Religions, cults, and their narcissistic playbooks

Like I mention in my book How to Become Intuitive, growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, I was equally fascinated and appalled by religion. Apart from the indoctrination I received in the church, including rote memorization of the books of the Bible and its verses, I also chose to take in-depth Judaic studies in college. I wanted to collect as much data as possible so I could maybe, one day, come to some sort of conclusion about what was real or simply figure out why and how human beliefs diverged so damn much. I absorbed what I was taught but also questioned or rejected it in some way, side eyeing the stock translations we were taught, as well as the unique cultures that pop up and the methods by which religious dogma is enforced.

My family comes from an area of Pennsylvania flanked by Amish communities and even the city I grew up in Florida has a large Amish sect who’s called it home for many years. As a child, I remember driving past areas of my hometown watching to see the women in their bonnets, the men with their long beards, bicycling alongside cars and fast food joints. I was curious about the people, as well as the rumors we heard as outsiders, and wondered what life was like for those in the sect. This, along with my experience in the Southern Baptist Church, was my first “case study” in religion as well as attempting to understand groupthink.

In college, I took mental notes, and penned some poetry and prose about the strange cultural dynamics at play in the church I was heavily involved in. I figured out how to fit in and gain acceptance and trust but deep down knew I didn’t belong there. I secretly watched documentaries like Jesus Camp and took out my frustrations with the push for young couples to get married on paper for my college courses. For one, I went undercover as a soon-to-be-bride in order to learn how virginal women were treated as they approached their wedding day at a mere 19 years old. I had figured out how to appear to be a perfect Christian lady in waiting. Problem was, I didn’t want to get married and was certain I didn’t want to have kids.

Later, when I lived in Brooklyn in New York City, I studied the Hasidic Jewish communities just a few bus stops away. I wanted to immerse myself, as much as an outsider could, to learn about their traditions, beliefs, and modus operandi. I was an outsider by all means, but I appreciated the unity of the community and how convicted and engaged the followers of this faith tradition appeared. Then a few years ago, I watched the documentary One of Us, a film that follows main character, Etty, as she escapes torture from a husband and community working hard to protect their secrets. She comes up against all forms of abuse and as a single mother, jumps through hoops to keep custody of her children despite incessant intimidation and threats. At the time, this deeply resonated.

Because of my fascination with religion, I later bought and read a book called Escape, written by a former plural wife of a leader of the FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) and became fascinated with her story, which turned out to be a watershed moment for me as I was just entering an abusive relationship with a covert narcissist. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and even sent him the book to read! Years later, I would think back to the harrowing escape of this woman in the book and have to do the same to save myself one night under a veil of darkness and in extreme fear.

I then went on to read several more firsthand accounts by other former-FLDS members, including The Witness Wore Red, who also wanted to share their stories of escaping religious abuse which resulted in their physical, emotional, and mental safety being put in extreme peril. I was amazed at the bravery of these women. And this was well before the #metoo movement which has allowed victims to feel a tad safer, or perhaps more supported, when coming forward.

This past year, my interest in religions and cults has shifted to the Church of Scientology and like all the others, I’ve consumed as many articles, books, and media as possible in order to learn how this institution thinks, operates, and treats its followers and outsiders alike. I have learned that whether the group is considered a cult or religion often does not matter. No matter the group, the patterns of though and behavior directed at “disobedient” truth seers and tellers remains the same; they all often operate under the same narcissistic (perhaps sociopathic) directives in order to retain power and control.

I believe it is important for empaths and abuse survivors to understand the implications of adhering to a specific groupthink (even those “ordained” by God) because the abuse one endures in their personal life is often no different from what powerful institutions or traditions inflict on their followers. By understanding that all narcissism operates in very similar ways — especially in large group settings — you will be able to identify these tactics more easily and quickly, and therefore be able to extricate yourself should you find yourself in the midst of mental, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse even when you are told it is for “the greater good.” Also, by recognizing that abuse starts at the top and trickles down, you can more easily perceive the health of a supposed religious group by simply examining the health of its leadership.

The religion/cult narcissistic playbook:

  1. Make followers feel special (“You are one of us,” “You are so lucky to be here,” “We are an exclusive group”)
  2. Indoctrinate followers (“We have all the answers,” “Our way is the right way.”)
  3. Make followers cut ties with real friends or family that are not in the group
  4. Dehumanize outsiders (“They are not like us. They are beneath us. They are ungodly”)
  5. Teach people to not believe what they instinctively feel or observe about the group
  6. Make followers feel guilty for thinking for themselves or questioning
  7. Threaten those who question (“We won’t like you,” “You know what will happen to you”)
  8. Take away rights from those who question (job, friends, finances)
  9. Take away basic needs from those who question (ability to buy food, have shelter)
  10. Send a hoard of flying monkeys at those who sense the problems (stalk, harass, collect information, spread rumors)
  11. Shun those who question (cut off one’s entire social network)
  12. Defame those who question
  13. Make an example out of “suppressive people” to followers of the group (“This is what will happen if you do not obey. You don’t want to be like them, do you?”)
  14. Find new followers who believe the official story line
  15. Tell new followers how terrible the old followers were (aka: karma transferance/shifting)
  16. Repeat.

Many victims of interpersonal abuse already understand how devastating it is to start your life over as an adult with nothing. It is as if you have no history, no resources, no clout or favors to call in, and yet you must find a way to survive in this world. It is like being born again as an adult and having to rebuild everything from scratch. It takes tons of time, effort, money, grace with yourself and patience. It can also, possibly, heal you because you are releasing everything that harmed you. The same is true for those ousted by the religion they engaged in, whether by choice or no choice of their own. Either way, this is how these groups operate and they almost perfectly mimic how an abuser treats a victim in a one-on-one setting.

This is when you begin to spiritually ascend, too, by the way because you are choosing the truth over the lies and trusting your intuition once and for all, no matter the brainwashing employed. Not to mention, you’re overcoming very toxic past life people and patterns who have kept you energetically imprisoned nearly every lifetime. After the pain and turmoil, you will have been reborn and you will finally be free.