FAQ: "Is Mormonism a cult?"

Whether any group is a "cult" depends on how you define the word "cult." Many religious people define as "cult" any group that has beliefs or teachings that they consider heretical (that is, not like their own). Often that definition is phrased as: "A cult teaches false doctrine." That is not a useful definition.

For cult experts (people who deal professionally with cults as harmful and oppressive organizations) it is not really the content of the organization's doctrine that puts them in the "cult" category so much as the techniques they use to attract and to keep members. Those professionals have usually drawn up checklists of cult characteristics, against which anyone can measure how cult-like an organization is.

The following is a synthesis of the major characteristics of cults, based on many checklists from cult experts.

Cult Characteristics

  1. The group displays unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the binding truth and law.
  2. Questioning, doubt, critical thinking, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess to solidify loyalty to the group.
  4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, aspects of daily life: how members should think, act, and feel, how they should dress, what they should eat.
  5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members, as the sole depository of the complete truth. No other belief system is seen as legitimate or useful.
  6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.
  7. The group sees itself as persecuted because of its having the truth, and views any criticism from outside as evidence of persecution and thus confirmation of the group's truth.
  8. The group fosters either-or, black-and-white views, right-or-wrong thinking, with no allowance for gray areas.
  9. The leader is not accountable to any authorities or to the members.
  10. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary, which may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.
  11. The leadership induces feelings of shame, guilt, and/or fear in order to influence and/or control members.
  12. Members who have difficulties conforming to the group are made to feel that the problems are because of their own failings, and not because of any problems with the group.
  13. Subservience to the leader or group leads members to cut ties with family and former friends, and to alter radically the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
  14. The group expends great effort to bring in new members.
  15. The group requires major financial commitment from its members as a test of loyalty to the group.
  16. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
  17. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
  18. Members are encouraged to report to the leadership group members who are not conforming.
  19. The group has an extensive system of rewards and punishments for controlling members' lives.
  20. Leadership uses deception, both to the public and to its own members.
  21. The group has special vocabulary, a kind of shorthand, or "buzz words" which substitute for actual rational analysis.
  22. Leadership exerts control over information, discouraging members from getting information from non-group sources. Some important information is not available to new members, but only those who have proven their loyalty.
  23. Members come to feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to live, and often fear severe consequences if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
This list is based primarily on Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised" by Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., also in Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships (Paperback) by Janja Lalich, Madeleine Landau Tobias ISBN: 0972002154

Other resources on identifying cults, with similar checklists:

http://www.freedomofmind.com/ The home page of Steve Hassan, an authority on cults and brainwashing.
"[Hassan's] BITE Model Applied Toward Mormonism"
http://www.caic.org.au Jan Groenveld's Cult Awareness Centre
http://www.factnet.org FACTnet, resources on psychological coercion and mind control
http://www.neopagan.net/ABCDEF.html Isaac Bonewits' cult checklist, with 18 items and worksheet.
A 12-minute video on cults in general: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnNSe5XYp6E
Luna Lindsey, Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control, 2014
See also the article "Spiritual Abuse"


Mormonism Evaluated Using The Checklist

Any evaluation of a group using a checklist will be subjective. The following is presented merely as suggestions, with the factual aspects of Mormon life on which the evaluation is based.

One area of present-day Mormonism where cult-like aspects are very strong is among Mormon missionaries, during their training at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) and while working in the mission field. Where appropriate, a separate score is suggested for missionaries. Scores will be assigned with values from 0 (not cult-like) to 5 (extremely cult-like)

  1. The group displays unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the binding truth and law.

    Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (1805-1844) is regarded as a special prophet of God. Mormons rarely question any of his teachings. Only when one of Smith's teachings conflicts with modern science do Mormon scholars suggest that Smith was mistaken about anything (or, frequently, they suggest that he really didn't teach that, or that he was misunderstood).

    The current head of the church has the title "prophet, seer, revelator and translator" and is considered the unerring mouthpiece of God. Mormons are required to believe that he is indeed a "living prophet." They are taught that "when the prophet speaks, the debate is over!"

    CULT SCORE = 5

  2. Questioning, doubt, critical thinking, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

    Those who criticize the leadership, especially publicly, or who question or doubt, are accused of lack of faith and the onset of apostasy. Obedience and acquiescence are praised and prized; dissent is discouraged. One Mormon apostle commented publicly that "It is wrong to criticize a church leader, even if the criticism is true." Mormons who publicly criticize leadership will likely be disciplined before a church court.

    CULT SCORE = 4

  3. Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess to solidify loyalty to the group.

    Members are encouraged to spend time fasting and praying in order to "strengthen their testimonies." These sessions often result in visions or other manifestations that are then interpreted as God-given messages. They are required to attend meetings every Sunday, which last three hours. Missionaries, especially those in training, undergo rigorous sessions.

    CULT SCORE = 3
    MISSIONS SCORE = 5

  4. The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, aspects of daily life: how members should think, act, and feel, how they should dress, what they should eat.

    Mormons are forbidden to use alcohol, tea, coffee, or tobacco, and discouraged from using any caffeinated drinks (cola). They are told to dress modestly. They are instructed to limit piercings to one per ear for women, none for men. Those assigned to work in the temples are forbidden to have facial hair. Those males officiating in meetings in any capacity are required to wear white shirts and neckties. Adult Mormons who have been through the "endowment" ritual in the temple are required to wear special underwear at all times. Women are taught that their ideal primary role in life should be to be homemakers and to raise children. Married women are discouraged from working outside the home. Time is regulated carefully: Sundays are for church meetings (three hours); Monday evening is for a family meeting; Friday is for a parents' "date night". All members are given time-consuming jobs ("callings") working for the church.

    MIssionaries are even more strictly regulated as to dress and use of time. Missionaries are required to wear certain clothes (for men: dark trousers and shoes, white shirt, necktie). They are forbidden to watch TV or movies, listen to radio, read newspapers, befriend people of the opposite sex, telephone their families except twice a year, or be alone except for bathing and going to the toilet.

    CULT SCORE = 4
    MISSIONS SCORE = 5

  5. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members, as the sole depository of the complete truth. No other belief system is seen as legitimate or useful.

    Mormon doctrine holds that Mormons are the "chosen people." They even refer to Jews as "Gentiles." Founder Smith claimed that he had been designated by God to restore the "one true church." He claimed that God told him that all other churches were "abominations in his sight" (Pearl of Great Price, JS-Hist 1:19). The Book of Mormon teaches that those who do not belong to the "church of the Lamb" (the Mormon church) belong to the "church of the devil, the whore of all the earth." (1 Nephi 14:10).

    In recent years church leaders have tried to soften that stance, saying that other religions have "some truth," but that seems contradictory to the scriptures cited.

    CULT SCORE = 4

  6. The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.

    One Mormon apostle has stated that the Mormons are in a "war" for souls. Mormons are warned to be careful about socializing with non-Mormons, and are forbidden to associate with "apostates" (former Mormons) under threat of losing their temple privileges.

    CULT SCORE = 4

  7. The group sees itself as persecuted because of its having the truth, and views any criticism from outside as evidence of persecution and thus confirmation of the group's truth.

    This is a typical Mormon attitude. Even mild criticism is considered persecution, but welcomed because "the true church has always been persecuted."

    CULT SCORE = 4

  8. The group fosters either-or, black-and-white views, right-or-wrong thinking, with no allowance for gray areas.

    What the church teaches must be accepted as true. No open discussion is allowed. Any departure from full accpentance of church doctrine is considered a step toward apostasy, and subjects the member to scrutiny and eventual discipline.

    CULT SCORE = 3

  9. The leader is not accountable to any authorities or to the members.

    The leaders are accountable only to those above them in the church hierarchy. They are considered "called by God" to their positions. They are appointed by those at upper levels, not selected by the membership. They are presented to the membership (after being "called") for the membership to "sustain" them in their new calling by a showing of hands, which is almost always unanimous. The top position (president, "prophet, seer, and revelator") is accountable to no one. He acquires his position by seniority, i.e., by outliving the other leaders. He is not to be criticized or questioned. A common Mormon saying is, "When the prophet speaks, the debate is over; the thinking has been done."

    The church is strictly hierarchical, with a "from the top, down" structure, what the Nazis called the "Fuehrerprinzip" (the "principle of leadership"): those in authority command those below them, who are required to obey those above them: the Prophet and the "General Authorities" give orders to the regional representatives, who give orders to the stake presidents, who give orders to the bishops, who give orders to the local leaders, who give orders to the priesthood holders (the men), who give orders to their wives and children. Obedience is a valued Mormon virtue.

    No financial accounting is available to members or to the public, except general statements that the accounts have been audited and found to be "in order."

    CULT SCORE = 5

  10. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary, which may result in members' participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group.

    Officially, the church claims to be upright, honest and law-abiding, and cites their Articles of Faith, numbers 12 and 13. It also requires leaders who are interviewing members to determine their "worthiness" for some promotion or for admission to the temple to ask them whether they are "honest in their dealings with their fellow-man." However, in actual practice Mormons are willing to bend or even break social rules of honesty, or even laws, if it will promote the church's purposes:
    • A frequently quoted saying is: "Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it but you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray." - LDS Apostle Marion G. Romney (of the First Presidency), quoting LDS President (and prophet) Heber J. Grant "Conference Report" Oct. 1960 p. 78

    • "Lying for the Lord" is a common practice, especially by Mormon leaders (see Mormon Lying for a long list of examples

    • Mormon missionaries have been known to "borrow" from public libraries books critical of the church, and then fail to return them.

    • Mormons, at the direction of their leaders, murdered over one hundred unarmed men, women and children in cold blood at Mountain Meadows, Utah, in 1857, and then used their "priesthood authority" to conduct a successful cover-up.

    CULT SCORE = 5

  11. The leadership induces feelings of shame, guilt, and/or fear in order to influence and/or control members.

    Members are frequently warned that if they doubt, or if they leave the church, they open themselves up to Satan. If they do not keep ALL the commandments they are endangering their present happiness and prosperity and their future in the next life. They are told that in that case they will be shut off from their loved ones in the celestial kingdom. They are assured that those who leave the church become destitute, unhappy, alcoholic, and immoral. They will be cursed by God for "breaking their covenants."

    CULT SCORE = 5

  12. Members who have difficulties conforming to the group are made to feel that the problems are because of their own failings, and not because of any problems with the group.

    The first question that leaders often ask of a member who expresses doubts or who questions a church policy is: "What sin are you committing?" implying that doubts or hesitancy to obey is due to Satan having successfully tempted the member to commit some sin. Usually it is assumed that the sin is sexual, such as masturbation or watching pornography. Women who complain to their local church leaders of a husband's abuse are usually asked, "What are you doing to provoke him?" and advise the wife to be more attentive, to make nicer meals, to be more obedient.

    CULT SCORE = 5

  13. Subservience to the leader or group leads members to cut ties with family and former friends, and to alter radically the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

    This does not generally apply to those who were born to Mormon parents and then grew up in the church, but frequently applies to converts, especially young adult converts. Frequently the new young convert, often to avoid questioning and discussion with non-Mormon family and friends, cuts ties with them. They often move out of the parents' home and are accepted into a Mormon home, where they have a more accepting "family." Young female converts often give up plans for a college education and a professional life and begin trying to find a suitable Mormon husband, so that they can fulfill the ideal goal for a young woman as a faithful wife and mother of a large family. Young male converts also frequently abandon plans for college in order to spend two years as a Mormon missionary. Parents of such children often comment that they scarcely recognize their children, who previously were cheerful, fun-loving, popular with a large circle of friends. Now they seem moody, pensive, even sullen.

    CULT SCORE = 3

  14. The group expends great effort to bring in new members.

    The church since its beginning has maintained a large corps of full-time missionaries. Currently (2012) there are over 50,000, almost all serving for two years at their own expense. The church's motto for non-missionary members is "Every member a missionary!" and encourages all members to "spread the gospel" among friends, acquaintances and co-workers. The church has retained a large public relations firm to advertise itself. At present (2012) it is in the second year of a widespread advertising campaign on television and public billboards, called "And I'm A Mormon!" featuring interviews and photographs of pleasant Mormons who briefly describe their interesting lives, ending with the phrase, "...and I'm a Mormon!" The campaign seems to be copied from a similar campaign several years ago by the Church of Scientology, whose ads concluded, "...and I'm a Scientologist!"

    CULT SCORE = 5

  15. The group requires major financial commitment from its members as a test of loyalty to the group.

    Members are required as a minimum to pay a full tithe to the church, i.e., ten percent of their income. Mormon scripture teaches that paying tithing is "fire insurance" - that is, tithe payers will not "burn" when Christ returns. (Doctrine and Covenants 64:23. Those who do not pay a full tithe are denied access to the temple and cannot hold leadership positions or (for males) advance in the priesthood. In addition, other monetary demands are made, "fast offerings," building funds, support for missionaries, and even political contributions (the church ordered its members to contribute huge sums to the campaign in California which banned same-sex marriage). Poorer members who have fallen on hard times and need food or rent money are sometimes denied financial help because they have not paid a full tithe.

    CULT SCORE = 5

  16. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

    As part of every "worthiness" interview, members are asked whether they regularly attend church meetings. The required meetings are for three hours every Sunday. Members who have "callings" are also expected to attend committee meetings and planning meetings. Members who are worthy enough to hold a pass to enter the temple (a "temple recommend") are encouraged to attend those services regularly; they also last several hours. Since all members have callings - some have several callings - much time is taken up in performing their responsibilities.

    CULT SCORE = 4

  17. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

    Many Mormons feel uncomfortable socializing with non-members, especially if the non-members drink coffee or alcohol, or smoke while socializing (all of which are considered sins for Mormons). However, the church does not discourage adult members from socializing with non-members, so long as the members do not engage in forbidden activities. Young Mormons are encouraged not to date non-Mormons, since any romantic attachment to a non-Mormon could lead to marrying outside the church; marriage to a non-Mormon, according to Mormon belief, prevents a Mormon from attaining the highest degree of heaven, which is reserved for Mormons who have married in the Mormon temple.

    CULT SCORE = 2

  18. Members are encouraged to report to the leadership group members who are not conforming

    The church has an extensive system in which active members are assigned as "home teachers" (men) or "visiting teachers" (women). These "teachers" are assigned (always in pairs) to visit all members in their homes once a month and give a short gospel lesson. They are also supposed to inquire about how the family is, and whether there are any problems of any kind. They are to report back to the local leaders if they find any family in need (poor health, financial problems, marital problems, or religious problems) so that the leaders can help. This can, of course, be of great help to a family in need of help, but can also lead to unwanted interference and gossip.

    CULT SCORE = 3

  19. The group has an extensive system of rewards and punishments for controlling members' lives.

    Failure to follow certain "commandments" can result in church discipline, which may range from forbidding the member to take communion, to withdrawal of permission to enter the temple, to "disfellowshipping," to excommunication. The offenses most frequently punished are: failure to pay a full tithe, using alcohol or tobacco, criticizing leaders, failure to wear the prescribed undergarment, any kind of disapproved sexual behavior (masturbation, adultery, homosexuality, abortion). Those who obey all commandments are advanced in the hierarchy, given more responsibility and authority.

    Withdrawal of the temple privileges often prevents less-than-obedient parents from attending the temple wedding of their more obedient children.

    CULT SCORE = 4

  20. Leadership uses deception, both to the public and to its own members.

    From the beginning, and continuing to the present, the Mormon leaders have used all kinds of deception, both with their own members and with the public at large. They have stated falsehoods as truth, they have concealed crucial information, they have altered documents, "doctored" their history, and continue to practice the art of "plausible denial." Their principle seems to be that such actions are justified if it "furthers the work." It is frequently referred to as "lying for the Lord." For a long listing of examples, see "Mormon Lying".

    CULT SCORE = 5

  21. The group has special vocabulary, a kind of shorthand, or "buzz words" which substitute for actual rational analysis.

    Mormons use a lot of Christian terms, but assign different meanings to them from what Christians usually understand them to mean. The thirteen Mormon "Articles of Faith" sound quite Christian. However, the Mormons understand them in quite unusual ways (see an analysis of the differences here.

    Mormons also have a large vocabulary of words with special meanings, which many non-Mormons would not understand. See this "Glossary of Mormon Terms".

    Mormons also like to discourage disagreement or criticism with "thought-stopping" phrases, such as: "I feel the spirit of Satan!" or "I know with every fiber of my being that the church is true!" or "You simply have to ask God with a sincere heart!"

    CULT SCORE = 3

  22. Leadership exerts control over information, discouraging members from getting information from non-group sources. Some important information is not available to new members, but only those who have proven their loyalty.

    Mormon missionaries are instructed in the "milk before meat" principle: investigators should not be told everything in the beginning, before they have committed to baptism; tell them only the most attractive aspects of the religion, because they "would not understand." Getting information about the religion from non-Mormon sources is strongly discouraged, usually by characterizing such information as "biased," or even as "lies and distortions." They often argue that one would not expect good information about Ford automobiles from a Chevrolet dealer.

    One church authority (Robert Millet) suggested to missionaries that, rather than answering questions asked by investigators, the missionaries should "answer the question that the investigator should have asked."

    Even for members, many lesson manuals for use in instructing members include a statement that the teacher should not deviate from the manual or bring in information from sources other than the lesson manual.

    CULT SCORE = 5

  23. Members come to feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to live, and often fear severe consequences if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

    Members are frequently told that those who leave usually become miserable and unhappy, that they become alcoholics or sexually promiscuous, that God causes them to fall into financial difficulties, that their families break up, and, of course, they will lose all the blessings which belonging to the group brings. Members who have doubts are questioned as to what sin they are committing (since sinning causes one to "lose the Spirit" and thus doubt).

    Of course, this is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, since many members who have left the church do indeed lose their families and their former Mormon friends. They are then faced with establishing for themselves an entirely new social support system.

    CULT SCORE = 5


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