could be cited within Mormonism (such as the infamous September Six, or the story of Chad Hardy and his Mormon Missionary calendars), but perhaps, in honor of Black History Month, the experience of Byron Marchant is appropriate to mention. According to The Dallas Morning News, 20 October 1977, Mr. Marchant was excommunicated and fired from his church job because he publically opposed LDS leadership regarding the ban on giving Blacks the priesthood. (See Salt Lake City Messenger, July 1978.)

Information control: Latter-day Saints are often counseled not to read (or watch) anything critical of the Mormon Church. One example: “Elder [Boyd K.] Packer said, ‘They leave the Church but they can’t leave it alone’ (Utah State University baccalaureate address). They publish theological pornography that is damaging to the spirit. None of it is worth casting an eye upon. Do not read the anti-Mormon materials” (Vaughn J. Featherstone, “The Last Drop in the Chalice,” a BYU devotional given September 24, 1985).

Thought control: Though the LDS magazine Improvement Era published this in 1945, it reflects the historic (and current) teaching from Mormon leadership: “Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the ‘prophets, seers, and revelators’ of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy…” (For more information on agreeing with the prophet, see Mormon Coffee post “When the Prophet Speaks the Debate is Over”).

Emotional control: Speaking to members who might keep company with those who criticize leaders of the LDS Church, a Mormon apostle warned that they could be influenced to move away from “the pathway of truth, and if you do not repent you may find when it is too late that you have lost the ‘pearl of great price.’ Because of your selfishness and your blindness you will have been led away, and your loved ones who have given their very lives in order that you might enjoy the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be sorrowing on the other side of the veil because of your weakness and your folly” (George Albert Smith, Conference Reports, April 1937, 34).

Financial control: While encouragement to give a portion of one’s income to his church is common among many religions, within Mormonism a ten percent tithe is required in order for a member to be deemed worthy enough to receive the higher ordinances of that faith — ordinances which are necessary for a person to achieve the best possible eternal life.

Extremist leadership: It is well-understood within Mormonism that the leadership must be obeyed: “Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it…” (Heber J. Grant, quoted by Marion G. Romney, Conference Report, October 1960, 78).

Untoward secrecy: Mormons are told that LDS temple ordinances are “sacred not secret,” but that’s not necessarily accurate. Deseret News reported, “While some members will claim that Mormon temples are ‘sacred not secret,’ Bushman said that ‘temples are secret, plain and simple,’ noting that even members ‘don’t speak to each other about it’” (Richard L. Bushman, “Seek understanding, not converts, Bushman urges Mormons,” Deseret News, March 6, 2008).

Mitch Horowitz sums up his Wall Street Journal article with this:

“As opposed to a cult, a religious culture ought to be as simple to enter or exit, for members or observers, as any free nation. Members should experience no impediment to relationships, ideas or travel, and the group’s finances should be reasonably transparent. Its doctrine need not be conventional—but it should be knowable to outsiders. Absent those qualities, an unorthodox religion can descend into something darker.”

I wonder where Mr. Horowitz would put the Mormon Church. Would he say it’s a healthy “religious culture”? Or would he classify it as “something darker”?

About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
This entry was posted in LDS Church, Mormon Culture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

81 Responses to Something Darker?

  1. setfreebyJC says:

    Kate, thanks so much for sharing, and welcome to MC 🙂 Praise God for your salvation. Is an of your family coming out as well?

  2. setfreebyJC says:

    Hi Enki. Nice to see you.
    You know, Adam and Eve were after "free agency" – freedom to decide apart from what God says is right. Also, being free to choose means you can really really mess up your life. Is that what you mean? or do you believe that EVERYTHING is predetermined?
    On the other issue – highest moral development? What exactly does that mean? Does "highest" mean that the natural-only person will develop most of their morals by themselves, and thus believe what he believes more? Or that the natural-only person will become a more moral (better ethics, more upstanding) person? Does it mean that, of two people who are exactly the same in every other way, the one who believes in the supernatural (meaning what, exactly? Yahweh or just stuff that can't be seen) will not be as honest and forthright and good to their neighbors as the one who doesn't believe in the supernatural? sounds like an interesting book

  3. Kate says:

    Thanks! My 2 sons are ready to send their letters, the oldest is 21 and the younger one is 15. I've been very open in my studies:) My husband hasn't really been active and doesn't really care about it right now. I'm sure once we have all removed our records, he may do it as well. As far as our extended family, no, they are either TBM or inactive but still mormon.

  4. wyomingwilly says:

    God Bless you Kate. My wife and I will be praying for you and your whole family . Take a moment
    and read Heb.7:25 .


  5. clyde says:

    Enki, I realized something. That is when you are a member of a group and have common beliefs and then don't believe them any more. There is a big emotional turmoil in a person when he leaves the group.
    The Moral Landscape—Did you read the foreword? Sometimes it is good to see the authors purpose in writing the book. I disagree with Melo. Free agency deals with freedom of action or inaction. We have the natural man to deal. with. Any time you talk about morality you have to account for it based on a standard, there is a higher power but you have to determine what´s good and what´s evil.

  6. setfreebyJC says:

    Praise GOD!! I will begin praying for your family's salvation as well.

  7. jackg says:


    Do Mormons really have free agency? Do you have the free agency to question the teachings of JS? Really? I have come out of Mormonism, and would say that I wasn't free to do anything–not even think for myself.


  8. Enki says:

    f Melo,
    All I can suggest is find and read the book. The author does state that ethics and morality can be arrived at through science. It is slightly different from what is stated in Christianity, mormonism and most religions in the world. There are plenty of people who believe in god, yet don't achieve the highest state of ethical developement, as suggested by the author.

  9. enki says:

    Well there is a quote from the forward which is interesting.
    "our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to "respect" the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors."

    So hes attempting to address the 'void' that so many perceive to be missing in atheism. There is meaning and morality to be found in the philosophy, and he argues that it could bring about better living for humans and animals. He covers some pretty interesting examples of how belief in the supernatural can fail terribly to meet human and animal welfare. Otherwise I just suggest reading the book if one is interested. I would be reading it now if I didn't have my studies to do. I have just read small sections and found it an interesting point of view.

  10. enki says:

    I think the idea of 'free will' appears in a number of philosophies. I believe some are in non-christian contexts. So, when the author addresses that it sounded like the general idea, not so specific to the Bible or the Koran for example. I am not sure he ascribes things as being predetermined either.

    Highest moral good sounds like the best life or welfare for humans and animals. Physical, mental, psychological and these days perhaps monetary. How does one achieve that for all? Its probably not an easy task. The book just appears to be an exploration, and a criticism of how some paths appear to a lot of people to be so right, yet do not quite achieve the highest well being for all.

  11. clyde says:

    Sounds like he is not addressing morality from a religious point of view. The book might be interesting to read. I have always thought that religious people had cornered the market on morality. As I have gone through life I realized that that is not the case.

  12. enki says:

    Clyde,__He definately addresses religious morality. __"Needless to say, if one is worried about pleasing God or his angels, this assumes that such invisible entities are conscious(in some sense) and cognizant of human behavior. It also generally assumes that it is possible to suffer their wrath or enjoy their approval, either in this world or the world to come. Even within religion, therefore,consquences and conscious states remain the foundation of all values."__The moral landscape, Sam Harris, pp. 62____In other places he goes on about how most religions in the world are mostly concerned with human and animal well being. I think he intends to expand and build upon that general sense and expand and improve upon it. Its just my impression.

  13. clyde says:

    Sounds like how you're describing your association with the church is a prefect example of how someone would relate religion as opiate of the masses.

  14. clyde says:

    Enki, I am going to have to break down and read the book. There are some interesting ideas there.

  15. clyde says:

    Jackg, Yes you do! I don't know your background so I can only speculate. I know that some people get so absorbed in it that they do everything they're told and then don't believe in it any more. It make me wonder why they leave and why I stay?

  16. f_melo says:

    Violet, i´m glad you were able to get out before you were strongly attached to the people and the church, it´s much easier that way. Mormonism in its entirety is, let´s say, 80% myth and lies which are designed to lure people into submitting to the "prophet". If they were all about Jesus and free-agency as you accurately pointed out, you also wouldn´t have to have a church record, you wouldn´t have to have somewhat of a team assembled to keep tabs on you every month, etc.

  17. f_melo says:

    Alright, i´ll find that book and take a look at it. But my next question would have to be why, why would you want to achieve the highest state of ethical development? What is the purpose of that? If there´s no God and only science can account for everything, and science in itself is impersonal and indifferent, why would it bother with such a question, i mean, wouldn´t survival be the most important concern?

  18. f_melo says:

    Enki, i think it´s very important for us to stop and think about those issues, i don´t mean to say that those things should be taken for granted, and those are not simple matters. Yet i simply can´t put my trust in anything which is purely human because nothing perfect can come from imperfect beings, and relative moral values that shift according to human needs and perceptions tend to be disastrous, as history shows us.

  19. f_melo says:

    You have to determine or does God determine what is good and evil since He´s the supreme creator? I mean, for you what is good is that the world would be ruled by your "prophet" and that everybody must submit to your church as the supreme authority in all matters, and for me that is evil. So, if you stick to that all you´re going to cause is more wars and contention. Christianity shouldn´t be involved in politics even though each individual should be part of it to guarantee that their freedoms are respected, and justice is done without corruption.

  20. f_melo says:

    Another example of a hardened superstition is that Science can account for everything in the universe. Man, that´s a hard one to deal with…

    "There is meaning and morality to be found in the philosophy"

    Ok, and how do we now that those are valid?

    "and he argues that it could bring about better living for humans and animals."

    That sounds like Utopia to me. Communists tried that before and we all know how that turned out…

    This is a great documentary for those who really are trying to understand the way society determines those "needs" these days, It´s called the Century of Self:

  21. f_melo says:

    That´s why they have all those manuals to control every single procedure. What happened to letting the Spirit guide?

  22. enki says:

    There is always new discoveries, and what if science doesn't account for everything? Why does that suggest there is anything more? What if anything do you think is not being accounted for?

    A lot of religions have tried to build utopia, people have built communities based on sets of ideals, some immediately fail, some seem to have some success. Some may claim that their country or economic sytem is the best, that is true. What about the way of life the western world is living, many suggest that is going to crumble, ecomonically, limitations of food, water, gas etc…but people still believe its the best way of life, like nothing could be improved, or that there isn't anything else.

  23. enki says:

    When I really think about it, Christianity is a cult. Claiming the divinity of Jesus, and as an exclusive way of salvation immediately gives it cult status. And sometimes people do things in the name of Jesus which aren't kind, understanding or tolerant.

  24. f_melo says:

    " I think the hardest part about leaving is the fear of being ostracized by family and friends.

    That´s very true! I know how that feels, and it´s a terrible feeling.

  25. f_melo says:

    "There is always new discoveries, and what if science doesn't account for everything? Why does that suggest there is anything more? What if anything do you think is not being accounted for?"

    That´s not the point i was making. Well, that suggests we can´t know everything and that makes it impossible for us to define some important absolutes. Only God can do it, especially when dealing with morality. Morality is not accounted for in Science even though they are working hard at it to keep atheism alive for a little longer, and anything else which is abstract in nature like self-awareness, logic and its laws, etc.

  26. f_melo says:

    "I have always thought that religious people had cornered the market on morality. As I have gone through life I realized that that is not the case.

    A worldview that accepts Evolution by Natural Selection cannot account for good and evil, there´s no such thing. So, the only way they can define good and evil is because there´s a God and that God created everything. They might think they can explain it without God but if they want to pursue that in a serious manner they are going to eventually have to come up with a new kind of worldview.

  27. f_melo says:

    About Sam Harris – you should take a look at this video:

  28. clyde says:

    Christianity is a cult. One of my friends said that about christianity. I myself wonder what Enoch did to get himself and his city translated. What Melchizedek did so Abraham paid tithing to him. What can I do to better myself using Jesus as my example. The scriptures don't Give very precise guideline to do this. People from every background do evil things using some excuse to do so. We tend to remember david Koresh and Waco, Jim Jones and south america. We don't remember any good people. It is similar to remembering Ted Bundy or Gary Gilmore and not remembering max Jensen one of Gilmores' victims. One good thing to remember is some times it is the most simplest thing that one does that make the most difference.

  29. enki says:

    F Melo,
    The ending line of the video said that without god there is no basis for objective moral judgements. Well, not true. Buddhist philosophy does that without needing a god, or gods. Buddha did think that the question of god was important. I don't know how the speaker is determining religious feeling, but the book covers people who are only loosely affliated with one religion or another, mostly for not knowing anything else.

    I don't know how fair a comparison there is for the number of people making monetary contributions, or blood donations as people who identify as strictly atheists are in the minority. A small percent of a large number of people can be a large number of people. 1 percent of a billion is ?(isn;t this the number of christians in the world?) 1 percent of a million. (I don't know the numbers but that might be the number of atheists in the US, I honestly just made up the number) This doesn't account for agnostics or even religious atheists. yes I have met someone who claimed to be atheist and believed in the bible 100%! Don't ask me!

  30. enki says:

    Clyde, There is a general sense that a 'cult' is something bad. But there are more neutral definitions of the word.
    "a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc. "

    Judgements about the values and activities of a group is always a matter of perspective.

  31. guest says:

    Pretty weak.

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