Controlling the information a person receives is a sure sign of a cult. This control can take many forms, including restricting research into the teachings or history of the church, news stories about the church, people to whom congregants can speak about the church, and the like.
Whatever form information control takes, it’s usually wrapped up in reassurance that a church leader has a congregant’s best interests at heart. Cult leaders might say that looking at certain websites or listening to news stories will bring “spiritual ruin,” put a person under the influence of Satan, etc.
Consider the information often controlled by abusive organizations and how this information is denied or somehow censored by church leaders.
News stories about a religion or even a church leader himself or herself are often off-limits to members of a cult, especially if that religion has been embroiled in lawsuits or similar legal accusations. Cult leaders may outright tell members to avoid reading or watching media stories involving the church, even chastising or disciplining members who follow negative news stories.
The history of a church or its leaders themselves might be off-limits for cult members. Congregants may be told that this information should be kept confidential or that it’s immaterial today. Records of the church’s history, its practices and policies, or its leaders may even be destroyed.
In the same way, writings of early church leaders may also be destroyed or somehow hidden from current members. Some cult leaders may attempt to buy up copies of certain books or other writings and recordings, or issue cease-and-desist orders against those who reprint those writings, share cult videos, etc.
Details of legal judgments are often off-limits to cult members and the general public as well. Churches might be quick to settle lawsuits, provided the other party agrees to a gag order.
As with news stories, a church or cult will usually tell their members that they shouldn’t concern themselves with legal judgments and decisions, advising them against reading court documents or asking questions about these cases.
Despite their best efforts, a cult, church, or other such group cannot completely control the information to which their members are exposed. In turn, a group’s leaders will often try to downplay, dismiss, criticize, or otherwise keep members from believing that information.
One method cult leaders use to dismiss news stories is to say that statements are being taken out of context or somehow misconstrued. This may or may not be true! Statements by lawyers, leaders of the church, elders, former members, and others can be quoted word-for-word, completely within context, but the cult leaders will still assert that those words are somehow being twisted or misrepresented.
Another way that such information is downplayed is by calling into question the credibility of those making the statements, or speaking out against the cult. For example, a member of the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses once referred to the “apostate-driven lies and dishonesties” that the religion is “permissive toward pedophiles.”
By referring to accusations against the religion as, not just lies, but “apostate-driven” lies, the church’s leaders immediately dismissed accusers as apostates, or people with an agenda to hurt the religion. Rather than refuting accusations of mishandling child sex abuse, Jehovah’s Witnesses attacked and dismissed those making the accusations.
Another method of attacking critics of a cult is to say that former members are simply angry at having been excommunicated or disciplined for sinful conduct. However, many critics of their former religion have never been removed officially, much less because of supposed “sins.”
Many cult members on their own because of abuses they’ve suffered. Many also leave and then speak out against the church because they feel that shunning, begging for money, and other such practices are abhorrent, or because they’ve seen the church make one failed prediction or promise after another, and other such legitimate reasons.
“we know that…”
It’s not uncommon for cult leaders to attempt to refute negative news against the church by building up their own reputation, without really addressing critical comments. For instance, a cult leader might allude to news stories or legal judgments against them, and then say, “We know that our church would never do something like that.”
Without actually addressing criticisms, allegations, or negative press, a cult leader then simply reinforces the church’s reputation; in turn, they are summarily dismissing those reports. The cult leaders don’t come right out and call such reports lies, but do imply that they’re untrue.
At the same time, leaders reinforce the positive view cult members have of the church. The important point to remember, however, is that critical stories and negative press are not answered or refuted in these statements. Instead, accusations and statements from former members, and all other negativity are simply swept under the rug, dismissed, and glossed over.
Claiming persecution is a favorite tactic of a cult when greeted with negative news stories, lawsuits, and the like. In some cases, a cult’s leaders might say that the church is being attacked by “enemies” or “Satan and his demons.” News stories, lawsuits, and court decisions are all said to be nothing more than persecution, or some type of hate campaign against the religion.
If a cult’s leaders don’t specifically use the word “persecution,” the idea that the church is being “picked on” might still be communicated in a variety of ways. As mentioned, cult leaders often refer to accusations against them as “apostate lies.” Since apostates are consistently presented as having an agenda against the church, saying that they are behind news stories and lawsuits makes it seems as if all that negative press is part of some plot cooked up by those evil apostates.
The loaded language of cults can also come into play in these scenarios. For instance, a cult leader may say that the church has suffered a setback in a “worldly” court of law. This immediately reminds congregants that “worldly” people, or everyone outside the cult, is not to be trusted and is only out to destroy the church.
While controlling information is insidious enough, note that none of these approaches actually answer allegations against the church! Cult leaders try to control information their members hear, and then control how their congregants think about information they do receive. What they don’t do, however, is provide a reasonable and acceptable explanation for negative information.
Rarely will a cult ever give their members, or the general public for that matter, an answer to accusations of abuse or other such concerning issues. Not being able to answer allegations and accusations and other such negative press, while trying desperately to control information about its practices, is a very common sign of a cult.