On the Influence Continuum podcast, I cover all kinds of cults: from family units to political movements, toxic workplaces to Scientologist compounds. Today, I returned to the basics of Christian fundamentalism used by cultic groups. As I discuss in my book, The Cult of Trump, many groups are deeply involved in politics and influence believers to vote according to the leader’s direction of who is “godly.” Here to discuss his experiences with this and his evolution away from religion is Dr. Darren M. Slade, a graduate of the controversial Liberty University’s seminary and apologetics program. Darren is a professor of history and comparative religion in Denver, Colorado. He specializes in the socio-political development of religious belief systems and also serves as the Director of the North American Committee on Religious Trauma Research. He is the President of the Global Center for Religious Research (GCRR.org) and Founding Editor of the peer-reviewed academic journal Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry (SHERMjournal.org).
Darren was not brought up religious but rather converted at age 18 and became a staunch conservative fundamentalist. His experience parallels my being indoctrinated into the Moonies cult in some ways. Barely an adult, he was confused, lonely, and searching for a purpose. He was convinced that the zealous Christians he met understood and valued him like no one else. They flattered his ego as the Moonies did to me. This combination of love-bombing and promotion right off the bat is characteristic of all kinds of high-control groups.
Darren sought a religious education at Liberty University because it was much less expensive than other accredited theology programs. He feels that while Liberty gave him an incredible education and skills necessary to become a critical ancient historian, he did witness many of his classmates who attended Liberty merely to validate what they already believed about God and the Bible. Not surprisingly, his challenges to the conformist atmosphere at Liberty weren’t always taken well. He formally debated his apologetics professor, Dr. Gary Habermas, who is well-known in his field and idolized by his students. Habermas was willing to spar, but a handful of Darren’s fellow students privately requested that he be kicked out of the class for challenging a literal interpretation of Scripture. This peer pressure to shut down doubts or questions is characteristic of authoritarian groups. As his journey progressed, Darren would also experience shunning in Bible cults: abandonment as a punishment for the perceived sin of doubting and asking questions that challenged the sanctioned belief system.
Around this time, Darren was doing intensive scholarly research and became fixated on cognitive biases. His world opened up when he attempted to test his beliefs for bias. But it opened so far and quickly that he was overwhelmed by the vastness of scholarship. Thinking of the biblical story of Jesus rescuing the one lost sheep, he pictured himself as a devout believer whom Jesus needed to save. Instead of leaving the other ninety-nine sheep, Darren’s prayers for Jesus to show up went unanswered. No one came into the storm for him. He decided to live as if he were an atheist, just as an experiment to see if God made a positive difference in his life. He never had a reason to go back to religion.
Attribution and Understanding
Like many who begin to process their involvement with a high-control group, Darren felt betrayed. He began funding the Global Center for Religious Research out of his own pocket to advance the scholarly discussion of religious trauma. GCRR expanded and recently published the most exhaustive sociological study ever done on religious trauma, and their findings were shocking. One-in-three US adults have experienced religious trauma at some point in their lifetime, and one in five are actively dealing with multiple debilitating symptoms of religious trauma. Through years of research, Darren has learned that religious trauma often matches the varied signs of PTSD: depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, inexplicable anger issues, sexual dysfunction, and rejection of the body. GCRR’s sociological study gives the first empirical proof that religious trauma is severe and pervasive.
GCRR now offers a certification course for clinicians, survivors, and those in professional ministry. Darren and I also discussed what clinicians call Big T Traumas, like physical and sexual abuse, as well as more insidious issues that may be hard to identify. Many survivors of Bible cults come away struggling to explain the stifling environment, the judgment, and the ambient sense of shame. I also noted one of the major mistakes people are prone to when coming out of a state of undue influence. The fundamental attribution error causes us to blame ourselves as individuals for what goes wrong in our lives without giving weight to outside factors. This unconscious bias is particularly damaging when you’ve been taken advantage of by a high-control group that seeks to change your identity. Cult survivors are not just some “stupid people” who fell for a cheap trick; they’re intelligent people who saw through it and want to help others regain their freedom.
Bad actors promoting disinformation have aided the idea that undue influence is not severe. I refuse to use the terminology “new religious movements” or NRMs after discovering that some sociologists in the past were being funded by authoritarian cults like Scientology to minimize or deny brainwashing. I also know from personal experience that even when an expert has good intentions, authorities in cults will try to fool them. Eileen Barker, who has famously claimed that the Moonies are not a harmful group, based her ideas on having been to a workshop where she wasn’t converted. However, I know that the Moonies altered their workshops whenever they knew outsiders were coming to investigate them. Barker even received UK government funding for INFORM, a group that did not actually help cult victims or their families.
Darren Slade is helping people understand religious trauma and the rise of awareness movements like #IGotOut. Because of the work being done here at Freedom of Mind and places like the Global Center for Religious Research, former cult members do not have to be alone. They’re a flock of their own, but unlike those they learned from, they won’t turn their backs on a stranger lost in a storm. And the more religious trauma survivors speak up, the more we can unite to prevent the same harm from being done to others.