This past Sunday (January 9, 2022), I was invited to answer questions about the Mormon Church during an Ask Me Anything (AMA) for the subreddit group, ExMormon. This is the link to the entire thread: AMA: I’m Steven Hassan, Ask Me Anything! : exmormon (reddit.com).
I had recently written on my blog about the experience of Dr. John Dehlin, a 6th generation Mormon, who eventually left the Church. This was the perfect time to have an open forum to address the authoritarian tactics used by the Mormon Church and the difficulties members face when they decide to leave.
Most of the questions and my answers from this 2-hour forum are included below, along with links to other resources and information that can be helpful to anyone who is considering leaving or who has already left the Mormon Church.
Questions and Answers
Is it possible for leaders of cults like these to believe what they are teaching? Or is it more likely they are actively deceiving their followers? At what point as someone moves up the chain do they go from being a faithful member who truly believes in the church, to one who realizes that there are many falsehoods but they’re high enough up that they have to perpetuate the lies or be disgraced?
Hassan: Well, I was only in the Moonies cult for 27 months, but I was a true believer. I said and did many things I regret. When you are in leadership meetings–eventually, there is dissonance brewing between what the top people believe and what we were told to tell members. I was held up by Moon as the model member. He loved my obedience and devotion. I was trained to follow orders and suppress my conscience. I would have died on command or killed on command. No joke. Members who are slated to become leaders are lulled upward and when they’re finally there, they are under such delusions that it’s best for the people because they’ve given them a ‘higher purpose’ no matter what they personally believe. These are the keys to calm their cognitive dissonance, and it gives them a higher ‘authority’ so they can believe they’re doing god’s will… despite what they know to be true or not.
Does a cult need to have an active, deceitful leader to continue?
Hassan: No. Many cults morph- sometimes there is a designated successor. Sometimes, like what happened with the Hare Krishna cult, the leader died and all the next-level leaders splintered off to do their own cults.
Hi Steven! Thank you for doing this. I read your book in preparation for today. I was very alarmed at how Mormonism uses mind control. I have many Mormon friends I love dearly, but now all I can think about is how the church literally controls them. What advice do you have with that?
Hassan: I would say start with educating yourself and getting yourself really grounded in understanding models such as the dual identity model of authentic self vs good Mormon self and understand that the effort is to build rapport and trust. First ask questions in a respectful way, listen to the response and guide the person to think for themselves. Of course, I have written books on how to do the Strategic Interactive Approach. But it starts with you.
Dr. Hassan, thank you for doing this. Recently, the prophet of the Mormon Church made the following statement in a worldwide church conference. As an expert in cults and high-demand religions, what are your impressions of this quote? “If you have doubts about God the Father and His Beloved Son or the validity of the Restoration or the veracity of Joseph Smith’s divine calling as a prophet, choose to believe and stay faithful. Take your questions to the Lord and to other faithful sources. Study with the desire to believe rather than with the hope that you can find a flaw in the fabric of a prophet’s life or a discrepancy in the scriptures. Stop increasing your doubts by rehearsing them with other doubters. Allow the Lord to lead you on your journey of spiritual discovery.”
Hassan: Sounds like a closed system with no way out. I believe asking questions, critical questions is part of a healthy faith journey. Not shutting down your God-given mind. Of course, if you are an atheist, this is fine too. I am against all simplistic formulations: all/nothing, good vs evil, us versus them. I am 100% pro-human rights for everyone.
My question is, can leaving ever be the wrong thing for someone? My family member is in their 70s and thinks that whatever they do now, they’ll be miserable. If they stay, they’ll be unhappy because we’re not there and there are obviously issues (they don’t want to find out). If they leave, they’ll have to face all the money, all the harm, all the truth. So, I want them out, I want everyone out, but sometimes I wonder if it’s just best for people to stay and make the most of the destruction. I wish I could get her to go to CoC or another church, but I think the knowledge of it being false would just devastate her. I guess it’s not so much that it’s ‘right’ for her as it would be worse for her mental state to find out the truth. It seems like there is not much exchange of worth at a certain point in their lives. After leaving a cult (especially for middle age/older people) how would you recommend they handle facing the number of years and life they essentially wasted on the cult?
Hassan: I believe in living in the “here and now” and focusing on “what is within your control?” and “what is outside your control?” If thinking about lost time motivates you to live your life fully – great. But often people ruminate on lost years, and get stuck in anger, loss and can sometimes get paralyzed. When Raymond Franz and I spoke- when he first left the Watchtower- at virtually the highest position possible, he was in his 60s. But he felt wonderful to be free to be a Christian and have a direct relationship–without the cult or the cult’s books and publications. Enjoy your life now!
How can I protect my kids when their mother fully believes and takes them to church meetings and teaches them this is God’s one and only true church? How can I counteract the programming? What advice do you have for mixed faith marriages?
Hassan: Smile. Be respectful, warm, and friendly. Look for something which is common ground for you both (it is cold outside) or ask their name, where they are from, or what they do. As a generalization, members are programmed to think all outsides/ex-members are evil or flawed or miserable–make sure to present yourself as someone they might wish to know and learn from.
These characteristics in your BITE model have been commonly observed through the centuries among people. Is this really a natural human phenomenon? What about our psychology makes us so susceptible to these things?
Hassan: We are living beings! We are born and we need parents to take care of us until we can grow up and take care of ourselves. We are hard-wired neurologically to survive. Fear keeps us safe from danger. However destructive cults install phobias–irrational fears that trick our wiring to keep us enslaved.
The good news is our authentic selves want to be free. We do not like to be lied to. We do not trust people who harm us. Eventually, there is a tipping point– which can be sped up by high-quality interactions with non-believers as well as learning about psychology, especially social psychology.
Do you feel like cults are always negative on their impact on individuals or is there a scenario where church membership may be a better option for some?
Hassan: When I use the word cult, it is NOT meant to mean automatically a negative thing–nor does it AT ALL mean a religious group. Some of the nonauthoritarian cults I have publicly admitted to being involved with are my Jewish Temple (tbzbrookline.org), The Cult of Mac (I am in the book as a member), Scuba diving, poetry readings/slams, TEDx (I have done two of these, one on Dismantling QAnon).
A dominant theme among therapists is for post-Mormons is to not directly challenge the belief systems of their loved ones in a high-demand religion/cult. Meanwhile, the Mormon Church has more than 50,000 missionaries out aggressively selling their product. What would you consider an appropriate way to more directly encourage our loved ones to employ more critical thinking? Thank you.
Hassan: Good question. As a therapist, I view my role as empowering people to be true to their authentic self — as defined by them — not their parents or any institution. I absolutely encourage folks to be in touch to help empower everyone to start thinking for themselves and making more independent decisions. I would love to make it illegal for any group (including religious ones) to discriminate against people who no longer believe… I believe love is stronger than mind control- and a group should never insert itself between family members.
I hope to post a course for mental health professionals on my website in a month or two. We will seek CEU credits after it is posted.
I left the Mormon Church, but now I find myself generally incredibly anxious, lost, and without purpose. I know that a lot of healing from this will have to be through therapy and personal exploration, but I was wondering if you had any words on the subject of finding meaning and purpose after being in an organization like the Mormon church?
Hassan: I believe purpose needs to be identified by you. For me, I love being free. I love teaching and being a healer. I love creativity and love to expand by forcing myself to think out of existing boxes. I do believe we are ALL on spaceship EARTH and we have a high obligation to save our habitat for the future.
Does the anger ever go away? I’ll think I’ve finally moved on and that the “church” doesn’t have any control over me anymore. Then someone will say something, and I suddenly get triggered and mad again. I’ve been out for 2 years.
Hassan: Anger? Yes. I believe this can be a personal goal that is achievable. Anger serves a function- to let you know you were done an injustice, or someone mistreated you. Learn to listen to your feelings and not suppress them.
There is a powerful therapeutic strategy I teach my clients: to think back to moments where you were mistreated (that brings up anger) and ask yourself a “thought experiment question”- If I knew then what I know now, what would I have said or done differently? Of course, you cannot change objective history but you can change psychological history. (In my reworking/therapy of myself, I never would have allowed the women to lie to me and recruit me into the Moonies in the first place.)
What do you think it will take to protect people from cults and other groups guilty of the behaviors outlined in the BITE model? What kind of things can we do to have governments recognize and stop providing benefits to these types of organizations?
Hassan: GREAT QUESTION! I went back to graduate school in my 60s because I realized the legal system itself needs to be updated. I got involved in a forensic think tank at Harvard Medical School about 6/7 years ago. The experts there encouraged me to do doctoral research on my BITE Model which is the first quantitative study of any brainwashing model.
We’ve often talked here about why men leave Mormonism at a faster rate than women. Can you speak to the effects you have noticed on how cults may entangle women for different reasons than they do men? Or even have you noticed a difference? I often see here that men don’t want to speak to women’s experiences mainly because some woman is going to impatiently correct them, but I promise to hear how you see it and not seek to correct your impressions.
Hassan: Interesting question. Did you know that 75% of people in multi-level marketing cults are women? That Utah is the MLM capital of the world? Some cults have more men in it to start with. However, in every authoritarian cult that treats women as second class, it makes sense to me that men may exert their personal power more than women in LDS.
To those under varying levels of control and indoctrination in a cult, what have you found is the most effective way to remove the cult-induced blinders and induce critical thinking skills?
Hassan: It is always easier to see concerning things in another cult- not the one you are in. So, one rule of thumb is to avoid frontal approaches. Find out from the person what they might think is an unhealthy cult- Jim Jones? NXIVM? Traffickers? Then use these other groups to explain things like the Influence Continuum and BITE Model of Authoritarian Control. For example, folks in QAnon are generally willing to talk about Chinese communist brainwashing, and MAGA folks are open to discussing pimps/traffickers.
With political and social issues intensifying and with certain conservative extremism prevailing across the landscape and spectrum of their lay- and professional leadership, do you see the LDS Church leaning toward an official left-of-center move to survive the current political grip on their organization, or do you think the current generational leaders will allow or lose to a faction that seeks to tighten their grip and lean toward an even more fear-driven authoritarian-styled institution?
Hassan: One thing it seems to me is that Mormon leadership has often made policy changes when it suited one of their higher goals. They wanted statehood- they gave up polygamy, they realized they were racist against blacks- they changed policy. I think the leadership does not wish to lose power or relevancy, so I do believe they might be motivated to reform, especially in the political arena. That said, I am very interested to know who has access to the billions of dollars and whether anyone is living like Scientology’s David Miscavige.
When I read your book a while back, my impression was my two-year Mormon mission near exceeded most of your cult examples (it passed like every BITE checklist), but the general Mormon life was not to that level. Assuming my generalization is true – Have any reaction to a cult with a short period of intense control vs one with moderate/high-continuous control. It seems like the hi-intense two-year mission helps keep it under the radar but can be just as effective.
Hassan: The two-year mission is indeed the clearest example of extreme authoritarian control. They do this intentionally as they want to find future leaders/ controllers for others. See the BITE Model that John Dehlin filled out– think the overall group fits the concerning model- just start with Joseph Smith…
When you were developing your BITE model, did you have Mormonism (and other cults) in mind, or did you develop the model from general principles and historical examples?
Hassan: Good question. NOT AT ALL. I did not have the JWs on my radar screen either- even though I did get snail mail letters from ex Mormons and JWs but they always seemed to be from folks who were criticizing from the theological POV only- which is NOT my approach- which is more social-psychological/ sociological. Also- many ex-members become avowed atheists and think there is something wrong with me if I have faith in God, which I actually do- from a very progressive Jewish perspective.
Hi Dr. Hassan! I am never Mormon (Catholic) and in a relationship with a very devout LDS man. I have said that if we got married I would ‘convert’ in deference to his 80-year-old parents and his siblings, but then would work to lovingly free him from The Church. Please give me your thoughts!
Hassan: I would say, being on this today is a good step for your education. Are you desiring to have children with this man? If the answer is yes, I would say “yikes” as it is one thing to think about things for oneself as an adult and another thing to think of helpless children. I encourage you to learn much more and find an educated therapist (one who knows about cults and especially LDS).
I’ve often heard (and cited) AA used as an example of a good/benign cult, would you agree with that? If yes, what would your advice be to someone who has left a previous cult, such as the Mormon church, and feels as though they should maybe join AA but has concerns about it being successful for them due to their history?
Hassan: For me, if anything helps people live functional, fulfilling lives and have good relationships, this is good. However, there is much that is detrimental about AA and 12 step programs, such as believing you are powerless (people are NOT) or that you have a permanent identity as an alcoholic. I think this is harmful. AA has an 8% success rate. I recommend The Sober Truth by Dodes and Dodes. I have a page on my site critical of AA too–https://freedomofmind.com/group-information-resource/12-step-programs/