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At the American Atheists convention in Salt Lake City this year, I toured the grounds of the Mormon temple with some other attendees. At the time, I thought of it as an exercise in appreciating wacky religious camp. But the goofy theology of the LDS church is a cover for something darker and more troubling, as I found out from author (and ex-Mormon) Luna Lindsey‘s book Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control.

Lindsey’s thesis is that the Mormon church is a cult which uses brainwashing techniques to keep its members in line. “Cult” is a charged word, and it seems hard to imagine how it could apply to a religion as large and as hungry for mainstream acceptance as Mormonism. I admit that I was initially skeptical myself. But the label is apt, as she shows with this long, meticulous, textbook-like book that lists many different techniques of thought control, shows how they’re used in a variety of other cults, and then describes how the LDS church makes use of them all. Her argument is all the more persuasive for being relatively dispassionate. Although her personal deconversion story is discussed, it’s not the focus of the book.

According to the author, Mormonism is a classic example of a so-called high-demand belief system: one which insists on the total loyalty and unquestioning obedience of its members, which monopolizes their time and energy and expects them to devote their lives to serving the cause above all else (think of those missionary trips!), and which stifles doubts and criticism with an inflexible, totalizing ideology. Lindsey estimates that the typical “good Mormon” would spend 22 hours a week (!) just fulfilling church obligations. Here’s how one convert describes her life:

Callings, babies, meetings, ward activities, family history work, temple work, family home evenings, prayer and scripture reading (both individual and family, both morning and night), fasting, tithing, fast offerings, relief society work, visiting teaching, kept me pretty occupied.

…I’d sign up to do extra work on those clipboards that went around the room in Relief Society: feed the missionaries, work in the cannery, take a meal into the three sick sisters, put up the temple lights, take down the temple lights, clean the church building, sew something for the humanitarian project, donate used items for the Deseret Industries, etc. Of course, there was always some meal to prepare for the Elder’s Quorum function because Men are so busy acting for God they can’t cook. Temple attendance was encouraged once a month, at least, twice a month was even
better. Those who were celestial material attended once a week. Yes, that’s right, I
went every week for years…

Then there were Sundays. Oh, my god, the Sundays. Depending on what time my ward got assigned the building; I was up either at 5am or 7am. Forget sleeping late on Sundays, there’s just too much to do. There are meetings before and after the normal 3-hour stretch of mandated meetings of Sacrament, Sunday school and Relief Society, Primary or Young Women’s. Depending what callings I had, there were the meetings to plan what to do in the next meeting. I would have such a splitting headache on Sundays.

What’s more, the church expects its members to do it all with a smile: to always be outwardly cheerful and compliant, masking any feelings of doubt or guilt. Lindsey sums up the psychological repercussions effectively:

I can still tell if someone is LDS. Something about their eyes, their carriage, and the famous Mormon accent. Sometimes they have a false smile that doesn’t quite reach those world-weary eyes. I’ve smiled that smile before under the constant pressure to project happiness, regardless of how it feels inside.

This drive toward perfectionism exacts a heavy toll. According to Lindsey, Utah beats all other states for both major depression and anti-depressant use. And as in many religions, this burden falls heaviest on women, who are expected to make the greatest sacrifices while sharing in none of the power or decision-making authority. One doctor quoted in the book calls it “Mother of Zion syndrome“, while another remarks that the number of Utah women experiencing acute psychiatric episodes would always spike after church on Sundays.

What makes this more sinister is that Mormons often don’t know what they’re agreeing to until they’ve already agreed to it. In the chapter of the book labeled “Deception”, Lindsey lists the ways in which LDS members are kept in the dark about their own beliefs. Some I’ve discussed before, like “milk before meat” – the idea that the esoteric and more troubling beliefs of Mormonism should be kept secret from members, until they’ve advanced far enough in the church that backing out is a near-impossibility. This coercion operates in other ways as well, such as how Mormons who go on missionary trips are strongly encouraged to only report positive experiences and successful conversions to their communities back home, regardless of how depressed or discouraged they feel. There are even form letters that can be reused for the purpose.

Another classic cultish aspect is the emphasis on absolute, unquestioning obedience, and the Mormon church has this in spades. LDS doctrine calls dissenting or arguing “contention” and ranks it as the worst of sins, up there with with murder, theft and blasphemy. Church leaders through the ages have said that “no apostle or prophet has ever lived who has not taught the principle of obedience”, and that questioning or criticizing the anointed leaders “will lead to a separation from the Church and to final destruction”. One particularly incredible quote comes from Dallin H. Oaks, one of the most senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s governing body:

Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true…

Like the medieval Catholic church, the modern LDS church has its own inquisitorial bodies. One is called the Correlation Committee, a church censor which polices doctrine and makes sure that books published under the church’s auspices contain nothing theologically objectionable. (Lindsey relates a startling episode in which a researcher who wanted to study Sonia Johnson, a Mormon feminist who was excommunicated in 1979 for promoting the Equal Rights Amendment, found that every reference to her had been excised from the BYU library, down to specific newspaper articles.)

Another church body, the Strengthening Church Members Committee, watches for heretical publications not controlled by the church and gathers files on members suspected of apostasy. This naturally includes feminists, environmentalists, anthropologists and historians, such as the infamous September Six excommunications. Last but not least, there’s the church’s disciplinary arm, the could-you-get-any-more-Orwellian “Court of Love”.

There’s much more I could cite here, including a lot that was new to me. Suffice to say that Lindsay persuasively argues that Mormonism’s carefully-crafted image of white-picket-fence wholesomeness is a facade, and that the real face of the church is relentless and demanding and inflicts grave psychological harm, on both the people who fit in and the ones who don’t. This book is an excellent exposé, not just of LDS tactics, but of similar thought-control methods used by cults the world over.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...