2b: Is Mormonism a Cult – The Fearsome Follow-up

(part b) Matt, Jared, Brandt, and Greg peruse the academic attributes of cults and make apropos comparisons to Mormonism. Complete with rankings and ranklings.

Cults and New Religions: A Brief History

Cults 101:Checklist of Cult Characteristics

Eight Criteria for Thought Reform

Watch out for tell-tale signs



  1. Gail F. Bartholomew

    Great podcast. I would like to give a few ideas on two of the points.
    Confession, is not the idea of someone else besides ones self having the power over the choices you make about your own body harmful itself? The need to confess what you choice to do with your own body puts ownership and control of you body outside yourself. I don’t want my son’s or daughters being asked by an authority figure if the touch themselves, whether it is for pleasure or not. It is their body and if we teach them that they don’t have control over it, I believe it teaches things that can have repercussions for the rest of their lives. One thing we may be teaching them is that in marriage they are required to always give their body to them even if they don’t want to.

    Treating people out of the group unethically. I think this is a big blind spot. I do think Mormons believe the should and believe that they do treat people that are not Mormon ethically. It always amazes me how Mormons are shocked and angered that people respond out of pain and anger when they fight against marriage equality. We can’t seem to comprehend that when people are nice about fighting marriage equality why anyone would be angry about it. When I ask would you not be angry if people were fighting against you marriage and family would you not be hurt and angry, I am always told but we are not doing that. Some how Mormons can never understand that they are hurting families. More than not considering other peoples points of view, no other point of view even exists. Also since I was a teen I loved playing the devils advocate at church. This was welcomed. Now that I do not attend, even when I did not attend every week all my comments are scrutinized and corrected even those that completely reinforce the churches stand. Any outsider is looked upon as having the wrong information and not fully considered as a real person. When we see a group as having a prospective not worthy considering is that not giving us permission to treat them unethically, even if it is subconsciously?

    Reply Aug 15, 2012 @ 19:50:26
    • Blorg Jorgensson

      Gail: great example on the marriage equality issue. Many church members might think (and say), “We’re not opposing anything; we’re just supporting family values.”

      But whose family? Obviously, they are not considering the families that are further stigmatizes by their support of “traditional marriage.”

      When presented with an example that they could apply to their lives — What if they tried to pass a law to prohibit temple marriages? — they reply that such legislation would be a violation of religious freedom.

      Packaging a belief as “religion” makes it sacrosanct. Perhaps homosexuality would have to become a religion before many would consider protecting it.

      Reply Aug 15, 2012 @ 20:36:21
  2. Matthew Crowley

    Blorg the example I like to use is what if I decided that your church should lose its tax exempt status and actively campaigned for this to happen? Let’s assume I’m doing it because I want the extra tax revenue to fund orphanages. Will my good intentions matter to a member of the church? Will they be respectful of my efforts? Should I be surprised if they are upset with me? I just want to build more orphanages after all.

    Reply Aug 15, 2012 @ 20:48:26
    • Blorg Jorgensson

      Good example, Matthew.

      Is there no “Like” button, or some reasonable facsimile, to satiate my need to render approval of someone else’s comments?

      Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 00:24:45
  3. Gail F. Bartholomew


    It goes far beyond the stigmatization. We as a society have given married couples over a thousand tax and other financial benefits that help parents raise their kids. We as Mormons are seeking to remove these rights, which physically make it harder for these parents. This is just one example of how we do see others as individuals not worthy of considering their perspective.

    Reply Aug 15, 2012 @ 21:58:04
  4. K.C. Krisher

    I enjoyed Greg’s comment at the beginning of the second segment about Russell M. Nelson’s last conference talk, in which Elder Nelson indicated his belief in the intelligent design of the human body. That was one surprising talk.

    Greg’s jaw apparently dropped at the implied disavowal of evolution. But that’s not how I took it. After all, there are plenty of theists who accept evolution. They — or I should say “we” — believe in the theological idea of intelligent design, though not the use of the term intelligent design as a euphemism for anti-evolutionism.

    I had an entirely different reason to be surprised with Elder Nelson. His suggestion that God designed the human body is probably one of the most explicitly non-Mormon beliefs that ever found its way into a conference talk. Don’t Mormons believe that God got his body from his parents, just like we all got our bodies from our parents? And didn’t God’s parents get their bodies from their own parents, and didn’t they get their bodies from their parents, in an infinite regression?

    King Follett must be spinning in his grave.

    Reply Aug 15, 2012 @ 22:23:45
    • Blorg Jorgensson

      Don’t we have some sort of “Like” button on this forum? Good point about Nelson’s talk, K.C.

      Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 00:19:18
  5. Jake Woodman

    I disagree very much with Matt on the confession issue. By putting a special step on certain sins, we mystify those sins, and by further attaching at least the specter of a significant man-enacted penalty we increase the shame factor. From the believer point of view, that seems awfully unchristian and negates the concept of an atonement, especially as presented by Alma the Younger, the New Testament, etc. From the outside point of view, it seems controlling and harmful.

    Case in point: I was sexually abused as a kid. All of the abuse (the details of which I’ll spare you) happened to me when I was 11. I’m going through puberty, my parents are not explaining things well because (a) they won’t let me go to the school lecture and (b) they are very embarrassed about talking about it. Both these are the result of church teachings from the 70s and 80s, but that’s a digression we don’t have time for.

    So the only source I’m getting as to how my changing body works is my abuser. And let’s be clear: we’re not talking Sandusky-level stuff here, although it probably would have gotten to that level. It stopped because of circumstance and not discovery. I didn’t tell anyone until I was 21, ten years later, because it was so shameful. More on that in a minute.

    As is not uncommon with abuse victims, I started acting out sexually. Nothing major – Mark E. Peterson would have recommended tying a hand to the bed, but not a huge deal. Totally a normal behavior as far as I am concerned now, but at the time it was dirty and shameful. Enter all the various teaching and interviews, making it that much more shameful. This goes on until I’m 17, the shame building all the time.

    There was a real Spencer W. Kimball emphasis on repentance requiring pain and suffering and time and confession. Lots of damnation and sin next to murder stuff, and confess. It keeps building and building and building, and finally, about two weeks before I go to college, I break down completely. I am sure I am going to be damned forever. I am admitted to BYU and I’m convinced that there’s no way BYU will accept a masturbator. No way. If I confess, I’m stuck without a college. And yet the shame and push towards confession was so great I went and saw my bishop for this completely benign thing, completely convinced I was going to at least be disfellowshipped and certainly have my admission withdrawn from BYU. I still had over a year before my mission so maybe I’d be able to do that.

    The bishop was kind and told me not to take the sacrament for a couple of weeks, and that was that. Except I spent the next 3 or so years wondering if I’d confessed enough or fully.

    Finally, I’m 21 and engaged, and somehow feel the need to confess this to my wife. My wife thought it was silly until I brought up the abuse – memories I had repressed for 10 years. That’s when I finally put 2 and 2 together and realized the tie. The church did not have anything to do with the abuse (there is a church tie there that I can delve into later) but the confession cycle and pressure amplified the abuse greatly, multiplied it many times over. Suicide was something I had at least considered in passing.

    I still have aftereffects related to all of this, many of them negative. One of the results is that I am not a “grossly negligent” parent and the bishopric is going to be politely but firmly informed as to the boundaries when children turn 12.

    Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 01:50:56
  6. jack

    greg . you the man. caught you on youtube with an original acoustic song . nice song writing and composition . would like to here more from you

    Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 03:05:42
  7. Matthew Crowley

    Jake thanks so much for sharing that. This sort of goes to the point I kept pounding in the episode. Many of these things have the greatest effect on the young and inexperienced who take it all SO literally and that can be reduced or amplified depending on the approach of the leader and/or parent. In most cases, the effects are not as serious as what you experienced. Some shaming about otherwise normal things like masturbation, the building of some unhealthy attitudes toward sex (particularly among women it seems). But in some cases the confession and or interview process can cause a young person to think so strongly and negatively about sexuality that it is debilitating. I also had an experience with debilitating anxiety, actually in the MTC, over very minor sexual acts which had been previously confessed (but which I was JUST SURE I hadn’t confessed sufficiently or they would have punished me) which threatened my health and ended my mission.

    My argument back to you is that all this is more a function of an over all unhealthy view toward sexuality (sin next to murder) than it does confession. For example they also ask about whether you are honest, but few people have nervous breakdowns or anxiety attacks thinking about whether they got correct change and might not have given it back (though there are some I’m sure). The kind of confession Lifton is talking about is where sins are confessed in front of the group and discussed as a means of control. I’m not saying there is no connection, but as I say I see this as more the black and white demand for purity (which was list item 3) operating here than I do the confession aspect.


    Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 19:11:21
    • Jake Woodman

      I definitely agree on the age issue, and I think it’s very hard to argue that the view of sexuality is healthy. There are many arguments for waiting until marriage and keeping fidelity therein; that’s not what I think either of us are arguing. The Sin Next To Murder idea (hereinafter SNTM) is something I consider a misreading – or at least the reading don’t choose – of Alma 39 in the first place, and is frankly ridiculous even if it is the right reading. But independent of all that, I don’t know of a religion that is as fixated on sex as we are, dating from the nasty dirty Fanny Alger affair through Brigham Young teaching about too much sex in a marriage as sinful, to statements about the unnaturalness of oral sex and impropriety of birth control in our lifetime. Just to name a few examples, of course. I suppose the Kama Sutra would put the Hindus ahead of us in terms of fixation, but on the opposite end of the spectrum.

      I do think that there is a means of control and group discussion element in confession in the church, though, to your point. Consider both disciplinary counsels and membership records. While neither are strictly public, there is an element of publication. As a lowly ward clerk I knew exactly who was disfellowshipped or excommunicated, and oft times the reasons why. Moreover, some level of publication has to be made to the Ward Council for purposes of no praying, etc., so while there is no announcement from the pulpit (as I once read from a source of dubious authenticity there used to be in Joseph’s day), there’s a general awareness among many members, albeit in hushed tones.

      Reply Aug 16, 2012 @ 23:44:31
  8. Joshua

    On the issue of language, what about titles of brother an sister? I was told by my my misson president (in Poland) that using these titles and getting the members to us them was key to staying active. Speaking of Poland, Elder was translated to Starszy which meant older. It made NO sense to anyone, even the members. It was often the first thing we had to explain when proselyting.

    Reply Aug 20, 2012 @ 13:34:32
  9. Clay

    Nice work. It was a very engaging podcast indeed.
    I feel like ordinances and temple ordinances should fit into this list somehow, maybe the one about controlling spiritual experiences and how where they occur. The church has ultimate control on who is able to have the ordinances done, who gets to perform the ordinances, and in some cases, who gets to attend those ordinances. These ordinances are often spoken of as places where ultimate spiritual bliss and enlightenment can and will occur. This ultimate control on being able to participate in these spiritual experiences is often used as leverage to “encourage” people to conform with church teaching.

    Reply Aug 20, 2012 @ 16:49:08
  10. JWow

    There were several times during this podcast that I wanted to scream. Most of all when someone (Matt?) asked what the “mischief” is in requiring confession for certain sins. I was absolutely psychologically traumatized by the requirement to have personal worthiness interviews on a regular basis from the time I was 12. I hated my birthdays because I knew a call would be coming from the executive secretary.

    I don’t think any of my priesthood leaders were creepy or had abusive intentions, but the practice of requiring young, even pubescent girls to talk about such things with middle-aged and older men is inherently ABUSIVE!

    Some of the more damaging questions/experiences I had as a young girl include:
    1. Being asked if I masturbate before I knew what the word meant (at probably 12 or 13 years old). When I failed to answer he asked me to explain what I thought it meant. I don’t remember what I said or how he responded, but I do remember that I was terrified and embarrassed.
    2. The following year I was so scared to have my birthday interview that my knees shook unrollably through the entire interview. I think he interpreted this as me having some agregious sin to hide because he asked me several times at different points of the interview if I was sure I didnt have anything of a “sexual nature” to confess.
    3. Years later, at 18, when I actually had something I was required to confess in order to repent of, I was asked a firestorm of incredibly private questions, again by middle-aged men. If I remember correctly, there were 5 men in the room (one of whom was a secretary recording every salacious word I said). Their questions ranged from details about oral and vaginal sex (some as detailed as to ensure in their minds that penetration had actually occurred) to the number of times both my boyfriend and I had climaxed to the places we were intimate. I was also asked to describe in detail the part masturbation played in leading me down that vile road. At the time I was hugely shamed and embarrassed, but I didn’t believe I had any other choice but to answer with every detail they inquired about because the alternative was Hell. I believed I had committed the sin comparable only to murder. Now, though, I am angry that grown men, meaning to do well, didn’t simply refuse to participate in a ritual that is absolutely sick and twisted!

    The whole practice of requiring confession is psychologically and potentially sexually abusive (especially for young girls who are too rarely taught appropriate boundaries in our Mormon culture).

    Reply Aug 21, 2012 @ 23:33:56
    • Jared Anderson

      These comments make me sick; I appreciate you sharing them. I had already determined I never, ever want my children to go through this, but these comments increase my resolve even more.

      Reply Aug 24, 2012 @ 21:07:31
      • JWow

        I realize after re-reading my post that I came across a little bit harshly toward Matt. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful nor as sarcastic as the post reads. Typically, I actually tend to agree with Matt.

        We (my husband, 3 kids and I) finally made a complete break from the church when my oldest daughter was about to turn 12, almost 4 years ago. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t stand by and watch her go through what I went through, despite how much it would hurt extended family whom we love.

        You are so wise and brave, Jared, to put your foot down about an adult being present with your children when they are interviewed. I’m sure that would have stopped my bishop from asking some of the more direct, inappropriate questions I described in my earlier post.

        Reply Aug 25, 2012 @ 00:00:53
  11. Matthew Crowley

    JWOW, thanks for your comment. I’m realizing that a lot people experienced all this in a very different way than I did.

    Reply Aug 22, 2012 @ 00:30:37
  12. Corpus

    While I did enjoy the Expositor’s first podcast, I believe this pair of podcasts (speaking of parts A and B as one) were a triumphant coming-of-age. The topic was excellent. The comments were well-thought-out, respectful, and sufficiently nuanced. Each participant’s perspective felt valuable and, indeed, needed.

    Moreover, the responsiveness of the podcast participants, particularly Matt, to comments and concerns brought up in this Commments section really bolsters this podcast’s place.

    Great work one and all.

    Reply Aug 24, 2012 @ 16:36:18
    • Matthew Crowley

      Well shucks. :)

      Reply Aug 25, 2012 @ 01:52:00
  13. Anissa

    2a and 2b are both great podcasts. They are the first I have listened from this site. So organized, flowed well, great comments from different points of view, bringing to light important topics, thought provoking,… all good stuff. Thank you.
    And I had already made that choice for my daughters to never be alone with a Church leader, so this just validated that choice. Jared’s idea for using the female leaders is a better alternative. But only when someone willingly asks to confess. Initiating the conversation to probe a girl or boy about their sexual behaviors is so wrong. How can we get the changes made everywhere?!

    Reply Aug 25, 2012 @ 04:23:21
  14. Travis

    I really enjoyed listening to both A and B, so thank you. Although this is a late comment, I felt it strange that in this discussion of cult characteristics, the exclusion of loved ones from participating as spectators at weddings/sealing ceremonies was not included as an example that, I believe, many outsiders would find to be a cultish behavior. Mothers and fathers of converts, or loved ones who don’t believe and are unwilling to fib on the temple recommend interview are excluded from just watching a major life event of someone the love, helped raise, and support. The institutional requirements trump genuine love and that seems like an important behavior and teaching of the church that should be included in this analysis. My thought, anyway. Loved it all the same and thank you.

    Reply Apr 23, 2013 @ 09:50:36
  15. Coming or Going? Perspectives on Divorce, Faith Transition, and Graduation | Irresistible (Dis)Grace

    […] like Robert Jeffress who call it that for supposedly theological reasons, many people I see who are debating the question look at the social and sociological features of cults. But even if it’s not a cult, […]

    Reply Jun 09, 2013 @ 10:58:41
  16. Judy B

    Some obvious examples I don’t think the panel mentioned, unless I missed it

    Thought stopping language: Sacred not secret

    Black and White Thinking: One True Church

    Reply Jul 01, 2013 @ 18:30:27
  17. Judy B

    I disagree with the statement that mormonism only became culty from the 1950’s on. The whole operation was founded as a scam/cult in the 19th century. Cults are frauds, the fraud is in it’s DNA. It is an equivalency. Mormonism= a scam. It is so obvious. Men founded it for their own benefit, not to help mankind. It was not a progressive development, it was a swindle.

    I disagree with the panelist who said there is no real problem with ethics and Mormonism. The fact that Mormons allow COJCOLDS to keep their finances secret and utilize tax free funglible money moved shell game style between the corporate church and their businesses is unfair to all tax payers.

    Mormons missionaries also use unethical, manipulative, deceptive practices. Mormons prey on young friends, if you fall in love with a mormon you will be unethically recruited into the organization based on incomplete/false information.

    Mormons and even some former mormons lack self awareness and in depth knowledge of how ethical religions/spiritual practices function, I am finding, the more I learn about Mormonism and even mormon “apostates” ( like that’s even a thing…you should just say, people who got wise to the scam).

    That is my opinion.

    Reply Jul 01, 2013 @ 18:58:37
    • Greg Rockwell

      Judy, I basically agree with the things you’re saying, but am inclined to point out that a cult and a scam are not the same thing. They may SEEM related, but they’re fundamentally different things.

      Where cult is mostly about control, scams are mostly about deception and fraud. There are certainly early statements and characteristics of the Church that were culty; some by Joseph, and a shit-ton by Brigham. There is also broad evidence of deception and fraud.

      The metaphor of “drinking the kool-aid” is employed all the time when talking about cults. Sometimes we say it goes “all the way to the top”, meaning that the leadership is taken in by the myth as well. It would be hard to make that statement about a scam.

      Personally, I think Joseph Smith started out as a scammer; probably a fanciful, charismatic scammer. But I think at the end, he had succumbed to his own myth and that he was no longer aware that he had made it all up.

      Thanks for the comment. There is so much source material that demonstrates the Church’s cultiness it is impossible to talk about it all.

      Reply Jul 01, 2013 @ 22:32:10
      • Judy B

        *There is so much source material that demonstrates the Church’s cultiness it is impossible to talk about it all.*

        True. I do appreciate the fact that this panel took a stab at it.

        Thanks for your reply.

        Reply Jul 01, 2013 @ 22:43:47
  18. Judy B

    On the topic of scam versus cult, however, I still maintain that there is a close relationship. I would refer you to a blog called MLM the American Dream Made Nightmare. Numerous fascinating essays there about coercively controlling financial scams. The author shows the relationship between cults and scams.

    I would also refer you to The Salty Droid blog. Similar material, but focusing more on cultic fraud/scams on the Internet.

    If you have time to look at those sites, I think you will be able to work out how cults, scams and frauds do indeed overlap to a great degree. It is all about coercive control.

    I would also mention that I have seen mormonism referred to as being a type of pyramid scheme by many former members on internet discussion boards, the product they sell being the celestial kingdom. There is definitely a hierarchy there, and other features of mormonism that overlap with MLMs or pyramid scams.

    Reply Jul 01, 2013 @ 23:17:17
  19. Jordan Caldwell

    I know that this is old, but I have just now found these and plan to listen through all of them. There were many things that came to mind as I listend, but one that stuck out was regarding exclusion. One great example is BYU and member standing. Non-members may attent BYU and convert, or officially change their religion. However, those that are members and renounce their faith lose their place at BYU. Although they are not shunned from the church and people are not necessarily directed to avoid them, it is a church institution excluding those that no longer believe. This goes hand in hand with the idea that the more knowledge you have, the higher standard you are held to. It is a good tacti to keep those that have doubts by teaching them that they will be judged more harshly.

    Reply Dec 13, 2013 @ 15:44:36
  20. Matthew Crowley

    Glad you found us Jordan.

    Reply Dec 14, 2013 @ 14:55:50

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